Jahajin - Fable and Facts

>> October 17, 2013

And at that moment, it suddenly came to me, as clear as the sky, that I was never going back, that I would live and die across the kala pani.

As an ardent fan of both sudden epiphanies and climactic voyages, this quote of the cover of Jahajin was reason enough for me to pick up the book. Also, I had first come across Peggy Mohan a couple of years ago, in a features piece she’d written in the magazine Open describing, with much talent, as I remembered, her stint as a translator/linguist in the long drawn POTA trials.

Mohan doesn’t stray very far from her comfort zone in Jahajin, but considering her fascinating profile, that is not necessarily a criticism.  Jahajin is, for all the stories it brings together, the story of a diaspora – a culture and community that has strayed away from its roots, and struggles to both discard as well as preserve some of the legacy (and cruelty) of a culture inherited.

The novel starts off promisingly enough, with a glimpse into the life of the charming ninety year old Deeda- and here, I felt Peggy Mohan’s prose expertly captures the essence of the old world grace and mystery of a woman with a story to tell. Deeda, in fact, has two stories to tell: one is her own, the transformation of a helpless young wife to a migrant labourer in the Carribean island of Trinidad, and the other is the fairy-tale of Saranga, the monkey princess which develops through the novel, running parallel to and eventually attempting to merge with the narrator’s own journey in the book. Mohan is at her fluid best when she is in Deeda’s voice, the narrative takes on the magical quality of folk lore and I found myself turning the pages in almost desperate anticipation to know what becomes of Deeda.

Deeda’s tale, however, alternates with the parallel narrative set in the linguistics department of a university and this is where the novel stumbles. The narrator is a linguist studying the dying language of Bhojpuri amongst the Indian community in Trinidad. And so while on the one hand we hear of Deeda’s fantastic tales of a maiden voyage across the kala pani and the beginnings of the migrants’ lives on a plantation, the narrator also frequently lapses into a recount of the evolution of the language. Perhaps because my scant interaction with Bhojpuri has been largely limited to telling anybody who will listen that Ravi Kishen is highly under-rated or playing the Bhojpuri Spiderman video on loop when I'm extremely bored, I found only some of these pop lessons interesting, and others quite tedious.

The narrator’s own struggles with identity and personal growth form the third limb of the narrative, and while a lot of it is much too disconnected, there were some  beautiful thoughts and ideas. The conversations with the narrator’s precocious cousin Dylan are often deliciously abstract, though sometimes annoyingly abstruse. Unfortunately, most of the personal introspection that the narrator is prone to indulging is not contextualised for the reader, and as the story runs through the narrator’s manic episodes or her decision to travel back across the kala pani etc., I found myself groping for some context.

Even as Mohan struggles to discard the pedantic tone of academia, Jahajin is a fascinating peek into the history and histories of the Indian diaspora in the Carribean. The journey that the migrants undertake from Calcutta to Trinidad, and the slow steady synthesis of cultures and ideas makes for very good reading. The author is, no doubt, prone to generalisation and simplification (like the utterly ridiculous moment when an air hostess on a flight to India asks the narrator what her caste is)- but the novel still comes together, mostly on the strength of Deeda’s charm and her story. If you’re willing to overlook the occasional stumbling and meandering, and are especially fascinated by the women's narratives in histories, you’ll definitely enjoy Jahajin. 

(This review is part of the South Asian Women Writers Challenge.)

(Dear Mary Margaret Mohan, you have a fascinating name and I bought your copy of Jahajin from Blossoms, Bangalore.)

1 Comment(s):

Umesh K. Dubey February 5, 2017 at 8:36 AM  

I read the book just after it came out,,, had seen the review in Times of India or Hindu ...( am not sure )

To me ,, it was a fascinating read,,, it told the story of a journey ,,,nearly a 100 years ago and about the struggle of a young widow in the new land,,,adjusting to the place, the language.

Sometime later I read The Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh,,, which too told the tale of migration from Eastern Uttar Pradesh ( Bhojpuri land ) to the West of the World. But to me Jahajin always remains closer to my heart.

The ending of the book is still in my memory, Peggy's coming to India and her adventure with Hindi speaking in Delhi / Patna ...Again it reminded me of Naipaul , talking about "In the Land of the Dubeys' .( from his book ,, read during my college days in the early 70s )

All in all, Jahajin is worth reading. every bit .

Post a Comment

Header Image
Courtesy: Vladstudio

  © Blogger template Webnolia by Ourblogtemplates.com 2009

Back to TOP