by Katie Cortese
With one foot in an Indian suburb and the other playing hopscotch around the continental United States, Nalini Jones’ 2007 debut story collection straddles an ever-widening gulf between two worlds separated by more than miles. What You Call Winter consists of nine inter-connected stories, each with a tie to Santa Clara, a fictional tight-knit Catholic community outside of Mumbai. In these stories, Jones reveals an India that gleefully challenges many of our easy stereotypes as when Marian, a native of India now living in America in “Half the Story,” suffers through this neighborly cocktail conversation:
“…you won’t mind if I ask you something—what’s up with the cows? They can walk on the roads, right in front of cars, wherever they want. I’ve seen it on TV.”
[…] There were cows in Santa Clara, Marian confirmed. But there was more to India than beggars and cows.
“No kidding!” A short bark of a laugh. […] “They have the bomb. It’s scary—there’s no telling what will set them off.”
We’re a volatile bunch, thought Marian.
Throughout the book, Jones is careful to dispel the pre-made images we may have otherwise brought to our reading of this unconventional Indian town, these unconventional Indian families, but these stories are anything but documentarian. Rather, their main subject is the Family, writ large across time and space. What lengths do we go to remember, what lengths to forget, and how, in a time of such mobility within countries, continents, marriages and our own hearts, can family survive across physical borders and those of our own devising?
In these nine stories, Jones renders nothing less than universal human experience couched in the very specific language and customs of Catholic India. Thus, our first meeting with Marian takes place in “In the Garden” on the day she gets her first menstrual period. Ever since Judy Blume and her unforgettable portrait of Margaret, writers have been cataloguing this familiar first in all its infinite variations. In this, the first story of Jones’ collection, Marian picks illicitly through her mother’s saris, looking for a dress to try on for her tenth birthday. The green wonder she pulls over her head transforms her and she waits to be discovered and praised for her beauty, though she knows she will likely be punished for trespassing in her mother’s closet. When she finally is discovered, it is by her father who is more concerned with the poisonous snake poised over her head in a backyard tree than the dress Marian has tried so hard not to soil. When she returns indoors, shaken and guilty, she sees the new rust-colored stains against the silk and destroys the dress, believing her “wound” to be a punishment from God. Both a classic coming of age tale and the result of a particular upbringing in a unique and multi-layered setting, Jones manages to reinvent the most familiar of experiences.
The current running beneath these tales is a common human understanding of the world, but that understanding is cloaked in difference. Some characters have chosen to remain in India with families and jobs, while others moved to America for education and stayed for love. The disparity of experience between these two choices makes for powerful tensions that drive much of the collection. The character of Colleen is a “deserter.” Home on a visit to her mother and sister in “The Bold, The Beautiful,” she wrestles with the indescribability of her life in America, especially concerning her lover, Vanessa, who awaits her back in the States. On this journey Colleen is made ever more aware of the consequences of her choice to refuse a dear Indian friend who’d proposed marriage to her years before. “She could be living right down the road. There might have been grandchildren,” Colleen thinks, just two more disappointments she feels she has heaped on her family.
Hand-in-hand with the cultural differences between India and America is the issue of translation and its occasional impossibility. The character of Marian, like Colleen, sees her life as a result of “choices that felt like accidents, choices that had once seemed impossible” all leading up to her life with an American husband and once-a-year trips home to India. In “Half the Story,” Marian has agreed to take home with her an American friend, blond, rich, big-hearted and brash. Before their departure, Marian’s brother wonders over the phone, “‘What will she think of it here?’ […] Marian could not begin to guess. ‘Tell me about your home,’ Vee had demanded, again and again—another translation Marian did not know how to attempt.” Some gaps in translation are surmountable, and some not, as Marian and Vee both find out.
Again and again, Nalini Jones asks the question: what makes a home? In “We Think of You Every Day,” the eldest brother Simon resents being forced to go away to school, away from the family hearth. On a holiday spent with the family, Simon wrenches out his little brother’s tooth before it is ready and then stares at his mother, “hard and unflinching, someone Essie had never imagined or met.” The story begs the question as to whether Simon would have hardened this way had he been allowed to come home from the boarding school in Mysore as he’d begged in his first year away. For the characters in Jones’ book, Santa Clara will always be a kind of home, but so will the suburbs of Connecticut and Ohio, and the slushy, endless winters of Massachusetts. These characters live an uneasy existence, belonging to each other, but made uneasy by the arrival and departure of visitors, by the immensity of the misunderstandings that exist between them.
In the title story, “What You Call Winter,” Stephen visits his aging father in Santa Clara and laughs away Roddy’s suggestion that they have been having a cool winter thus far. “What you call winter is nothing to us,” Stephen says. “It’s like our summer!” Roddy, saddened, remembers how his wife had protested Stephen’s decision to go to America for schooling, but recalls that he himself hadn’t tried to stop him. “He had let his son go. When had Stephen drifted so far? When had their seasons become his?” Roddy wonders what other perspectives have shifted between them, what other priorities. Drawn together by blood and memory, held tight by misplaced loyalties and ancient injuries, Jones’ characters leave their homes—both inherited and created—and return to the place of their birth again and again, if only to remember their reason for leaving in the first place. In this debut collection, Nalini Jones both calls on us to remember where we came from, and slips the knots that hold us there.