Like the sweet heat of a palate-pleasing curry or the brilliant radiance of bougainvillea, the short stories in Mary Anne Mohanraj's Bodies in Motion will delight the senses and sensibilities. Her tales follow two generations of two families living on the cusp of disparate worlds, America and Sri Lanka -- their lives and ties shaped, strengthened, devastated, and altered by the emigrant-immigrant ebb and flow. Through stunning, effervescent prose, intimate moments are beautifully distilled, revealing the tug-of-war between generations and gender in stories sensual and honest, chronicling love, ambition, and the spiritual and sexual quests of mothers and daughters, fathers and sons.
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About the Author
Mary Anne Mohanraj teaches fiction at Vermont College and Roosevelt University. She is the author of two collections of literary writings, Silence and the Word and Torn Shapes of Desire, a Sri Lankan cookbook, A Taste of Serendib, and was the recipient of a 2006 Illinois Arts Council Fellowship. She lives in Chicago, Illinois.
Read an Excerpt
Bodies in Motion
Chapter One Oceans Bright and Wide
Thani stood just outside the convent school gates, waiting for sister catherine to come and meet him. bougainvillea spilled over the walls, lush and crimson; he was briefly tempted to break off a small sprig to present to her. It was her favorite plant, the brilliantly hued paper-thin leaves hiding their tiny white flowers. But any flowers he broke off would only wither and die; better to leave them growing on the vine, surrounded by their own kind, beautiful in their profusion. Thani watched the young girls instead, demure pairs walking in their crisp white school uniforms across the wide lawns; he heard the nuns giving strict instructions to their charges.
An accustomed pleasant thrill of anticipation energized him; after all these years of friendship, he still looked forward to his walks with Sister Catherine. Their conversations had started when his daughters were girls, fatherly duty bringing him to the convent school grounds, to that large white building, its tall pillars and broad marble floors so reminiscent of his own Cinnamon Gardens home. When the convent had put in tennis courts for the girls, and his wife, Bala, had worried about the propriety of allowing their daughters to play, it was Thani who had come to talk to the nuns, who had then come home and reassured his wife. Had he been convinced by reason? Or by the bright young face of Sister Catherine, with her sharp green eyes and her red hair forever escaping the confines of her demure garb? Her face had been so fair, like a water lily, too delicate for the touch of the sun. And her mind quick, rich with the accumulated knowledge of European civilization, the literature and philosophy she taught. When he talked with her, Thani felt like a young coconut tree, growing tall in the bright light of her regard, enriched and enlightened.
There she was, at the top of the white steps, hurrying down, heedless as a girl despite the constrictions of her nun's habit. His heart beat a little faster, and he entered the gates, crossing the broad expanse of grass to meet her. Thani walked slowly; his heavy middle-aged build didn't allow him to move as quickly as she did. He was slow but steady, unreasonably happy. Thani never inquired too closely into his feelings for Sister Catherine. It was enough that for twenty-five years, since the day his first daughter started school, until today, when his last daughter was finally finishing, it had brought him pleasure to come here, to spend an hour or so walking the grounds in Sister Catherine's company, listening to her talk of Chaucer and Milton, Plato and Aristotle.
"Mr. Chelliah! I am so sorry that I've kept you waiting!" She landed beside him, slightly out of breath, hands reaching up to tuck stray wisps of hair back under her wimple. There were a few strands of grey among the red now, but it was still beautiful so fine and delicate. After all these years, Thani still felt the urge to reach out and touch the strands.
He smiled down at her. "It is never any trouble, Sister. When I received your message that you wanted to see me, I was delighted to come. I hope nothing is wrong."
"No, no." She started to walk, and he fell into step beside her. "It's about Shanthi, but certainly nothing is wrong. Everything is perfectly right, in fact."
"I wanted to know what are your plans for her?"
Thani felt mixed apprehension and pride. This had lately been a source of mild contention between him and his wife; Bala was determined to get the girl safely married, as Shanthi's eleven elder sisters and her one brother had been. But Thani wasn't ready to let his youngest daughter go; she was his favorite, the one he could talk to. She was bright, a good companion for his thoughts; he had wondered whether Shanthi might perhaps study for a teacher's certificate. Then she could stay with them a little longer.
"That is not yet decided; my wife and I are not entirely in agreement on this." He flushed, slightly embarrassed, wondering if the nun would think less of him. A man should be able to rule his own house that was what his friends at the club would say, if they heard him. But whatever men boasted to one another, it was different within a marriage.
Sister Catherine glanced shrewdly at him. "Yes, I thought that might be the case. But if my own words might carry some weight . . ."
"My wife and I have always thought very highly of you, Sister." That was true; the nun had been a frequent visitor to their home, had shared innumerable cups of tea with Bala. They had become friends in their own way, the way of women together, talking of the children. If his wife had been a different woman, Thani might have wondered whether she had carefully chosen to cultivate Sister Catherine, whether she suspected the attraction Thani felt for the pretty nun. But Bala wasn't smart or shrewd enough for such a strategy. That was part of why their marriage was happy and successful; Thani could relax around his wife.
Sister Catherine took a deep breath before saying quickly, "Shanthi must go to Pembroke for a crash course; there are a few girls studying sciences now among the boys at Pembroke. We've taught her what we can in private tutorial, but we have no science courses here. Then she must go on to university; she must continue her physics studies properly. After a year or two there, she can apply to Oxford."
Thani stopped short, shocked, turning to face Sister Catherine. "You're joking, surely, Sister. Pembroke perhaps, although Bala will be worried about her, with all those boys; her reputation might be compromised. And university ... she's clever, but no girl has ever "Bodies in Motion
. Copyright © by Mary Anne Mohanraj. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I cannot speak for how accurately this book depicts Sri Lankan culture, but I can say that I could barely put it down. The book is a series of vignettes from a couple of Tamil families. It depicts the relationships between parents and children, aunts and nieces, and romantic and sexual partners. There is a lot of concern with how women support each other and make compromises to sustain both their own sexuality and their traditional culture. You might consider this somewhere between "chick lit" and "literary fiction."A number of the vignettes have sexual content, but nothing prolonged; it's a passionate book, perhaps even an arousing book in places, but not a masturbatory book. Mohanraj also writes about food, clothing, weather, all of the things of daily life, in dense but brief detail. One gets the impression of a lush, damp mind, full of biodiversity.Highly recommended. Some sexually explicit parts.
Mohanraj's debut--linked stories of Sri Lankans over three generations--has much to admire: sharply drawn characters, well-wrought prose with intermingling storylines, sensual connects and disconnects. Some of the tales, like the first one--'Oceans Bright and Wide'--may slip without many ripples into our subconscious, while others, like 'Lakshmi's Diary' and 'Mangoes with Chili,' stay with us, dark and edible gems that shine within long after we've swallowed them. A word of caution: the family trees at the beginning telegraph some of the stories' events/outcomes, so it may be prudent not to linger on them. Because if you're like me, you'll want to know where the branches lead--and will have a hard time waiting to find out.