Sugar, Smoke, Song by Reema Rajbanshi
Red Hen Press
Many readers of this review may or may not be aware of the rasa theory, but it is maintained that classic works of literature created within the boundaries of what is today known as South Asia engaged, as the narrative progressed, with the essences of nine moods known as rasas. Reema Rajbanshi’s very well-crafted Sugar, Smoke, Song attempts something similar though, perhaps, in a post-modern or her own way. Although I am not suggesting there’s an exact mapping of the text and theory here, the titles of the nine stories included in the collection seem to correspond to the emotion being explored more than an event or idea in the story. The first three stories — Ruins, BX Blues, and Orchard Beach — revolve primarily around Maina’s emotions, unresolved, relating to pain and loss resulting from tragedies outside anyone’s control, jealousy, and misunderstanding. As Maina wanders through the ruins of her memories, the reader tries to digest how a random knife attack scarring Maina’s sister’s face on a BX (the Bronx) subway can turn a pleasant place such as a beach into a horrible bonfire of anguish. The loss of parents further sharpens a sense of alienation surrounding the main character’s mood.
The next three stories — Ode on an Asian Dog, Swan Lake Tango, and The Stars of Bollywood House — revolve around another young woman named Jumi whose personal issues are a mirror image of Maina’s. Rajbanshi pulls in more characters, or so it seems, into her second set to further flesh out the world of Assamese immigrants making a life in the Bronx and beyond, but her primary dissatisfaction concerns growing up first-generation, motherless, in a hostile environment of America that’s fundamentally racist, and being a dark-skinned Assamese is akin to being an outcast twice over. That aspect is given weight in The Stars of Bollywood, as Jumi’s father shares with her daughter, as she spirals down the rabbit hole, details of his political struggle against the federal might of India before attempting a new life in the Bronx. These stories also allow the reader a peek into Jumi’s struggles with being in love and her inability to hang onto her lovers, both white and otherwise.
The stories also work as Jazz pieces where holding the dominant note takes precedence over narrative progression.
The last three stories — The Carnival, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughter, and Sugar, Smoke, Song — work as an extension of the earlier six and their core issues albeit being set in Davis, California, and Brazil’s countryside. Although the change of settings allows the reader to breathe because of the book’s packed prose, one can only breathe with difficulty since one shares the toxic environment with the protagonists and the characters around her.
The book oscillates between being a collection of short stories and a loose experimental novel tied with nine stories, which are more like nine different variations on the same things, linked together by the presence of the main characters, which function, also, as nine different variations of the same person. It’s like trying to fathom Mount Fuji from different angles. Or one could say it’s an artwork that’s been painted over with similar motifs nine times. It also reminded me of a Hindi movie in which Sanjeev Kumar played nine different roles representing the nine rasas.
Once the reader has finished all the nine stories, she has a good picture of what it could mean to be the child of immigrants hailing from Assam with a working-class background. Despite having a proud history to boast of, the British brought Assam under their colonial control after defeating the Burmese, who had ruled Assam briefly. The British imposed the Bengali language onto Assamese people and brought in laborers from other parts of India to work in tea plantations. The Indian government divided Assam into several other states and language issues created by the federal government have been a source of tensions. While Rajbanshi is not shy to point out that the people of the Northeast of India resent how they are treated — a fundamental cause behind separatist movements — and viewed as racially or culturally inferior by the rest of India, she is more interested in the multi-faceted hardships of building life anew in a place such as the Bronx. In Ruins, the scar-faced sister takes it as an act of betrayal when her twin Maina heads off reconnecting with her ancestral land of Assam, writing back about the ancient ruins. What the other sister’s hurt conveys is that the ruins are right in front of her here. No need to go thousands of miles away.
There’s almost an absence of hope, which is replaced by the resilience that allows one to go on living.
Story after story, Rajbanshi explores how earlier traumas travel with us, and if untreated, they poison the lives of their children and scuttle their healthy growth. In Rajbanshi’s view, the US suffers from the dual curse of the American Dream and racism. It is in the title story, however, that Rajbanshi attempts something remarkably different. If her protagonists from earlier stories had a hard time negotiating relationships and racism because of their dark skin and petite bone structure, she shows the reader how much harder life can be for Yousaf who is from Ethiopia. Their relationship, she suggests, is bound to fail.
Rajbanshi’s dominant note in Sugar, Smoke, Song, is a blue note. The stories also work as Jazz pieces where holding the dominant note takes precedence over narrative progression. There’s almost an absence of hope, which is replaced by the resilience that allows one to go on living. The title of her main story could be applied to the other eight stories as well as it suggests that in most of her prose there’s a little bit of sugar, sweetness whether one can hang onto it or not, then there’s fire, a lot of smoldering, ashes, and most of it can be tolerated because if one can sing, one can heal.
Her prose style sets her apart from her fellow South Asian American writers. Although her writing is different from, say, the way Ranbir Sidhu and Kazim Ali experiment within their fiction, there’s no room in her prose for exoticizing things Indian, nor orientalizing, or odalisquing for that matter. Her stories are really rooted in the American experience. Even when she brings in recipes and dance movements, it is to highlight the reality of harsh life in the US.
Her stories wear the garb of long prose poems evoking autofiction which collapses high and low. Her prose stays clear of the deceptively simple gimmickry and also avoids verbosity. Her writing instead educes Toni Morrison at times, perhaps even Toomer’s Cane, and black radical poetry, from modernism to experimental, and though Rajbanshi’s prose is often rooted in realism, she subverts it by her signature manipulation of syntax and register. My one suggestion for her next project would be not to turn her female protagonist into nine Russian dolls. I would’ve loved to see her protagonists nothing like each other. But that’s a minor quibble and takes nothing away from an important addition to the modern American fiction.