IN THE CONVENT OF LITTLE FLOWERS by Indu Sundaresan. Atria Books, a Division of Simon and Schuster, Inc.: New York. December 2008. $22.00. 224 pages.c38925325a1353340833474ac17f3eba-2

Indu Sundaresan, the author of three sweeping India-centric historical novels, has changed gears and written a collection of nine contemporary short stories. Thoroughly unapologetic in presentation and tone, Sundaresan’s serenely-titled In the Convent of Little Flowers deals with subjects that are neither comfortable nor lightweight. What the collection accomplishes is the stimulation of thought about existing evils such as—but certainly not limited to—child abandonment, elder abuse, women’s rights and struggles, and archaic, illegal practices that have no place in modern society. In the Convent of Little Flowers is the vehicle by which Sundaresan unblinkingly examines the various sides of traditional beliefs and modern life.

The collection’s title refers to an orphanage in Chennai from which the main character of “Shelter of Rain” is adopted by a Caucasian family at the age of six. 23 years later, she receives a letter from the orphanage’s head nun. As memories resurface, questions are raised, and acceptance of the past becomes an issue. Interestingly, this opening story is the only one set in Sundaresan’s current home of Seattle, Washington.

“Three and a Half Seconds” is a chilling look at an elderly couple who, despite having sacrificed everything for him, is abused by their selfish and ungrateful son. Unable to live with their son’s demands and mistreatment, Meha and Chandar make a decision that will change lives forever. In complement, “Bedside Dreams” tells the story of a couple—a freedom fighter and his supportive wife—married for 67 years, who are ending their days in a retirement home because their grown children took everything from them and discarded them there. As the story’s narrator so heart wrenchingly says, “We had fought, at one time, so long ago, for our country’s freedom, but it simply hurt too much to fight for ours.” “Bedside Dreams” was first published in the November 2004 issue of India Currents.

Societal pressures, personal loss of face, and a woman’s strength set the stage for “The Most Unwanted.” While it is a story of a man who cannot accept his daughter and her out-of-wedlock child, it also is a heartrending celebration of the power of innocence to heal. The man does not approve of his daughter or, by association, his grandson, and sets up a wall between them. This wall, more uncomfortable for him than for anyone else, crumbles when a simple act by the child causes him to reconsider his way of thinking.

Two stories illustrate the complex and bewildering logic that permeates elders’ adherence to tradition at the expense of losing a child. Sati is the subject of “The Faithful Wife,” in which a reporter is quietly summoned to his village only to learn that a 12-year old widow will partake in the act that was outlawed in 1829. The child as sacrifice and as parental currency represents the conflict between engaging in questionable acts and knowing that they are wrong. Furthermore, the story takes on the question of “what would you do if you knew about this?”

“Fire” is another story of life and death decisions rooted in tradition. A young Hindu woman is called home from the United States and confronts her family, three years after her sister was stoned and burned alive for loving a Muslim boy. Unable to understand how her grandmother could have been the instigator of the act, she discovers some family secrets.

As the author of this razor-sharp collection of short stories, Sundaresan exhibits the courage to stand up and speak out through her fiction, telling stories that strip away the gloss and glamour of the “new India” and reveal some of the mind-boggling contradictions of a rapidly-changing country. For those who might question her subject matter, Sundaresan smartly offers an afterword, outlining the sources of her inspiration. Recognizing that India balances the past in one hand while trying to keep a grip on the present as it hurtles forward, the author’s portrayal of the stories’ victims and their tormenters is accomplished with a sadness that opens eyes. As a result, her genuine characters, balanced tone, and subtle storytelling leave little to chance and offer much to contemplate.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she freelances as a copywriter and teaches Creative Writing to children through the Center for Gifted-National Louis University.

 

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