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But Kamani endorses a different brand of Alice: not Wonderland, but Walker. Junglee Girl‘s 11 stories show how sensual exploration and sisterhood become weapons against repression. For this reason, despite sometimes lyrical passages and unpredictable, dreamlike imagery, each narrative follows a set formula: Indian girl from well-to-do family conspires with household servant to satisfy a curiosity, invariably sexual; confidence is betrayed by middle-class girl, servant, or both; offending servant is sacked and girl walks away sadder but wiser.
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Kamani plumbs a perspective popular in the West—that of class transgression—but one scarcely discussed in Indian literature until recently. In Kamani’s fiction, camaraderies are more often exclusive than inclusive; relationships between higher and lower classes tend to be flimsy ones based on power, unlike the gentler ethnic comedies of Salman Rushdie. Kamani has little tolerance for those enslaved by tradition. This holds true for her treatment of such Hindu customs as vegetarianism. In her closing story, the author conjures an Indian Lady Lazarus in a society of arranged marriages: The heroine’s defiant lust is equated with carnivorousness.
To her credit, Kamani creates genuinely affecting portraits of women, particularly put-upon maidservants and grandmothers. Yet Kamani is a sometime Bombay screenwriter, and aspects of this trade transfer unfavorably to Junglee Girl. Her principal characters are given to maudlin, italicized soliloquies, and one story, “Just Between Indians,” caps an otherwise compelling plot with a sappy ending that only Bollywood could dream up. Similarly, in “The Lucky Dip,” Kamani allows the dialogue of a children’s game to prattle on for pages, like an untended camera left running.
Nor is subtlety a feature of Junglee Girl. Kamani—no doubt trying to live up to her daring title—frequently employs grotesque anatomical references. Her effusive descriptions of genitalia, digestive tracts, vomit, and even a mutated kitten seem obsessive at best, gratuitous at worst. The result is that Kamani’s stories aren’t “wild” in the fullest sense—more often, they’re simply crude.
Ginu Kamani reads from Junglee Girl at 6:30 p.m. Friday, May 19, at Lammas Women’s Books, 1426 21st St. NW.