BODIES IN MOTION by Mary Anne Mohanraj. Harper Collins Publishers. July 2005. $22.95. 288 pages. www.harpercollins.com, www.mamohanraj.com
On a rare occasion, a novel comes along that breaks rules, tears down barriers, and is a joy to read. Bodies in Motion by Mary Anne Mohanraj is such a novel. This collection of 20 stories spans 63 years and weaves three generations of two Sri Lankan families into an intricate and sexual braid of culture and tradition pitted against desires and needs. What the author hopes the reader will take away from the collection is the complexity of life.
“With this structure,” Mohanraj says, “I hoped that readers would see some of the complex choices that face these characters, and hoped that the ways in which their sometimes different, sometimes similar choices played out would make it harder to assume that there are easy answers to these questions of love, sex, marriage, duty, responsibility, loyalty, culture, home …”
The result is a seductive and inviting work built primarily upon strong women.
“I do think strong women are interesting, especially when they’re faced with difficult choices that test their strength of will,” comments Mohanraj, “and I suppose that’s why, in a book that focuses so much on difficult questions around sexuality and marriage, I’ve ended up with a lot of strong women.”
Chronological and selective, the stories move forward but touch previous references, solidifying relationships and events. As time passes, Mohanraj provides only the details necessary to string the genealogy together. This renders each story fresh and individual yet integral to the whole. Interestingly, the characters come alive through their thoughts and emotions in a way that dialogue could never afford. Based more upon introspection than dialogue, the stories allow the characters and their situations to develop deeply and intensely. There is no clear-cut plot, but the scope of the families and the life decisions they make captures and sustains the reader’s interest.
Some stories are vibrant and full of heat, others cool and contained. Mohanraj imbues her characters with angst, domestic violence, longing, alcoholism, and infidelity tempered by hope, strength, goals, happiness, and contentedness. There are arranged marriages and love marriages. One daughter elopes with a white boy while another decides she will marry her father’s colleague. There is same-sex attraction, love without condition, love that is expected, love that is learned, love that is denied. There are emigrants to America, emigrants to Sri Lanka, and those who have never been to the country of their ancestry.
Mohanraj never allows her characters to take the easy way out. A duality of ideas, traditions, and attitudes runs through the stories, and there is a struggle between the needs and the wants of the characters versus cultural and societal norms. Sexuality of one degree or another flows from one story to the next. Characters learn about themselves and, very often, the truth about myths as well as the myths about truths. However, every character reflects a sexuality that imprints their identity. The sexuality that drives Bodies in Motionis rarely experienced in fiction by South Asian writers. Does Mohanraj attribute that to her having grown up in the West? No, not really.
“My impression is that my writing is simply more sexually-oriented that most writers’, regardless of their cultural background,” she states. “I think sexuality is a fascinating area of life, and across the cultural board, it’s under-explored in fiction.”
We also get a peek into the troubled Sri Lankan history, although it is distant to most of the characters. “Growing up in the U.S., I know that I, certainly, felt that the situation in Sri Lanka was very remote,” Mohanraj offers. “My parents’ generation was deeply engaged with it, but my generation, on the whole, was not. As I became more aware of the troubles there, as I studied Sri Lankan history and current events in graduate school, I found myself shocked by how ignorant I really was. In this book, I wanted to highlight that ignorance, to contrast what the first and second generation Sri Lankan-American kids were experiencing with what their cousins in Sri Lanka were facing—while one set struggled with questions of sexuality, another set faced life and death situations. I didn’t want to diminish the importance of the first set’s dilemmas, but I did want to emphasize the disparity between the two groups.”
The collection begins with “Oceans Bright and Wide” in which one father debates the question of whether to allow his daughter, Shanthi, to go abroad to further her studies. “… are you sorry the British came here? Are you sorry for what they’ve brought to Ceylon?” he is asked. He responds by agreeing to send her to Oxford, for she could go no further on “his little island.” Thus, one family is set in motion to carry on outside of their own world. Eventually, Shanthi marries, and the Kandiah family history moves forward.
The Vallipuram family’s destiny is set into motion via “Seven Cups of Water” in which Mangai relates the erotic encounters she has with her new sister-in-law, Sushila, a young girl who derives more pleasure from their late-night meetings than with her new husband. Sushila predicts her life ahead with Sundar, her new husband and Mangai’s brother: “And after ten or twenty or thirty years of that, I will have all the juices sucked out of me; I will be dry as dust. I will die of my thirst and blow away on the wind. That’s the way it is, the way it always is.”
And in the epilogue, “Monsoon Day,” we are led back to the beginning, to Sri Lanka, by Savitha, Sundar’s granddaughter—and Shanthi’s as well. While Mangai prepares a meal, the village girls watch and learn, fascinated by her eccentricities. “Once things have started going bad, they are forever changed; there is no going back to that perfect moment, the one that could have been. Although sometimes, there may be a going forward. Burnt food has its own flavor, and sometimes, you can work with it, make it into something else that is, at least, interesting.”
Oh, what a simple life lesson that is, too.
There is no doubt: Mohanraj’s Bodies in Motion is guaranteed reading that goes far, far beyond “at least, interesting.”
|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.|