A nomadic storyteller settles himself beneath a banyan tree and assumes the lotus position, revealing sandals "frayed with the miles of his travel." He cultivates a state of unbelonging, "free and beyond the rules of those he visits."
Jasmine D'Costa's coded advisory, that these tales may offer the unfamiliar, comes with a reminder that the familiar is often what we most desire. Audiences "thirst to hear the story they already know."
- Curry Is Thicker Than Water, by Jasmine D'Costa, Bookland, 136 pages, $15.95
For readers versed in our rich library of Indo-Canadian storytelling, the first tale will indeed echo some of the familiar, even as it subverts expected forms. The Elephant on the Highway presents Bill and friend Shankar sharing a few beers in a Toronto bar and sparring over a multilayered story retold from Shankar's Indian past. Courting Bill's disbelief, Shankar relates the tale of a Mumbai beggar and the talking elephant he befriends.
With a supporting cast of hundreds negotiating the disgruntled pachyderm's sit-down strike on a major road, the story unfolds in a giddy succession of first-person voices shifting in and out of omniscient third-person. D'Costa somewhat mitigates our confusion by letting us share it with an exasperated Bill. Together with the comically peeved Canuck, we must accept that this Indian fabulist reserves the right to couple cheerfully haphazard form with evasive content.
When the depressed elephant, all but incarnated as Lord Ganesha, is at last jollied off to the zoo to get married, we see the clear structure of an ending that only frames obscure meanings.
Two Wives and a Doormat, by contrast, is a compact, smartly plotted story of two desperate Hindu wives who join forces to undermine their shared and abusive husband. In the course of their growing friendship, they discover a subtle erotic connection, spurred by their sly subversion of the husband's brutal sexuality. The mutual affection and soupçon of pleasure they salvage from an intolerable situation is touching to witness. Meanwhile, the generosity of a neighbour opens to them the possibility of escape.
Cobras and Pigs, Holy Cow! is a lighthearted take on the murderous fallout of religious dogma. In the coastal city of Mangalore, three families - Christian, Muslim and Hindu - endure a spiralling plague of black-magic hexes and harassments as perpetrators try to counter one another's tactics. Bloodshed ensues, then gives way to the quieter rhythms of recovery awaiting the next round of paranoia and malice.
Another tale ramps up the satirical whimsy by matching an unwilling bride with a large vegetable. Seetha's new mate is uncommonly ineffectual, but how dynamic can a husband be while tightly wrapped in cling wrap on the bottom shelf of the fridge? Still, Seetha calculates that it's best to make do with him, while her family secretly cooks up a heinous act of vegicide.
The Guest at My Grandfather's House is a parable of belonging. At a village summer house, a teenage girl befriends the local beggar, drawing him into reluctant conversation about a mysterious and wealthy recluse whose elegant villa overlooks the village. The beggar at last relates a tale of buried treasure, purported to be the history of the recluse and his come-by-chance wealth. The story proves to be an evasion, but in another sense is the truth of the matter.
D'Costa's closing life lesson is a bit too obvious - rather than allowing us to intuit the insight, she delivers it unwrapped - but the charm of her characterizations and the gentle humanity in the writing carry the tale.
Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.