A suspicious old grandmother laboriously climbing up the stairs to see what mischief her grandchildren are up to, a maid shelling peas, a schoolgirls’ game of Lucky Dip—familiar, even mundane images plucked from day to day life. But in Ginu Kamani’s hands they become part of a world that seethes with dark, rambunctious, and unpredictable forces. This is the world of her first book of stories.Junglee Girl (Aunt Lute Books, San Francisco). It’s like no world you’ve ever known. And yet it is very much like every world you have ever known-with a delicious subversive shadow. Imagine that you looked in the mirror and your image stuck its tongue out at you.
Karnani grew up in Bombay, and her family moved to the United States when she was 14. In America, she ended up doing a bachelors in linguistics in Orlando. She remembers loving her English assignments as a schoolgirl, but while growing up she didn’t feel any burning desire to be a writer.
”At some point I did think that when I am old and have lots of stories that I have collected, it would be nice to be a writer. But I didn’t take a single creative writing course while I was doing my bachelors. I submitted a manuscript of some of the stuff I had written for a high level creative writing course, and the instructor turned me down and said I should start at the bottom. And I didn’t like that–I just didn’t take a course.”
After graduating she was all set to take up a job teaching English as a second language in Spain but that fell through. “I panicked,” she recalls. “What do I do next? Then it occurred to me: Why wait till I was 50? Maybe I should start writing now.”
She put together a manuscript for a masters in creative writing. She had to submit either 25 pages of fiction or 10 pages of poetry. “1 started on this story but I just couldn’t finish it. In retrospect, it seems highly symbolic because the story was about an Indian woman surrounded by men who could not fathom her.” So she ended up submitting poetry instead.
But she returned to fiction even though “I had real problems with endings. Somehow my stories would not resolve themselves. Then my husband David pointed out that the stories were really very significant analyses of issues of power. As soon as that was made clear, it became much easier to rearrange the pieces.”
Power is not just fat old men with cigars. In Kamani’s work, power is woven and rewoven into the daily domesticity of middle-class life-in the little girl who will play with her maid and the maid who must play with the little girl.
“When you are the child of the employer, you get into the habit of not thinking about the servants, even though they are present all the time and you are interacting with them all the time,” admits Kamani. “They form a major, major part of every Indian child’s life, and it’s so bizarre that when you think back on your day—it’s devoid of the servants even though you interact the most with them.
“I feel that without them I would have been a completely ignorant child-there was access to the body and to sexuality that was bitterly absent from one’s parents. It’s also peculiar that servants are routinely fired for having done something sexual-likes an affair is discovered in the household and all parties involved have to go. As an adult, I wonder what the servants were doing that was anything different from what the adults were doing in the house.”
Servants, sex, women’s bodies. There was a stone that had been covering all those things we never dared talk about (not in good families). Junglee Girl just rolls that stone away and blows lip the fascinating life underneath in terrible, beautiful detail.
“I think examining the issue of servants basically means examining the issues of hierarchy in the Indian family. Even though we leave India, many of us are completely unable to touch the issue of what actually goes on in a family—how control is exercised. It’s about breaking one of our biggest taboos–to look inside the family, to look at members of your family, especially elders as human beings.”
I wondered how her family reacted to her breaking these taboos. “My parents are some of the most unusual Indians I know. And one of the reasons is that my father, back in the sixties, when nobody else was doing it, was in therapy in India. My mother studied transactional analysis in the United States and brought that information back to India and actually consulting businesses there. When I think about all that has gone on in this particular family’s life, it’s quite remarkable—we are all survivors.”
But however unusual a family is, it is not easy to shrug off the full weight of social taboos. There is always an overbearing neighbor or a sanctimonious aunt bursting to tell you what you can or cannot do. And in the list of no-nos, women’s sexuality is right on top.
“Women’s sexuality ends up being a metaphor for a much larger look into the distribution or lack of distribution of power. The fact that women are able to bear children has in a way become the central focus of Indian culture. And the means of controlling it are way out of proportion. We have forgotten where these fears arise from but we all know we are somehow afraid of women’s bodies. In some part of us there is a trigger, a button that can be pushed-whether it’s when your daughter is dating, or she is in a foreign country on her own, or she is studying to be a doctor instead of a teacher. There are so many different manifestations, but in the end they all come down to the same thing-how do you control a woman’s body so that children coming out of the body belong to the family.”
Not surprisingly women’s sexuality occupies a dominant place in Karnani’s work. Not the sublimated, pure, on-a-pedestal sexuality of a screen goddess like Nargis. Not the airbrushed mannequin beauty of a long-necked model for some Bombay boutique. But a raw junglee girl sexuality. Ginu Karnani’ writing is like a ripe fruit-lush, bursting, and sticky. And brimming with sinful delight.
Kamani remembers learning about sex in bits and pieces. “In sixth grade, the first James Hadley Chase book I read had a phrase to the effect that ‘he entered her.’ I had no idea what that meant but I could tell from the book that it must have been very pleasant.”
In the short story “Maria,” Kamaru explores a young girl’s fascination with the body of her maid. “As a child I did not even know what sexual desire was about,” Karnani recalls, “so my fascination could not have had a sexual label on it consciously. But the actual instance that contributed to desire really did revolve around the servants. For example, one servant who I absolutely adored would allow me to massage her back and she would undo her blouse so that her back was exposed. That was so much fun—using the hands and feeling skin.
“But the first time I learned about sexual division was when I got my period. And I was very young. And whether consciously or unconsciously, all these rules came down on my head–you can’t do this or wear that, you must walk this way. At that time, I felt like my body had betrayed me. Suddenly, because of this stupid thing, I was no longer allowed to be the kid that I had been. That was a big blow in a way, but only because I did not have enough information. In many cultures, puberty is celebrated and honored, and young girls are made to feel that they have something very special as opposed to something that they need to keep hidden.”
Perhaps boys would grow into men faster if they had a rite of passage as dramatic as menstruation. Kamani agrees, talking of cultures that mimic menstruation and anal birth in men. But Indian men, she feels, remain boys a little longer than most, and that is due in large part to their mothers.
“A woman’s worth jumps in value when she has a son. And that gets translated into real action–she gets treated better. It’s very unusual that a woman is very intimate with her husband. It is much more likely that she is getting the majority of her emotional love and support from her sons.”
I wondered if Kamani is not limiting her audience by writing in America about families in Bombay. Her Jyotis have not become Jasmines andJazzys and finally Janes. “I have got responses from a variety of people who are not Indian and barely familiar with Indian culture, yet who were able to see things in the stories that lit into their own lives,” she retorts.
“There is no way for me to undo my Indianness except through a lobotomy. I am very happy to be going back and forth between the two countries for the rest of my life. I am not that bound by national boundaries. For somebody to say I am no longer Indian, I am now American-s-how do you forget who you are, where you are raised, what you saw
when you opened your front door?”
But is there not the fear that the work South Asian writers, indeed writers of minority trying to claim their place, will strait-jacketed in political correctness and strident rhetoric? Kamani disagrees. She says these are exciting times for writers for “what political correctness has underlying it are very important issues which have been rubbed out of history and our awareness. The best thing is not to police the forms in which it comes out. For example, I am of the opinion that everything that has passed as history in the United States can be looked at again.”
As for herself, these are exciting times, too. The future? She has already turned two of her stories into performance pieces. Maybe a screenplay. Definitely a novel.
But for the present she has her hands full with all the junglee girls in the world-the girls who don’t listen to their grandmothers’ advice.
”Kesho? Rani? Where are you my darlings? Come and touch the feet of your grandmother, you little rascals. Come to me while you’re still clean before the dirt of the whole world covers you from head to toe! Dirty rascals, playing in god knows what room with who knows what filthy people!”
But it’s too late. Rani, brought up to be the good wife and mother of a hundred sons, has instead become a junglee girl, reveling in the dirt of the whole world, smearing it from head to toe with unrestrained glee.