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From The Asian Reporter, V19, #11 (March 17, 2009), page 11 & 16.

Contemporary Indian stories both describe and evoke intense emotion

In the Convent of Little Flowers: Stories

By Indu Sundaresan

Atria Books, 2008

Hardcover, 216 pages, $22.00

By Pamela Ellgen

Indu Sundaresanís collection of short stories, In the Convent of Little Flowers, is a poignant and tragic portrayal of an India caught between the progress of the 21st century and a past locked in tradition. Inspired by her own experience growing up in India, the collection both describes and evokes intense emotion.

The first tale is of a young Indian girl, Padmini, adopted by American parents and now an adult confronting the memory of her birth mother. Lucid and elegant, but not flowery, prose brings this and every story in the collection to life.

In a letter Padmini reads from her aunt, a sister at the convent where she lived until her adoption, Sundaresan writes, "As you danced your way through the tree roots, you were singing. I cannot remember anymore what the song was; it was in Tamil. Even for a child you had a haunting, lilting voice. Diana Merrick wanted you then, just as you were, your hair sticking to your head in sweaty strips, your arms and legs dusty to the elbows and knees, your bare feet the color of mud. It wrenched my heart to give you away."

Although Sundaresan did not intend to be overly analytical and thereby pedantic in her storytelling, she confronts many cultural phenomena from foreign adoptions to the ancient practice of sati. In the story "The Faithful Wife," she writes of Ram, the grandson of a village elder. His contemporary sensibilities compel him to call in the cavalry to prevent the suicide of a prepubescent girl on her elderly husbandís funeral pyre. But, as a journalist, he could make the event a headline in the following weekís news, hoping public outrage will be a greater force in stopping future deaths.

In the battle between the past and the future, between tradition and change, between values and progress, Sundaresan makes no false dichotomies. These conflicting elements are at war within each character. Although Ram loathes the custom of sati, his reverence for his grandfather persists:

"He shifts his weight from one foot to another, wishing his grandfather will bid him sit. It will be unthinkable to do so without Nanaís permission. There are some borders Ram can never cross; he has been taught too well."

A theme of tragic death runs through a few of the stories in Convent of Little Flowers. An elderly coupleís suicide in one story is followed by another of young lovers stoned to death. But a theme was certainly not in mind when Sundaresan crafted the stories from random snippets of conversation, forwarded e-mails, or headlines. It was her desire to address the emotions one experiences when confronting a disturbing event in life. "Itís this ó the emotion, that sense of sorrow or pain or outrage, that forms the core of the stories," she says. "Something which I hope still passes on to the reader well after Iíve revised the stories."

Sundaresanís gifted storytelling runs in her family. Her father, an Indian Air Force fighter pilot who enjoyed writing and telling stories, captivated his audiences with his flair for drama and perfectly executed timing. His talent came from his own father, Sundaresanís grandfather. Although she caught the storytelling bug from them, she pursued an education in economics, as writing wasnít considered a legitimate money-making profession in the greater community. After completing her undergraduate degree in India, she came to the United States for graduate school. Finally, and perhaps more purely, Sundaresan returned to writing simply for her own love of stories and literature.

This is the fourth book by Sundaresan, whose novel The Twentieth Wife was awarded the Washington State Book Award in 2003. She has also written the novels The Feast of Roses and The Splendor of Silence in addition to other short stories.

Indu Sundaresan will appear as part of the Seattle Asian Art Museumís (SAAM) "Creatively Speaking: The Artistís Point of View" lecture series. She will speak about her childhood in India and read passages from her novels at the event, which is scheduled for Thursday, March 19 from 7:00 to 8:00pm. SAAM is located at 1400 East Prospect Street in Seattle. To learn more, call (206) 654-3100 or visit <www.seattleartmuseum.org>.

 

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