Book review from the San Francisco Chronicle, July 31, 2005
Given Mary Anne Mohanraj's background as an editor of several erotica collections, one thinks one knows what she's referring to with the title of her short-story collection, "Bodies in Motion." Sensuality is undeniably important in these 20 consummately elegant, inspired stories, but this is more than frothy erotica. Not only does motion of several types and scales shape the lives of people in this collection, but its opposite -- restriction and silence -- proves to be a powerful influence as well.
"Bodies in Motion" delineates two Sri Lankan families over a span of 63 years and several continents, from midcentury to almost present day. The families, which seem to have an abundance of female members, eventually overlap by marriage in the late 1960s. (A helpful family tree is provided at the beginning, and each story's title is accompanied by a year and location.) A character's behavior in a particular story may nonplus his or her spouse, and sometimes the reader as well, but the reader has the unique advantage of often having this behavior explained in a later story through a different character's perspective.
Mohanraj's writing style is spare and piercing, and she exercises a sophisticated economy of language. Indeed, words left unspoken are not only a technique of Mohanraj's but a defining characteristic of the lives of her characters as well. "Sins of the Father (Jaffna, 1977)" consists almost entirely of a man writing a letter he won't let himself send, and the key problem in Chaya and Daniel's relationship in the title story (set in Chicago, 1999) is that Chaya has serious problems with the very act of talking about herself, her life and her past.
"Tightness in the Chest (Vermont, 1986)" provides excellent illustrations of Mohanraj's own terseness intertwining with that of a character. In this story, Vivek is married to Raji, who originally dated men of her own choosing but, frustrated by a (white) man she was dating who had cheated on her, impulsively requested that her family marry her off.
Eventually, Raji begins to disappear from home for several days at a time, and Vivek suspects she is cheating on him. As Vivek prepares early one morning to go away on a business trip, "[Raji] stretched up on her toes and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, then leaned against him, rested for just a moment, and he started to put his arms around her, careless of the shirt, wanting just to hold her -- but then she pulled away. Her face was only half lit in the dim early-morning light, her eyes wide. Have a good trip. He stood there, holding the shirt, as Raji slipped past him, slipped away." So much is loaded into that seemingly simple farewell.
Later, Vivek cheats on her in order to feel that he's evened the score. When he tells her about it in bed, again the bare minimum is expressed: "[S]he rolls toward him and asks quietly, Are you going to have sex with her again? And he says, No. And she says, Okay, then. She says nothing else, just rolls away, moving a little further towards the edge of the bed, falling asleep."
It thus becomes noteworthy that a collection containing so many figuratively paralyzed individuals is titled "Bodies in Motion." Much of this collection is about juxtapositions: characters finding ways of movement in situations that seem hopelessly static. People must compromise, finding pockets of richness amid deprivation of truth, sex, love and self-expression. Mangai and Sushila in "Seven Cups of Water (Jaffna, 1948)," deprived of the possibility of ever being in an openly lesbian relationship, find temporary solace in the covert, sensual nocturnal games they play with cups of water and chili paste.
Sometimes an arranged marriage, a situation some view as a deprivation of choice, ends up going remarkably well. People deprived of their homeland's comforts find love. At the same time, Mohanraj does not sugarcoat anything. Numerous stories end on a minor key, leaving questions hanging distinctly unanswered or with clear expressions of unhappiness or disappointment: "This was not the way you had wanted it to be," or "He will try to take what Kili allows him. He will try to convince himself that it is enough," or "I wanted to be a good daughter, a good wife, a good mother. I am not sure that I succeeded at any of those, even the last." Indeed, such endings are usually stronger than the slightly optimistic ones.
In spite of disappointments and foiled expectations, Mohanraj's characters persevere; even when language fails, their bodies remain in motion. After the above expression of doubt about succeeding in any of her womanly roles in life, Lakshmi closes the story and her journal with: "Time to pull out all the threads and start over."
About the Author
Mary Anne Mohanraj received her doctorate, specializing in post-colonial literature and creative writing, from the University of Utah and is currently a visiting professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago. She serves as the executive director of DesiLit (www.desilit.org), an organization that works to support South Asian and diaspora literature. Now at work on a novel, she has also written two literary collections — Silence and the Word and Torn Shapes of Desire — and A Taste of Serendib, a Sri Lankan cookbook, among others. Mohanraj was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and lives in Chicago.
Posted August 16, 2005