Boman Desai Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Bombay, India, 1950. Education: Illinois Institute of Technology, 1969-71; Bloomsburg State College, 1971-72; University of Illinois at Chicago, B.A. 1977. Career: Has worked as telephone interviewer and demographics researcher. Currently, a secretary for Sears, Roebuck and Co., Chicago. Award: Illinois Arts Council award, 1990, for "Under the Moon;" Stand Magazine award, for "A Fine Madness."
The Memory of Elephants. London, Deutsch, 1988.
David and Charles. N.p., 1990.
Uncollected Short Stories
"The Blond Difference," in Debonair (Bombay), February 1986.
"Beauty and the Beast," in Debonair (Bombay), April 1988.
"Baby Talk," in Debonair (Bombay), April 1988.
"A Fine Madness," in Stand, Fall 1989.
"Underneath the Bombay Moon," in Another Chicago Magazine, 1989.
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Boman Desai, who grew up in Bombay and was educated in the United States, began writing in 1976. It follows that his debut novel, The Memory of Elephants, would shuttle back and forth between Anglo and Indian worlds, neither critical nor laudatory, but clearly giving credence to the efficacy of both. Grounded in history, both panoramic and intimate, The Memory of Elephants is a visually evocative story chiefly concerned with memory—collective, personal, and perceived.
The novel's protagonist, Homi Seervai, is a brilliant Parsi from Bombay attending school in the United States. Homi has been conducting experiments on himself with a memory machine—a memoscan—that allows him to rewind to any memory he wishes to retrieve. He becomes so enamored of one particular memory that he overplays it, threatening to sever his synapses forever. As a result, he is now in a semiconscious state, without a short-term memory, and totally at the whim of an unrelenting past. Slipping in and out of time and space, Homi's memory takes him as far back as the 7th century, when the Parsis were driven from what is now Iran by the conquering Arabs. But most of his memories concern the last three generations, transporting readers into 19th-century India, England, even Scotland, and into the lives of his family's matriarchs.
The intriguing device of the memoscan is fairly inconsequential to the novel itself, although it certainly enhances the omniscience of the omniscient narrator. Homi not only remembers the past from his own perspective, he peeks into and actually participates in the perspectives of others. In this way he meets the long-dead Bapaiji, the strong-minded tomboy spurned by Navsari's most eligible bachelor and who visits Homi's memory dressed as a man, and Granny, whose happiest years were the four she spent in Cambridge and who never got beyond the single betrayal of her youth that established a lifetime of paranoia. Homi's own father returns to him in Highland regalia and attempts to teach him to dance the Scottish fling.
With these and many other familial trysts as his backdrops, the author is able to explore far deeper issues: the definition of self in a colonialized culture or, as the author puts it, "the pilgrimage to all things Anglo"; the strange contradiction of an India that is culturally chauvinistic yet submissive in its relation to England; and the freeing and fearsome aspects to being foreign, inside and outside of one's own culture.
Parsi words are interjected easily into the text without interrupting the narrative flow, and the author does a good job of explaining lingual distinctions, both quaint and exasperating. When presenting Indian perspectives on anything alien, the author is particularly adept, as when he describes a young American hippie having "a nimbus of cauliflower hair."
Especially persuasive are the passages describing Homi and his brother Rusi's struggles with cultural assimilation. Homi's observations of his host family—staid German farmers from Pennsylvania—are sympathetic and completely without condescension, even though he ultimately absorbs very little of their world.
Characters are drawn with warmth and penetrating satire. This is not a nostalgic memoir. We see these characters warts and all, and who they are is neither fixed nor immutable but changing and adaptive. Hence, the reader will often receive more than one perception of an event and, depending on the event itself, encounter different emphases and tones in much the same way that the memory functions, weeding out the things that are superfluous, selecting the things most strongly undergirded by emotion.
As the novel progresses, it becomes apparent that one memory has Homi held hostage. As he puts it, he could have "learned the password of whales" or "probed the memory of elephants." Instead, he is a cerebral slave to a single recollection—the night he lost his virginity. It is a nice touch on the author's part to suggest that it is a peculiar propensity of humans to shun the profoundly wise in favor of the emotionally and egoistically persuasive.