Maru and the Maple Leaf by Uma Parameswaran, Larkuma Publishing, 2016 (367 pages)

 

Uma Parameswaran, a retired professor of English (University of Winnipeg) and well known author with a special interest in women’s literature and South Asian culture, has cleverly crafted her recent novel around the writings and experiences of Maru, an Indo-Canadian woman from Winnipeg. A work of fiction, the book includes many of the author’s earlier excerpts from essays and stories. The name “Maru” can be seen as a short form for “Uma Parameswaran,” the nom de plume that Maru uses in her writings (sometimes spelled as “Uta” Parameswaran). Fact and fiction are thus entwined with motifs of familiar and unfamiliar names woven around the incidents and characters that shape this book.

The narrator, Priti Moghe, is a resident physician in obstetrics. She is very busy with her hospital shifts and with her boyfriend, Stephen Woodhouse, a fellow resident in general surgery. Priti’s lifestyle is suddenly interrupted by the death of her dear Aunty Maru who has left her a legacy of cardboard boxes filled with journals, letters, essays and stories. Priti is baffled by all these typed or handwritten foolscap sheets. Some have dates, others don’t. Some are fragments or incomplete anecdotes. The stories capture the mind of the reader, but the journey that Priti takes us through is confusing. Do these sketches reflect Maru’s life? Are they instead about the women she met? Some of them seem to have been based on women that Priti had come to know through Maru. Have these stories been embellished? Are they fact or fiction? The questions are there as teasers as both Priti and the reader begin to realize that the spirit behind Maru’s writings lies elsewhere.

The novel takes us into different time zones: the present with Priti, Stephen and Uncle Siv (Maru’s husband), and the disparate and confusing time zones in Maru’s own past. Characters and incidents from India combine with speeches delivered at writers’ organizations and minority women’s groups in Canada. The maple leaf and the Assiniboine and Red rivers thus become as powerful as the Kaveri, the Godavari, the Krishna and the Ganga,[1] and somehow, sifting through all this vast range of rich imagery, Maru seems to draw strength from experiences, real or imagined. On the other hand, she does not fail to observe how there is no escape from class-consciousness:

“When one leaves a class-conscious homeland, one usually assumes it is behind for good. But oh no, it is alive and well in Canada, and let no one say otherwise; and when anyone talks about class and gender oppression in other countries, I hope you’ll have the courage to show them around our own city.”

We meet the mysterious Chikkamma, “born about the turn” of the “last century.” She earns a graduate degree to become a school principal. At the age of 28, she falls in love with a married man, marries him, and has a son. Bigamy in those days was not a crime, nor was it common for women to graduate from universities and hold jobs. Chikkamma remains a significant figure in the book. She appears as a strong woman, ready to take on the world and ready to offer her advice or support even if it is for unclogging a toilet bowl blocked with bread-bagging plastic. “Women of Maitreyi Nivas never walk out on a job,” she says.

There is also another motif from India’s ancient past, built around complex traditions and incidents from the great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Maru narrates the story of Panchali’s swayamvara, where Panchali chooses Arjuna for a husband instead of the glorious Karna, the charioteer’s son, whom she seemed to love more.[2] Panchali’s story, like many others in the book, reflects our choices in life, the consequences that follow, the connections, and the learning that takes place from the experience.

Parameswaran is very skilled in exploring centuries of relationships and bringing them together to a place in time that transcends a linear, chronological sequence of events. What happens or will happen depends upon who we are and what has shaped us: our history, ancestors, language, culture, the people we meet and even those we do not meet. Our stories speak to us and to those who come after us, very much like Maru’s poem “Apsara Love,”[3] where she longs to go “Far from here where all ever is.”

Maru and the Maple Leaf explores a vast canvas covering the span of many lifetimes. Maru’s struggle in Canada in the 1960s is not unlike Chikkamma’s struggles in the early 19th century, or Priti’s struggles with premature babies in maternity wards. If we could, like Maru, write about our lives and leave behind words and experiences to be picked up by others, we could continue to travel forever on unbeaten paths. I will conclude with Maru’s words of wisdom:

“Mortals are supposed to honour their forebears – that is what life is all about, that is what civilization is all about, to give continuum to all that is worth preserving. And the spirits have to depend on us humans. And I have failed Chikkamma.

Find out the details, dig around, that is what biographers are supposed to do, she said. But I am not a biographer, just one who wants to tell stories, women’s stories, so we can know ourselves through others.”

Parameswaran has written a well-crafted, intriguing novel about re-discovering one’s roots, connecting with the past, and shaping the present through a wealth of new experiences.

 

[1] Kaveri, Godavari and Krishna are names of rivers in Southern India.

[2] The story of Panchali, also known as Draupadi, is from the Mahabharata. Swayamvara is an ancient practice where a young woman of marriageable age chooses a husband from among many suitors. Karna and Arjuna were two suitors at Panchali’s swayamvara.

[3] Apsara is a female spirit or heavenly woman.

 

**  Please note that this book is currently out of stock with the publisher, but is available with the author at: uparameswaran@gmail.com

 

 

Author’s Note:
My latest novel – Maru and the Maple Leaf – contains outlines of many unfinished stories from my earlier days. This was one of them. The first outline read: A story that is waiting to be written. An offshoot from what happened at the Immigrant Women’s Association today when a woman came in for counselling who had a burn she claimed to be from the radiator. A white doctor, female, Janice McKnight, recruited by an East Indian woman to speak to her group. Battered women. One of them turns out to be the wife of an East Indian she had loved. He goes to India on hearing his mother is ill. Comes back married, and they never see each other again. The propensity of Indian men to be under their mothers’ thumbs! She is furious at first, and shocked when she knows what has happened.
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Janice’s peripheral vision took in the waiting room as she walked through the back door of the building to her private office. She was only forty minutes late but already there seemed to be half a dozen patients. Her sandwich would have to remain uneaten, as usual.

Getting into her white coat, she glanced at the list of people to whom she had given an appointment over the telephone during the weekend. It was to have been during the hour she usually sets aside for lunch, but she was already late. Only on the last weekend of each month did she have a stand-by colleague who answered calls for her. The rest of the time, she let calls through to the answering machine and answered them one by one, leaving notes for her receptionist. Only one of the calls had been urgent, and the baby had been duly delivered the previous day. Today’s list was short, thank God. And one of them was not a patient. Pratima Kumar. She should not have given her an appointment, Janice thought. Mondays were always terribly rushed. But the accent had thrown her off balance, and she had started on a friendly note instead of a professional one, and then it was too late for anything except to grant the five minutes that the woman had sought. Janice was annoyed with herself for her weakness with East Indian accents; no matter who it was, she still reacted with reflexive friendliness. Five years, already five years?

Her nurse, Doreen, came in and, as per procedure, stuck the patient files on the two doors on either side of her office. “Mrs. Johnson said you’d see her,” she said, “and Mrs. Dunn doesn’t have an appointment but… you know how she is. Just popped in.”

“Since I’m late already, as usual I’ll start with the morning appointments,” Janice said, “but squeeze in the other two after them, and I’ll see Mrs. Kumar here now. Let’s hope we can catch up by three o’clock.”

Pratima Kumar was in her mid-thirties, average height for an East Indian, dressed in a simple but clearly expensive skirt and sweater outfit. Her complexion was light brown, smooth, unblemished. Janice always noticed women’s complexions, her own freckled cheeks having been her cross to bear ever since she could remember.

Janice motioned her visitor to the other chair as she took hers. “Sorry to be running late,” she said, “but one can’t help with delays in natural births.”

Pratima gestured, don’t apologize. “That’s fine. If I were your patient, I would be glad to know you are not one of those who’d rush me when I am in labour. I do greatly appreciate your giving me an appointment during your lunch hour. I’ll come straight to the point. I need you to spare me an hour and a half any morning you can, to talk to my group. I work with them, kind of helping out in a wholly informal way.”

“Talk about what?”

“Anything would do, like simple rules to follow, good habits for good health. Anything at all.”

Janice felt a trace of impatience. She should not be spending office time on this; maybe she should postpone this meeting to after hours. That would have been easier had she been on time.

“Perhaps a volunteer from the Women’s Resource Centre would be more suited,” she said, “or maybe a Public Health nurse.”

“I need a doctor.” Pratima’s voice was soft but firm. “I beg of you, Dr. McKnight, to spare just one hour. I need your presence more than anything you might say. My women need an open door, Doctor, and it is my hope they will find their way to yours.”

Was she trying to bribe her with prospective patients? No thanks, her list was already longer than she cared to have.

Her visitor sensed that the doctor was about to turn her away. She leaned forward. Her voice trembled, not with nervousness but with anger. “Two hours, Doctor, just two hours any time between nine and three. These women,” she paused as though she had trouble saying the next words, “are battered women, and they need an open door. You cannot deny them that please! How about Thursday morning? You’re usually free Thursday mornings.” She stated rather than questioned.

Janice was annoyed. The gall of the woman. She had snooped around and found Janice’s schedule. “You have done your homework, I see,” she said, not without sarcasm.

“Yes, Dr. McKnight, I have, and I am begging you. Isn’t it strange how readily one accepts being humiliated when we are working for our volunteer commitments?”

“I have a question. Why me? Who referred you to me?”

Pratima did not reply and Janice felt a tremor of nervousness. Was it…please God, no.

“Because you are a woman, and you work alone, perhaps the only one to do so.”

That made sense. “But wouldn’t they communicate better with someone who could speak their own language?”

“Come, Doctor, you can’t mean it? Battered women, and from India? They’d do their darndest to hide it even if it kills them. And besides, what makes you think they don’t know English?”

Janice got flustered, though she didn’t show it. She had not meant to sound patronizing. “Sorry, one shouldn’t assume new immigrants don’t speak English,” she said. She felt even more annoyed with herself for being so apologetic.

She said more brusquely than she meant to, “Look, I’ve never done anything like this before, I don’t know anything about domestic violence, and I haven’t been interested either.”

“May be it is time you were? Thursday morning then? This is the address, but I will pick you up. My phone number is on it too.” She rose.

Janice said, “I think I’ve been had.”

“You won’t regret it, Doctor, and I do greatly appreciate your promise of help.”

Janice had mixed feelings as she watched her visitor putting on the short fur jacket that she had carried on her arm and had placed carefully on the back of the chair. There was something striking about her, though feature by feature, she was not attractive except for her skin. She was large hipped and her eyes could have done with some mascara and eyeliner. But she definitely had a presence. Janice’s mind wandered to her ex-lover. His wife probably looked just so, Janice thought, and as always, wondered that their paths had not crossed in all these five years. Sohan Shah, her lover who had gone home to India that summer five years ago to see his ailing mother and come back married. “I had to do it, for my mother, I just had to,” was his only explanation, and they had never seen each other since.

“They’d do their darndest to hide it even if it killed them.” Not just your women, not just immigrants either, she thought, the old wound bleeding again. Five years, already five years?

Janice was glad the next patient was Mrs. Dunn. Mrs. Dunn would go on with inconsequential talk and non-stop monologue, leaving her time to get herself composed.

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It was a strange experience for Janice. Pratima Kumar picked her up and they went to the house of one Roshan, who worked with Pratima on this project. Janice felt nauseous for a minute, remembering the smells of Sohan’s apartment – of spices and oil hanging in the air that no fan could dispel. Her first reaction had always been negative, but within minutes she grew used to it and even enjoyed the whiff of cumin and garlic. Sohan, Sohan, the old heartache flared up again. The many discussions they had, the way he made love, her impatience at his habit of always wanting her to make the first move and once made, how he sometimes fell on her with raw hunger and haste but more often with slow massages and foreplay.

The women at Roshan’s house had taken her into full confidence, and Janice had no doubt it was due to Pratima’s easygoing manner. There were six women, and each had a story of abuse and scars to show for it. One had a long scar on her thigh that she showed without shame, another a bald patch on her head that she had neatly covered with her hair. Janice was startled when one of the women was introduced as Rekha Shah. She told herself that Shah was one of the commonest names among East Indians. Rekha had cigarette burns on her arms. For a fleeting moment, Janice imagined Sohan inflicting burns but no, he was not that kind of man. He was a wimp who could not defy his mother, but he was no physical abuser.

But when Rekha came to her clinic next week, there was no doubt. She was Sohan’s wife from the name and address written on the file. Dr. S.M. Shah with a Tuxedo address. Rekha spoke English well enough, and she said somewhat haltingly that she did not mind the abuse but only wanted to hide the scars. It was okay as long it was winter – nothing showed because of her sweater but soon it would be spring and she wanted the scars gone by then. “Stop him, isn’t that the best way?” Janice asked impatiently, but Rekha shook her head. “It’s okay,” she said, she did not mind it.

“Do you like it when he does that?” Janice asked the question rhetorically, but Rekha nodded assent, much to her dismay. My God, she was into sado-masochism and the whole deal. Sohan!!

She remembered how gentle he had always been even when hungry to take her. No, it was not the same man! But it had to be!

Over the next few weeks, Rekha told her enough to know she was not protecting her husband by saying she enjoyed S&M. She really was into it for her own sake. Sohan, when had he changed so drastically? Led by this woman perhaps?

But how could he change so much? Getting to treat Rekha might help assuage her own deep pain that she had nursed for years. Perhaps nothing could spoil her memories of the time they had shared, but that was a closed chapter. He was another man altogether, the man who had surfaced now. It was as well he had gone his way. And yet, Sohan! She could not imagine he had this inside him all along, and that she had not seen it in the eighteen months she had been intimate with him.

One day, Rekha came to her without an appointment. Fortunately it was a Thursday, the day she reserved for paperwork and did not see patients. Rekha’s problem went far beyond cigarette burns and twisted arms. Janice could not contain her anger. This was brutal rape and could not have been consensual. But Rekha was adamant that it had been, and that he had apologized and had not realized he had gone too far. Janice explained how a lawyer could help and how the law of the land could help. But no, Rekha did not want that route. She just wanted Janice to write a note that she could show her husband – to refrain from intercourse till “the infection” had been healed. There was something weird about the way she asked it. A note was not going to solve the problem. “I want it for my husband,” Rekha said, as though it explained everything. “I can take care of myself till it heals. I can.” Janice thought back on all the sappy Indian movies they had seen, where doctors said just that to brides married to the wrong man, and whose chastity had to be kept till the right man came along. Keep off intercourse, a decree that had to be followed. She had laughed over those old movies from the seventies that he had loved, with their no-kissing, dancing around the bushes scenes and extravagant love songs that he would translate for her. Sohan, Sohan!

“I can talk to your husband,” Janice said. “This is something that involves both of you.”

Rekha was totally flustered. “Please, please, you said in front of all of us that confidentiality was the most important aspect of your profession,” she said accusingly.

Janice talked about couple counselling and how she could refer Rekha to a counsellor. But Rekha would have none of it. “Please, please, my husband should never know,” she cried out.

Janice’s antennae went up immediately. Rekha had her hand on her mouth, confirming that there was a lot more going on than Janice had ever imagined. “I am here to help you, but I have to know just what is happening,” Janice said with professional precision.

Rekha’s secret came out in short bursts. She had a lover, a wonderful, exciting man, very different from her stodgy husband, and she loved both of them. She insisted that she needed both of them. Please, understand, Doctor,” she said with a burst of confidence, “not all women are the same and I am not like most women.”

Janice pointed out that she could not write the note but she had some advice. “Tell him when he approaches you that you have some physical problems with intercourse and he will understand. I know he will. You have to trust he will understand.” But even as she said it, she realized she was thinking of the man she had known, and perhaps Rekha wanted the “note” for her demon lover.

“You don’t know my husband,” she said, “he is the most boring man you can find, and he never talks about anything, it is work, work, work all the time. And I am sure you’ve never been with anyone like my friend. He is sorry, he truly is, and it will never happen again.”

Janice remembered one of their many discussions about a friend of his whose marriage was on the rocks because of the wife’s high-maintenance emotional needs.

– What can he do? Kill her off, maybe? he had said.
– Good Lord, he can divorce her.
– In my culture, that’s the same as killing you know.
– There are ways of going about it with compassion.
– Same as letting her be at home and taking care of her.
– But what about him? He has to have a life too.
– Yes, and he will lead it as best he can. Sex isn’t the be all and end all of marriage you know. Not even the main thing. Life consists of all kinds of pleasures and responsibilities. A stable marriage frees you to do the rest.

She recalled the conversation and thought, “and he has found his method of stabilizing it.” He no doubt knew what his wife was into. How could he not? But the waste, the immense waste of it all. And to think her wound had almost healed…

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