Midway through Vinod Busjeet's debut novel Silent Winds, Dry Seas, the young protagonist describes an Urdu-Hindi word, "tamasha," as one that he has "often heard in Bombay movies, a word that has become part of the Kreol language on the island. A word whose meaning encompasses song and dance, fun and excitement, as well as commotion and drama." For a story told in a relatively gentle register, it certainly has all of this in good measure.
Over 200 years ago, Mauritius, a jewel-like island in the Indian Ocean, was a French colony, and the French imported thousands of indentured laborers — and some slaves — from all over India. The British continued that practice when they took over. When slavery ended after 1833, Indians stayed on in Mauritius, as laborers, soldiers, teachers and tradesmen. Today, their descendants make up around 65% of the population. Busjeet is one such descendant; his family has been on the island for at least a hundred years, through the country's independence from the British and the ensuing conflicts between the white, Indian, Chinese, and Creole communities. His debut novel, while depicting the fictional Vishnu Bhushan's life from birth until his early 20s, covers some of that critical history.
The story also includes the everyday politics that play out within and between cultures, communities, classes, families, races, ethnicities, and religions on Mauritius. At first glance, it may seem as if Busjeet is simply revisiting familiar tropes of coming of age and immigrant assimilation. Certainly, Silent Winds doesn't shy away from typical polarities: young versus old; tradition versus modernity; freedom versus repression; community versus individual. Yet, through the archetypal Vishnu, Busjeet charts the entire evolution of Mauritian society, grounded in its historical context, with sharp wit, poetic charm, and graceful insights.
Our first encounter with Vishnu is upon his return to Mauritius as a middle-aged American, when his father is taken seriously ill. His mother shares a family secret, which leads to Vishnu's recounting of his childhood and adolescence. This mature point of view enables him to connect all the island life anecdotes of family, friends, neighbors, locals, and politicians into a flowing story of his then-emerging adulthood. He examines the many invisible threads that simultaneously built him up and held him down during those earlier years with the wisdom gained in the decades since, revealing the comic in the tragic, and vice versa.
Vishnu's father, Shiv, was one of seven siblings from a family of modest means. His hard work helped him make it as a schoolteacher, while some of his friends went on to become lawyers and politicians. For Shiv, economic status wasn't simply money in the bank but about finding secure footing in his ever-shifting world.
Learning from the struggles of his ancestors, father, and uncles as the clan worked their way from indentured coolies to independent planters to educated white-collar workers, Vishnu understands how external forces can thwart him at every turn. As his awareness of himself, his desires, and his place in the world deepens, so does his resolve to thrive, not just survive. Finishing his graduate studies in the US — though uncertain whether he has what an international bank president calls "the profit motive" — Vishnu reconciles with how his Indo-Mauritian upbringing has given him both ballast and flotsam; it is up to him to choose what to carry forward.
Though this might sound like grim fare, Busjeet excels in vivid, tactile experiences and unforgettable Mauritian characters. Here's just a sampling: the two Creole fisherman brothers, Kalipa and Fringant, physically sparring over opposing politicians in one moment and singing soulful séga songs in another; Uncle Ram, who has loved and lost more often than most men his age; Auntie Ranee, his strong and regal wife, who demands of her brother's mistress, "Who are your parents? What is your khandaan?" and Kumar, the boozy, womanizing secondary school teacher, who misses Calcutta's literary life and introduces Vishnu to a world of prostitutes; Tamby, the South Indian pimp who makes it clear that "I'm here to find women for you, not to dig into family problems," Madame Joseph, a poor Creole woman, whose favorite saying is "Men: all the same sauce," and Uncle Neeraj, the flamboyant tailor who emulates Bombay film stars and is eventually imprisoned for counterfeit foreign exchange.
Small flaws mar the narrative: On occasion, Busjeet slips into a formal or archaic language register. The opening arc with the secret family revelation doesn't develop into anything much. And some of the women, though not stereotypical, could have been given more dimensions. Nevertheless, as an intelligent, witty, and compassionate rendering of a full and rich world, it is a much-needed addition to the small body of contemporary Mauritian literature (see French-to-English translations from writers like Ananda Devi and Nathacha Appanah.)
Several years ago, the writer Zadie Smith was on the Desert Island Discs podcast. Having once been a 22-year-old wunderkind with an award-winning debut bestseller, she was now a writer in her 40s. "There's no replacement for experience," she said. "You can't fake it, you can't fictionalize it. It won't develop your heart, it won't develop you as a person. It's a kind of game that you can play on the page but it's not the same as being alive. Being alive is a very radical thing; it's much more difficult ..." There are books where writers play skilled games on the page. And there are books where writers bring their experiences, heart, and radical living to the page. This debut novel, from a writer in his 70s, is a luminous example of the latter.
Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, book critic, and host of the Desi Books podcast.
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