From North Vancouver, the writer glimpses India.
As Anosh Irani contemplated the 20 years since he first moved from Mumbai (which he still calls Bombay) to Canada, he found himself wanting to spurn the traditional formality of the novel in favour of the short story – a literary form often likened to a love affair versus the steady marriage of a longer-form work. He was also thinking a lot about home and its various complexities.
“Finding home is one of the most primitive, primal things that you can ever do because it’s something we’ve been doing since we arrived on this earth. There was no immigration back then, there was no borders, there was nothing, but what we would do was sit around fires and stare at the sky,” says Irani. But, he adds, finding home is not just a material matter; home is not just about discovering a physical space that satisfies our basic needs, or where we rest our weary heads. Home is a “state of being,” says Irani, a way for us to get right and be right with ourselves. It’s something he’s still searching for.
In Irani’s new short story collection, Translated from the Gibberish: Seven Stories and One Half Truth, characters find themselves feeling out of touch, out of sync, and with no direction home in both a physical and spiritual sense.
In the story “Swimming Coach” a down-and-out aquatics instructor finds himself determined to re-enact an iconic John Cheever short story in the pools of Mumbai, ultimately trying – and failing – to get back to the one he loves. In “Behind the Moon,” which takes place in Vancouver and fatefully on the sports fields of North Vancouver, an illegal immigrant from India has his dreams of residency snatched away following an unfortunate cricket match; and in another story a gangster’s wife believes an animal at a Mumbai zoo is the reincarnation of her lost child.
“For the swimming coach, it’s swimming home to someone – even though he’s in his own apartment, he’s completely displaced,” explains Irani, who continues: “Home has different meanings in these stories. There’s a story about a woman who thinks that a baby penguin is her reincarnated son. She is at home, but her home is grief because she’s lost her child. She’s trying to escape that.”
Irani can relate to the idea of wanting to escape one’s home. While he had a “very strong sense of belonging” and felt a “deep connection with the physical landscape” of India, Irani felt compelled to leave his homeland in search of new frontiers. At 24, he arrived in Canada with the grand and impractical vision of wanting to reinvent himself – and find a new home – as a writer.
In a physical sense, there wasn’t much literature in the household when he was growing up, but he came from a family of great storytellers and orators who, in their narrations, showed him how storytelling was about things seen and unseen –perspective and grandeur – which writers must possess.
When he was a young man Irani initially experimented with short fiction as a way to develop tone and mood, eventually striking a balance between “harsh reality and humour” and crafting his own literary voice. A series of best-selling and highly touted novels followed suit. The Cripple and His Talismans was released in 2004, and by the time he released The Parcel in 2016 – about a transgender sex worker in the red-light district of Mumbai who’s given an unexpected task – he was being called “one of CanLit’s most innovative chameleons.”
However, when setting course for Translated from the Gibberish Irani found that he was ready to write his most personal work to date, one that more acutely explored his two homes – or lack of two homes – in a new way.
“I think there was certain things about the idea of home, of displacement, all of these were deeply personal, and somehow I didn’t feel like a novel was the right form for it. I would say Canada oozed out of me in the form of short stories,” says Irani. “I like the compression of the form. There’s a certain amount of claustrophobia that the form itself exerts on the characters. … Plus, within the stories my characters feel claustrophobia. The world is closing in on them, they’re trying to survive, in some ways they’re all trying to find home in different ways.”
Of the seven stories contained in Gibberish, it’s the title story, which is split into two halves that bookend the collection, that hints at this deeply personal narrative. While the story feels autobiographical – the reader is led to believe the narrator of this yarn is Irani himself and it shares many similar details to the author’s real-life story – it’s not autobiography or memoir per se. It’s something else that bends the usually rigid genre lines separating fact from fairy tale, fiction from non-fiction.
“For me, it’s still a short story, but it’s the closest I’ve ever come to writing about myself,” he says. “I knew I was writing about myself – but I wasn’t at the same time.”
Irani admits he has always felt something of a disconnect between his native India and adopted Canadian homeland. He doesn’t quite feel at home in either place anymore, and yet through images of water and exquisite bridges in the first part of the tome’s title story, Irani comes to something of an understanding concerning the disturbance he feels between this world and that world, and his constant wanderlust.
Describing the JJ Bridge in Mumbai – which at night has very little traffic, he muses – he explains his reverence for driving over it because it allows him to glimpse, just for a second, into people’s homes where he can see “simple moments” and “everyday moments.” Compared to the Lions Gate Bridge, the narrator in Irani’s story feels the bridge over here is “majestic” but ultimately a “digression” – something beautiful but which pulls focus away from connecting with others.
“What’s underneath?” wonders Irani, referring to the Squamish Nation who live so close by and yet seem unheralded by the bridge’s imposing nature. He wonders who the people of North and West Vancouver really are, so tucked away in the North Shore mountains.
He’s also learned to love it here, as he still loves India. He’s an avid swimmer – discerning readers will pick up the references to Delbrook rec centre – and he still marvels at the fresh, fruitful air the North Shore offers daily.
Ultimately, he says, he’s still without a home – “I don’t know where I belong” – but he’s found perspective; moving to Canada has allowed him to fully, finally, truly see India, and likewise his strong connection with that country has allowed him to make a career of exploring that duality here in Vancouver.
“What North Van did, which I’m very grateful for, is it gave me perspective. I could sit in this tiny corner of the world and look at India. I was able to see it in a way that I don’t think I would have if I’d stayed there my whole life.”