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She of the Mountains by Vivek Shraya

She of the Mountains (2014)

by Vivek Shraya

Other authors: Raymond Biesinger (Illustrator)

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Vivek Shraya's novel of a struggle toward self-acceptance as a queer Canadian-Indian man is lyrical and light, poetry as prose, and tangibly deeply rooted in Hinduism. The modern story -- in the third person limited perspective of an unnamed man -- launches from and repeatedly incorporates retellings of well-known Hindu tales, primarily those of the mother goddess Parvati and her elephant-headed son Ganesha. Gorgeous monochrome images adorn the novel. This is a short book that benefits from analysis and discussion, and I'd highly recommend it.

I didn't find the two storylines -- one ancient myth, one modern story -- explicitly linked or parallel to each other initially, though like poetry, their connections became more tightly linked as I reread. My initial sense was that these stories were linked just to ensure the audience with a wee bit of Hindu background for the tale to come. It's the Hindu aspect that speaks most to me in this story, and even I, minimally educated in Hinduism, found it sprouting in many directions. Some of the most central aspects of this relation to me:

-- The core question is the falseness of dichotomies, especially dichotomies around identity and belonging. The character (the author?) struggles with obnoxious children taunting him for being gay when he is attracted to women; after he adopts the term queer, both his LGBTQ nor straight friends question his queerness; he struggles extensively with what it means to be brown vs. white; a core dilemma is the separation of self from other, and love for self from love for other. The story ends with a recognition that the author needs to learn to love his own self the way he loves his partner. The whole philosophical core of this book is embedded in atman, a true individual self that is one with everything else, but incredibly hard to actually realize and know at the depths of one's being is one with everything else.

-- The metaphor for disliking oneself and one's body is growing additional unwanted body parts, which disappear when the second half of his soul -- his partner -- returns. During a book club discussion, someone pointed out that in a Hindu context, mismatched body parts like ox tails, extra arm, and yes, also elephant heads are symbols of the divine breaking through into the mundane world -- I love this insight. I read this section as the character struggling with his own divinity and his own one-ness with everything, fighting it rather than embracing it, seeking solace outside himself that is guaranteed to fail, because he is resisting the divine and resisting the nature of his world.

-- The entire book has me wondering how if the main character is struggling because of cultural Canadian context, and might do better emotionally embracing an identity as India's third gender. Hijras, never mentioned the book, are a group of people born and raised as men who decide around puberty to be neither male nor female, and dress as women (with many current social ills that some would argue arise from historical British discomfort with the existence of this group). The gender and sexual orientation taxonomy is completely different from the one we use in Canada, making some of the core struggles of the book melt away. Hijras have special closeness to the divine; they worship Parvati, who is the first person and title character in this novel; the story of Ganesh has direct parallels to their lived experience. There seems to be the faintest suggestion that some of the pain around imposed dualistic boxes could be resolved through changing a cultural lens of identity, again suggesting the falseness of the dichotomies.

-- Ganesh's story is the clearest parallel to the main character's struggle, and so the myth stands out as worth repeating as one with resonance for who problematizes bodies, who bodies belong to, whether source of body part matters, the unity behind everything, and what matters most in the world: Parvati molds a young boy from clay, and asks him to stand guard as she goes to clean herself; on her return, she finds her new son beheaded, and that her husband Shiv did it, not recognizing his wife in the boy until too late. With the strength of mourning, Ganesh receives a new head -- that of a demon that Shiv had slain earlier that day. They bury Ganesh's original head under the tallest tree, and they raise their elephant-headed boy and his brother; Ganesh is a devoted and wise son. Eventually he asks his parents why he is dreaming of a clearing and trees, and his parents are surprised that he never wondered at his difference in having an elephant's head (but it is just his head -- not remarkable to him, but only to those around him). They take him to the clearing to visit his first head. The tree has lagged behind, but the head's location is recognizable, and by lying close to it, Ganesh and his severed head are united as one again.

-- The novel has a myriad of asides and statements that I read as allusions, even more of which I'm sure I missed. One that comes to mind, obvious because that is how I need it, is a passage that begins "He could never escape the jarring feeling that he and his body were still two separate entities with two separate operating systems. Maneuvering his body felt like driving with the emergency brake on.... What he craved was the kind of repair that would unite driver and car as one, make them synchronous. He wondered if this was even possible, or if everyone silently struggled with this duality." Using a car as the metaphor here is jarring, but it allows the language in this passage to relate closely to a core passage in the Bhagavad Gita in which our human hero Arjuna loses his nerve before combat. Arjuna turns to his charioteer Krishna, who is unknown-to-Arjuna an incarnation of God, and Krishna explains that reality is eternal, spaceless, changeless, and that the soul is exactly that -- there is no duality. This is the core idea of yoga -- to yoke mind and body as one and make them synchronous. She of the Mountains is poetry as prose with this and other sketches and glancing allusions.

There is a ton to chew on here, and discussions make it even more appreciable. It's a lovely book. If you're lucky enough to see it, you should pick it up and take a look. ( )
  pammab | Nov 29, 2017 |
Essentially a story of becoming safe and comfortable in your own skin, Shraya disarmingly interweaves snippets of the Hindu story of Shiva, Parvati, and Ganesha with that of a young Indian-Canadian man just finding his way emotionally, sexually, and socially into adulthood. Although long "categorized" by those around him as gay, much of the book recounts an engulfing relationship with a woman, which shows in a direct and startling way just how detrimental narrow labels are. Getting grief from gay and straight friends alike for not hewing closely to one "side"—and here Shraya handles the story beautifully—he just keeps moving forward, somehow permitting the course dictated by his spirit to lead him. The intertwined Hindu myth narrative illuminates this quest subtly as well as deeply. ( )
1 vote Boito_2 | Dec 17, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Vivek Shrayaprimary authorall editionscalculated
Biesinger, RaymondIllustratorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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She of the Mountains is a beautifully rendered illustrated novel by Vivek Shraya, the author of the Lambda Literary Award finalist God Loves Hair. Shraya weaves a passionate, contemporary love story between a man and his body, with a re-imagining of Hindu mythology. Both narratives explore the complexities of embodiment and the damaging effects that policing gender and sexuality can have on the human heart. Illustrations are by Raymond Biesinger, whose work has appeared in such publications as The New Yorker and the New York Times.… (more)

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