With his debut short story collection, the award-winning novelist and playwright Anosh Irani could have simply presented seven stories about characters caught between two worlds and two identities. That would have delivered an adequate rendering of the complexities of the immigrant reality. As it is, his new work offers much more. Rife with satire and ironic humour, and roiling with diverse personalities and destructive passions, Translated from the Gibberish reveals an author ambitiously seeking to mix fiction with autofiction. Its character-driven stories, which move between India and Canada, are framed by the author’s reflections on his own experience of displacement, delivered through a first-person prologue and epilogue. He terms his approach a “half truth.”
Two decades ago, Irani immigrated to Vancouver from his native Mumbai, knowing little about his new country but hoping to reinvent himself as a writer. The existential difficulty of such a move is still fresh, a conflict mirrored in his writing, where characters are as much trapped as they are freed by their new lives.
Irani’s first-person figure interprets himself self-consciously, if a tad portentously: “I am my own translator, my own doom.” In his metafictional opening, he writes of returning to Mumbai and the fluctuating, sleep-deprived (often pessimistic) shifts in perspective these visits provoke. His thoughts move from one strange notion to another — vertical burial, the divine nature of water, musings on human nature and reality — in a stream of consciousness that is both lyrical and pathologically volatile. Irani interrogates his troubled “I,” restlessly probing the psychic hole left behind by what the immigrant feels he has lost. What he is searching for is “the thing behind the thing.” But the reader is left uncertain whether Irani is writing as himself or as a persona — whether it is “half truth” or more.
Irani’s psycho-literary identity (though not his style or thematic range) is close to that of Salman Rushdie, who writes incisively about the deliberately uprooted and divided exile who views the world with an intelligence set free from considerations of loyalty to a country. In shuttling back and forth between continents and cultures, Irani explores multiple realities — occasionally engaging with folklore, mythology, or symbolism, and at other times employing humour as a means of examining experience. The very concept of an “exile” is introduced as a joke when the “I” character recalls a yoga teacher who used to say the word instead of instructing students to “exhale.” But the comic effect abruptly fades when he comes to know what “exile” really means: the inability to own a home, to find a home, to feel at home — in a sense, to be expelled.
Many of Irani’s character names — derived from Sanskrit, Arabic, Urdu, or Germanic — have similarly ironic functions. In “Swimming Coach,” the first of the stories (a skin-deep version of John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”), Ulrich has a name derived from High German, connoting noble heritage, as well as wealth and power — the very opposite of the forty-year-old protagonist who is preoccupied with the past and his failures as a divorced husband and estranged father. In “Butter Chicken,” Sujoy, whose name means “happy” or “winner,” is nothing of the sort. Throughout the stories, tension is heightened by black humour.
Where Indian writers of an older generation, such as R. K. Narayan, Raja Rao, and Mulk Raj Anand, repeatedly showed “the quarrel between traditional, static India, on the one hand, and modernity and progress, on the other” (in the words of Rushdie), Irani depicts the traumas of exile and the disillusionment of the modern exiled dreamer as caught in translation between India and Canada — as his characters are caught within the bounds of his own meandering experience.
In “Behind the Moon,” perhaps the strongest story of the collection, Abdul (whose name means “servant of God”) is consumed by regret, rage, and a helpless sense of entrapment. Having breached his tourist visa conditions, he feels like the rat he sees trapped beneath the refrigerator in the Mughlai Moon restaurant, where he works as a cook. The owner, Qadir Bhai (whose name means “capable”), deviously holds his passport for “safekeeping” alongside the undeclared cash made from Abdul’s food and sweat. The passport resides in better conditions than its owner, being kept in Qadir Bhai’s well-appointed apartment, with carpets and Netflix, while Abdul sleeps on a mattress in a squalid space at the back of the restaurant. To evade detection as an “illegal,” he has to keep changing his name. What Abdul cannot change are the burns and calluses that mark the shame and punishment of being in thrall to an exploitative boss who is financing the education of his brother back in India.
Irani allows Abdul to imagine modestly what being Canadian would feel like: to sit in Tim Hortons having a doughnut “without feeling like a thief,” or “to walk along the seawall in Stanley Park and not view the water as an endless extension of lost hopes and dreams.” To ride in a taxi once in a while, to afford an iPhone, or to call Fido and “give his full name and address and date of birth and make a complaint, or demand a better deal.” He is an ordinary man with small dreams, but the story’s tension builds and builds. Randy, a wealthy Hindu restaurateur, relieves some of Abdul’s humiliation by addressing him with nicknames — Abdul Bhai, Abdul the Great, Abdullah —“blessed with some grace that he didn’t have in real life.” He teaches Abdul English, offers him work, and promises to find him a lawyer, gestures that make Abdul feel justifiably visible. Still, there is no guarantee of a fairy-tale ending.
Pessimism, underscored by melancholy yearning, fuels many of Irani’s characters and their experiences. In “Circus Wedding,” Raju, the diminutive clown neurotically defensive about his size, suffers a breakdown caused by his blind, often paranoid passion for Sheila, the elephant trainer’s assistant. Sujoy, the renowned chef in “Butter Chicken,” cracks up in the middle of a television interview show after recalling a traumatic family episode. In “Mr. Molt,” Reshma, the wife of a gangster who is mourning the loss of her son, madly believes that a Humboldt penguin at the Mumbai zoo is the reincarnation of her little boy. The stories have some beautiful passages; all are engaging, even if there is often the sense that the ending are too rushed.
Irani’s point may be that endings aren’t necessarily about redemption, and that life is generous and bountiful in its pain, but a finer, sharper literary control (with fewer lapses into melodrama) would impart a higher quality to these stories. As it is, Translated from the Gibberish is a notable advance in his literary oeuvre. It displays an epistemological and metaphysical curiosity, as well as engaging in a refreshingly dark process of self-debunking. Where it falls short is in the author’s tendency to reach for abstractions or amplifications in his language or for metaphors that exceed his grasp. It is one thing for Irani to represent himself as “a combustible being, a flammable object. A rocket,” but he goes on to undercut this propulsive energy with the mystifying claim of being “both awake and asleep, in both womb and sky at the same time.” Perhaps the gibberish of the title refers to something purposely incomprehensible. But this does not detract from the fact that Irani draws the reader in to a series of compelling worlds bruised with real pain, confusion, and deluded hope.