Ticket to Minto is the first published book of short stories by Sohrab Homi Fracis and the winner of the 2001 Iowa Short Fiction award. This collection of 12 stories is stunning in its breadth and scope of language and description. This is a fresh voice in South Asian fiction, a genre that has seen a remarkable renaissance. Once can grow tired, though, of Rushdie wannabes, mother-in-law stereotypes and village parodies. Fracis’s writing is brutally honest, exposing sinew and nerves and getting at the heart of the matter. We get a glimpse into the dwindling Parsi community both here and in India, but the view he gives us is far from obvious or easy to discern. This is no sociological exploration with overly wrought definitions or prose that explains way too much, but rather stories that start right in the middle of life and fan outward. We come in on the action and become entertained as we go along. While Fracis does focus the double edge of living in two cultures, one quickly realizes that the themes transcend culture. That we are universally human in our frailties, joys, sufferings, and disappointments is brought to light.
Interestingly, while we think of these stories as explicating the experience of “other,” we might be tempted to think of Fracis’s characters as predominantly “other” in American culture. But, often, the opposite is true: culture, it seems, is a state of mind, no matter where you are, a battle of sorts, to be waged. And no one is immune.
In the first and most enigmatic story of the collection titled “Ancient Fire” the Parsi community is the backdrop for the misadventures of the unfortunately named Pesi Screwvala on his yearly summer camping trip. Pesi is brutally tormented by his peers due in part to the doting attentions of his family, witnessed by the camp crew, and in part for his gentle and quiet nature. His last name only serves to add fuel to the fire as he is tormented by his nemesis Carl:
“Mummy Screwvala all milky white and bigger than Daddy Screwvala. Isn’t that nice? Mummy Screwvala screwed Daddy Screwvala and Baby Screwvala came out of Mummy Screwvala’s c—- and kissed her. What did you see coming out, Pesi-Waysi?”
As the taunting mounts, the lure of ancient fire and the ability to withstand the heat both literally and figuratively is what propels Pesi beyond the torment that has clung to him like sweat. Purposely torching the hills beyond the campground, the very hills that he admired and felt comforted by, Pesi sits back calmly and enjoys the view feeling powerfully connected to the power of ancient fire. As awe-inspiring fear grip his camp mates, Pesi calmly contemplates the wonder of fire and what may rise from the ashes:
“And it filled his hurt, just to look at it, with wonder and assurance, a sense that things were strangely as they ought to be, that there were powers on his side. Father Coslo, he knew, would plant cold eyes on him and on his parents, threaten dire things—pink cards, grey cards, expulsion. But the meeting would not go all Father Coslo’s way. In Pesi’s father the principal would find a stoic, unshakeable calm, centuries old, and in his mother a formidable warrior. Something of both, he felt, must have passed into him. So he rested his chin on the rail of his cot and sat there in the dark, at peace with his world, looking on the night and a long wave of fire rolling redly over blackened hills.’
Many of the stories in this collection revolve around characters for which a single moment of action can be the deciding factor in their lives. Action is often taken suddenly with little though given to consequences until the deed is done. In the cleverly crafted “The Stray,” a wild and wandering house cat’s behavior, coming and going as he pleases, makes a young bachelor suddenly realize that he, too, yearns to roam and that while his young Indian girlfriend is suitably devoted neither one of them is likely to stick around for very long. In “Flora Fountain” a young, unmarried man whose parents perished in the Air India 855 flight feels the relentless passage of time, which diminishes his chances to find a marriage partner. Fearing the lost of his family line, and bemoaning the lack of available Parsi women due to a dwindling community, the narrator continues to visit the Flora fountain for a woman that we poignantly realize he met some twenty years before:
“But if it’s meant to happen at all, being here just in case is the only part that’s in my power. The rest is in Flora’s hands. I feel that Zal and Rudabeh , the mighty Rustum, Zarathustra himself, all the brave Parsis who ailed into darkness to keep the sacred fire burning and the entire line of Banaji’s down to my parents must think less badly of me when they see I’m still trying. It’s a line that has held off the titan time. So far.”
The overriding concern of the Parsi communities struggle to survive is exemplified in such stories. In “Holy Cow”, a small Parsi community in, of all places, Birmingham Alabama, hosts a monthly religious meeting consisting of inquisitive and assimilated Parsi-American kids and not the docile and accepting ones of a generation or two ago and whose very questioning threatens the survival of the community. “Ticket to Minto” the title story, is a curious foray into the psyche of a town not one’s own and the code of behavior that thrives within it. Stories like this exemplify Fracis’s preoccupation with one’s identity and how fragile the structure is that we build in our own minds.
The epigraph by E. Annie Proulx states: “our innate curiosity to know what blood clan, country, street, mental, emotional, or psychological predilection claims the Unknown One in our midst.” Fracis does this without sentiment or sociological psychobabble, but instead, honest and engaging stories that never fail to hit their mark. This collection binds the energy needed to understand the struggle behind true identity and the battle for the survival of a people within the mundane existence of everyday life.
Michelle Reale lives and writes near Philadelphia and is devoted to the study of South Asian literature.