Sunday, July 25, 2010

Review: Operation Monsoon

Operation Monsoon
Operation Monsoon, by Shona Ramaya, was my selection for the Spotlight Series Graywolf Press tour.  (For all participating books and blogs, see the schedule here.)

Operation Monsoon is a collection of five short stories, all of which revolve around upper-class life in India (and more specifically, Bengal.  I think) in the early 21st century.  Many of the stories have very interesting premises.  The first story, Gopal's Kitchen, is about live organ trafficking.  Another is about a polio-stricken woman who runs a highly successful match-making service.  The title story is about the impact a Naxalite terrorist had on a woman.  Another story is told entirely through email exchanges.  The fifth is about a woman doing her dissertation on the concept of belief.

Unfortunately, I didn't particularly enjoy this collection.  This will seem like an odd statement to make to people who aren't familiar with Indian literature, but once I realized these stories were mostly set in Calcutta (a city in the Indian state of Bengal), I had to steel myself.

[Start horrible stereotyping]  In my experience, Bengali authors (Jhumpa Lahiri, I'm looking at you) nearly only ever write about being Bengali.  They do not write about an "Indian" experience.  They write about a Bengali experience.  They think they're very different than the rest of India, and in my opinion, are often just a little superior, and it shows in their writing.  I suppose it's to be expected, as the state has a long and storied past full of writers, but I find it really annoying.   [End horrible stereotyping]

So.  I had a feeling from the start that I wasn't going to like this collection of stories.  To be fair, they weren't all about being Bengali.  But most of them were about pretty wealthy people in India and their difficulties.  It's not that I don't think rich Indians have problems, but it's hard for me to sympathize with people in stories who specifically mention the fact that they are wealthy.  Is it necessary to bring this up?  Can't I get the hint from context clues?  When someone in conversation mentions to me how rich she is, I tend to get a bad impression of that person.  The same is true for characters in stories.

But really, I think the main problem I struggled with in reading this book was that I couldn't connect to the stories.  I didn't feel an affinity for the characters- I didn't like any of them (except for the match-maker), and so I didn't have any desire to spend time with them.

And  that is a deal-breaker for me with short stories- they aren't about plot, but characters.  Not much can happen in the space of 50 pages, and so the character telling the story needs a strong and compelling voice.  That was missing here, and left me unengaged.


  1. I've never read Jhumpa Lahiri (she intimidates me for some reason), and I have no idea if I've ever read anything you would classify as Bengali-experience literature. I haven't read enough and don't know enough to have a clue what lit from different parts of India sound like. I'm sorry that the collection didn't work for you. (and if the rest of this comment made it sound like I thought the author of this collection was Lahiri, my apologies - I don't, that's just the first thing I thought of when reading your post).

  2. Anonymous7/25/2010

    seems a interesting read ,can see why amanda thought Jhumpa ,they seem similar types of writers ,may pick it up if I see iy in library not 100% sure who is uk publisher if it is punblished here ,all the best stu

  3. Amanda- I don't think someone who is not Indian would really notice that something was "Bengali" instead of "Indian." Basically, where most authors would use the word "Indian," Lahiri uses the word "Bengali," to differentiate that her characters are from a specific region. Not sure if that makes sense to you- but it does annoy me!

    Stu- I am not sure that they are so VERY similar as I really liked Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, but did not like The Namesake at all.

  4. I think we all have our reading pet peeves and this book seems like it hit on yours. Sorry this one didn't work for you.

  5. I can't say this one speaks to me, and I am not that fond of short stories either.
    Interesting about Bengal though, didn't know abut writers from there

  6. Sorry you didn't enjoy this collection more. We all have our reading likes and dislikes and this book seems to have hit on a pet peeve of yours. I don't think I would have much patience with wealthy characters that are complaining about how difficult their lives are either!

  7. Anonymous7/25/2010

    I think you are right that with short stories it is really all about the characters. I'm sorry to hear that these characters didn't work for you.

  8. Anonymous7/26/2010

    I'm sorry to hear this didn't work for you. It looks like even though you expected not to like this you disliked it not only because of your expectations. Um, sorry, I couldn't formulate that better.

  9. I usually love short stories set in India, but the fact that you had such trouble connecting to the characters really concerns me about this book. I agree with you about the feeling that characters in short stories must be really fleshed out and compelling for the story to work. I think the short story form is really all about characterization. I think I might skip this one. It's funny, when I went over to look at Greywolf's website, I had a really hard time finding a book that looked good to me. In the end, I am sad to say, I couldn't find anything that I thought I would really like.

  10. Oh girl, I am so there with you on the whole Bengali authors = intellectual snobbery/feeling of superiority over the rest of India. I put it down to residual and awkward colonial pride over Calcutta being the original capital of the the Raj and then I move on to another book.

  11. I'm definitely not familiar enough with Indian Lit for the Bengali v. Indian issue, but I can definitely see how that would be annoying.

  12. Great point about short stories needing to be about the characters. If you can't feel for them, chances are you're not going to enjoy the story.

    And I am CERTAINLY there with you on The Namesake (as you mentioned in a previous comment). I love world literature but I can't stand novels that scream, "Hey! I am world literature!" I am not Indian, so I do not know if the novel was an accurate representation of the "Indian experience" or not, but it drove me crazy that it defined itself as "THE Indian experience."

  13. Chris- It definitely did hit on those!

    Blodeuedd- Well, if you ever read Lahiri... watch for it!

    Kathleen- Yes, it gets very aggravating!

    Amy- Some of them were somewhat compelling, but for the most part... no.

    Iris- Haha, I understood exactly what you meant!

    Zibilee- I felt the same way! I think because I am not so into poetry...

    Sudha- I knew you'd be with me on that one ;-)

    Trisha- I bet if you read Lahiri now, you'd notice she always says Bengali, not Indian!

    Kari- I am SO GLAD you feel that way! I can't tell you how many times people have told me about how they understand Indians so much more now after reading that book. Um... no.

  14. Not relevant to this post, but I thought you'd like to know that I've reviewed Wish Her Safe At Home ;-)

  15. I have Lahiri on my self ... I'll definitely be tuned into the nuances of Indian/Bengali identity. if you hadn't pointed it out, I would completely miss it.

  16. Horrible generalisation coming up: Bengali authors sound similar to a lot of London authors - they always write about London and some days I feel like I will scream if I see another book set in London (especially set during WWII - the rest of the country was still there y'know publishers and authors, Coventry was bombed out as well).

    I don't know if it's the same in India, but I always assume it's because the big publishing industry is in London so more authors have to move to London to make contacts/more publishers want to publish fiction set in London because that's where they live. And of course I'm being horribly biased against London here, but sometimes it is so frustrating.

    Shame this collection didn't work for you, because the premises of the stories sound intriguing. Ah well, can't win them all.

  17. So, does this mean you are not from a Bengali background? I like Lahiri a lot, but I assumed that all her mention of "Bengali" was along the lines of geography. After all, knowing that a character is from NYC would help the reader picture the character -- as compared to a Californian. Yes, I know there are stereotypes for New Yorkers and for California, so perhaps this is a case of falling into Bengali stereotypes? Interesting thought.

  18. Jodie- I could definitely see that! I think New York is similar in the US, though since we have other big cities now, maybe to a lesser extent. But your comment is noted, and I feel for you.

    Valerie- No, I am not Bengali. Yes, Bengal is a geographic region, but India is pretty distinct with cultures as well, geographically, as the country wasn't united until the British came in. So there are variations in culture and most particularly language from one region of India to another. I don't think it's really stereotypes, though. I just think that Jhumpa Lahiri makes a big deal about the "Bengali" experience, rather than the "Indian" experience, even though when you're an Indian immigrant to another country... your experience is much the same as any other Indian's (IMO), whereas if you were Bengali IN India, your experience might be very different than another Indian's IN India.


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