Book Review by Neera Kashyap
Title: The Map of Bihar and Other Stories
Author: Janet H Swinney
Publisher: Circaidy Gregory Press, UK, June 2019
The Map of Bihar and Other Stories is Janet Swinney’s first collection of short stories. Her stories have been acknowledged in a number of competitions, including as runner-up in the London Short Story competition, 2014. She has been published in major journals and anthologies across Britain, America and India.
In this collection, Swinney provides a broad view of two cultures — British and Indian — apart from glimpses of others. These stories with their heterogeneity of social and cultural traditions range from those of the poor and the working classes to that of the monied, each with its distinctive speech and outlook, enriching the oeuvre with depth and authenticity. Swinney herself comes from a family of coal miners. She lived among coal mining families in a council housing state in the north east of England, though her father — an unschooled poet who died at the age of 52 — worked as a clerk with the local bus company.
In an interview with Joao Roque Literary Journal at her book launch in London, Swinney spoke of early childhood influences that honed her powers of observation. “The role of children was to permanently keep schtum. You did not converse with adults. Parents had no idea of the internal lives of their children. As I was an only child, I think I cultivated strong powers of observation that have served me well since. I developed a great love of rural landscape and an eye for detail. That imposed silence also means that, to this day, I find it much easier to express myself through writing than to debate something face-to-face with someone.”
Then there is this absorption with India. Swinney’s 45-year-old relationship with her Punjabi classical music composer husband, Naresh Sohal, gave her a close association with India, through which she travelled extensively. Said Swinney : “India is a place where life is writ large. The UK is a small, very tightly managed society, where you will be threatened with a fine if you overstay your welcome in a parking space by a nano-second. India isn’t like that at all. There, anything can happen, and probably will. As such, it’s a gift to a writer.”
Swinney’s stories revolve around the sociological; how people deal with situations that are thrust upon them by the family, by a working policy, by belonging to a particular race or class, by institutions that crash into the personal, by women’s suppression, by values governed by poverty and social norms. Says Swinney: “Society or Fate deals you a ridiculous hand of cards, and you think: what the hell am I going to do with these?”
To explain and flesh out the issues, her stories often vary in the number of characters used. In ‘Internet Explorer’, many from across varied cultures come together to take computer lessons with different motivations. On the other hand, ‘Is it Sunday yet?’ has only three characters — a greatly disgruntled husband suffering the disabilities of a stroke, his caregiver wife whose role often suffocates her and old Effy who despite her dementia becomes the agent of the change to come. Few or many, Swinney brushstrokes her characters into life deftly and swiftly, yet measures out the pace with the precision of a music conductor. Even minor characters and situations evolve naturally to announce their place in the universal scheme of things.
Swinney’s characters are built keeping human psychology in mind. Her recurring theme of sexuality is not only reflected in a generous sprinkling of foul words but also gives some memorable glimpses of unbridled sexuality in a husband. However, she displays a tender understanding of what early indulgence in sex – whether partially coerced or wantonly risked – can do to mar ( ‘A Tadge To Your Left’) or make (‘The Menace at the Gate’) a girl’s intellectual future. ‘Washing Machine Wars’, ‘Veil’, ‘The Work of Lesser Known Artists’ are stories of violence that shock with their unexpectedness. ‘Leonardo’s Cart’ shows how a young Indian migrant’s exposure, both to his father’s violence and to racial school bullying, can inure him enough to seek the most ingenious, though mechanical of solutions to violence itself.
The title story, ‘The Map of Bihar’, shows Swinney’s understanding of the extent to which a poor Indian father would go to remove all obstacles to his daughter remaining married even before she is wedded! Her prose bristles with taut energy, especially evident in ‘Drishti’ where a lifeguard’s obsession with a surfing game on his phone is exquisitely balanced with a westerner’s surfing adventures on the treacherous sea.
Swinney scores well in the precision with which she uses words, especially in the handling of the language used by the English working class. In ‘A Tadge to your Left’, when there is a confrontation with the headmaster over a perverted teacher “braying a way in”, Avril’s mother exclaims, “I telt him what for. Lord High and Mighty! Letten a pervert get his hands on our bairns. Who dae they think weare?” Though less comfortable with the way Indians speak, she, nonetheless understands the issues central to Indian social norms. Says Swinney, “Language is an intrinsic part of personal identity. When people use their own argot, they’re inventive, witty and humorous. I don’t go in for linguistic homogeneity. If you want to create realistic characters, then you have to convey the way they speak and interact.”
The stories in this collection are often tragi-comic. Even in the Dickensian story, ‘The Queen of Campbeltown’ where a boy’s situation is nothing short of tragic, tragedy does not explode into one’s face. Yet it leaves the reader deeply moved as Swinney brushstrokes her characters with both, the tragic and the comic — borne out of an empathetic understanding that this being the way of life, tragedy is best handled with comic relief. This gives her characters shades of both light and dark. They are live, energetic, filling in the spaces of the social issues identified by her naturally and without her interference.
Neera Kashyap has worked on social communications, specifically health and environment. As an author, she has published a book of stories for young adults titled Daring to dream (Rupa & Co., 2003) and contributed to five prize-winning anthologies published by Children’s Book Trust. As a literary writer of short fiction, poetry, essays, story/book reviews and creative non-fiction, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in South Asian journals – both online and print – which include Kitaab, Papercuts, Out of Print Magazine and Blog, Earthen Lamp Journal, Muse India, Indian Review, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Verse of Silence, Erothanatos and Indian Literature. She lives in Delhi.
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