The Story Doctor is back to tell us why The Mango Tree’s magic works so very well on us.
The Story Doctor is (In):Thakrar’s “The Mango Tree”
by James Patrick Kelly
I’m wondering how many of you paused in your reading “The Mango Tree” to look up some of the Hindi words. Did you know that a sadhu is an ascetic holy man? That the nakshatdras are the lunar zodiac of Vedic Astrology? Perhaps you stumbled over this sentence?
Whether it was a nightly cup of warm turmeric doodh for inflammation, a regimen of ashwagandha and pranayama breathing for depression, or sweetened coriander paste taken internally for excessive menstrual bleeding, Baa and Dadaji always had a prescription ready to dole out.
For those of us who are spice-challenged and can barely tell the difference between salt and pepper, envisioning turmeric (a herbaceous plant of the ginger family) or coriander (also known as cilantro) might have been challenge enough. But doodh? A tea beverage. Ashwagandha? A powerful herb in Ayurvedic healing. Pranayama? Breath control.
I bring this up not to criticize but rather to point out how Shveta has finessed what might have been a problem for her readers. Because I never once felt compelled to look up any of the Hindi phrases she sprinkles throughout her story. Sure, I knew some of the words, but there were many others that were new to me. Nevertheless, I read along without a stop, caught up by the skillful telling. Does that make me a lazy reader?
As youngsters, we all learned how to navigate new linguistic territory. Am I wrong to bet that we Mothership Zeta readers consistently read above our grade levels growing up? When we came across a word that we didn’t know, we would guess what it meant from its context. And then, if we saw that word a second time, that guess would strengthen into a surmise. And so on and so on until we began using the word ourselves without ever once having consulted a dictionary. Of course, this skill is fundamental to enjoying science fiction and fantasy. Have you ever looked up Jedi? Ansible? Orc? Quidditch? In fact, this definition-on-the-fly habit becomes so ingrained that we’re no longer aware that we’re doing it. That is, unless a clumsy writer piles new word on new word or doesn’t give us enough context.
Of course, the words we’re talking about in “The Mango Tree” are in Hindi, the fourth most spoken language in the world. But take another look at the opening scene. Yes, there is much that is unfamiliar to a Western audience, but Shveta has a sharp eye for setting and sense impressions. Consider “… the fan whirred overhead, a lazy rhythm that did little to move the stifling air around.” Or “Nectar dripped down over her chin, and she swiped at it with the back of her hand.” Or “The thought of her eighty-seven-year-old grandmother texting made her giggle.” Or “Outside the open window, the sounds of the city combined to form an aural wallpaper: horns honking, people talking loudly in different languages someone playing the latest Bollywood pop loud enough for the entire street to hear.” Even in the unlikely event that you had never heard of Bollywood, you would still be able to hear what Shveta is describing in your mind’s ear. These small brush strokes of vivid and recognizable detail reassure readers who may be hesitant to commit to a story with so many foreign words.
Another thing to appreciate in Shveta’s deft first scene is that it teaches us how to read her story. The first sentence prepares us for magic, but the next two paragraphs lock us into the world of today. Lata begins her story in our familiar reality with its cell phones and air-conditioning (broken) and she’s dubious of Baa’s old-fashioned magic with its gods and evil eyes. Although there is no intrusion of the supernatural in the opening, it is certainly foreshadowed, as is the story’s theme, which is that Lata must come to accept what Baa has to teach, even if it doesn’t make sense in the “real” world. Because in very next scene, the yaksha Pranav pops up and the plot goes chasing off on its merry and fantastical way.
I like how Shveta handles the reveal when she brings her magical guy onstage. There is a spectrum of reaction that characters might have when the supernatural does intrude into a realistic setting, ranging from Scary! Total! Freakout! to ho-hum. We might expect a freakout from Lata given her teenaged skepticism. “Baa and her superstitions!” But she’s been helping Baa minister to the sad and sick – especially that “real live blockbuster actress who’d recently crossed over into American cinema” so she knows that there is an undeniable power to what the Drs. Dalal do that connects to the modern world she lives in. And since Lata is dreamy, impressionable and a little immature, we accept the mildness of her surprise.
She studied him. He was tall, with a muscular bare chest, a yellow dhoti wrapped around his strong legs, and a curved sword sheathed at his hip. It figured she’d gotten the fierce-warrior type of yaksha, not the short, portly imp she could have defended herself against. “What do you want?”
Nature-spirit guy with sword? No big deal! Indeed, since Baa’s wise and benign influence pervades this story, by the time the trio of adventurers step through the banyan tree, we expect that mortal danger will be kept at bay and that all lessons will be learned gently. The threat of the daayan is soon defused.
Though Lata didn’t know what the solution was, she did know the women weren’t demons. They had done their best in a world that hadn’t learned how to make space for them. But it would.
If I were to go to go all Joseph Campbell on you, I might point out that there are the makings of a hero’s journey in this compact but big-hearted story. However, Lata and her friends are so unpretentious and so decidedly non-Western that I suggest we just leave them to their chevdo (Indian snack mix) “… enjoying the zesty mix of rice flakes, crunchy lentils, fried potato sticks, peanuts, and raisins in silence.”
Jim Kelly has won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards and teaches at the
Stonecoast Creative Writing MFA program at the University of Southern Maine.
His new collection of recent stories (and one unpublished!) was released in
October, 2017 from Prime Books. It’s called THE PROMISE OF SPACE AND OTHER STORIES.