Review: The trouble with mangoes by Janet H. Swinney

Kaani contributor Janet H. Swinney’s short story ‘The trouble with mangoes’ published in Indian Review is reviewed by Neera Kashyap.  

REVIEW

Janet Swinney is British but, owing to her long association with India, writes both with observed knowledge and objective distance of issues set in India. While in her other stories, she has brought up issues of adolescent sexuality set against the violence of the Punjab separatist movement (Menace at the gate/The Bombay Literary Magazine) or the hallowed status of Gurudom that cuts across all borders (The wrong question/The Bombay Review), in this story there are several issues raised: the importance of education for boys but also the multiple barriers that exist – color, language, class, gender, education. Yet, so deftly are these issues brought up and woven in with humor, that the reader feels these everyday truths with the lightness intended by the writer – a lightness that lifts, as issues come out into the open. This lightness is not easy to achieve as there are several viewpoints here as there are issues, their resolution not being one of them. Swinney is like a skilled conductor who knows how to keep the pieces together, keeps her control even when the music turns cacophonous, creates the immediate even as she works it into the fabric of memory.

First, there is Charanjit, the grandfather whose son has just died, so he must take up the responsibility of bringing his grandson to school everyday. The school is a great distance away, but the grandson has just won a scholarship which means Charanjit will wait outside the school during school hours before they can return home. The school happens to be opposite a house belonging to the Malhotras where the central drama unfolds. It is obvious from the looks of this house that it is the least well-heeled of its colonial surroundings, “struggling with transition”. This probably lies at the crux of all issues.

Then there is Julie, the British daughter-in-law, first-time visitor to India and to her husband Vikram’s family, admitting from the outset that “she was finding things hard going”. This wasn’t made any easier by her choice of presents for Vikram’s brother’s wife, Sushma, which included a waffle-maker, ‘the Teasmade’ and a gadget for vacuum sealing half-used wine bottles! Vikram has made his money in England, enough to “see off any racists” in the British clubhouse where he is member, spending entire weekends there. But the local Malhotras clearly haven’t made it, primarily because Vikram’s brother, Subhash hasn’t quite grasped his business, so his overall resentment. 

Sushma is the traditional sturdy Punjabi housewife but with ambitions to own a beauty parlour – an idea with which she baits her husband, her insistence growing in equal proportion to his resistance. Roars Subhash: “No wife of mine is going out to work. How would I hold my head up in the bazaar?” Sushma has other reasons: Julie had bought her unfathomable domestic appliances all of which has confirmed her idea of herself as a poor relation. Besides, Julie has a job whereas she has never put a foot into public life. Swinney freezes Sushma’s overall stagnation at the very root: “It looked as though it was going to be an uphill struggle, the relationship between herself and her white sister-in-law. And, in Sushma’s experience, jealousy was a sentiment that could hardly be overcome.”

In her story, ‘Menace at the gate‘, Swinney had kept the conflict between a husband and wife (the wife also rooting for a beauty parlour) simmering like a soup still to boil. Here she achieves a full-scale conflict that comes to a head publicly at the lunch table, with Sushma’s scream aimed at her husband, “Pagal!”

Meanwhile, Julie is as intense about making sure that Charanjit sitting outside in the most enervating heat should be ministered to with food and drink, “well especially a drink”. Julie has done her research on why the man sits there everyday. Behind this mission, is Julie’s own disgust with how students have wasted their education in England by using drugs and giving the constabulary the run around. But to feed a man of the cobbler caste, even if he is waiting out his grandson’s education time, is for Subhash, anathema! While peak intensities are reached in which Sushma and Subhash are once again caught like raging bulls to the color red, Swinney achieves a brilliant end where all issues are de-intensified, rendered innocuous, even irrelevant.

Each character in the story is given a distinct language, often crackling like sparklers. At point of peak conflict involving the issue of caste, Sushma turns on her husband of milder words and says, “What do you know? This is the man who wouldn’t give you the shit from his arse, never mind a glass of water.”

While Swinney hones in on Julie and Sushma with deep third person points of view, it is with Vikram she achieves a great caricature: a British persona with a crudeness and comfort that surfaces easily when he is back home.  

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About the reviewer: Neera is a published author of a book for young adults and of stories for children’s anthologies. Her short fiction, poems and essays have appeared in various literary online journals in India and South Asia.

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Reviews of short stories can be sent to submitkaani@gmail.com

(The story should be published in English in any online journal. Pick one or more short story. The story should be available online and published between 2012-2018. Preferably Asian journal/ writer. Within 800 words.)

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