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Book Review: Jungle Without Water and Other Stories by Sreedhevi Iyer

I wouldn’t have thought it possible to relate to stories on immigration and migration, for the most part, because I haven’t experienced anything like it myself. Jungle Without Water is, by leaps and bounds of nonchalance, a surprisingly relatable, illustrative and thought-provoking read. I mean, I’m not claiming to know a lot about the Indian community and how they live and see the world. But there are aspects in these stories that gave me an insight into their feelings and thoughts as I read this collection with curiosity. Some of the issues tackled are race, identity, and prejudice.

Standouts for me have to be the title story; “Jungle Without Water”, “The Man With Two Wives” and “IC”.

“Jungle Without Water” is about a boy who moved to another country to pursue his studies and is constantly searching for a place to pray in his new home. It reminds me of being homesick that one time I traveled to Australia (surprise surprise, the country the boy migrated to is also Australia) and was constantly searching for food that tastes like home. I had clung to food as an anchor for who I am and where I am from, and in the same way, that was how our protagonist felt when he eventually got to a Gurdwara—everything feels and tastes almost the same, but not quite. Supernatural elements are peppered throughout the story and connected to the spiritual act of praying. Without actually invoking it, the narrative tiptoes around the question of whether a place of worship matters or if it’s more about becoming more at one with God and one another.

I love, love, love “The Man With Two Wives” for its voice. It’s so Malaysian as though this man is talking to you in all our glorious Malaysian slang. I think it takes great skill to write a piece like that—to have a genuine voice that draws readers into the story as opposed to forcing a lingo into a narrative as an irritating cheap gimmick. It’s so good that sometimes I wonder why don’t we have more writings like this.

“IC” was a little bit trippy for me as it switches between first to third voice, leaping between past and present time to tell the story of a taxi driver’s thoughts and his reminiscing his childhood. I hope I read that right. It’s about identity (if the title isn’t obvious enough for you) and belonging. There was one scene where a group of boys was comparing their fathers’ ICs. The different colors of their identity cards prompted one Malay boy to say, “Your red, green cards all permanent residents only, not warganegara, you know. Only Azlan and me warganegara. You all pendatang!”

It’s heart-breaking as it brings to mind news reports of stateless Indians and my own identity as a Malaysian, that despite owning a blue IC, I’m still considered as “other”.

Overall, I enjoyed Iyer’s collection of stories although there were some that I couldn’t understand at the moment. Seeing that most of them are about crossing borders, culture and inequality, I feel like they contribute to the greater conversation on migrants, refugees, even tourists, which is timely in our current international climate. Some flee the conflict in their home country or area, the more fortunate ones migrate, and some are just here for a visit, or to reconnect with their families. What they have in common is the realization that the grass is not always greener on the other side, what with the judgment, prejudice and displaced sense of justice they have had to suffer. It is easy to treat people like that just because we don’t understand them and where they are coming from. But if there’s one thing to take away from this anthology, it is to be kind and patient with everyone as we are all trying to fit in and make sense of an unfamiliar environment. And hopefully, we may be able to understand them better.

Leanne Tan

Leanne reads books during meal times and on trains. When not reading, she can be found scrolling through her phone for Twitter threads and/or fanfiction. She cannot stop reading.



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