Sitting somewhere between the familiar and the foreign, Sreedhevi Iyer’s Jungle Without Water And Other Stories is an anthology of short fiction that is concerned with migration – specifically, the actions and emotions that result from the movement of people across national or cultural borders.

Spanning Malaysia, India, and Australia, the book captures a variety of experiences – a young Sikh man from Punjab seeking a gurdwara (temple) in Brisbane, a white woman visiting her Indian husband’s village for the first time, a Malaysian-Indian boy experiencing the country’s independence from the British – and yet, beneath them all, it feels like Iyer may be telling the same story.

This is actually the collection’s greatest strength, the author’s ability to ask again and again the one overwhelming question that resonates with so many of us: Where do I belong?

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A Malaysian of Indian ethnicity who lived in Australia and is now based in Hong Kong, Iyer applies her own personal insights to unearthing the many layers of this question. The results are evocative, yet often (intentionally) discomfiting.

“The Man With Two Wives”, for instance, is a first-person narrative of an Indian masala-seller in Penang who is caught between his aspirations and the baggage of racial prejudice – neatly mirrored in his relationship with two women. Iyer takes a risk by writing the entire story in a distinctly Malaysian-Indian patois, but the result is a potent study of the despair and isolation that can result when people are forced to carry the burden of ethnic stereotypes.

“Green Grass”, the aforementioned story of a newlywed Caucasian woman visiting rural India, grapples with the idea of white privilege and how whiteness can often allow the crossing of boundaries that Jungle Without Water And Other Storiesare closed to others. Iyer, though, is careful not to draw didactic lines, and instead deftly balances the tensions inherent in the situation.

There is an everydayness to many of the stories in the collection that belie their complexity; Iyer excels in pulling at the threads of the seemingly mundane to unravel the many issues tangled up with identity and belonging.

In “Cake And Green M&Ms”, a young girl from India travels to Brisbane with her father to meet his best friend from university. She senses, however, an unspoken distance in the reunion, formed not just by time but the gradual crusting over of cultural differences. Made more powerful for being from the point of view of a child, the story is likely to strike a painfully familiar chord with many readers.

“Kadaram” uses a similar premise, of a daughter travelling with her father, to altogether different effect. Here, they are Malaysian-Indians travelling in Tamil Nadu, India, the father eager to expound on the historical and cultural connections between Malaysia and India. In just a few pages, the story perfectly captures the sense of an identity in flux.

It is clear from this anthology that Iyer’s forte is capturing the nuances of speech, places, and body language; she often uses these tiny details to delicately build larger stories. This might account for why some of the more abstract pieces in the collection don’t hold up as well as the others.

The parable-like “The Lovely Village”, where inhabitants of a village build a wall to keep newcomers out, is well-written but feels too on the nose. “The Last Day Of A Divine Coconut” – told from the point of view of a coconut about to be cracked at a temple in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur – is an enormously engaging read but is let down by too much exposition.

“IC”, meanwhile, leaps between past and present to tell the story of a Malaysian-Indian taxi driver and his childhood. Each half of the story is very compelling in its own right – the present-day story has, in fact, been anthologised in Everything About Us (edited by Sharon Bakar, published by Word Works, 2016). However, while the author’s intent in pairing both halves is clear, they never quite come together as a whole.

But these are minor quibbles with an otherwise strong debut collection from a writer who has not only honed her craft but also has a clear vision for her work.

Questions of identity and belonging, particularly when it comes to migration, aren’t new. In many ways, movement is at the heart of the human race’s story. That Iyer has managed to depict this in a way that feels both current and timeless, particularly to this part of the world, makes her book a worthwhile read.

Jungle Without Water And Other Stories

Author: Sreedhevi Iyer
Publisher: Jetstone, fiction