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Book Reviews

A Matter of Geography

Volume 14, Issue 2  | 
Published 27/10/2017
  |

Author: Jasmine D’Costa
Publ
: Mosaic Press
Q&A: By Maya Parmar

Author Jasmine D’Costa is known for her collection of short stories Curry is thicker than water. She now adds to her corpus via the novel A Matter of Geography, which was shortlisted for the Tuscany Prize. Here she responds to questions about her new work, explaining how she drew upon personal experiences in writing the book. From the riots she experienced in Mumbai, to living in India, and migrating to Canada, we see the traces of her life in A Matter of Geography. The novel oscillates around the fictional families who live in Billimoria Building, Mumbai, in the 1990s. The occupants of Billimoria Building are a pick and mix bunch, each apartment with their unique quirks and peculiarities; yet they form a close-knit community. Peter and Anna, and their families, are the focus of the novel, and indeed there is an intimacy and intrigue that draws the reader to their stories. The rhythms of Billimoria Building, and those in it, are however cruelly shattered by sectarian violence. The communities of the novel are destroyed, and Peter and Anna are abruptly separated, for fifteen years.

MP: The novel oscillates around childhood memories and experiences. In your capacity as a writer, I wondered whether there are any early influences from your childhood?

 JD: No one writes from a vacuum and A Matter of Geography comes organically from memories. However, the mind is complex and people mushroom from the root of a single memory. During the riots I experienced myself, I remember I had to give money to the driver of the bus we used to hire, because he was scared to go out and did not have cash at home. I had to also get my friend who lived alone in Mazagaon to my home, where I insisted she live (and she did, till she left the country several years later), because she was stopped in the street and asked whether she was Hindu or Muslim. She pulled out her chain with a cross on it. I heard instances where people were accosted in the street, and asked to drop their pants to check whether they were circumcised. I have been told by colleagues that India is a democracy and it means the majority rules, so I should leave the country. One may tell oneself that it is the mind of a foolish, uncultured and uneducated person who possesses such rhetoric; however, given that one has to encounter it in the first place, it is very depressing, especially when you look around and see people being killed for it. I did live in a similar building in my childhood. But I created the people from childhood memories and let these memories get carried away on the flight of imagination.

MP: How about your literary or creative interests as a child – are there any influences there that have shaped you into the writer you are today?

JD: I was a passionate reader as a child. There was a limit on the books I could read, since unlike Toronto where almost every street has a library, we did not have that facility in Bombay, growing up. I read and re-read books passionately engrossed in them, even if it was the tenth time I was reading the book. My father forbade me from reading at one time because I did it exclusively from life itself. I would go to the re-cycling shops for paper and stand there for hours reading the books that were sold for recycling, and read the paper that our snacks were wrapped in--of course I must admit that I ate the snack first! So my influences were not just one author or genre. I am a tumultuous mix of every writer I have read. They have merged into one another.

MP: One of Awaaz’s aims is to critically examine the place of minority communities in society. This novel oscillates around the minority communities of Bombay. We meet Catholic families living in an India plagued by sectarian violence, and divisions between Muslims and Hindus. Later in the novel, it is Catholics who are subject to these prejudices. This aspect of the novel reminds me of the holocaust poem by Martin Niemöller ‘First they came’. Did you have the contemporary, real-life social and political resonances of the novel’s narrative in mind when constructing it?

JD: It is a real life experience. In Bombay there have been several bogeys around which there were riots. First it was the South Indians who took the jobs, then the communists who were talking equity, then North Indians with their brash culture and their business dealings, then the Muslims who were unclean, marrying four wives and their crime - acting entitled and not recognising that they were being tolerated, then the Christians who were converting low caste Hindus…we have not reached the end of history.

MP: The city space, or the urban space, is often a space of diversity and multiplicity in postcolonial studies, yet here Mumbai is also a space of violence and division. How do you see this contrast in the cities you know and write about?

JD: Post colonial cities have not dismantled their colonial systems, so even in a very diverse city such as Toronto, we are beset with white privilege. It is something like social capital given to a few based on their colour. Though, there is no conscious racism and most white people who have tried to be conscious about such issues, are still caught up in the colonial lexicons etc. embedded in society. So they are genuinely surprised that someone looks at them as racist. I think Canada is however, consciously trying to deal with this, not of course without being prodded.

MP: One of the many themes of this novel is migration and the experience of migration. How do you respond personally to these themes?

JD: I dont feel like a migrant. I delinked my identity from place, nationality, religion and all factors I have no control of. The riots were the nail in the coffin. I detached from the national identity then. That is when I decided to leave India. I was so tied to my Indian identity that I could not have imagined living elsewhere. But the deep shame of the riots and the killing, and the wild and beastly nature of it, freed me. I did not identify with that. I moved to Canada. I moved to a country that I knew nothing about nor did I experience. Detaching from this national identity is something that will never make me a migrant no matter where I choose to live. Besides I have a simple tenet: the place where I live is my home and the people I live with are my family. I let this feeling permeate the commitments I permit myself.

MP: A Matter of geography is a first-person narrative, from the male protagonist perspective. Could you tell me a little more about the choice of protagonist and perspective? As I have suggested one of the novel’s themes is migration, and journeying, but we aren’t privy to Anna’s perspective of relocating to Canada, instead we hear it through Peter, who stays in Mumbai. How does this deliberate choice of perspective impact upon the way in which belonging is articulated to the reader?

JD: The device was necessary for this narrative. Peter was chosen as a protagonist because the issues were complex: race, religion, memory, and it comes from an older mind. Anna was merely 16 and her memory was cast in a bubble of the last encounters in India. So for the deeper layers that this story required, it could be delivered only through a character who had stayed back and encountered the changing India, experienced his dreams break up and see how life changes with movement.

I also needed the voice of Anna as a child reminscing, since the Fernandeses were key. Peter as the narrator gave us that perspective of Anna, which she could not provide herself, nor could the author. How would I know authentically what they were thinking or feeling without them saying so themselves or of each other? They gave the third person view of each other and when they had to speak of their deepest minds or introspective movement of self, they were there to talk for themselves. Peter, as he developed in life was more existentialist, and his ruminations and beliefs were fashioned by his reading (note the books on his shelf); it was a difficult development since I had to make choices away from the omniscient, all knowing author who can read minds. Anna moved when she was 16. She had to go to school in Canada and her life’s complexities were about just growing up in another country. She did not have the embedded sedimentary identity of being in a culture, living and working and encountering life in India. While Peter was embedded in Indian living and identity.

MP: So in many ways this is a story of conflicted belonging. How does the sense of home manifest itself differently for your two primary characters Peter and Anna?

JD: As always, home is tied to identity. When we are born, we are given a name. We identify and respond to it—our earliest identity. Our identities expand and get more complex with time. We keep coming back to the family that is feeding and protecting us and we call that home—we are going home, we say, as we walk back from school. That is not linked to geography. We continue to say we are going home even if we move out of that locality. Home is linked to your safety net, the people who provide it and for Anna, she had moved with her family.

In my own experience, I felt I had more rights in Canada the day I landed, more than I ever felt in India. I had left my family in India, but also my links of identity and home to them and to the country. I was free before I left. I was privileged in India. I got an education, tools to maneuver through society and a job, house, car – all the trappings that Indians consider successful. But those were privileges. Our rights, guaranteed by the constitution of India and in a sense that becomes part of our identity—the expectation that it is guaranteed and will not be taken away, the safety of that, makes us hitch our identity on to that belief. But when that is taken away, we detach from this very unstable identity. So I had privileges but no rights when I saw how the constitution of India as laid out in its preamble had/has been debilitated. Peter knows no different. He is conflicted with the weakening of his own identity with the weakening of his right as a citizen.

MP: Throughout the novel Peter is plagued with spiders and spider webs, in a very subtle way. The end of the novel, in the National Park, brings the reader again to wildlife and nature. Here we are introduced to new characters, and a new scene entirely. I wondered whether you could comment on how you locate the Epilogue, and Prologue, in relation to the rest of the novel?

JD: Aren’t we all beset with spiders, roaming through our files, spying on us, creating cobwebs in our minds?

Both the prologue and epilogue are designed as a metaphor, more in the nature of a riddle. I shall thus not explain them, but can offer a clue. They are linked, and are the beginning of the period of the trials that beset Bombay, and the final weakening of the forces that had engineered much of the riots in the interim history of Bombay.

MP: The novel takes us into the intimate spaces of the home; it takes us behind closed doors, and the divisions that operate in the storyline. These are the walls and doors of the Billimoria Building, or Peter’s apartment, partitions that often disappear in the novel. The narrative is more or less played out in these behind-the-scenes spaces. Could you comment about this device, this attempt to take us into the interior, and into the confidence of the writer and/or characters?

JD: Aren’t we ourselves behind closed doors?

MP: Thank you Jasmine for taking part in this interview.

Last modified on Monday, 30 October 2017 20:21

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