Aerogrammes – A Review

Tania James is a quiet writer of the human disquiet. Her stories are peopled by scarred humans, her wings spanning the tedium and tribulations of the stranded, the alienated, the damaged and the bereaved. They are often émigrés, many of them Indian, in the wringing merry-go-round of identity and assimilation. Bruised and forlorn, they are gasping for social, economic and emotional moorings in alien winds.

Treachery and trauma are recurring themes but her stories avoid turbulence by pushing the critical events off-stage, or dealing with them in subtle undertones. It allows the author to carry on the narrative staidly and lead the cast through the slow burning despair at the same time.

Lion and Panther in London, the first story of the anthology, begins exotically, taking us to the metropolis of 1910. Gamma and Imam are Indian wrestlers of redoubtable strength. Benjamin, the avaricious broker, foists them in London in an apparent challenge to the ruling world-champions. The two brothers stick to rigorous training with religious fervor, gloating in the vainglory of doing their nation proud, hoping to deflate the local contestants. Brothers gather the sensation caused by their presence from English newspapers that Imam can read. They soon smell the rampant match-fixing and fraud and find themselves shortchanged by the dishonest agent. The silent turmoil of the two wrestlers has been captured through a controlled inertia, characteristic of the author.

The author picks up a cheated wife, an illegal child and an uprooted chimpanzee for What to do with Henry. When Pearl is invited to Sierra Leone to adopt an orphaned girl from a hut in Bo, her mother having died of malaria, there is no fooling her who could have fathered the child. She not only retrieves the girl but also a baby chimpanzee being sold in the local market. She resolves to raise a new family over the deadwood of her earlier life. Pearl returns to America to face increasing rejection from her people while Neneh and Henry, the girl and the chimpanzee, struggle to establish their identity. The story captures their stoic suffering slowly but graphically to the breathtaking end. The portrayal of a chimpanzee’s psyche makes for a memorable reading.

The very symbolically named The Gulf describes the gulf that  time and distance have created between a husband and a wife, and a father and a daughter, when an Indian man working for a Sheikh in Gulf falls in love with a girl away from home. Aerogrammes deals with desertion of ageing parents in the American society and how an Indian son is as uncaring as the lot, leaving his father to find solace in an equally tormented woman. Ethnic Ken is the most poignant and complete story of a dysfunctional Indian family struggling to come to terms with life in Kentucky. Amy, a little girl, battles with racialism and isolation and her grandfather copes with the displacement and bereavement by breaking into a world of make-believe, confusing her with his dead wife. Light and Luminous speaks about a maestro of classical Indian dances, yearning to invoke the ghost of her youth in her fading years. Girl marries Ghost is a poignant, surrealistic story of a recently widowed woman who is coaxed into marrying a ghost. She gets the ownership of the sprawling estate and the cars of the deceased while the latter gets to haunt the world again. However, both of them find it hard to cope with the trauma of desertion and bereavement.

The protagonists of Tania James suffer from ‘toxic grief’ and unmoored identities. As one of her characters remarks how helplessness is like “the stars slipping farther and farther away, like everyone I loved”. Their struggles are compounded by the sufferings from within and without the families. The author duly empathises with their crises, without which it wouldn’t be possible to narrate the lives in such intricate details. However, she maintains a detached perch that allows her to continue without distorting other perspectives. She has a unique knack of underplaying the traumas without compromising on their intensity. The style allows her woebegone cast to stay afloat in the steady stream of narrative, rarely heavy or angst-ridden. She ushers the readers quickly into the scene with sharp, rolling sentences. “On the table between them rest a rose marble chessboard, frozen in play.  Raindrops wriggle down the windowpane. It is a mild June of 1910 and their seventh day in London without a challenge.” Her language is simplistic but expressive, capturing the essence of the moments and passage of time. “In later years I will come to avoid him, but for now, I am eight years old, and the man everyone says is my father is sitting in the living room.”  Her imagery is rich without being onerous, quickly imparting the scene. “Saffa gathered the baby into his large, awkward hands, its terror reverberating through his palms. Its head was smaller than mango, and its eyes were liquid and searching.” Occasionally, we run into dry, restrained humour that perks up the narrative. “My dad listened to Sister Lorraine’s concerns, stroking the ends of his mustache between thumb and forefinger, something I occasionally mimicked during class, though there was a single tentative whisker on the corner of my lip.”

Aerogrammes by Tania James presents an anthology that doesn’t hurl the reader into the next page itching for more. But its pages are replete with stories of contained turmoil that grow over the readers gradually, begging them to restart the journey often.

Author: Tania James
Publisher: Random House India
Pages: 180


  1. Wish you had kept off reviews for a while, Uma! Having just written one reluctantly I could have done without being brought face to face with what an excellent review really should be like 🙂

    1. Suresh, reviews have come to stay on my blog. If anything, your review of “Dark Pursuit: The Lost Shinmahs” has steeled my resolve. Thank you for the kind words.

  2. Wonderful review Uma!

    I am quite intrigued by the underlying theme of these stories. “Toxic Grief’ seems to me to be indeed a very difficult thread to pull an anthology together. By what appears from the review, I am assuming that the author has remarkably succeeded in doing that. Also, the span that the settings of these stories have is considerable. What about the places that the author takes the reader to? Have they been aptly taken care of in the descriptions?
    I don’t know when will I get to read this book, but I am surely very very interested in doing that asap!

    1. Relationship and inner turmoil are the author’s forte and focus. It is more the inner landscape of the characters that she has on her mind. Her description of the places is sparse but adequate. And yes, the thread of isolation runs across the book. Many thanks for the kind input.

  3. I love these kind of book where you have to pause and think, mull over and then carry on. A book has to make you savour the charecters and this book seems to be in that category.

  4. Well as usual I am amazed at everyone who gets all the time to Read books , and then write reviews on them ..

    1. Bikram, in olden days people would set out across continents on foot, on horses and on boats across the oceans, and all those journeys seem so godforsaken and unimaginable. I believe I am doing nothing of the sort by reading books and posting my views about them: there is nothing weird or unusual about it. Also, I hope you understand, I cannot be made answerable to ‘everyone’. My book reviews are as in order as are posts about Punjab and Punjabis, or etiquette and women’s rights, or the national politics for that matter. The trick is not to lose one’s peace of mind over annoying matters by bypassing the scum.

      1. I am not sure what you mean by scum or who you pointing towards..

        I am also very sure of the fact that I did not say you are doing anything wrong by reviewing or reading books..

        I said I am amazed at how people do it as I am unable to do it..

        I also did not hold you answerable for everyone..

        My posts on Punjab and Punjabi are my personal experiences and they are no way comparable to what you write.. I hold you on a much higher pedestal than myself.. and have always said that I learn a lot from your posts..

        So not sure what the reply is in context with..

    1. I am indebted forever, Khushbu. Maybe I don’t deserve it because of all things, I feel less inclined to write a tag post at the moment. May your path be lighted by a hundred suns in the Blogsphere!

  5. Another outstanding review of what seems to be a fantastic book. As I have told already (and I wouldn’t mind repeating again and again), you are a master at bringing out the brilliance of a book and highlighting every aspect, emotion and shade that lies inside the story and in the mind of the author. I feel each one of your reviews is as (or more) mesmerizing as the book itself. The style of Tania James and the uniqueness of each story are very captivating and I think it is going to make an enthralling read. Thank you very much for another excellent recommendation.

    1. Raj, you overwhelm me every time with your praise. Coming from an exquisite wordsmith like you, I especially savour the words. I can never stop thanking and being grateful to you but I believe the appreciation has started making some people very uncomfortable.

      Tania James is a master of capturing storms quietly, as I have tried to project above. I am sure you are going to enjoy her stories greatly.

      Thank you, yet again, my friend!

  6. Thanks for the review. I had to organize a contest and before doing that I wanted to know about the book. Now I am well informed. 🙂

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