Of Customs and Excise [desi-lit]

Rohit Khare (rohit@bordeaux.ICS.uci.edu)
Thu, 29 Jan 1998 16:51:37 -0800

My cousin bought me a copy of Rachna Mara's "Of Customs and Excise: Short
Fiction" (1991, Second Story Press, ISBN 0-929005-25-2; so obscure Amazon
doesn't have it) for my birthday last year, but I only got around to reading
it last week on the way back from Zurich.

It's a slim volume, 120pp, but it affected me out of all proportion to its
size. It's the intertwined lives of several generations of Indian women, from
the village to Canada, growing up brown and white, growing up rich and poor. I
cried, again and again, as it illuminated the little corners of daily life
where Indian women of the diaspora endure so much, so much more than I will
ever be privileged to feel.

I don't know how to talk about the story without spoiling it; but I'll have to
assume not too many of you will actually read it. The central setting is a
Canadian household with a secret. Mother and daughter, the gulf of two
cultures, two generations. And yet, when the strict values come to crashing
halt amidst the curfews and sexism, it is the wife, obeying her orders of
silence to the letter, who slips her daughter the passport to freedom. Yeah,
yeah, the old cliche about "if you love them, set them free", but I can't even
dry my eyes enough to write this.

In part, it's because I'm angry I can't do it justice. To other eyes, these
stories, as stories, will seem cloyingly transparent, amateurish, and
unsubtle. I admit, they are. No insult to the author, but it's not
awardwinning prose. It's the situations, though, that resonate so: the
bewilderment the first generation felt at racism -- otherness -- and then the
compounded bewilderment of the second, which cannot begin to understand the
customs of the first. Arranged marriage? fasting for the health of your

See, I guess to abstract it, I can see how these characters are trapped, how
they feel fixed to their positions, to play out their grudges and loves
throughout their lives. America, in particular, says that's foolish. There's
nothing fixed about character, about role: just do it. Reinvent yourself. Run
away. Disown your family. Fight your husband over principle. Marry for love.
Just do it.

But you can't. And I guess if you can feel that, deep down, then this book
might mean something to you.

Two more desi authors:

In an entirely other vein, Richard Crasta is a more comic novelist raised in
Mangalore and writing from the States (degree in creative lit from Columbia;
hi duck!). The Revised Kamasutra, 1993, and Beauty Queens, Children, and the
Death of Sex, 1997, and Impressing the Whites, forthcoming are all on my
look-for list now. He feels that he is a "voice of this middle-class
small-town India" -- though his satirical essays "tackle issues as diverse as
feminism, American politics, sex in Kama-land, ebeauty contests, and writing
in Indian English". [From a review in the 12/19/97 India Today]

Finally, a volume I can wholeheartedly recommend on its own, regardless of
particular interest in the Indian diaspora. Pico Iyer, now famous as Time's
essayist, recently issue "Tropical Classical", an extremely literate and
worldly (literally) collection of his '90s work. Everything from travelogues
of the Potala palace and Bhutan to literary criticism of the latest wave of
Commonwealth writers to American suburbia, to the perspective of an Indian
living in California (specifically, Santa Monica) and Japan (his wife is
Japanese). Not to mention an absolutely gut-busting piece on frequent flier
mile addiction :-)

It's just about to be issued in paperback in the states: hardback is at:

good bits,
Rohit Khare

PS. I've attached the ToC for Tropical Classical; any of these would be
classic FoRKposts... I'm looking forward to tracking him down sometime.

Table of Contents
Ethiopia: Prayers in the Wilderness
Nepal: Movie Days in Kathmandu
Tibet: The Life and Times of the Potala Palace
The East India Company: Oxbridge-on-the-Hooghly
Bombay: Hobson-Jobson on the Streets
The New World's New World: Making Itself Up and Over
New York: A City in Black and White
A Hermitage in California: A Life Outside Time
Norman Lewis: A Curious Collector of Curiosities
Tenzin Gyatso: Tibet's Guiding Star
Peter Matthiessen: In Search of the Crane
Peter Brook: Autumn of the Rebel Patriarch
Welcome to the Age of Tropical Classical
A Junglified Victoria: Reef by Romesh Gunesekera
Jane Austen in Calcutta: A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
The Mailman from Malgudi: Malgudi Days by R. K. Narayan
Prosaic Justice All Around: Salman Rushdie vs. the Ayatollah
Pop Goes the Culture: East, West by Salman Rushdie
In Praise of Folly: Three Continents by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala; The Web by
Andrew Harvey
The Spiritual Import-Export Market: Journey to Ithaca by Anita Desai
Waiting upon History: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
A Martian in Mittel Europe: The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
A Small, Bewildered Foreigner: Paddington's Storybook by Michael Bond
Tourists at Home: The Misalliance by Anita Brookner; Persian Nights by Diane
The Meek Inherit No Earth: Grace Abounding by Maureen Howard; No Fond Return
of Love by Barbara Pym
Richard Burton in the Peace Corps: The Happy Isles of Oceania by Paul Theroux
An Englishman in Paradise: Spring Street Summer by Christopher Hudson
Private Eye, Public Conscience: The Works of Raymond Chandler
An American Song of Enthusiasm: Henry Miller at 100
Searching for America: Sundog by Jim Harrison
A Connoisseur of Fear: White Noise by Don DeLillo
Black-Magic Realism: The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy
In the Shadow of the '60s: The Burning House by Ann Beattie
A Waiting Room for Death: A Match to the Heart by Gretel Ehrlich
In Praise of the Humble Comma
Excusez-moi! Speakez-vous Franglais?
For Japan, See Oscar Wilde
Through the Cuban Looking Glass
The Rise of Minority Terrorism
History? Education? Zap! Pow! Cut!
Authors' Photos and the Tyranny of the Image
Perhaps the Best Article on Blurbs I've Written Today
The Contagion of Innocence
A Midsummer Night's Dream: The Sequel
The Ultimate Near-Life Experience
Of Weirdos and Eccentrics
Sleeping with the Enemy
The Competitive Advantage of Seasons
Confessions of a Frequent Flier
The New Enemies of Promise
The Lears: An American Tragedy
A Game of Instants