Innana Publications of Toronto is celebrating 40 years in the publishing industry, and they continue to publish a plethora of excellent titles year by year, many by first-time authors as is the case here. The Scent of Mogra is a collection of six short stories of Indian women dealing with age-old issues in a modern world by Aparna Kaji Shah, who was born in Mombasa and grew up in Mumbai. She and her husband now live in Toronto.
The first story, called Maya is about a woman who, as she approaches fifty, has never married or even had much of a romantic life. It has been about studying and caring for her mother. Then one day she meets Rahul at an art gallery and a friendship results. Despite many “dates”, there is no romance only friendship, much to Maya’s chagrin. A trip to Canada only makes her realize how much she misses India. However, she meets Mark, a Canadian doctor who shows her some much-needed interest, but is it too late? She leaves Canada soon to return to India. Will she lose Mark’s interest?
The Last Letter, is perhaps the saddest of all the stories in The Scent Of Mogra. Surekha, who now lives in Mumbai, is originally from a small rural community. She has married Anand (it was an arranged marriage), who has a job there. They are living a modest life in a cramped apartment building, and Surekha writes letters to friends and family back home. Written entirely in her letters, they gradually increase in desperation as she relates instances of Anand’s drinking, staying out late and possible infidelities. Eventually, Anand allows Surekha to work outside the home. Her supervisor Suresh shows more than a passing interest in her, much to her delight. Soon, she finds she is pregnant with Anand’s child, but it results in a miscarriage.
She writes her brother:
I don’t know how long I can stand this prison. The walls are closing in on me and my world is collapsing. I’ve changed, Brother, I’m no longer the younger sister you knew. I’m exhausted and drained. Not just physically because of the miscarriage, but emotionally, mentally. I’ve forgotten what it is to joke, to laugh, to tease. What will it take to bring back the old Surekha, you ask. I need to be loved and cared for and only my family can do that. My husband is cruel, even though I have done nothing. Yes, I did lose my child, but it is not my fault.
Living so far from friends and family makes it difficult for either to come to Mumbai to visit Surekha. Her best friend gets married and lives happily, and Surekha cannot attend the wedding. There are implications of abandonment by those she loves. She is imprisoned by her circumstances, and it continually spirals downward, until she decides to take affirmative action to ameliorate her predicament.
The title story is a wonderfully wrought tale of India, old and new, with reincarnaton as a central theme. The deceased mother Sushmita tells the story of her daughter Tina, as well as that of Princess Megha, a previous incarnation of Tina. This goes back to the pre-colonization of India. Princess Megha is to marry Prince Uday, the soon-to-be ruler of his father’s kingdom. However, after marriage, Uday begins to lead a decadent life. Sushmita muses:
So often, the same problems follow women across generations, across cultures; a princess in Emperor Akbar’s court in the sixteenth century may have been betrayed by her prince, just as now, my Tina feels the anguish of her husband’s infidelity. And we have seen Megha, somewhere between those two eras, suffering in the same way.
The Scent of Mogra (the story and the book) truly shows the strengths of Ms. Kaji Shah’s writing ability as well as her insight into the problems that face all women, but particularly those of the Indian subcontinent, even to this day. Inanna is to be applauded for their commitment not only to feminist literature but in publishing authors such as Ms. Kaji Shah, who open up other worlds to western eyes and minds.
” The stories in this collection are touching and give readers a glimpse into the inner world of the modern Indian woman as she traverses different spaces.”
—Namita Devidayal, author of The Music Room, Aftertaste, and The Sixth String of Vilayat Khan
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