Ever since reading her wickedly funny "Waxing the Thing" in a women's an thology a few years ago, I have been looking forward to hearing more from Ginu Kamani. And here she is, with a collection of 11 provocative, sexual, disturbing stories entitled "Junglee Girl". The women and girls in these stories are rebels. The kind your mother told you to stay away from. The kind who slipped you the dirty magazines in class and dared you to say a bad word. And that's why these stories are irresistible. They lead you by the hand into forbidden territory where passions run high, sexual feelings are not repressed and desire for the unattainable, blends with humor into an outright challenge against centuries-old traditions.
The junglee women in these stories are, in their own way, seeking to break the mold of the asexual, passive Indian woman. Many of them are told in the first person and describe situations and scenes that are familiar as rice and dal to anybody who grew up in India. Within these situations lurks the unspoken erotic and sexual undercurrents that Kamani uncovers in her writing. Adolescent fantasies raise a mundane servant into an object of desire in "Maria". In "The Tears of Kamala", a bank teller's day is marked by the one hundred tears she counts and sheds. By night, she is stubbornly tearless and bears the curses of her abusive husband with dry eyes. "Lucky Dip", a story that effortlessly recreates the atmosphere of a suburban, English medium school in Bombay, is tinged with a sexuality that one finds hard to pin down or give a name. "Waxing the Thing" has been included in this book, and is a humorous tale of a beauty salon assistant who earns her living waxing the pubic hair of the rich Bombay socialites. She is introduced to this lucrative business by Mrs. Yusuf "who said very sweetly, that only young girls like me (the main character) are pure enough in the heart to wax down there." Some of the tales border on the bizarre and fantastic like "Shakuntala" where a servant of that name does her household chores with a cat hidden under her peasant skirt, and is accidentally discovered when the precocious child of the house tries insinuating her toes between Shakuntala's thighs. In "The Cure", a mother is told by a female doctor that her taller-than-average daughter is "fundamentally over-sexed. Danger to society. Sex hormones out of control. Look how she tempts." The girl is subsequently referred to a sexologist, Dr. Doctor, who diagnoses her tallness to be a case of "a one-in-a-million imbalance of the feminine fluids." He recommends a weekly visit alone with the daughter " only to make it less painful to you, madam, being the girl's mother and all". The young girl and her brother in "The Smell" rebel against the rigid orthodoxy of a vegetarian, Gujarati household by eating eggs on toast in their servant's quarters. Their inquisitive grandmother tries every morning to catch them at it. It becomes a game that never ends. The grandmother cautions the girl "Eating meat is not good for women. Unnecessarily you will pollute your unborn son." But it is already too late. Rani not only enjoys meat but vows to herself "When I grow up, I will never marry. I will smell the meat on men and the smell will keep me hungry."
Kamani's prose is bold and incisive. It grabs and holds the reader till the very end. However, the theme tends to get a bit repetitive and tiring towards the end. Some of the characters, like the Gujarati woman in "Ciphers" seem more like a caricature and less like someone you might actually meet on a train in India. The same is true of the characters in "Just Among Indians" and "This Anju". Like villains in a Hindi movie, they seem stereotyped and one-dimensional.
But, on the whole, "Junglee Girl" is thought provoking and entertaining. It defies being placed in any specific genre. The stories are definitely out of the ordinary. If you're looking for a good read this winter, add the book to your list.
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