Made popular during World War II, slim, pre-stamped pieces of stationery known as aerogrammes first traversed the globe bearing both news and tales of places unseen. Despite its seeming fragility, aerogrammes held the promise of privacy and intimacy with its sides that one would glue and fold together in order to form an envelope. The narratives in James’s first short story collection are very much like those early aerogrammes. They are brief missives yet brimming with the voices of individuals struggling to understand themselves in relation to their alien surroundings. And every time one begins to realize that one of James’s aerogrammes to us is coming to a close, you cannot help but wish that wasn’t the case.
In each of these very different stories, James renders profound portraits of characters struggling for the compass that might enable them to find their bearings. In her opening piece set in 1910, we meet Gama the Lion of Punjab who has arrived in London eager to take on any fighter that he can from Strangler Lewis to the Swedish wrestler Jon Lemme in order to make his mark as the finest wrestler in the world. Yet, the challengers that seemed to abound while Gama was in India seem to have disappeared now that he is in London. Instead, he is left to repeat his rigorous exercise routine with his brother Imam while awaiting his big moment, should it come. Nuggets of James’s humor further highlight Gama’s increasing confusion with his boutless state. When Mr. Benjamin attempts to explain to Gama that he must agree to take some falls in order to get other wrestlers to fight him, Mr. Benjamin pulls out his own empty pockets to illustrate that there is no point returning to India without making some money from these matches. Immediately refusing such an offer, Imam responds for Gama saying, “The langot we wear, it does not have pockets.” Confused, Mr. Benjamin proceeds to explain “in even slower English, what he means by ‘empty pockets’” while Gama remains bewildered by Mr. Benjamin’s explanation for the lack of challengers.
Photo of the author by Ashish Tagra
James’s wry humor is a constant across this collection of stories. It amplifies the estrangement of the characters. In “What to Do with Henry?” James introduces us to a motley cast of characters made up of a discontented Midwestern wife who adopts both the product of her husband’s marital indiscretions in Sierra Leone as well as a chimpanzee. In doing so, Pearl forms her own little family made up of Neneh and the chimpanzee named Henry. We catch a glimpse of Henry’s displacement in this world of human beings when he develops an affinity for blond women. When Henry ultimately must live in a zoo, this affinity does not diminish easily. James writes, “The visitors were amused by the spectacle, especially the blondes, who were happy to play Fay Wray and blow kisses in return, until they noticed his erection, and recoiled.” One initially sees Henry’s interest in the visiting blondes as a flirtatious antic or a mischievous piece of mimicry. It is perhaps no different than a child walking around in their parent’s shoes or clothes. Yet, James quickly undercuts the humor and seeming innocence of the moment with a flash of Henry’s dislocation trapped behind the glass with female chimpanzees that held no attraction for him and hierarchies that befuddled him.
Whether introducing her readers to a chimpanzee attempting to find a place in a community of animals, an Indian classical dance instructor who contemplates applying a bleaching cream to her skin, or to a woman coping with her marriage to a ghost, James’s writing captivates us. For those slivers of time that we get to know her characters, we forget that they are, in fact, invented characters. And even as we put away James’s collection, we are left wondering what ever did happen to those characters after James placed the final period on that tale.
Dashini Jeyathurai is a doctoral candidate in the Joint PhD program in English and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She blogs for the South Asian American Digital Archive and has an article forthcoming in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature.
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