Jennifer Mackenzie reviews Sreedhevi Iyer’s “The Tiniest House of Time”
The Tiniest House of Time
By Sreedhevi Iyer
Wild Dingo Press
Reviewed by JENNNIFER MACKENZIE
“How will you remember her?”
“As someone who knew so much, and kept it well hidden.” (316)
Sreedhevi Iyer’s The Tiniest House of Time is a book for our time, examining as it does the profound silences that a family lives with, silences embedded in a history of displacement, and the uprooting from what was considered home. In tracking hidden and unspoken histories, of which there is little written record, the author has written something of a psychoanalytically focused and politically acute narrative, as she explores through her finely structured novel, an evocation of generational trauma across migratory continental space. With much sensitivity and intelligence, Iyer delineates the colonial legacy of race relations, and how this legacy weighs down on those societies still navigating them.
The novel begins with Sandhya, who has lived and worked in Melbourne for some time, returning to Kuala Lumpur to be at the bedside of her beloved grandmother, Susheela. It is clear that Sandhya’s departure from Malaysia some years before has been a painful one, with unresolved and awkward family issues emerging as the narrative proceeds.
The scope of the novel, moving as it does from contemporary Melbourne and Kuala Lumpur, Kuala Lumpur in the 1990s during the Reformasi period, and back to colonial Burma in the 1930s, allows themes of recurrent events, of the emotional resonance of love and terror to ricochet over time and place. The structure of the novel is very effective in the way it allows Susheela’s story in particular to emerge in a piecemeal fashion, and to connect it to the growing crisis in the life of Sandhya. Iyer’s skill as a writer is displayed in the way she employs slightly different techniques in the Burma and Kuala Lumpur sections without in any way sacrificing the overall unity of the novel. Somehow, she has managed to pull off a sense in the Burmese sections of both a dreamlike yet naturalistic portrayal of an Indian family’s life in what was then Rangoon. With careful delineation, Iyer, with exceptional clarity and restraint, floods a number of events rich with incipient trauma. Scenes that appear to render the calm placidity of family life, transform into incidents so utterly terrifying that they resonate as a kind of collective and generational stigmata.
The Sastri family is introduced as living a comfortable life, centred on traditional and domestic ritual, in British occupied Rangoon, where the family patriarch works as a Postmaster. His daughter, Susheela, displays a strong relationship with places of ritual, from the family domestic shrine to the imposing structure of the Shwedagon, and inhabiting such spaces becomes for her a source of strength and comfort for the rest of her life.
The security of the family soon appears to be illusory as world events overtake their lives. Being part of the Indian population in Rangoon, a liminal presence between the British colonisers and the subjugated and increasingly restive Burmese, they become a highly visible target for communal violence. A heartbreaking sense of carefully insisted upon racial divisions is highlighted through Susheela’s friendship with Zaw, a Burmese boy, a friendship which results in his public humiliation. The first indication of imminent conflagration is presented in a devastatingly restrained manner in a paragraph describing why Susheela was now staying home from school:
She had been forced to stop school the previous year, but not due to poor results….But one day, the school bus was stopped mid-trip on Campbell Road. All the passengers had to get out. Susheela climbed down with her friends and stood by the side of the road. They watched the Burmese men burn it, with the Indian driver still inside. Since then, Susheela stayed home.. given to sudden quietude that only a trip to the Shwedagon would dispel. (161/2)
The novel also addresses the difficulties and constraints of decision making when the world as one knows it is on the brink of collapse. With the Japanese about to attack as World War Two accelerates, Postmaster Sastri, confounded by his loyalty to, and pressure from, the British, makes two fatal decisions. On seeming impulse, he unaccountably decides to take the family to the Shwedagon, when reports of large-scale trouble are rife, and when the streets are mysteriously empty of the bustle of the everyday. The scenes of their return home from the pagoda are terrifying, and result in family tragedy. His second decision, to delay his family’s departure by boat to India, leads to them joining a very large contingent of refugees who are forced to make the long trek by foot to the relative safety of Assam:
Trudge, shuffle, clink, flap, wail. These were the only noises Susheela could hear from crying babies to clanging pots and pans. From morning, when she stood up from her dry, baked earth, till night, when Father decided they would stop, along with some other families, and rest under a tree. (194/5) and:
Later, Susheela would have no memory of actually reaching Mandalay, the place of a thousand temples. She only would recall reaching a camp with the multitudes who swallowed space till the horizon. (200)
The sections of The Tiniest House of Time set in the Kuala Lumpur of the 1990s reflect the vitality and random topography of a large city. The almost dreamlike Burmese sections here have a different quality of urgency, as the writing becomes more incidental, incremental, and grungy in effect. Just as the narrative in Rangoon is underpinned by Susheela’s relationship with Zaw, and his growing political activism, Sandhya’s engagement with the politics of Reformasi, and the rise and fall of Anwar Ibrahim, is set in motion by her relationship with Faisal. A charismatic student leader, intellectually gifted, multilingual and well-connected, he appears to be too good to be true. A couple of incidents reveal his darker side, and during a massive demonstration, where the crowd is bombarded with water cannon, he is arrested and disappears from Sandya’s life, although he makes a brief and telling re-appearance late in the novel.
The Kuala Lumpur scenes sweep beautifully over the messiness and camaraderie of student life, the excitement of widening political awareness and subsequent disillusionment. The novel describes well the excitement, the current passing through the body, which can accompany political engagement:
She played with the percussion of the movement, acutely aware of being present, being relevant. The thrill of operating underground, of voicing in the streets what they normally shared in whispers. (238)
A crucial event occurs when Sandhya is travelling on a train, after going out to buy Faisal a birthday present. Just as Iyer excelled in presenting scenes of imminent violence in the Rangoon sections, in this episode thugs roam the carriages, shouting “Anwar or Mahathir?”, and brutally beating those who give the wrong answer. Sandhya manages to escape, but in the aftermath, Faisal appears to be more taken by the drama of the event vulnerability, its moral implications, and Sandhya’s vulnerability.
In the wash up, Sandhya is expelled for taking part in the demonstration that sees Faisal arrested. His mother categorically rules out any future marriage, and Sandhya in great distress returns to the family home. With Susheela, she goes to the local temple, and together they partake in ritual catharsis, as Sandhya, with great strength brought upon by overwhelming grief, smashes 108 coconuts. .(prologue, 278)
The Tiniest House of Time is an illuminating portrayal of the Indian diaspora across decades, with a sense of non-belonging, of always being a foreigner. Susheela in particular takes comfort in what remains in any situation, because no matter what difficulty, it cannot compare with the embodiment of the earlier apprehension of the ineluctable nature of trauma. The long trek to India, the disease and filth, the bombing, the sudden disappearance of her Anglo-Indian companion, Stuart, who attaches himself to her family, remain images which can erupt painfully at any time. The contemporary scenes where Sandhya, and a number of family members, visit Susheela in hospital provide the ballast and essential reference point for Sandhya’s growing understanding of forgotten episodes in family history, and provide her with the determination to seek out further information in Burma. These sections could have been shortened, with a few too many family scenes, well written as they are. However, this is a minor issue in what is an illuminating, warm-hearted and courageous novel; a moving tribute to those many who have been caught in a migratory impulse not of their own making.
JENNIFER MACKENZIE is a poet and reviewer, focusing on writing from and about Asia. Her most recent book is Navigable Ink (Transit Lounge 2020).