Postcards from Oxford: Stories of Women and Travel
“Elegantly written, with poise and control, each of the stories presented in this collection beg to be pondered with great care. As a body of work, they examine what it means for a 21st century woman to travel . . .”
The trajectory of the road was once considered a strictly masculine pursuit. Nineteenth century novelist and memoirist George Sand recounts masquerading as a male dandy in order to walk untouched on account that her “clothes feared nothing . . . no one knew me, no one looked at me, no one found fault with me.”
Male clothing positively inspired movement. A gentleman in his Sunday best could walk miles without even a blister in a smart, stout pair of shoes. Yet few would expect the same of his female counterpart, perched on high heels with her dress dragging in the mud. A lady’s place was in the parlor, or perhaps the boudoir.
It is for this reason that at the turn of the 20th century the flaneuse is a figure seldom encountered. Yes female walkers certainly existed, including Sand, Rene Vivien. and Djuna Barnes to name but a few; however, the urban adventurer was predominantly male.
In her collection of short stories entitled Postcards from Oxford: Stories of Women and Travel, novelist and academic Debotri Dhar has tenderly breathed life into the slumbering body of the literary flaneuse. The women we encounter in Ms. Dhar’s work seize the trajectory of the road and navigate it on their own terms. This is, without doubt, flanerie for the 21st century.
Ms. Dhar’s approach is at first glance deceptively simple. Many of the stories assume the initial tone of postcard reportage insomuch as the narrator positions herself as an outsider attempting to describe unfamiliar surroundings. The author is a keen observer, and regardless of whether she is describing the urban sprawl of the Indian metropolis in “Calcutta, by Foot” or the foreboding depths of the jungle in “Snakes.” a deep sensory understanding of the location is always proffered.
Once the reader has breathed the same air as her protagonists, overheard the same music, tasted the same wine, only then does she begin to slowly reveal the complexities of their characters, their motives and desires.
This technique is never more beguiling than in “Table for Two,” the story of a femme fatale who has secret plans for the two men who court her, one a poet, the other a successful lawyer. The story is a treatise on control and manipulation, and yet it is recounted in such a way, whispered through the smoke of seduction, that even the reader’s judgement may be impaired by intoxication.
One of the shorter stories in the collection, “Love, First Class” describes the impromptu meeting of a man and woman in an airport. The general hubbub of the terminal is contrasted by the sedate decadence of the executive lounge. The narrator is a self-assured observer, understanding each of the passersby: “in the chic First Class lounges of busy international airports there are usually three kinds of people: the Tourists, the Tricksters and the Travellers.” She watches knowingly as the seduction plays out before her and departs with the wistful insouciance of one who has encountered similar entanglements in her youth.
Not all of Dhar’s characters are quite so self assured. In “Snakes” we meet a skittish young New York photographer with a fear of snakes who had been posted on assignment to the Indian jungle. She puts her trust in a local boy who momentarily succeeds in allaying her paranoia. This story has more twists than a zigzagging cobra, and at the dénouement, an equally unexpected venomous strike, which proves to be the author’s forte.
“Calcutta, by Foot” reads with all the freedom of a lover’s dream as a young couple indulge in the sights, sounds, and smells of the city while walking arm in arm. What begins as a sensory adventure soon encounters an unanticipated undercurrent that sets the quixotic narrative off course.
Elegantly written, with poise and control, each of the stories presented in this collection beg to be pondered with great care. As a body of work, they examine what it means for a 21st century woman to travel—with the miles covered being mapped directly against the changing landscape of personal emotion.
Themes of outsidership, race, love, and nature bind these stories together, yet it is the meandering narrative path that Ms. Dhar paves which proves most enchanting. Her stories are without exception delightful wanderings, all senses on high alert. On the odd occasion we may doubt where she is leading us, but we soon learn to put our trust in this new author. It is, after all, well worth our while.