January 7, 2019KR BlogNewsletter

Why We Chose It

Governing Bodies,” by Sangamithra Iyer, appears in the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of the Kenyon Review.

The stories of the formerly colonized are the stories of lives disrupted and fragmented, invisible bodies that did the work of the Empire. How to write about those whom history has forgotten is a problem their descendants confront repeatedly; no easy search on Ancestry.com for us. Instead, we have half-told stories, scraps of paper, and inaccessible or incomplete archives.

Sangamithra Iyer’s gorgeous lyric essay, “Governing Bodies,” embodies this challenge in language that is both elegiac and clear eyed, lacking in nostalgia and false sentiment. It’s an essay built on images and echoes of its central motifs: water, family, and elephants. How these come together in the end is both surprising and inevitable, and the essay, like a river, takes it time getting there.

Iyer announces these motifs immediately, starting with the Irrawaddy river in Burma, named for the “mythical, multi-trunked, white elephant Airavata,” and then, in the next sentence, with family. “My family history is a story produced from water,” she writes. As the essay progresses (and digresses), the underlying theme of power and control emerges, specifically that of the British Empire over its subjects. One of these subjects—and perhaps the root of Iyer’s identity—is the grandfather the narrator never knew, “a civil engineer turned water diviner who was a follower of Mohandas K. Gandhi.” In the 1930s, he abruptly quit his job for the British in Burma and returned to Southern India, where he attempted to live according to Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence while raising thirteen children, one of whom becomes the narrator’s father. These are the facts, but they don’t tell the story.

When the narrator’s father dies, she realizes his history, too, is incomplete. She knows he began his professional life in New York City on Ward’s Island as a social worker. Like her, he loved animals. What was his life like in those early days? She can’t know, and so she imagines him on “his lunch break feeding the stray dogs and looking out onto the East River.”

All the tension here is generated within the reader. The essay isn’t driven by “what next?” but rather by “how next?”, as in how is this writer going to pull all these strands together? The lack of information about her family history creates challenges for the child growing up in New York. “Back then,” Iyer writes, “there were many things about myself I was discovering, many things I was uncertain about.” Daily she finds herself “reconciling my identity between two worlds,” in which others define her, mock her, or question her. Where does the self begin, separate from culture or religion?  The turning point comes when the narrator realizes that not eating meat doesn’t come from obligation to religion or family. It’s her choice. It’s not that she can’t eat meat. She won’t eat meat.

Now the heart of the essay emerges: how does a person, governed by rules created by others, claim her power? How does the act of creating history “from the knowns and unknowns” allow her to do this?

Iyer turns to what is available, a history of elephants used in the logging industry in Burma, contemporaries of her grandfather. While some were kept in total captivity, others were released into the wild after a day on the river and tracked down for work the next day. These elephants lived with “an illusion of freedom at night,” and the narrator wonders what this partial domestication was like. “When does [the elephant] submit and when does she choose to rebel?” she asks.

A lyric essay feels like a journey with digressions and interruptions, unplanned stops and uncertainty. Pulling the strands together, the reader understands that Iyer’s is a family history produced by water and controlled by powers beyond them, “as colonized bodies were controlled, through a rigid bureaucracy.” In the end, Iyer does for her grandfather what he could not: she reclaims his agency and corrects the official history, with a final line that is both surprising and inevitable.