To talk to Mira Jacob is to imbibe just some of the vitality of her darkly comic debut novel, The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing. Searingly honest, refreshingly unpredictable on the page, Jacob is that rare novelist who also bowls you over with her humour and honesty in conversation.
She is so at home in her own skin that just a passing mention of a tongue-in-cheek review of her novel by renowned satirical author Gary Shteyngart, who describes it as 'punchy, clever and stuffed with chapatis,' sends the 41-year-old author into peals of laughter. But mention the fact that her novel is being compared to the works of literary superstar Jhumpa Lahiri and Jacob demurs. "It's a very flattering comparison, I think she's an incredible writer so I'm obviously thrilled, but I feel we write very differently."
Jhumpa Lahiri version 2.0
It was inevitable that The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing would evoke comparisons with Lahiri's stories, given that it is anchored in the immigrant Indian experience in America, the terrain that Lahiri has made uniquely her own. But that's where the comparison ends. Unlike Lahiri, who is particularly adroit at evoking the underlying unhappiness of those she writes about in plain, unadorned prose, Jacob's story of an immigrant Indian family and the generational struggle between new and old world dances rather more lyrically between comedy and tragedy, between the mundanity of everyday family life and a rambunctious, messy vitality.
Also read: Jhumpa Lahiri, a writer without a language
Unlike Lahiri, whose Bengali characters anchor themselves in New England, Jacob writes of the immigrant experience in America's Southwest, where her own parents, Syrian Christians from south India, settled in the '60s. Syrian Christians (Surianis) or St Thomas Christians trace their roots back to the time St Thomas came to India in AD 50. "We were a minority in India already and then coming to New Mexico we were the minority of the minorities," says Jacob, who now lives in Brooklyn with her filmmaker husband and five-year-old son. "It was the Wild West out there. There were very few Indians and I wanted to tell that story, which is really under-told. It was heartbreaking for so many families of the Indian diaspora at that point. And I wanted to tell the story of grief and loss but also of finding something within that grief and loss."
What the book is about
In doing so, Jacob has managed to say something new about the immigrant experience and, indeed, the nature of inherited and chosen families in The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing. Moving back and forth between Salem, India and Albuquerque, New Mexico and between the '60s, early '80s and the late '90s, the novel unfolds largely through the eyes of Amina Eapen, a 30-year-old wedding photographer with a stash of secret photographs, who has moved to Seattle to distance herself from her perennially squabbling parents. But when her mother, Kamala, reveals that her father, Thomas, a brain surgeon, is talking to ghosts, Amina returns home where she is forced to confront the death of her brilliant older brother Akhil, along with other family ghosts and secrets. Her visit also serves, unwittingly, to rekindle an old romance and her former career as a photojournalist, which she'd abandoned after a photograph she'd taken of a Native American activist jumping to his death off a bridge, had brought her notoriety.
Notions of connection and rupture, voyeurism and secrecy are expertly threaded through this luminous novel, where comedy and sadness are uniquely conjoined and where even food, lavishly depicted in Jacob's trademark melodic prose, is like a secret language. "Food is the thing you use when you run out of words, which I think is particularly true of Indians and Indian culture because it's a culture where you don't talk about your feelings a lot. It's a culture where people feel their way around a situation by navigating the food."
It is also a culture, she insists, that communicates through its unique brand of humour, and one of the triumphs of her novel is the way it captures the optimism, humour and syntax of the subcontinent in snatches of prose and dialogue. "I find Indian humour just ridiculously, unbearably funny. There's so much joy in it. There's also a beautiful way of constructing langue and dialogue that I just find completely thrilling. My father told the best stories of all time, but his language was so mangled, strange and beautiful that it was almost like a song only he could sing, and I feel that way a lot when I'm listening to Indians speak to each other. I think, 'no one else knows the words to this song but us'."
How to finish your novel
For Jacob, who spent 10 years writing The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing, all the while working long hours at a job in the corporate world, only finishing it when she was laid off unexpectedly, the novel is itself a song of prayer, a hymn. "I was getting so far away from the life that I wanted for myself as I was working in the corporate world and these characters were my escape. Writing this became this weird form of church for me. For years when I was writing it, I thought, 'well, the time when I could have published this has come and gone, but I'm just going to keep writing.' And I feel people should know that, because there are so many like me who have creative dreams and so much in our lives to tell us to give up on those dreams," she adds. "So if anyone gets the idea to keep going, then I feel the world's going to be a better place."
The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing HBK
Published by Bloomsbury India
Price: Rs 599
From HT Brunch, July 20
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch