Shruti Swamy’s debut collection of stories A House is a Body is a highly anticipated volume, after the potential displayed in the publication of her stories in journals like the Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, Kenyon Review Online among others. She is also a two-time winner of the O’ Henry Prize. It might interest our readers to know that Shruti worked as an intern at India Currents long before her fiction became widely known.
Short stories as a genre are more difficult to market than long fiction forms like the novel or even the non-fictional genre of the memoir. In the South Asian American literary archive, short story collections that have had a profound effect on audiences and changed our expectations forever include Bharati Mukherjee’ The Middleman and Other Stories and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies. More recently Neel Patel’s If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi also earned the distinction of becoming New York Times Book Review’s Editor’s Choice and NPR Best Book of the year. Swamy’s collection although firmly rooted in the tradition of diasporic South Asian American writing is charting new and unexplored territory.
What distinguishes Swamy’s collection is the persistent presence of trauma, loss, female vulnerability, and fulfillment in a transnational and transhistorical contexts.
While some stories like the last one in the collection “Night Garden,” invoke a very specific geographic landscape, others like “The Siege” and “Earthly Pleasures” seem to flow effortlessly between the genres of realism, mythology, and magical realism.
In “Earthly Pleasures” Swamy plays with the theme of unrequited love of a lonely female artist for a celebrity named Krishna, invoking the myth structuring the Bhakti tradition of India: Radha’s love for her divine and unattainable lover, Krishna. This unrequited love gets replayed in the medieval poet/ devotee Mira’s longing for Krishna which produces a flowering of her poetry. Similarly, Krishna is an earthly pleasure for Swamy’s protagonist Radhika and also her creative muse and obsession.
In “The Seige” Swamy weaves a story that resembles an Indian fable where an old queen is abandoned by her husband and loses her sons in battle. This story may be read entirely as a fable, a throwback to an earlier pre-modern, feudal world of female victimhood, but it connects thematically to several other stories of spousal abandonment in contemporary North America. For example, “The Laughter Artist” and the title story “The House is a Body” as well as the final story “Night Garden” dwell on themes of husbands leaving their wives, sometimes on the abyss of despair and destruction. In both these stories, the husband or male partner who has left is a shadowy, indeterminate presence, but the effects of this abandonment are registered on the traumatized family.
In “The House is a Body,” the abandoned wife goes through the distracted motions of caring for a sick daughter whose skin is burning with fever, even as a wild California forest fire forces her to pack the detritus of her broken life and memories as she waits to get rescued, while almost succumbing to a desire to be destroyed by the fire.
In “Night Garden,” we witness a woman’s bond with her dog who protects her home from the attack of a cobra, holding steadfast to his task of guarding the home over the course of a night. The implicit comparison is evoked between the loyalty of the woman’s animal companion juxtaposed with the fickleness of her human partner who has abandoned her.
Swamy’s exploration of loss is not limited only to the loss of romantic love. In some stories, she touches on the loss of children or the loss of parents. In “Mourners,” a young infant is barely aware of the trauma of the loss of her mother which is being processed by her father and aunt. In “Didi,” in a rare moment of grasping his daughter’s fears, a father reveals to her the loss of her older brother in gestation. Even more unfathomable is the loss of a brother in “My Brother at the Station,” where a sister stalks her brother’s ghostly presence from the station to an apartment, only to realize that she could not cross the threshold and do her parents’ bidding and “beg him to return home.” Sometimes, the elegiac quality of loss changes to the more jagged depiction of domestic violence registered on the bodies of women, in “Neighbors,” hidden by sense of shame and not acknowledged by other women even when revealed.
The most joyful story in this collection is “Wedding Season.” which is an unabashed celebration of a lesbian relationship between a South Asian woman and her white female partner who are attending a heterosexual wedding in India. Even though they have not come out to their families, they revel in their surreptitious intimacy interspersed among the wedding rituals.
Swamy is masterful in her use of spare prose to evoke the most harrowing psychological experiences. Her stories span a variety of styles and genres from realism to mythic representations. Reading her stories is akin to reading poetry or entering into a dream state. Her characters seem sometimes to be indistinguishable from story to story. They are not sufficiently varied and sometimes seem unidimensional in their experiences as survivors of trauma. Swamy is skillful in depicting characters on the brink of psychological collapse, but she rarely provides any experiences that offset their abjectness. Perhaps in the future, we will see more of her satiric commentary and sly humor which is offered fleetingly in “Wedding Season.”
The India Currents team is filled with pride to see Shruti Swamy’s burgeoning career after her time with IC and is here to cultivate the next generation of writers. Reach out to [email protected] if you’d like to work or intern with India Currents!
Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.