India Vik, Liz Gallois (2006)

I am forever in search of writing by non-Indians about India that is unpredictable. By that I mean non-exoticising, non-romanticising, and not based around the very stale notion of “finding oneself” in that country. An absence of ashrams and yoga also helps, but I wouldn’t be opposed to them per se if the author managed to breathe new life into their portrayal. It must be an extraordinarily difficult thing for a writer to achieve, because so far I have found very few examples- Desert Places by Robin Davis (a book that I love so much that it would require an entire article, not just a blog review) and, arguably, the work of William Dalrymple. India Vik falls short and is, ultimately, as predictable as all that which I try to avoid. I should have suspected this from the first line of the blurb on the back: “Travel to India and be changed forever.” I think the antique Ganesh idol should have given it away, too!

The interconnected short stories in India Vik largely centre on Australian travellers in India. The remaining ones concern Indian characters in Australia, so there is some cross-cultural dialogue going on here. The Australians’ impressions of India are part of the focus, but there is more weight put on the various characters’ relationships with each other, and how their time in India impacts on this. For instance, there is the Honeymooning couple who spend more and more days exploring India alone, without the spouse in tow, as they are forced to realise that they want different things in life: their different approaches to travel in India is just symbolic of something larger. There is the mother, father, adult son and new daughter-in-law who travel to India together to get to know each other, but end up becoming completely estranged after the holiday goes horribly wrong. There is the young backpacker who left his girlfriend behind in Melbourne in order to “find himself” in India, only to find a gay love affair with a charming Frenchman. And, predictably, there is the solo female traveller who finds herself attracted to the carpet-seller whom she dubs Aladdin, and has a brief fling with him. The relationship vignettes were the strength of India Vik, accurately capturing not only the minutiae of individuals’ interactions, but the particular ways in which travel and being taken out of one’s comfort zone can strain these. You know, when you get really tired of your friend always wanting to go shopping when you’d rather go to a museum; or irritated by the way your father questions whether every morsel is safe to eat; or even just when you really admire the way your partner handled that difficult situation.

But, I have to admit I am not a fan of the short story, in general. The epic novel is more my thing, as the short story tends to leave too much to the imagination that I actually want the writer to provide. Liz Gallois’ writing was certainly minimalist, and dissatisfyingly open-ended. Nevertheless, if one is a fan of the short story, her sparse style has a certain charm. But I’m afraid I couldn’t get past some of the content. In the story “Box Wallah”, a family is staying in Kolkata:

“The problem was leaving the jasmine scented garden. The street waited, with its beggars, young mothers and a baby wrapped in the corner of the sari, legless boys on skateboards and taxi drivers soliciting our custom, ‘Come, I take you City of Joy’–we knew these were the worst slums in Kolkata–how voyeuristic were we expected to be? We tried to do all the proper visits, Victoria Memorial, the Nehru Children’s Museum, Tagore House. Here’s not the place to recount our audience with Mother Teresa.” (p. 30)

They did not take to Kolkata. I am not suggesting that Gallois is synonymous with her characters (she might love Kolkata, I don’t know) but does the world really need another such description of a city already blighted by a bad reputation? There is nothing fresh here. It would take much more skill to describe a place with a preceding reputation in fresh terms than to rehash the old. But perhaps Gallois had no intention of providing fresh eyes with which to view the city. If that is so, then I should not be critiquing this book, I should just be accepting that it was not the book for me.

The following types of description are not uncommon in India Vik, either:

“I own to a personal leaning towards Indians with dark skins, maybe I feel they are the true India, but I didn’t mind that Romesh had a light complexion as no one could have been more authentic than Romesh.” (p. 32)

Again, without wishing to conflate Gallois with her characters, I was still struck by the pure stupidity of such a description. I think the narrator of this story was meant to be slightly unsympathetic, but this is where the minimalism fails: if one, as a writer, is to create these types of thoughts in one’s characters, surely you wouldn’t want there to be any ambiguity surrounding whose thoughts they really are?

India Vik would probably appeal to an armchair traveller with a taste for literary travel fiction with no intention of ever going to India. But I found its attempts at stylishness dissatisfying and, well, just plain exoticising.