Gomathy Puri’s novel Islands Unto Ourselves, published in 2012, is set in Winnipeg of the 1970s and 80s. While a work of fiction need not be a true or real representation of the time and place it claims to be set in, the writer announces in a clear and robust voice that this indeed is Winnipeg. The constant reminders about chronology also seem to insist that the timeline too must be read in its fairly specific location in historical time. Hence at some level while I read the novel I felt myself transported to the city as it would have been nearly twenty five years ago while living simultaneously in the here and now. This experience of inadvertently travelling between two time zones adds an interesting third dimension to themes, issues and characters, including the feel of the city which often becomes its own hovering persona, one of the several other characters that live between the covers of this novel. Nearly every chapter begins with a description of the changing seasons, `cold northerly gusts of wind’ in the spring turning to `crisp March mornings,’ `ridges of frozen ice’ lining the sidewalks. Often times in the novel there is a Wordsworthian epiphany, the moods of the protagonists being mirrored in the turn of phrase used to describe external reality.
There are many stories here, interwoven and criss-crossing, and many characters cross each other’s paths as they go about their business. They are stories of Kamala and Rakesh, Rekha and Gopal, Ben, others too, of immigrant experience and of negotiating old identities in new landscapes, of changing political scenarios. All themes that typically haunt diaspora writing proliferate this space. The novel explores primarily the theme of bi-cultural identities and people living simultaneously in two worlds.
In fact if the title of the novel and the name of the writer do not lead you to make any assumptions take a look at the cover and no room for doubt remains. A faceless woman, half a woman really as only the left half of her body is visible, in a bandini sari with beautiful bangles adorning a slender wrist, the river up close as backdrop and Fall colors in the distance…, it is an affirmative cover, rich with assertion of East Indian identity. Incidentally, it is in coming to Winnipeg five years ago that I first heard this term. In Toronto I had believed myself to be South Asian. In the novel though, identity certainly goes beyond mere naming, getting under the skin of some difficult questions.
Perhaps book covers should be less stereotypical, maybe less revealing in a glance of what best lies hidden inside? Yes there is marital abuse in this novel, gross domestic violence, as such a cover may slyly imply. There are parenting challenges too, for parents raising young families in a country newly adopted, where the social and cultural matrix is quite different from the country of origin, now left behind. Anybody who knows `real people’ in the East Indian community in Winnipeg, or any other city in Canada for that matter, will know that these in the novel are real people too. While the writing harks back to a way of telling the story with simplicity and grace, in ways gentle and moving, the everyday lives of Rekha and Gopal, Kamala and Rakesh come alive in their nuanced complexity. The stories do get to the heart of the matter unselfconsciously and with ease, albeit too diligently sometimes. They are evocative of the essence of fumbling and evolving relationships, the angst of displacement, loss and love, belonging, and identity. They go beyond really, using the specific and local perspective through grounding in immigrant identity, to make the leap that reveals common humanity wherein we are all indeed `islands unto ourselves.’
The novel is an easy read, and a poignant one. I used to read much writing in this genre once upon a time and it makes me want to go back and explore some more.
Gomathy Puri, Islands Unto Ourselves. Larkuma: Canada, 2012
Reviewed by Alka Kumar
Alka Kumar is an Associate Professor in English at the University of Delhi in India. She currently lives in Winnipeg and is doing her PhD in Peace and Conflict Studies at Arthur V Mauro Centre for Peace and Justice at University of Manitoba.