by Ramola D
Awards: 2008 AWP Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction; Finalist, 2010
Virginia Literary Awards; Finalist, 2004 University of Nebraska Book
Ramola D was born in Madras, trained as a
journalist and moved to America to study creative writing. Currently
living in Virginia, she teaches creative writing part-time at The
George Washington University and The Writer's Center,
Bethesda. Her previous collection of poetry Invisible Season,
won the Washington Writers’ Publishing Prize.
with Ramola D
"My grandfather Roderick is
fastened by one lung to the world."
Reviewed by Julia Bohanna
Now here is a peculiar thing. These stories are set in India, but
despite the obvious contradictions with heat and setting, the tales of
these often tragic narrators kept drawing me back to certain Russian
authors, namely Chekhov and Dostoevsky. Chekhov in particular had a
huge empathy for his creations and Ramola D is similarly tender with
hers, forensically descriptive with all aspects of their lives. We feel
them breathe, dream and fear. But it is also the huge emotions trapped
and silent within these souls that most hooked this reader, the vast
drama that is the human condition.
Most Russian of all was perhaps The Man on the Veranda,
where a retired clerk who once worked in a government office sits and
judges, judges and sits as he himself decays. Ultimately, like many of
the cast of Temporary Lives,
he suffers from the frustration of a life unlived. There are "lines of
dim rage around his mouth." This man internalizes everything so much
that life creeps over him while he sleepwalks through it. It’s a tale
that encapsulates the simple pain of being, a man who "lived on the
precipice of a bottomless depth, a depth from which his wife’s
querulous mouth gnawed and chewed at him…"
Throughout each story
I felt the internal scream of each character; their pain was palpable.
The female characters, in a society where sons are valued and women
often presented with a servile future, were often the most silent and
tormented of all. The wife for example who walks with Woolfian
intent onto the beach in the title story Temporary Lives realizes with a crushing depression that her spent and unsated life is "full of debris" and that she is "knee-deep in it." In Another World
chronicles a young girl reluctantly facing her inevitable womanhood,
while being also fascinated by her mentally ill neighbours and her
sister’s child-heavy but fulfillment-light existence. The prose may
drip with descriptive elegance, but the story is always king.
All the stories are poignant but some are also extremely filmic – in particular the saga of What The Watchman Saw.
Here a loyal law-abiding man is conflicted when he sees what he
considers to be a minor burglary. Initially he does nothing
(ennui being a large part of Temporary Lives)
but the burglary is actually a piece of a larger puzzle and there
wrestles inside him a conscience that conflicts with his fear. It’s a
great story and one worthy of a film script. In The Next Corpse Collector
– which chronicles a macabre family business - the main protagonist
heads towards a profound altered state and the journey toward his fate
is magical and strange. The reader feels the loss of his disappeared
brother. His mother also daily prepares food for her lost son, only to
be forced to feed it to "the mangy flea-bitten dogs……" There is huge
tragedy in this bereft mother: "She spoke softly to the dogs, as if
they were her children."
The sensuality of the prose in Temporary Lives
gives us such a strong sense of place (despite the thematic Russian
analogy, India is very much its own "person" here.) Colour is
particularly strong: "silky watermelon-pink, hot-tongue pink,
the melancholy themes of this collection, these are not tales of
unrelenting gloom. There are lessons to be learnt, not simply about the
skill of writing, but also the poetic lessons of life that the reader
may take away with them. Carpe diem, perhaps. Or that risk-taking and
passion rather than passivity is the secret to living a solid and sated
life. There is at least one character in Temporary Lives
– but I am not revealing who – who learns a lesson and faces life
afresh and with determination. Such is Ramola D’s skill that we hope
and care for this person, wish them well in their next incarnation.