Swati Pal, The Sunday Pioneer September 14, 2003

Neem Dreams

There are many good reasons why I would wholeheartedly recommend Inez Baranay’s latest novel Neem Dreams to anyone. Here are some of them: Though more of a fringe writer, Inez Baranay is Australian and Australian literature in English is here to stay. It has come of age in patterns similar to Indian writing in English. … Its location in India is not your usual outsider’s perspective on India. Rather it strikes a chord in the completely familiar way both natural landscapes and those of the human mind are painted in verbal pictures. It is easy for example to identify with Prashant and Meenakshi’s anxiety at the time of the Ayodhya dispute (while they were students in America) We can no longer assume our attitude is obvious, reasonable, widely shared. Can you believe what’s happening? Political leaders with the loudest voices are echoed by resonating chants of crowds of increasing, maniacal magnitude, proclaiming that India is only Bharat, only Hindustan. A secular, tolerant, democratic India, that is the vision we have been born to inherit. Our pious Hindu ancestors would be appalled at the suggestion that any one Indian tradition was more indigenous than any other. Yet it is in their name that the so-called Hindu nationalists exhort the domination, the elimination, of others. Hinduize politics and militarize Hinduism: the old slogan is revived and now within the context of an increasingly apparent organizational complex embracing the phenomenon of mass communalism. Prashant begins to speak of returning not only to India but to his rural home. The writer does not use India as an exotic backdrop. The novel focuses on four characters, Andy, Pandora, Meenakshi and Jade. In the brief time that their lives are intertwined in India, their past is also unraveled. Simple enough but as the story progresses one has only to sense Pandora’s frustration and rage at the non- happening growth of the project; or Andy’s repulsion in the Benares scene, to understand that the author in no way adheres to the stereotype of India as the land that helps to ease pain. In Pandora’s complete harmony with Meenakshi, her almost omniscient glance into Meenakshi’s mind and heart; in Andy’s affinity with Jolly; the author illustrates, in her characteristic no-fuss-about manner, the old adage that people of the same family need not always be under the same roof-that cultural barriers and national boundaries, not withstanding Kipling’s poetically expressed beliefs on this subject, do not prevent the meeting of minds. The novel educates. It touches on an issue - the patenting of neem products - that few, even among the educated elite are conversant with. It reminds us that Australians are sensitive to their ‘Otherness’ in a manner akin to the ‘Oriental’. The narrative technique adopted by the author is engrossing. It is centripetal in that the four protagonists who occupy the same territorial zone for a while are each preoccupied with his/her own private emotional baggage of the past and of a different locale. The intricate enmeshing of each character’s psyche with his/her interaction with each other prevents the narrative from flagging. And the device of the central symbol, the Neem Tree, that threads the characters is unusual yet some how appropriate. The language is liquid, it flows. It is poetic in parts, self-reflexive at most times and the idiomatic English spoken by some of the Indian characters does not read as some sort of gimmicky parody: the author is careful to delineate the different ‘Englishes’ spoken in India based on class, community and nature of education. Perhaps the closure that the author chooses to give to the novel could engender dissatisfaction. But it could also be read positively. Whatever it evokes, it is certainly startling. It makes one think. And thinking is surely an excellent reason for reading a novel. So, Read It.

-Swati Pal, The Sunday Pioneer September 14, 2003