TEXT review

Timeless stories for troubled times

review by Helen Burns


Sreedhevi Iyer
Jungle Without Water
Gazebo Books, Sydney NSW 2018 
ISBN: 9780987619143
Pb 183pp AUD24.99


The title story ‘Jungle Without Water’ about a devout young Sikh newly migrated to Australia is perfectly placed at the beginning of this often humorous, but also heart rending, collection. It’s a story about navigation. Jogi needs to find a place to pray in Brisbane and is shown a refidex. It seemed ‘almost as big as the Holy Granth Sahib. Jogi imagined his mother’s surprize at the notion of a book that only existed to tell how to travel around a city’ (9).

Iyer takes the reader into the minds and hearts of ordinary people – from Brisbane to Kuala Lumpur, to Penang and Madras – living out their lives and dreams in the midst of cultural constraints and clashes. ‘I.C.’ is a story about identity, and the Identity Cards issued to Malaysian citizens. In peak hour traffic Kathiresan, a taxi driver, muses about the city girl he has just picked up. ‘What’s in that accent? Too polished, but just enough edges to tell me she’s not from KL proper. Nice English, but not like those in business. A little bit proper, a little bit not’ (82).

As a boy Kathiresan aspired to be the best marble player in the world. Iyer plays with this as a metaphor and, in a sense, his dream comes true. Driving taxis in the melting pot of Kuala Lumpur every passenger is examined for colour and flaw Malay, Chinese, Tamil, some Portugese blood perhaps, Chindian, Peranakan – ‘the way they glinted separately in the sun, like jewels’ (111). Ever the consummate taxi driver he also has a strategy for those who prefer no conversation:

If no talking I turn to my radio, if I like the look of my customer, I will even change it to a station I think they may like. So for the Chinese I put on One FM, the Malays I put ERA, otherwise if it is makkal, one of us, I let it be at THR Raaga. For the tourists, of course, I put on Mix FM, although mainly I cannot stand the stupid noise from it. (84)

‘The Lovely Village’ is a parable for our shores, requiring no leap of imagination for Australian readers in the context of our current closed border policies. Fenced off from the world the lovely village’s people lead idyllic, virtuous lives. Word spreads and outsiders start gathering at the fence. One of them asks the gatekeeper:

“Why will you not let us into this truly enchanted place, this place that you must so clearly love?”
“Oh yes, how I do love this place,” the gatekeeper replies, “even if I wanted to, I would lose my job if I did, and in this village nobody lets go of their work.” (34)

The pleas from outside intensify triggering an ongoing debate inside the village. Tara, a spokesperson for the people, and their moral compass, steps up in support of the newcomers asking to be let in. She is shouted down:

“Don’t fault the system,” said Nathan.
“The system functions for the protection of the village at all costs,” said Charles
“Exactly,” the Lord Mayor interjects, “the village needs to be protected. It has been protected all this while, which is how we constructed everything and everyone equal, and we are so proud of it, and that’s the truth.” (38)

At the core of Iyer’s writing style there is a freshness and simplicity, and yet I often paused in my reading to reflect on insights gleaned through her characters. The poignant voice of a child, for example, in ‘Cake and Green M&Ms’, wondering why her father’s best friend did not meet them at Brisbane airport. ‘Whenever anyone from overseas visited Madras, Pa made sure the car was packed with as many family members as possible. Pa says it is basic courtesy’(165). Or the complexities of a masala wallah’s life in Malaysia in ‘The Man With Two Wives’: ‘“You think I am one of those fellers, keeping one on the side quiet-quiet while everbody laughs away?”’(61). And then there is the voice of a coconut in ‘The Last Day of a Divine Coconut’: ‘[S]omehow being a Malaysian coconut seems slightly insignificant compared to being a diasporic Indian coconut of the United States. Coconuts from here that have reached there have been asked if Malaysia is situated in Africa. Sad but true’ (139).

In ‘Circular Feed’ Iyer about-turns from the dilemmas raised in ‘The Lovely Village’ to the plights of those standing on that other side of the fence. A young man climbs onto the roof of a detention centre sending ripples of consternation, confusion, fear and hope through the community of asylum seekers watching from below. Conventional punctuation is abandoned and I often needed to reread sections in an attempt to keep track of the detainees’ ever unfolding dialogues:

Yes that’s him, said Zya to Khalid, he said he was going to do it, and now he is. That’s brave of him, Khalid told Yusuf later at dinner, but Yusuf only shook his head, brave and stupid are different sides of the same coin, he said, he was going to get himself killed. That’s a bad attitude said Kahan, we should be more supportive, and Zya pointed out they were all here because  they themselves were not getting any, and it’s been eighteen months, said Amir to Yaakub, and all Shelley tells me is to wait, no wonder he is, added Khan, he is doing it for his wife and kids. He’s doing it for attention, said Yusuf (according to Khalid), he’s only going to make it worse for the rest of us because he doesn’t know the value of keeping his mouth shut and listening to the authorities. (117)

This circular feed of quandary drives home the desolation of detainees awaiting processing. I was thrown into their time-warp – days bleeding into weeks months years. The man on the roof is never mentioned by name. Neither are the names of the others who eventually join him. In contrast we learn more about the many detainees watching as events unfold; every man and woman weighing in on the situation. Then there is Shelley, the one staff member who appears to care. This is a confronting story, not least for Qamar’s brilliant observation at the end, in her conversation with Jamal, Sara, Aisha and Latif – just a few of the other detainees whose names are all etched into the conscience of readers in this razor-sharp tale.

It was no surprise to learn Iyer is an Indian-Malaysian-Australian. Her astute ear for the colloquial and an exceptional grasp of the many Englishes spoken in South and South East Asia gives authenticity and nuance to her characters. Jungle Without Water is also a wise book for the truths it reveals through ordinary lives, and humanity, no matter what language, race, creed or caste.

Perhaps the last word should come from the divine coconut awaiting sacrifice on a temple altar, a ritual ensuring the buyer’s ego is liberated from obstacles and ego:

...here I am, waiting for prayers to start, in the full knowledge of other coconuts having been broken before and after me, in places ranging from ten to a thousand miles away. I imagine myself connected to all these other coconuts in some Rushdiesque way, a web of interconnecting lines between me and my siblings trespassing across man-made lines on maps. What if, by some strange circumstance, all the Little India temples of the world each broke a coconut simultaneously? What a collective crack that would be – one global gunshot. (145)




Helen Burns is a poet and writer from Northern NSW and recipient of a Varuna LongLines Residency and the QWC / Hachette Australia Manuscript Development Program. She is currently seeking a publisher for her second book Migrations of Love, a literary cross-cultural novel which includes her interpretive translations of ninth century Tamil songs.


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Vol 23 No 1 April 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker