Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country begins, famously, with a prose paean to the South African countryside. Paton’s description of the ‘holiness’ of this ground establishes it as the place to which the character, Kumalo, must return even though the land ‘cannot be again’. Sheena Kalayil’s fine debut novel begins with a sentence which also suggests a place that ‘cannot be again’, ‘Before we even knew each other, we shared an ocean.’ Kalayil’s potent opening sentence evokes a relationship whose sharing depends on something both unknowable and also ever-changing. And as the opening paragraph goes on to suggest, the unnamed narrator of the book, and the lover, Jafar, spend less and less time beside that ocean, and more and more apart; they start off beside the ocean, it later divides them even when they do return to it.
Although Kalayil’s book is, essentially, about a doomed love affair, it is, like the Paton novel to which it nods, much, much more about how time and place are increasingly temporary. So, the novel asks the big questions about the post-colonial world, ‘Is it possible to have an identity from a specified locality, or is identity a kind of global habit?’ By framing these questions around a love affair, Kalayil makes those questions more poignant, resonant and personal, by asking if identity is also the negotiated product of ‘loving the one you’re with.’
The narrator of the novel moves out of a rather damaged childhood in Kerala, India, via an education in England, to a stay with her Francisuncle, a university lecturer in Harare. The narrator gets a job teaching in a college in Harare, and it is there she meets Jafar, who is first a student of hers and then becomes her lover. Jafar is Mozambican; and both he and the narrator have ‘histories’, hers rather less serious than his. When we meet Jafar he is in the process of breaking up with Marie, a French doctor. Kalayil’s great skill here is to show how ethnicity both does and does not affect relationships. And she does this not to evoke the spectre of racism, but to evoke with considerable delicacy how those inside such relationships negotiate these things, and other aspects that these matters evolve. When she and Jafar move in together, it is to share a flat in Maputo with Jafar’s brother, Naman. Kalayil writes, ‘What was clear was the understanding that Jafar needed a bedmate, and I was his choice for now…: men and women were a recipe for consolation, a throw-back to urgent, war-filled times when people seized the opportunity for comfort before it could disappear.’ Kalayil shows how a patriarchal view becomes the norm in a country which ‘simmered with its fascination for heterosexuality’. Naman introduces the narrator as ‘Jafar’s woman, a mulher de Jafar…there was an assumption that the woman you were with was your wife, but that it could be a temporary position.’ Thus, with great tact, Kalayil brings in the social context of the relationship, and without any sense of labouring them, evokes the pressures that exist in this post-colonial world.
What Kalayil is also wonderful at doing is the sheer evocation of place; there’s a heady sensual feel to the places she ranges through and describes. And she is very good on language, and the use of those little phrases and words in another language which create atmosphere but which never patronise or alienate.
Part Two of the novel describes the narrator’s engagement in and engagement with her arranged marriage to Sebe part of the Malayalee community living around Chicago. And if this half of the novel does not have the heady, perfumed exoticism of the first half, that is because Kalayil’s narrator is, again, having to situate herself in a contemporary America with, perhaps, a slightly more ‘flattened’ set of expectations than those of either the Kerala in which she has grown up or Maputo beside the Indian Ocean. Kalayil moves from the society of Mozambique, to the the Keralan community in America. Here, Kalayil’s novel resembles the novels of Jhumpa Lahiri, which are often set amongst the upwardly mobile Asian-American community, but Kalayil’s world does without Lahiri’s slightly smug airlessness. If the narrator has to find her place amongst these contemporary Americans, it is with more sense of acceptance in a world which is a blend in the first place.
This is a finely wrought and intelligent first novel, whose moves back and forth in time are occasionally a little dizzying, but which is always beautifully written and very atmospheric.