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University of Massachusetts Press
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Busboys and Poets
Finalist in the 2010 Library of Virginia Fiction Award
Winner of the 2008 AWP Grace Paley Award in Short Fiction
Finalist in the 2004 University of Nebraska Book Series Award
A haunting collection of stories from the streets and cities of modern South India....UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS PRESS
I was enthralled by how the author's world, so different from my own, nonetheless raised important issues about my own humanity, ethnicity, race, and class. There is real passion underlying and within these well-constructed stories. They are never pedantic or didactic. The characters revel in their complex humanity....I particularly liked the author's ability to stop time-to revea
l in small moments the largeness (and, sometimes, the tragic smallness) of life. Interior lives are burnished with precise, sensual prose. I loved all the stories in this collection and how the thematic vision of 'temporary lives' was fulfilled.
JEWELL PARKER RHODES, contest judge and author of Yellow Moon: A Novel, Douglass' Women
These stories come from the real and imagined streets and cities of south India, mostly Madras, with one story travelling to the US. They hone in on worlds and moments of intensity in the lives of diverse characters--the child of a street corpse-collector, a night watchman at a middle-class bungalow, a young girl in a slum, among others--who are variously Hindu, Muslim, Christian, male and female, child and adult, striving to transcend the routines and realities of their lives. Kept from personal expression, often buried in the layerings of class, caste, gender, they speak and act nevertheless out of the desire for self and individuation.
Some characters act to create their own redemptions--such as Rose Ammal in the title story, married young, her life spent raising children, or Tasneem in Room Enough for the Sky, a young married woman in an abusive arranged marriage. Others reach or are turned toward the possibility of change, such as Anwar and Amir in The Next Corpse Collector, or Laura in The Couple in the Park who gains solace in watching an older couple in a nearby park.
Not every character survives. But each offers a glimpse into a textured, impassioned interior, each strives to experience the denials and hardships of their lives as temporary.
In a stunning, multi-layered story collection examining the marginal among us, George Washington Univ. teacher Ramola D (Invisible Season: Poems) offers ten vivid portraits of modern-day misfits. Tackling everything from class struggle to gender issues to interfamily favoritism, D skillfully reveals the story behind each of her protagonists against an often bleak present and glimpses of a fairy tale ending sadly (or ironically) out of reach. Throughout, she proves an insightful storyteller with a poetic knack for evoking the beautiful and the brutal: “My grandfather Roderick is fastened by one lung to the world.” Though D’s supple prose is the main attraction, she also manages to surprise with some of her (typically) melancholy endings.
PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY, starred review
Magical, mythical, memorable, moving. Ramola D is a Scheherazade
of the first order. This is a book to savor.
SANDRA CISNEROS, author of Caramelo, The House on Mango Street
These stories imagine and re-imagine the lives of those who live in slippery, peripheral spaces -- especially women -- but not in any obvious way. The gaps and silences, what is left unsaid, suggests a thread of narrative that enriches the more obvious one in the foreground. The stories take us on a voyage where we, like the characters, encounter the many faces of both epiphany and loss. And all along, the language sings in our ears, in a voice resonant with achingly beautiful imagery. It’s no wonder that this collection won the 2008 Grace Paley Award in Short Fiction.
GITHA HARIHARAN, author of Fugitive Histories, The Art of Dying
If life is short, indeed temporary, then it must be celebrated and enjoyed to its fullest. But in Ramola D’s heartbreaking debut, life can also be claustrophobic and oppressive with cultural and social expectations. Her stories examine how women suffer quietly with the emotional turmoil of their invisibility, how men look back upon a life lived and wonder with sadness whether it was indeed a rewarding one, and how young people must confront the frightening prospect of an adulthood mapped out for them—from marriage to profession—and decide whether they have the courage to defy tradition. These stunning narratives guide us through an unforgettable world where even the most hidden pain or silent grief longs for recognition. Compelling and skillfully constructed, these stories are “like threads of light from distant stars, delicate in their entrance but powerful."
RIGOBERTO GONZALEZ, author of Crossing Vines, Men Without Bliss
The often tragic lives of the characters in Ramola D's stories are told
in a shimmering, poetic prose. Ultimately, these stories show life as it
is: a tough, lonely journey. Unflinching in its vision, TEMPORARY LIVES
reflects an intelligence and sensitivity that is rare.
ELIZABETH POLINER, author of Mutual Life and Casualty
Excerpt from Temporary Lives
It happens after midnight, like it has so many times before, on this night when my mother's away in the hospital at her father's dying bedside, and we're alone in the Madras house, my sister and I, with Kanthi, my grandfather's old servant-lady, who sleeps in the hall, two rooms away, on the floor.
Click. Scrape. Click.
Then sharper, more convincingly, as before: Click Clack. Click Clack. We hear the footsteps of death on the terrace, they are cool and hard, sound of heeled sandals on brick, the sound of resolution.
I wake and look across at my sister, huddled under her sheet. Moonlight streams down my face, shivers on Krista's form, plays in a silvery tangle of light and shadow on the wall. The window is open. Through bars I see the high three-quarter moon, swept-away shreds of cirrus and bright sky around it. Leaves of the cotton trees sway. There's a wind outside, rustling through sheets, breathing a cool touch on our skin.
Upstairs the dogs cry, a pained, whimpering sound. Zorro and Slim, our rescued mongrels, who like to sleep on the terrace and hear her each time, just as we do, as clearly as if she had just left the room. Click Clack. Click Clack.
It is 1978. I am almost fourteen, my sister is eight. We have come down from Bangalore to my grandfather Roderick's house in Madras a little earlier this summer than usual because he is sick, he is dying, and my mother is his only child and wants to be here with him.
Her footsteps click on the terrace sharp as gunshot, definite as the play of light going up at windows--one-two one-two as the lady of the house climbs upward.
But Esther is not the lady of the house, not anymore. Esther is not alive. Esther, my grandfather's long-dead wife, my mother's mother, was not even someone we knew.
My mother speaks of her often, and knows we can hear her now, walking about at night. We are not alone in this. She has often told us about what she loosely terms her "visions." Not dreams, she'd correct, these are real faces she saw, real people she heard. Not dream-figures. She'd wake from a dream sometimes, and her dream would open to an afterlife thick with long-departed relatives, climbing over the windowsill, standing beside her bed, curled up in 2 a.m. armchairs in the sleeping parlor. Once she saw old Mrs. Zulfikhar next door who died at eighty-three in her sleep (wearing a bright blue saree--seventeen, maybe eighteen, but it was her, she was smiling, I saw her face), she saw her grandfather for years (leaning on his cane, wearing the white suit he wore everyday to his work during British times in the Post Office), she saw my uncle Terence Ratnam who died prematurely of a heart attack at forty-five (sitting in the armchair, sipping tea at our house, reading the newspaper).
We are like her, she says. We hear without knowing we can. Because we are children. To us the stars are white stones still, half-raised, half-buried in the sky's dark. Our hands, unsoiled with the knowledge of the world, have not learned to press firm on our eyes, ears, minds yet. But mostly, she says, we hear the ghost of Esther Kanamma Samuel walk the dark corridors of the after-dead in this house where she was born because we are her children, we have inherited her skin.
All our lives our mother has half-believed she is psychic and half-believed she dreams. It is no clear thing, this feeling, and now she's gifted it to us, an amorphous certainty of stepping across borders and limits of the mummified heart, not too certain of what we're seeing.
It is like the feeling I had when I opened the old falling-apart crate on the terrace one afternoon last week. It had probably been thrown out by my irate grandfather, sifting through his things and deciding he didn't need to keep this. The wood was damp with rain, planks falling, nails pulled apart. Inside I saw sheets of old notebook paper, tied up in string. I saw sprawling words on yellowing paper, the fine blue ink of another time spoiled and rotting at edges.
My mother told me they were Esther's long-ago letters to herself. She took the sopping-wet packet away from us, put the ceiling fan on in the dining-room and dried the pages. She shooed us from the room, smoothed the crinkly sheets, squinted through dissolving ink, cried when she read the words--through the white cheese-crepe curtain I saw her.
I don't know the true story of Esther, I never will, although I grow up to read the scraps of her letters, sift through her photographs, hear everything about her my mother knows to tell. Krista and I have never heard Esther's footsteps before either, although we've spent many summers here. But the whole of the past few weeks, since we arrived, we've woken at night to the sound of a woman's footsteps across the terrace and the dogs making strange sounds, whimpering, questioning, shout-barking.
So perhaps my mother is right. Perhaps we've graduated now in some way and never knew it. Perhaps we'll be privy now to whisperings, barely-breathed, the afterthoughts, teeming undertones of the universe. Like her, to live on a border between worlds, hear the comings and goings of souls long-stilled. Summon them at will perhaps, have them open at our touch like hands parting, a flurry of birds, wings rising and rising.
I am not soothed by this feeling. I shiver as I lie and watch the silvery moon climb the waking, stretching mound of Krista-shadow underneath her sheet.
Tonight is the night my grandfather dies. I do not know this, not yet. What I do know is I have spent this summer dreaming of my grandmother Esther, as I hear her story, finally, in bits and pieces, at night, from my mother. What I know is the moon is nearly full tonight and slides easy as milk over our skin. We wake to this light, and for once it feels like the whole truth about Esther comes toward us.
Read the whole story in Temporary Lives