Book Review: The Lotus Singers, ed. Trevor Carolan

Date Posted: July 25, 2011
Print Edition: July 8, 2011

By Paul Falardeau (Contributor) – Email

In a modern age that has forgotten past memories all too often for the quick thrill and temporary buzz of iPads and meat-clad singers, let me, if you will, reintroduce an image you might remember – from a childhood story at least.  It is of the travelling merchant, a peddler of goods, from nowhere in particular, yet, he certainly goes somewhere; everywhere even. And in this memory – mine and yours – he is an important man because he is the bringer of goods and the connector of places; he is a keeper of stories.

Bring yourself back to the present. The internet, supermarkets, and easy transportation have made the merchant a shadow of the past, but the image is worth the time it takes to conjure because, in another way, it still lives as stories from across the world make their way to us. In no way is this more fully realized than in the glorious new collection of contemporary South-Asian short stories, The Lotus Singers.

Gathered in The Lotus Singers are stories from several of the best new writers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Maldives, all called the “Seven Sister” nations of South Asia. The new anthology, edited by UFV professor Trevor Carolan, is a sequel of sorts to Another Kind of Paradise: Short Stories from the New Asia-Pacific, which he released a year earlier.

Together the two are both a handsome and timely collection of stories. “More than ever, Asia especially commands our attention,” Carolan says in his introduction to The Lotus Singers. It is no secret that Asia is a rapidly growing region of this planet, nor is it that it is a multi-faceted place, where cultures, people, geography, and even time seems to jostle for their proper place. So, like a good merchant, this collection comes along to deliver clarity and understanding of a place which is no longer an exotic locale or exploitative colonial hang-out.

The package that these stories arrive in is worth noting in itself. The design of the collection is wonderfully functional and beautifully designed like its predecessor. Helpful notes of translation and author biographies are present along with the stories in a fashion that is thorough without being heavy-handed.

Yet it is the stories that make the book. The writers of South Asia have no problem standing next to other world-notables, and Carolan has done a superb job selecting the crème de la crème for his newest collection. Mahasweta Devi’s “Arjun” is a striking tale, and “Nina Awaits Mrs. Kamath’s Decision,” Salil Chaturvedi’s story of a blind girl in Goa, is uplifting and beautiful. There are moments of surrealism in “A Government of India Undertaking” by Manjula Padmanabhan, and the story of feminism landing in the small country of Bhutan by Kunzang Choden is a worthy addition. The collection moves from Nepal to Sri Lanka, Pakistan to Bangladesh, exploring themes as universal as love, the preservation and destruction of tradition, frustration and loss, but even when it veers towards regionalism, the appeal to readers remains universal.

The Lotus Singers is an honest look at South Asia through its own eyes. “These are literary voices speaking not from a comfortable distance or from South Asia’s far-flung Diaspora but from the home range; they are sure of their ground,” assures Carolan, the merchant bringing goods, or stories, from afar: the experience of a place in its most extravagant and most mundane.