The Mongerji Letters by Geetha Iyer – selection #4 of Deal Me In 2017


The Card: ♠5♠ of Spades

The Suit: For this year’s Deal Me IN, the suit of Spades is the domain of Clotho, one of the Fates from Greek Mythology who, according to Plato’s Republic sings of “the things that are.”

The Selection: “The Mongerji Letters” from Orion magazine. As of this post’s publishing, the story is available on line at https://orionmagazine.org/article/the-mongerji-letters/  I own a copy of the story via The O. Henry Prize Stories 2016 collection.

The Author: Geetha Iyer – yet another new to me author. To quote Orion Magazine’s info on her, she “…was born in India and grew up in the United Arab Emirates, and moved to the United States to study biology. She has since become an MFA student at Iowa State University’s Creative Writing & Environment program. She writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry bent toward place-based and science writing.” She currently lives in Panama City, Panama. You may visit her website at https://geethaiyer.wordpress.com

What is Deal Me In? I’m glad you asked!  Full details maybe found here, but generally speaking it’s a reading challenge where participants read one short story a week for the year, the reading order being determined by the luck of the draw. See here for a list of the stories/essays I’ll be reading in 2017.

The Mongerji Letters

“Since the collapse of one of the last dynasties of the common era and the subsequent end of the era itself, historians have searched for descendants of the Mongerji family, as well as descendants of the scribes who, under their employ, collected samplings of flora and fauna from around the world. The only evidence discovered thus far are the letters that follow. They are from Mr. Mongerji, his wife, Kavita, and two of the three Mongerji children, all addressed to a Mr. Chappalwala, thought to have been the last of the Mongerjis’ scribes. Archivists continue to seek Mr. Chappalwala’s side of the correspondence.”

This was a rather bizarre story. The introductory paragraph quoted above is all the grounding that the reader is given. The nature of the world in which these letters were written (“created” is probably a better word) is left primarily to our imagination. What is clear, however, is that the family whose members wrote them are in decline, probably throwbacks to an older world – i.e., the “common era” referred to in the intro. The correspondence is multi-generational, but the letters covered in this story seem to span 15 years, from “__18” to “__33” – the first two digits that would tell us the century are strategically omitted…

The letters have some kind of magical quality as the envelopes that contain them also contain somehow “compressed” examples of the flora and fauna from wherever the Chappalwalas are sending them, often resulting in near tragic events upon opening – in once case a giant tree springs out of the envelope and it is all the Mongerjis can do to get it stuffed back in.  Another time, an opened envelope floods their living room with water and a living polar bear(!)

I won’t claim I totally understood this story, but it did leave me with a vague impression of the decline or even”decay” of the natural world’s beauty due to a continued siege by humanity’s progress.  The writing was superb too, and the perspectives of the different Mongerji children of the current generation added additional layers to the story’s complexity as well.

The “magic” property of the letters is not explained, but I liked the following passage because it refers to one of my favorite creatures, discovered via a prior Bibliophilopolis read – this one for The R.I.P. Challenge – The Axolotl!

“I asked Dhidhi whether if we left the fruit outside the envelope the eggs would hatch, but she said that everything trapped inside the Chappalwala envelopes was like an axolotl — it would never really grow up.”

Below: some of the beautiful artwork from Orion Magazine where the story was originally published. Did you notice the envelopes in each picture?


Playing card image in DMI header from http://nonregistrability55.rssing.com/chan-24181537/all_p1.html

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