Review: Joan of Mazgaon by Zenisha Gonsalves

Ishaan Jajodia reviews Zenisha Gonsalves’ story ‘Joan of Mazgaon‘ published in TBLM.  

REVIEW

“What if?” These two words form the entrance way into a land of the counterfactual, the unreal, with the eroteme as the keystone. The land that the reader is transported into is the world of a Bombay that is resplendent in its simplicity and cosmopolitanism, which in itself presents to us the counterfactual, the foil: the Mumbai we live in.

Gonsalves’ main coup, however, is not the carefully planted minefield she dares the reader to walk through. It is the counterfactual. What if Norna did not run away? What if Norna did not learn how to cook? What if Norna did not play the game with Dana? Each small section presents its own plan, its own inner machinations of what Norna’s future could have held for her in her own little way. It is superimposed against the present, which in such a situation seems all too precarious and fragile.

While Barthes may have decided that the author is dead, Gonsalves makes it clear that she is clearly there, plotting and scheming:

“If there are too many versions, it is like they say about too many cooks: The chicken is delicious, but who made it?

Therefore this must be the final version.”

The semantics of this declaration of the developmental counterfactual reside the second-to-last machination of the author. This is by no means shorting the ability of the reader to return to the short story, simply reinforcing the paradigm of the authored and tailored and curated in a world of infinite possibilities. What if some infinities are larger than others? (Let Cantor answer this one for you — yes!). But does this simply reinforce the helplessness of the loop created by the consideration and then discarding of the counterfactual situation at hand?

At the beginning of the last section we encounter the opening paragraph once again:

“Every morning Joan and Gilly wake up before their children do, set the house and day in order, settle down in the balcony with two cups of tea and a newspaper. Joan cuts a loaf of bread and a pair of tomatoes — do tomatoes come in pairs? she wonders — takes the chutney from the big fridge in the small kitchen and places it all on the table where they eat. Gilly does a load of laundry, sets the tea to boil, stands by the kitchen window, looking out.”

While most of the counterfactual is in the present tense, there is little to denote that it is happening concurrently with the life Norna is living. This audacious, matter-of-fact repetition resets the clock, forcing one’s eyes back to the first line, creating a loop of time that is blocked off from the rest of the story to facilitate Gonsalves’ last gift at the end — the gift of the counterfactual, once again.

The postmodernism of this is not lost on the avid reader and film viewer, who will instantly think of Synecdoche New York (2008). The brutal realism and honesty with which worlds can be crafted within each other to provide a semblance of the ability to comprehend is oftentimes the first step into the ravine of the dangers of the counterfactual — which is why serious historians never tread on land that is viewed with its rose-tinted glasses.Yet, in art (written or otherwise), the creation of stories ensconced within stories creates a sense of magical unrealism, one that compounds the sense of loss.

The unfamiliarity and radical uncertainty of time in Joan of Mazgaon certainly keeps one searching for the familiar. It is at this junction that the reader oft loses sight of the aim of the story, which is not to provide easy reading over a cup of tea and the morning news.The non-scalar nature of time is a vexing conceptualisation and forceful abstraction of the contingencies of the postmodern (and in a way, a postcolonial) city and story.

In ‘Joan of Mazgaon’, Gonsalves is being ambitious. Synecdoche New York runs for a sliver over two hours. ‘Joan of Mazgaon’ ran through this reader’s mind for almost a week before fingers touched the keyboard and this review came into being. To captivate is an art that is lost on many an author — but not on this one. Who knew that it is possible with three thousand one hundred and thirty seven words?

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About the reviewer: Ishaan H. Jajodia is the founder and publisher of Bombaykala Books, a Mumbai-based publishing house that publishes stories for the global reader. He is also the founder and designated partner at Curato LLP.

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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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