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Book Review - Operation Monsoon

Susan Thornton

The characters in Shona Ramaya’s collection of short fiction 'Operation Monsoon' inhabit the global village forecast by Marshall McLuhan and other writers of the 1960s. In these superbly realized stories, modern technology touches the lives of each character. A petulant expatriate Indian programmer employed in the United States attempts to control his little brother, half a world away, by badgering emails. The wonders of the world wide web provide a business opportunity for a crippled Indian woman, considered “unmarriageable” by her family. A tea-stall boy is revealed to be computer savvy; street vendors and illiterate maids know about email and discuss “dot.coms.”

Technology enables these characters to inhabit a shrinking world where a confidence revealed in India results in shocked anger in the U.S. Family feuds between brother and sister fly through cyber space between San Jose and Calcutta.

Modernity at once simplifies and complicates the lives of the characters described. In the West, we may debate: is it required, or even right, to donate one’s kidney to save a life? In India the question becomes: What if one sells this living organ? Is this a noble sacrifice, or a foolish commercial transaction? And aside from issues of modernity, individuals must struggle with age old questions of responsibility. What are the obligations of family in the face of international justice? If your cousin is a terrorist, what crime do you commit if you help him evade the law?

Ramaya deftly creates intricate moral mazes for her vividly realized characters and wisely refrains from providing easy answers. She knows the brutalities of twenty first century life. A nightmare that comes true for one character is that she may have aided and abetted men who sold village girls to brothels in Nepal. The terrorist of the title story is himself broken by state brutality. Yet there is wit in these stories as well. It flows in the emails which connect families separated by oceans and continents and shows in the complex characters we meet. One of Ramaya’s more witty creations is an urbane Jesuit priest with a fondness for single malt scotch and exquisite silk shirts. Yet he too is a rounded, complete human being; we realize he is drawn to India by private family sorrows.

Ramaya is at home in many different worlds, and her sense of setting is flawless. Urban Calcutta is as vivid as the room in which one sits reading. Village life in rural India is equally well realized, as is the over chilled air of a hotel in Las Vegas where we find a convention of American academics pontificating on a “Third World” they neither know nor understand.

Ramaya’s skill as an author shows in her sure grasp of several genres. In the story “Re:Mohit” she capably extends the epistolary tradition by creating a story told only in email. The detective story form for the story “The Matchmakers” provides a frame for a probing analysis of attitudes towards women and an examination of how a capable, accomplished woman cripples herself by accepting others’ attitudes. The title story, “Operation Monsoon”, is at once a reflexive fiction--the title comes from a book within the book--and also a complex meditation on terror and the use of terror by individuals and the state.

These are first rate stories: accomplished, absorbing, thoughtful and implicitly philosophical. They can be read as entertainments alone, but reward deeper examination and fulfill the highest directive of art: to hold a mirror up to our rapidly changing world; to illumine the deeper recesses of the mazelike human heart.

Susan Thornton, Ph.D. Author of ON BROKEN GLASS: LOVING AND LOSING JOHN GARDNER. Carroll & Graff (Avalon Publishing Group) 2000.

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