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From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Our Feudal Immigration Policy

Why should an accident of birth determine who benefits from citizenship?

Liberal Interpretations

Making sense of Justin Trudeau and his party

Sharp Insights

A debut collection from Shashi Bhat

David Staines

Death by a Thousand Cuts

Shashi Bhat

McClelland & Stewart

216 pages, softcover, ebook, and audiobook

In the spring of 2013, Cormorant Books published The Family Took Shape, Shashi Bhat’s first novel. Indebted to Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, from 1971, it chronicles Mira Acharya’s life in the Toronto suburb of Richmond Hill, from her sixth birthday to her marriage, as she confronts the hopes and traumas of being part of an immigrant family. A finalist for the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, the novel elevated Bhat’s profile, heralding a new writer who relays her Hindu heritage without compromising her indebtedness to the literary worlds of Canada.

Eight years later, McClelland & Stewart published Bhat’s second novel, The Most Precious Substance on Earth, a first-person account of a young woman named Nina from her days as a high school student to her career as a high school teacher in Halifax. A finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award, that novel brought further attention to Bhat and her ability to understand the realities of new Canadians and how they relate to older generations and behaviours.

A sensitive feminist, Bhat creates characters through careful analysis overlaid with irony and wit. She sets out to uncover and expose the dynamic intricacies that beset contemporary women, in particular. In her two novels, she navigates the many realms of her characters, watching them cope and sometimes triumph in their daily workaday lives, be they in suburban Toronto or in downtown Halifax. Although Mira is more relaxed in her feminism than Nina, both women testify to feminist ideals even when their lives involve constant struggles to form their own existences. And both novels have chapters not with numbers but with individual titles, perhaps a gesture toward the fact that some chapters might be self-contained stories, capable of standing on their own. Even the books’ titles are repurposed as chapter names, as if in a story collection.

The little things often hurt the most.

Sandi Falconer

Perhaps capitalizing on Bhat’s status as a Governor General’s finalist, McClelland & Stewart has now issued Death by a Thousand Cuts, a collection of nine stories that further develop the themes inherent in the trials of Mira and Nina and that continue the author’s complex and often wry depictions of immigrant families in Canada.

In “Dealbreaker,” the opening story, thirty-seven-year-old Asha wants a serious relationship but does not want children: “She has had at least a dozen dates here in the years since she moved to this city. Someday, she thinks, she will stroll down this waterfront with the person she falls in love with, never mentioning the countless dates she has already had here with other men.” Asha’s current companion is an elementary school art teacher who assaults her on their drive home. Finally back in her apartment, Asha is “by herself, of course, and doesn’t know why that isn’t enough, why she wasn’t made to be enough on her own, what it would take to learn how.”

In this story, as in several others in the book, a woman appears alone at the end, forlorn, ready to surrender to forces outside of herself. Yet she rises to face the complications of her life and its convoluted patterns. Not abandoned but abandoning, Asha seeks connections, some bond that supports and esteems her own singularity.

In “We’re All in This Alone,” another woman decides to end a budding romance. “I’m not a fool,” she tells us. “I knew that things were turning, and that I had to stop seeing him before the coldness set in. My relationships tended to meet this kind of gangrenous end — a lack of blood supply, a slow death of tissue.” Months later, as the pandemic lockdown finally eases and many begin to venture out once more, she receives a welcome telephone call from her ex-boyfriend. They have an animated conversation, full of banter and quiet laughter. Then the story ends: “We talked until it was too late to pretend we didn’t have to sleep. Then we said goodnight and never spoke again.” Here is another woman on her own, searching out the reasons for her uniqueness, only realizing slowly that uniqueness might indeed be a positive indication of self‑worth.

In perhaps the best story in the collection, “What You Can Live Without,” the twenty-three-year-old college graduate Aarthi has lost her job when the non-profit where she worked folded during the pandemic. Now she is impecunious, emailing out her resumé and desperately hoping that someone answers her plea for work. Meanwhile, her zealous parents have printed pictures of well‑off Indian men from around the world who are seeking wives.

To combat the long list of bachelors her parents have assembled, Aarthi starts dating John, “immaculately dressed in a white cotton button-down and polished loafers, the sort of man who never wore jeans.” Frighteningly frugal, he delights in explaining all the ways one can save money. When their dating comes to its natural conclusion, Aarthi emails her parents: “I think I’d like to take another look at those profiles. And if it’s still okay, I’d like to move back in with you for a bit.”

“What You Can Live Without” relates all too painfully the plight of two generations: the parents and their selection of men waiting for wives, and the daughter, who wants to make her own choices. In the end, Aarthi is left alone, mateless, moving back into her parents’ house and searching for some path into her future. She has not learned the bitter lesson of rising up and standing on her own.

Not all the stories in Death by a Thousand Cuts are successful. “Giantess,” the tale of an oversized labourer at the printing counter of the city library’s main branch, recounts a story that fails to resonate. “Death by a Thousand Cuts” makes too much of the protagonist’s need for a partner with blue eyes, though the ending falls in line with many of the other stories’ conclusions: “In the morning, we’ll face each other, stomach to stomach, and we’ll admit that the relationship has run its course. Neither of us will cry. We’ll speak in gentle voices and treat each other with kindness. We’ll frame it in the nicest way possible.” And the book would have benefited from some indication of when the stories, especially those not related to the pandemic, were originally composed.

A formidable presence in the expanding worlds of Canadian literature, Shashi Bhat explores the tensions between traditional South Asian families and the feminist impulses of a younger generation. While her stories are often humorous, they are also wise accounts of women trapped in conventions that militate against them.

David Staines is the author of, most recently, A History of Canadian Fiction. He teaches English literature at the University of Ottawa.

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