Review: ‘Glass Walls: Stories of tolerance and intolerance from the Indian subcontinent and Australia’, edited by Meenakshi Bharat & Sharon Rundle
by Suzanne Mazri
The norms in which cultural communities in Australia and the Indian subcontinent tolerate adversity is a central focus in Glass Walls: Stories of tolerance and intolerance from the Indian subcontinent and Australia. Edited by writers Meenakshi Bharat and Sharon Rundle, the collection was pre-launched at South Asian Festival of Art and Literature and officially launched at the Australian Short Story Festival 18-20th October 2019.
From this collection, I review the stories which explore familial, racial and social relationships. They include Roanna Gonsalves’ ‘The Skit’, Meenakshi Bharat’s ‘A Wedding Gift’, Sharon Rundle’s ‘A Parcel of Dreams’ and Debra Adelaide’s ‘Harder than Your Husband’.
Roanna Gonsalves’ ‘The Skit’ is a discourse into the suppression of opinion and speech in an attempt to maintain high social status. The piece is driven by dialogue between six Indian characters who are all new Australian citizens sitting in a stylish family room: Roslyn and Paul are a couple who have invited their neighbours Lynette, Sushma, Lisbert and Sanjay over for the evening.
While they wait for Paul’s business client John Greenaway’s arrival, Lynette reads her skit to the group about a white professor’s rape of an Indian student. When she is finished, Lynette doesn’t get the feedback she expected. The group’s naive personalities are revealed when they assume that the skit is non-fiction. When Roslyn comments about the likelihood of Lynette offending Greenaway with her story, each character follows suit and convinces Lynette of various reasons why she should not go ahead with the skit altogether.
Roslyn is a quiet, yet pretentious character. The narrator leads the reader into her preoccupied thoughts and we take note of her restless demeanour in her frequent adjustment of the IKEA floor lamp and admiring her own ‘beef roulade on brand new Belgian crystal’ (97). To Roslyn, making an impression and maintaining an image is what counts.
The glowing crystal glasses on the coffee table work as a symbol of compensation for the negative feedback that Lynette receives after reading out her script: ‘There were brand-new crystal glasses on the coffee table in front of Lynette. The light from the floor lamp made them glow like compliments’ (99). Music is an effective element in framing the plot of the story as it reflects the magnitude of Lynette’s implication: her dancing to ‘Paul’s new Bose speakers’ (98) symbolises her tolerance of having been silenced. John Greenaway’s character does not arrive by the end of the story; thus, his absence implies a white, unseen authority that lurks over the actions and thoughts of people from ethnic backgrounds.
Sharon Rundle’s ‘A Parcel of Dreams’ is a story about Sunny, a young English girl who moves from the UK to Sydney for work and loses the support of her family. Her journey flows as a timeline beginning from when Sunny becomes an Australian resident at eighteen, then married to her Australian husband Drew at twenty-two, followed by being a mother of four children and, finally, her older years.
Sunny feels she needs an escape from the UK’s ‘gloomy skies, chill winds and worried frowns’ (133) and Sydney represents her happy place in being ‘bright, warm and full of smiles (133). Rundle expresses the beauty of the Australian sea impressively: ‘…the foam at the edges of a sea that shimmered silver and cerulean, and mirrored the filmy clouds and blue sky’ (133). This reference could suggest a symbol of Sunny’s optimism and her brighter, happier future while the ‘filmy clouds’ reflect her uncertainties.
Sunny’s parents are against her permanent move to Australia, and they considered it offensive to their British heritage. Sunny’s father statement in a letter which says ‘Your Australian phase won’t last and then where will you be? Your friends all miss you. Finish up your job like a good girl and come home’ (134) undermines her capability to make choices and her need to make a location change.
When Sunny marries Drew, her gifts and letters to her parents go unanswered. Nonetheless, Sunny’s optimism keeps her positive and she continues sending gifts in the hope that one day she will receive their understanding and blessing. Drew is a supportive husband and stands by his wife: ‘They’ll come around. You’re their daughter. Who could not love you?’ (135). Yet, while every male character has something to say, Sunny’s mother has no dialogue at all; its nonexistence may imply that Sunny’s mother had been silenced or controlled by her husband not to communicate with Sunny.
Sunny’s yearning for her mother is suggested in her imagination when ‘she would picture her mother secretly unwrapping a fine Merino wool scarf, stroking its softness’ (135). She was sure that she would hear from her mother after giving birth to her first child: ‘Her mother would melt now. Sunny imagined her smiling to herself as she knitted away with pastel wool to make a Layette. Sunny waited and waited’ (137).
Rundle illuminates the heartbreaking reality of those who aren’t lucky enough to have open-minded, supportive parents. The story suggests the idea that very often national pride outweighs a love for one’s own children. Unfortunately, this does not come without consequences: Children of those involved will lose grandparents and generations of family too.
Similarly, Meenakshi Bharat’s ‘The Wedding Gift’ explores the effects of prejudice on generations and remarkably, on opposite continents. Narrated in third person, the story follows a young Indian man called Rishi who is frustrated with his grandmother’s (Dadi) bitter attitude towards his older brother Rahul marrying a Muslim woman: ‘There was no way she’d allow her grandson to marry an Asma. To a Muslim! No, never. Never! Over her dead body!’ (128). Bewildered, he seeks understanding from his mother, but her confused explanation of how Muslims were significant in his grandmother’s history distresses Rahul further.
To escape the gloom, Rishi travels to Italy for his friend Luigi’s wedding with a gift his mother helped him choose from the family’s valuable collection back home. The gift, a silver bell, is passed around the Italian gathering until it arrives in the hands of Luigi’s grandmother. Noticing a swastika at the bottom of the bell, the grandmother throws it out of the window and storms out of the room. Luigi pleads with Rishi not to mind his grandmother’s actions as it is all because of what she had endured in her past.
In her story, Bharat suggests that experience so embeds intolerance in one’s consciousness that it could hinder logic or compassion. It is unfair that humanity should be defined or misunderstood by past historical events. The literary element of irony is effective in this piece as it teaches that historical backgrounds are likely to be linked to other people’s experiences, as in Luigi and Rishi’s case.
The story shows that despite a modern era, the older generations are likely to cling onto their ingrained preconceptions of other nationalities and generalisations based solely on political agendas. Furthermore, Rishi’s distress speaks of intolerances that negatively affect wellbeing and social connection.
Debra Adelaide’s ‘Harder than your Husband’ is clever in its exploration of men’s inadequacy and materialistic obsession, with the inclusion of women’s intolerance or tolerance of such men. The story is narrated from a pastry factory manager’s point of view as he becomes enmeshed with the marital life of his new employee Cheryl and her husband Dennis.
The un-named factory manager listens daily to Cheryl’s stories of her husband’s attentiveness in gifting a $1500 vacuum cleaner and a Holden Commodore V8 with luxury features. The narrator begins to question his own character as a husband and compares his efforts with those of Dennis.
Gradually, cracks are revealed in Cheryl and Dennis’ relationship and we discover Dennis isn’t the ideal man the narrator had considered him to be. When Cheryl takes the Commodore to buy cigarettes, Dennis is furious and the two become embroiled in a fight loud enough for the neighbours to become involved. As Dennis drives the Commodore back into the garage his wife asks him an existential question that has the is narrator thinking too: ‘Then what’s it for, Dennis? If it’s not to drive?’ (145). This question encourages Dennis’s character to brood over this concept while slumped over engines for days in the garage. The narrator ponders the question too: ‘What was the Commodore for? Any Commodore, for that matter, at least any like the ones he fixed up, with their pink or blue fluorescent lights radiating out from underneath…’ (145).
Through the story’s progression, it is possible to come to a conclusion that there is an unspoken dialogue between Dennis and the narrator. The narrator says, ‘One day I had the old CD player ready at the window and as soon as he opened the driver’s window, I pressed the start button. I was not subtle. Frank Zappa…blasted into the factory yard before I let him have the chorus at full volume, the part about being harder than your husband, harder than your husband…’ (146). Like Gonsalves, Adelaide uses music to symbolise a moment or situation. In this instance, the narrator has acknowledged the competition between himself and Dennis. By blaring the song, he has improved his own score in the secret battle.
This story fruitfully explores the insecurities men are likely to possess while in an endless search for validation. It may have been Cheryl’s to tell, but she measured her husband’s value by the expensive things he gifted her and this made it difficult to empathise with her character. Adelaide is successful in reflecting masculinity in a stream of consciousness and implementing a psychological approach to the masculine human condition.
The anthology is commendable for communicating the intolerances of society that the media and the public otherwise find too confronting to address. Each story explores distinct identities, families and lives to communicate a collective vision of intolerances in society. The stories I have reviewed are a brilliant exploration of the many rifts that shake familial, social and cultural ties; hence Glass Walls is a well-crafted collection and will surely appeal to many readers.
This review was written by a hardworking undergraduate student at Swinburne University.