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Vijayalakshmi Harish’s debut book Strangely Familiar Tales is an anthology of 3 stories based on mythology and fantasy, a great addition to SFF, and something that made me think laterally.
For a book that’s titled Strangely Familiar Tales, a reader finding the stories to be relatable is not surprising. Even if the intended use of the word ‘familiar’ was to suggest ‘recognizable’, I expected to find whatever the book had to offer relatable.
I was interested in this work because of the author –Vijayalakshmi – whose takes on mythology I have been intrigued by for quite some time. As the author says in the preface itself: it is important to use today’s lens on yesteryears. After all, we do the reverse all the time. So I knew the stories would speak to me, make me rethink today, and introspect deeply. But Vijayalakshmi had me introspecting well before I started the stories.
In the preface of Strangely Familiar Tales itself, she refuses to italicize non-English words – which I have done so many times. Submitting to international magazines and publishers, trying to keep my Indian-ness in line with acceptable guidelines. Even when submitting to publishers in India. Just a few days before picking up Vijaya’s work, I finished submitting to an Asian writing context for which, not only did I italicize, I also included a glossary of non-English words, keeping up with the submission guidelines.
Honestly, with all my standing up for rights, having to do this had never bothered me. Like many things living in a new land had demanded (for example, shortening my name to something easier to pronounce), this was no big deal. Not until Vijayalakshmi made me think.
Well, should it matter? And how much? When we spend life in global professions working for multi-national corporates, despite the best of efforts to stand-out, we mostly fit-in.
In the very first years of graduate school, I had refused to roll my tongue to change my Indian accent to something more polished. It would make life a bit easier for others – I had agreed – but in the end, I had decided to go with the preservation of my unkempt individuality despite seeing both sides of the argument. No, it’s not one size fits all. And yes, this can be debated till the cows come home (my sister, when reading this, will be sure to point out that I had indeed argued with her in favor of the government of France in the matter of banning face coverings for security). But it’s not hard to fight for a small amount of space, one non italicized, one mispronounced word at a time to help remember the narratives that get stifled under the loudest one.
So, Vijaya, in her preface itself, had me. This continued as she transparently declared why she chose to have her work, which is invaluable to her, free to download. It’s a dependent visa spouse issue – something that prevents her from earning an income in the land she now lives in.
Vijayalakshmi made me think of the women I have met in this country who followed their spouses – giving up highly fulfilling careers, trying to cook one meal a time, setting up alterations, creating small jewelry or saree businesses – trying to stay relevant somehow in a land where their labor can’t earn a price legally. I remembered the cleaning ladies who work for much less to get paid by cash only, given their undocumented status.
Non-equal value for human labor based on who and where you are is not an unknown matter. But stating it in a tone that reclaims power, is aspirational.
As I read the three stories in Strangely Familiar Tales – which are from three different genres and pulls from different mythologies (and figments of imagination)- that is what stayed with me: audacity. To experiment. To defy. And to still, somehow, make perfect sense.
I don’t have an intention to critique or review the book in this piece. Frankly, I might not be qualified to do so. I merely want to share the boldness this work inspires.
It’s impossible to not find correlations after correlations to the world around us in the stories. From the definitions of right vs. wrong. From sedition to conformation. From how we confuse different with deviant. How we don’t tolerate dissent, and demand to label it instead. How the tyranny of right tramples over both right, and wrong. This book left me asking questions that I, jaded and exhausted, had stopped asking.
Let me take two of the three stories here to make my points. Kalpavriksha is the tale of a tree that grants wishes, and in the end, consumes the wish maker into itself. This is not an unfamiliar take on Kalpavriksha. Several spiritual teachers have placed the argument that the Kalpavriksha is nothing else but the human mind – immensely powerful and precarious – granting prosperity at first and inevitably, eventually leading to destruction.
Stories I have heard (before reading Vijaya’s story) talk of a man, tired and desolate, finding a spot underneath one. Whatever he wishes for, from food to riches, suddenly is bestowed upon him and then, as his attachment grows to his newfound possessions, so does his fear of losing what he has earned. He is not a free man anymore. His wishes change from gathering to protecting, and then, into misgivings. He imagines losing all, including his life, and the universe grants the same destiny through the tree. Variations of this with the concept kept intact are abounding. The wishing tree (as the Kalpavriksha is called in western cultures), is nothing but the human mind. So whatever we channel it towards, it delivers.
Vijaya’s Kalpavriksha doesn’t refer to the mind directly, but in the tale we find a woman, driven to despair by grief and anger, using her secret knowledge of the Kalpavriksha for revenge. As is expected to happen, she is consumed by it (which I interpret as becoming consumed and unified with her own mind’s quest for justice) becoming a Kalpavriksha herself.
I found the essence of this story to be no different than the other renditions. But what inspired me was the audacity of the question raised in the story and the epilogue. In the narration following the story, Vijayalakshmi asks if a Kalpavriksha, which in the Puranic rendition is noted to have been used by Parvati to get a daughter, was used to take one away instead. And what I found the story asking me was the eternal ‘do ends justify means’ question.
I haven’t had to fight much to be a mother to a daughter. But yes, in extended circles and relations, the preference is not kept subtle. In a land where female infanticide fetches it a world chart-topping rank, thousands of women fight every day to keep their daughters alive. And unfortunately, but undeniably, thousands of women take positions of marking daughters as burdens, supporting female infanticide, or abandoning female children – passing on the warmer glass of milk to the male child. Marital rape is not a crime in this land, and many women accept it as the word of god. So, what is a fair fight? And what if instead of helpless, diplomatic, appropriate fights – fire is fought with fire? I am not inciting violence here – that’d be a disservice to Vijayalakshmi’s heroine who, although fully justified, is remorseful and dejected. I am inciting boldness in myself to speak up to our families – forgetting respect and ‘culture’ for the sake of humanity.
The last story, The Definition of Evil, spiraled me into self-reflection again. With the US elections ending in a result that felt like a stone getting lifted off my chest after years of suffocation, I was elaborate and loud in expressing my joy at the time of reading this story. From social media posts akin to screaming from rooftops to driving around in blue clothes all day, I was proud of the Biden-Harris win. And I was convinced of my right (pun intended). After all, we were on the sane side of things – the other side had to be insane to have supported such an insolent, corrupt, narcissist.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not building this up to say my convictions on the corrupt and downright dictatorial positions taken by the current Presidency has changed. But this book made me think of those who can’t come out and say what they feel – for they know how ashamed they’d be made to feel for saying so. I remembered friends who I know had voted for the second term of this Presidency, choosing to ignore certain things – and from knowing them – I knew, right, or wrong, they must have had their reasons. I wanted to hear their reasons, without judging them, realizing that there has been awful silence in political posts from them and whenever there has been a rare one, flood gates of abuse had opened.
I was suddenly cognizant and concerned, not because my convictions had changed, but because I realized I had peanut buttered too – coloring everyone who differed in the same color.
When Trump had won (2016), I had found a close friend (who happens to be Latino, and there’s a reason why I mention it here), visibly upset. On prodding, he had admitted that he had voted for Trump, and was now shocked by his blatant verbal abuse of Mexicans and his divisive policies just a few days into office. He had further volunteered that the reason he had voted such was that he was fiscally conservative.
And socially, he didn’t know where he stood. So, when the Obama administration had pushed for gender neutral bathrooms, he was worried for his daughters. But anytime he had tried to ask questions on whether or not doing so would make it unsafe for his girls, he was called backward. He was accused of being ignorant and discriminating against trans persons. He said he had felt ashamed and rebellious at the same time, for he had no space to exist just because he differed on a thought.
While this fear could be transphobic, it is more about what people are conditioned to think and feel. I need to point out that such fears do exist, although it isn’t the responsibility of trans people to deal with them. It was also the fact that he was afraid for his daughters because gender neutral bathrooms meant that men (not trans women) who are predatory might enter these spaces, making them unsafe.
This book reminded me that I had reflected for long after that conversation and had realized that morality can also become tyrannous – harming the very goal we want to achieve.
I have been in several forums where I have heard loud, justified voices shouting that they had had no space to exist too. They had been shut down, out, and oppressed. And I am not disagreeing – but History stands witness – we create monsters when try to bully submission. We risk becoming what we abhor (interestingly, this brings back Kalpavriksha undertones again). I realized I needed to be bold and fight my own instincts to defend what’s more important.
Another and the opposite reflection of this is what is see flooding social media at the slightest of disagreement with the opinions in power. It takes a much serious form of course, than mere shutting down of opinions with journalists and activists in jail without bail (from Hathras conspiracy accusations to accusations of Naxalism and anti-nationalism).
The point is not to make a political point here. The point is to encourage questions. To keep our eyes open. and not always believing the loudest of voices. The point is to remember that tomorrow it can be us. This is what Vijayalakshmi does deftly in the last story.
My read of Strangely Familiar Tales became a journey towards ‘cognizant courage’ (as I term it) as I pondered on yesteryear moralities defining the destinies today. Some of the questions this book got me asking are probably what Vijaya – Vijayalakshmi asked herself. Some might be total detours from her intention. But all of them are bold ones, and that is what this book made me become as I finished it. A bit bolder. A bit more comfortable to be different.
If you would like to pick up your free copy of Strangely Familiar Tales by Vijayalakshmi Harish, find it here.
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