According to a BBC report dated May 10, 2006, “It is estimated that there are about 18 million Roman Catholics in India, with 500,000 living in Mumbai. The Christian community comprises about 2-percent of India’s population of over one billion.” Nalini Jones’ debut collection of short stories, What You Call Winter, brings to life the India described by BBC, an India that many people don’t realize exists. These character-driven stories, the impact of which becomes apparent after the last page is read and the cover is closed, feature interesting personalities at important junctures in their lives. The characters continually draw the reader’s thoughts back to Santa Clara and St. Hilary Road, the fictional community and geographical thread that tie the stories together.
Jones, who was born and raised in Rhode Island, writes with both the insight of a “native” and the wonder of an outsider, setting her stories in a locale dear to her heart. “My mother’s family is Catholic and lives in a suburb just north of Mumbai,” Jones says. “We used to visit her family regularly and I loved those trips.” Like the characters in her book, Jones has found that distance plays a huge part in her life and, subsequently, in her writing. “When I was older,” she continues, “I began going [to India] on my own. I suppose I set the stories there because that world has always fascinated me, and also because writing about a place where I had never lived gave me a chance to explore unfamiliar but beloved territory.”
The characters of What You Call Winter are unusual on the surface—they are Indian-born with saint-based or faith-based Anglo names—but are as universally resonant as the themes that weave through the book: love, loss, family, loneliness, kindness, longing, memory, and faith. The omnipresent theme, however, is that of distance: geographical, emotional, generational, and personal. From young to middle-aged, newborn to elderly, the characters and lives drawn are as typical as in any other neighborhood. Relationships between family members vary, as in any family. Communication between the generations often seems strained, and caring for the aged seems to be an accepted chore.
The author’s challenge was to create the logical genealogy of the characters and their personal interaction within stories that are arranged without chronological foundation. “I let the families and neighborhood develop in an unruly way at first,” Jones explains, “and then about halfway through writing the collection, I had to stop and make sense of what I’d done so I wouldn’t lose track of how old people were, or who were cousins. I drew family trees and maps of the neighborhood so I could begin to think about their connections more deliberately.”
The Almeida Family is the centerpiece of the collection; through them, we meet their relatives and neighbors who have remained on St. Hilary Road as well as those who have left to make their way in the world. Santa Clara is comprised of middle class Indians who speak English in their homes, believe in the Christian God, and know India as their country of origin. The interrelated stories, with connections that range from the obvious to the subtle, are constructed with fragile links and secrets fraught with sadness, forming the union that holds this nearly forgotten tribe together.
“In the Garden” introduces Marian, the eldest Almeida child. Just before her tenth birthday, Marian experiences the confusion of childhood expectations and regrets when she finds and accidentally soils the dress intended for her birthday gift. To avoid punishment, Marian disposes of the dress and tells no one, establishing the recurring act of keeping secrets. Marian’s mother accuses their servant of taking the dress and dismisses her, yet Marian never confesses the truth, even in stories set years later after she has moved to the United States.
In “The Crow and the Monkey,” six-year old Jude Almeida assists his Aunt Freddy with New Year’s preparations and listens to her complain bitterly about her life and situation. Back in the house, Jude finds comfort and solace in the company of Rosa, the servant, but is upset at the thought of her leaving him to marry. The interaction between young and old, extended family and family servant, is carefully and genuinely written from the child’s point of view, revealing the impact of adults’ actions on the innocent.
“We Think of You Every Day” is a story of secrets, distance, and longing. The Almeidas have sent their 11-year-old son, Simon, to a prestigious boarding school with priesthood as the goal. Essie covets her son’s letters but conceals from her family his misery and overwhelming desire to come home. When 12-year-old Marian discovers the truth, she tells her passive-aggressive father, Francis. His inability to rectify the conflict is poignantly described: “He had the feeling, as often happened when it came to the management of the children, that he was standing by the side of the tracks with one hand feebly in the air as a train barreled past.”
Secrets and the reasons for keeping them play an enormous part in the lives of the characters. Some secrets are edged with sympathetic touches while others are coated with selfish motives. Marian’s cousin Colleen, who lives in the United States, cannot reveal her lesbianism to her mother. Roddy’s visions of his dead father bicycling past him can never be shared with his friends or family. Rowena learns that applying for adoption without her husband’s knowledge can be dangerous. Even Neelam, a domestic, hides the alcohol-soaked corners of her sari. All secrets add depth and dimension to the characters as no other literary device can.
The title story, “What You Call Winter,” combines 77-year old Roddy’s visions of his dead father with a longing for his son, Stephen, who lives in the United States. It is a simple tale of the realization of fathers and sons growing apart geographically and emotionally. “This Is Your Home Also,” the final story of the collection, offers hope and reconciliation as the adult Jude performs the dual role of caregiver and caretaker for his parents and a young boy who comes to work for them.
Jones’s characters are based in part on people who have crossed paths with her at one time or another, in one way or another, bringing truth and humanity to each of them. “Certainly the central situation of the book—some people migrating, others choosing to remain—is a reality for many families I know,” Jones reveals. “And I was absolutely inspired by various circumstances in the lives of people I know. But my interest in such circumstances, such as a cataract operation, usually derives from questions I can’t help asking: what would happen if a daughter who feels quite distant from her mother accompanies her to the doctor? Just putting that question to an actual incident changes it, and begets more and more questions, until the triggering incident has become something entirely different in the way it functions in the lives of the characters.”
The most reflective passage of the entire collection spells out the hand that guides it: “Whatever actually happened to the Almeida Family never seemed quite as real as the stories they told. Unless one of them worked to remember the facts, the truth of the matter might fall off to the side, like a shadow cast from a tree. And if no one took care to hold each memory and guard it well, the darkening years would swallow the shadow, and only the story would be left standing.”
|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.|