Betrayal and Remorse in Tania James’ “Atlas of Unknowns” : Prof. AJ Sebastian sdb
Abstract: This paper is a close reading of the story of Linno and Anju, two Syrian Christian sisters from Kerala, India, who live through the agony of betrayal, climaxing in the ecstasy of reconciliation. Anju outsmarts her elder sister Linno, who lost her arm in an accident. Fraudulently, Anju gets a scholarship from Sitwell school in New York. When her false pretence was revealed, Anju goes missing with guilt and shame. Linno reaches out to her sister in love and reconciliation. The story revolves around their search for identity which is analyzed applying James Marcia’s theory of Identity Statuses.
Born and raised in Kentucky, Tania James, daughter of immigrant parents from Kerala, traces the intricacies of familial relationships in the midst of betrayal and remorse in her debut novel Atlas of Unknowns. The immigrant experience she examines is unique as it revolves around two Syrian Christian sisters from Kerala, Anju and Linno. The sibling’s rivalry takes them through betrayal, pain and agony as they travel across the two worlds of unknown destinies.
Tania has been very frank in her email response to my query regarding her immigrant experience as a Diasporic writer: “I think what drives my writing is an interest in character, and in the lives and voices of those characters, not all of whom are immigrants. But then again, the themes of dislocation and cultural dissonance- which are often central to “immigrant” or “ethnic” novels – are pervasive in much of my work. Again this is not a conscious choice, but I’m sure my upbringing and experience (as a first-generation immigrant) have something to do with these obsessions” (Tania, Email to the author)
The story unfolds at the Vallara family at Kumarakom, Kerala, India in 1995. Thirteen year old Linno is busy to fulfill her duty to nurse her father Melvin Vallara after returning from Christmas morning Mass. Anju her nine year old sister keeps reciting brain teasing quotes of scriptural verses. Linno takes her father to the Fancy Shoppe to buy fireworks to celebrate in the evening. When they returned home Anju Kept reminding her sister with scriptural quotes how younger siblings should get their way. It is to be noted how the rivalry between the two sisters began at such a tender age. This is central to the development of the plot leading to betrayal and remorse.
After dinner the family gathered outside for the fireworks entertainment for Christmas. Melvin lets Linno to assist him to Anju’s displeasure. He pulled out a bundle of sparklers. Everyone got busy with the sparklers. Linno reached out suddenly for the remnants of the necklace. Her father, seeing the danger, shouted to let her drop it. But it was too late: “Because from this point, everything happens with a slow grace, in the space of seconds. Linno feels nothing and sees everything, in all its strange clarity. The links exploding in her palm, fire flowering and blazing above the watch that she wears…The face of the watch, splashed with light,…And then Linno realizes that what she thought was the screaming of wind is a sound that only a girl can make, a girl on fire” (James, 8).
Linno’s right hand suffered third-degree burns, leading to amputation above the wrist. She could only listen to her grandmother Ammachi quoting from the Bible “If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off” (Ibidem, 9). When the scar healed Linno cut the cuff and tied into a knot before going to school to prevent it being seen by prying eyes. She was so discouraged with her lot that Linno seldom looked at the mirror: “…for she knows what others see, not only a deformity of the hand but a deformity of fortune. Accidents belong to the unlucky, and ill fortune can travel bloodlines, a gene that surfaces and sinks across generations but never disappears” (Ibidem, 9). She felt betrayed in the hands of fortune at such a tender age, which challenged her to be self sufficient. After having lost her mother accidentally when she was seven years old, Linno had to cope up with life, musing on her dream of achieving the impossible. She recollected how her mother had received a postcard from her friend Ms. Bird who had invited her to America. Linno couldn’t figure out who the woman friend was. “She was wounded by the woman her mother might be, and choosing not to know further, she convinced herself of the necessity for silence; such is the way the questions in the family remain unasked and unanswered for years. In time, Linno learned how to tuck all her questions away…” (Ibidem, 10).
Her father Melvin contacted several hospitals to get information on prosthetic limbs, to get one for Linno’s wrist. But the quoted exuberant price thwarted his plans. He sank into despair and drowned his sorrow in toddy (local beer) and cigarette smoking. To make her cope up with her tragic lot and to rehabilitate her, he fashioned himself into a man of optimism. He kept telling his children in adversity: “All in your head. Think positive. Think cool” (Ibidem, 11).
When Linno returned to school after two months of treatment, she found her peers far ahead of her in their studies. The worst came when they began to tease her wearing jasmine bracelets around their wrists. She was insulted by two girls in the bathroom who pulled out her bandage to see the shapeless wrist.
But she excelled in class when assignments required drawing. She could draw maps and landscapes. When the scholastic year came to a close, she had to repeat it. When her sister Anju excelled in her studies, she was heaped all praises and given all attention by the family. In age and intelligence the two sisters, Linno (16 years ) and Anju (12 years), were far apart from each other. Ashamed of herself, Linno stopped going to school giving the lame excuse that she could be at home to look after Ammachi (grandmother) saying, “Why pay for a servant… when I could be the servant?” (Ibidem, 14). Henceforth Linno began to do all the household chores.
When she turned twenty one, Linno went in search of a job at the Princess Tailor Shoppe, to add to the family income. She offered to paint the shop windows. When the sketch in pencil was done, it looked impressive. People admired her painting and called it “Linno’s Window.” She was commissioned another window painting at the nearby Frames & Optics with a new concept add for optics consisting of a giant diapered baby with a pillowy chest, wearing oversized, black-rimmed eyeglasses. I was a brown baby with pool blue eyes. She chose an unknown territory to affirm her identity in anguish.
At bedtime one day, Anju mentioned about the scholarship her teacher spoke about. She explained that it would be an award for the best student from Kerala. A panel would select one student and send for an year to Sitwell School in New York. Anju planned to apply for it. She brought home a form and Linno filled it up with her penmanship. In April Anju received notification of her selection by the panelists and the primary judge Miss Valerie Schimpf would interview her personally. Miss. Schimpf, an art teacher at Sitwell School, was on a sabbatical in a school at Kochi, teaching children fine arts. The interview was done at the Vallara residence. Linno decorated her home with her posters. Miss. Schimpf’s interview with Anju went very bad for her. That night, Linno dreamed that Anju had failed her interview. When she woke up she was delighted. “She both wanted Anju to go and wanted her to fail. Not only to fail, but to know the lasting heaviness of failure” (Ibidem, 28). She felt guilty for having thought evil of her sister and did penance spending an hour with Ammachi’s prayer book.
Good news came when the newspaper published a photograph of Anju receiving a plaque from Ms. Schimpf with her compliment: “Anju is a true Renaissance woman: an excellent student, a leader, and a brilliant artist. I am especially thrilled about displaying her artwork during the Student Art Exhibition” (Ibidem, 31). Friends and neighbors asked Linno about the turn of events. They wondered and ironically commented on how Anju had become an artist all of a sudden. Linno added her comment on Anju’s behaviour: “You never know with her. She can do anything she wants to do” (Ibidem, 31). Anju on her part was never at home, busying herself with collecting documents for the trip. She made an overnight trip with Melvin to Chennai for visa. When she returned, being guilt ridden, she kept off from the gaze of Linno. Melvin never spoke of the scholarship in Linno’s presence. He only kept uttering: “There is good and there is bad, Linno. And then there is bad for good’s sake…Your mother, she always wanted to go to New York. It was the one thing I couldn’t give her. That and a happy marriage” (Ibidem, 32). Linno is annoyed by her father’s pretended silence over the issue of Anju’s cheating on her. She wanted from Ammachi or her father an admission of the cheating by which they approved of Anju’s new found artistry.
The fictionist describes very vividly Linno’s state of mind, entering into her very thoughts as she narrates:
Linno wades her fingers into the bowl of banana chips. Is this the moment when she should knock the bowl to the floor, drag Anju out of bed, call her thief? But her rage will not come. Instead, she feels the slow growing sadness in the pit of her stomach which she has tried, time and time again, to uproot or ignore. She collects the few crumbs from the table and takes the bowl to the kitchen (Ibidem, 33).
Her Life, she felt, was falling apart like the banana chip crumbs, broken by ambition and cunning of her own sister.
Preparations were made as Anju’s ticket arrived. While packing her things, Linno asked if she had packed her paintings too. She felt embarrassed and promised to take care of it. It would be put up by Ms. Schimpf at the student exhibition as Anju’s work. Feeling ashamed of herself she justified saying, “I’m trying to help us get somewhere, Linno. I’m trying to change our lives” (Ibidem, 37). Linno was quick in her retort, “Your life first! By stepping all over mine! And then what will happen when you leave? You will go on and I will be here, only a chapter in your life” (Ibidem, 37). Anju merely stared on the ground expressing some sort of pain, but it was a mere temporary regret with no lasting pain or remorse. In course of time it would remain a mere triviality, justifying it as her desperate attempt at youth. When the time for parting came, Linno was the only one who was tearless. She stood against the wall with her arms crossed expressing that she was in no mood to be touched. Her body language was indicative of her bitterness towards Anju.
Anju suffered from inferiority complex, though she was academically better off. Her sense of insecurity made her selfish and sought insincere ways to succeed in her dream world. On her part, Linno lived a better and secure life, though academically a failure. She took her misfortune to live an ordinary life devoid of ambitious plans as there was nothing that would disappoint her more than all she has endured.
After all the harrowing experience answering all the queries of the JFK customs officer, Anju arrived at the home of the Solankis where she would be accommodated during the course of her stay in the United States. After unpacking her belongings, Anju took out her sister’s sketch book with several sketches. The book became her possession now that Linno was miles away. Anju had to scrape out Linno’s name. She erased ‘L’ from ‘L. Vallara’ and replaced it with her initial ‘A’.
Soon, Anju set about educating herself to American ways by watching several American movies. At the Sitwell School, she felt strange. The only person who paid some attention to her was Sheldon Fischer, known among his classmates as Fish. He tried to be close to her as a potential boyfriend. Ms. Schimpf exhorted Anju to take her sketchbook everywhere and to draw whatever struck her. All she could do was to trace the picture of a tree and transfer it into the sketchbook.
Her coming to know Ms. Bird, who was her mother’s friend, was a blessing. Eventually, Anju decided to drop out of class by artfulness and deception. She also engineered her plans to bring Linno somehow to America, as atonement for her betrayal all along. She decided to meet Ms. Schimpf and confess her inability to continue with her classes making excuse of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. She heaped lie upon lie to tell Ms. Shimpf that she was unable to write or draw due to excruciating pain. The fictionist makes deft comment on the incident: “What miss Schimpf does not know is that Anju has more facets than a fake diamond. She glitters with all her many, many sides” (Ibidem, 75).
Back home, Melvin was worried about the future of Linno. He and Ammachi contacted certain Rappai’s mother who had brought a marriage proposal from a blind man. He came from a good family with rubber plantation business. Considering himself modern, the blind man didn’t care for much dowry. He was only partially blind. The blind suitor might have studied Linno’s history and knew her to be a girl of substance. Though, she never confider her story of struggle and determination to anyone, those who met her went with the impression of a spirited and determined girl. She had listened to self-help cassettes her father possessed. “Live for the Now” (Ibidem, 82) was the refrain in them. The fictionist interprets Linno’s thoughts and comments: “If she were to write a self-help book dedicated to children like herself, children whose memories made each night a burden, Linno would advise that control is the key” (Ibidem, 82).
In New York, Mrs. Solanki’s son Rohit, wishing to be a filmmaker, was keen on producing a documentary on Anju. When he volunteered to accompany her to Jackson Heights, she was delighted. But in course of time he began to ask a lot of questions asking her to reply in full sentences, as he videographed her. In the course of the interview, she revealed that she was on her way Jackson Heights to get her green card. When she went to meet Mr. Tandon, a lawyer, to plead her case, Rohit attempted to videograph the interactions. The interview reveals the nitty-gritty things related to getting the green card. Tandon promised to do things at maximum speed.
When she went to school the following day, she found a note from Ms. Schimpf asking her to meet her. When she visited Ms. Schimpf, Anju found to her surprise Fish already present there. She thought of getting her Ace bandage from her locker. At Ms. Schimpf’s desk, she also noticed Principal Mitchell. The Principal immediately called Anju to his chamber. The inevitable did happen:
“I have to ask you: Did you do those paintings yourself?”
“Yup. Did you paint them?”
“Did you have help?” Miss Schimpf asks.
“Mr. Fisher? Would you like to say something?”
…”She told me her sister did them.”
…”Anju, is this true?” (Ibidem, 137).
Anju’s deception was revealed and she surrendered with no further ado. She could hear the principal “talk about the consequences, about the Honor Code, about violation” (Ibidem, 138) which made her reel under great stress as the world around her began to dissolve.
Back home, Anju’s father received a call from her school informing him about Anju gone missing, sending shock waves to the Vallara household. Anju had left a note that she was resigning from the school. She only pleaded that her father should be informed not to worry and everything would be alright for her with the help of good and God fearing people. In the mean time Linno presumed that the American police would trace her with the latest DNA analysis. But Miss Schimpf, providing Anju’s statistics to National Crime Information Center, was sure like most runaways, she would be found soon.
Melvin and Ammachi couldn’t understand why Anju behaved in that manner. They kept asking Linno for explanation, thinking that she was in a better position to understand her sister. “She wanted to tell them that in every person, there are private regions of the mind, infinite and troubling, they are known only to the self. Beyond the reach of sisters, friends, and fathers, these are the innermost spaces that can persuade a seventeen-year-old girl to wake up one day and walk out of her life” (Ibidem, 145). Linno tried to figure out how the school found the fraud. She used to write her name art a corner of her paintings. She had thought of telling Anju about it, but didn’t show interest in speaking to her over phone. She had intentionally kept the secret to herself, leading to another betrayal. They were both on equal footing in betraying each other. It was a shame to find the news in the local daily about Anju’s fleeing being stripped of honors at Sitwell School. It read: “In May of 2003 , Melvin received a full scholarship from the Sitwell School in New York, which sponsored her entry from Kumarakom. Several months later, school officials found that Melvin had won the scholarship on false pretenses. When confronted with the matter, Melvin confessed, and disappeared a day later. She left behind a note explaining her intention to run away” (Ibidem, 148).
Linno decided to find out how she could get hold of a two-week “Relative Recovery Visa” to USA. While consulting lawyer Mr. Ramakrishnan, she was told to apply for tourist visa. She collected what ever money she had and received Rs. 25,000/- from Alice who told her about her brother Kuku, who had high connections to get things done for her. Though Linno smelt a rat in the offer of money and assistance from Kuku, her blind suitor, she had no choice but to use all assistance to get the visa. After several days, she could get an appointment with Kuku in his house. She did not want to give him the impression that she clung to her regrets. Kuku suggested that she could apply for the B-I, Temporary visitor for business visa. In such a case she did not have to have any connection to her sister. Linno got hold of an advertisement DUNIYA EXPO, a Bridal Show that had been rocking New Jersey and Maryland. Kuku suggested that Linno took part in it by organizing a seminar at the expo. If she paid a fee, the company would invite her, enabling her to get a business visa.
Back in USA, Anju sought a job at the Apsara Salon of Mr. Gafoor. It was Miss Bird who had introduced her to the salon and begged Gafoor to hire her at $5 per hour. She had planned to escape from the Solanki’s home and seek her security under Bird. She tried never to think of her home and pretended not to have any family being in such dire straights. Her only movement was between Bird’s apartment and the Salon. One day it happened that she had a psychosomatic experience of bumping into Linno. The girl was not Linno at all, but the fruit of her internal conflicts. On several other occasions, she visualized her father strolling along. But the faces turned out to be those of strangers. Her sense of guilt kept hurting her more with ever renewed longing for home.
Though Anju was employed part time at the Apsara Salon, the manager felt he had made a mistake in giving her the job, since he had too many beauticians in the rolls. Besides, Ghafoor was worried since Anju was not more than a child. Since she was not a licensed beautician, he was afraid if something untoward happened and someone sued his Salon. Anju took notes as Ms. Powder listed all the things needed to de-hair a body part. Ms. Powder directed her to put on her paper knicker as she removed her hair, to teach her how the intricate job is done. The experience was excruciating for the young girl, removing the hair from such secret parts of her body. The narrative in the stream of consciousness is superb recapturing of Anju in trauma: “No barrier enough. Pain streaks across her mind like a color, a lurid splash of red across a white wall… But it is nearly impossible to ignore the fact that she has never looked so closely at this region of her own body, let alone anyone else’s” (Ibidem, 205-6). Anju is given job of arms and legs waxing at the Salon.
Rohit pursued Anju with his plan of the documentary on her. He wanted to get her amazing story on “immigration, both legal and illegal. About sisters, about family pressure, about the cross-cultural divide between Indians at home and Indians abroad. All through the lens of your life” (Ibidem, 220). He further told her that he would engage a top immigration lawyer to get her legal status. He promises that he won’t screen the film until she obtained the green card. But when Anju told him that her student visa expired by June the following year, Rohit became seriously speechless. He knew that she was legal only so long as she was a student. He showed her pages from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement which read: “For academic students (visa category F-I): Failure to maintain a full course load without prior authorization is a status violation. The student’s period of authorized stay will be terminated” (Ibidem, 221).
Mrs. Solanki sent an e-mail to Linno informing her that she was unable to trace Anju after she disappeared. She had a proposal to take up the issue of immigration to a daytime TV show where she along with her other friends could discuss Anju’s case. Solanki suggested that Linno appeared as a guest on the show and tell her sister’s story. She would take care of Linno’s travel and other expenses for the trip. But how could Linno tell the world about her family’s problem? However, the idea sounded far more easier than Kuku’s. Meanwhile, Linno also got an e-mail invitation from Neha Misra, President of Duniya, Inc., inviting her to send a check for $ 1000 for the visa application.
Rohit continued to pursue Anju to produce his film on her. He made his equation Anju + documentary film = immigration lawyer = green card = Anju’s rise from illegality and failuredom (Ibidem, 247). When Anju showed some interest, he began to interview her. She also began to disclose how she came to the United States.
My family is not a poor family, but we were having bad luck, and I thought h I will change our luck by coming to U.S. I was having high marks in school and teachers were saying I will do great things , so I was believing this too. And then when you believe something should happen, you will make it happen, whichever way. Even if the way is maybe bit crooked, still it is going in up direction. Like the fire escape… I am sorry for faking the scholarship application (Ibidem, 252).
She acknowledged the crooked ways she employed to reach U.S.A. But she was also sorry about all that happened. Rohit continued his interview with Ms. Bird as well to get another shade of the story he was filming. He also disclosed that he intended to present the Anju film interview at his mother’s TV program for which she had called up Linno as well. Anju was shocked to hear that his mother had contacted her sister.
Rohit contacted lawyer Mr. Brown, who described the American immigration system as a broken-legged beast that is unable to enforce the rules. If her school had not reported her case to INS, Anju would be legal till the departure date on her Arrival/Departure form. He even suggested that she enrolled herself in some college. By sheer luck she might get extended visa and even permanent residency application. After having studied her case, Mr. Brown informed her that she is not illegal as the school had not informed the authorities.
Rohit, in the meantime got fully immersed in the movie on Anju. He even thought of visiting India to interview her family. All of a sudden Anju decided to go home without completing the film. Rohit went speechless with the shocking response, after his investing so much into the film to help her out. “I am trying to help you, Anju, but I’m also trying to make a good film. Like I said, I think that both these things – the film’s best interest and your best interest – converge really nicely for everybody” (Ibidem, 276).
On the other side of the story, Linno made her trip to Chennai consulate to apply for B-I visa. She had researched into several immigration websites to learn how to answer the queries swiftly so as to avoid specific scrutiny. Since it was all about business the questions avoided personal matters. She also went through several tourist books on New York, searching the city block by block to get to Anju’s whereabouts. The fictionist brilliantly enters into Linno’s stream of consciousness: “For the time being, a map allows her to pretend at some sort of control over a roiling city, allows her to forget, tentatively, this world of unknowns in which she is so very small, so powerless” (Ibidem, 280).
At the interview at the Consulate, to the query why she wanted to visit United States, she promptly replied that she wished to represent her company at a wedding convention sponsored by American Company called Duniya, Inc. When asked if she would stay on in USA if she found a better job opportunity, she was quick to respond that being the head designer of her company, she had to be back in India. As the man browsed through his computer, he asked if she has any family in the United States. She spoke of Anju, her sister, who was on a student visa. After some delay, the man merely said that her application remained pending for investigation. She was told to keep checking to see her application status. She asked curiously “What they are investigating?, wondering if he knew about Anju.
One day the Kapyar (sacristan) was surprised to find Linno coming to the parish church after a very long interval. But he found her so weary and almost at the point of collapsing. He made her sit down and offered a cup of tea. She gently uttered that she came to make confession to the priest. When he told her that the priest was out of station, she pleaded with him to listen to her confession. She kept insisting that the Kapyar listened to him though he is not a priest. She began to pour out her heart like in confession of a secret she had guarded for years. It was all about the way her mother got drowned in the sea. Linno and her mother were playing hide and seek in the hollows of the rocks on the beach. At one moment she noticed her mother shrieking her name. She could see her mother walk right into the water keeping her arms spread to keep balancing. Linno could see her being thrown off balance by the waves and carried away. She thought her mother was playing a trick on her. The child was traumatized to know of her mother’s death. After confessing the secret to the Kapyar after so many years, she was mentally satisfied, having taken off the weight from her mind. The Kapyar retorted that he was no priest to absolve her in confession. But she was satisfied that she could tell it to someone at last. Seeing the smile on her face he could only utter “Nothing is the end” (Ibidem, 317).
Back in USA, Anju continued her shooting the film with Rohit. As they traveled in the street, Anju suddenly stopped the car and hurried up the road as she noticed her sister Linno’s clumsy braid. Anju called out her sister’s name. Linno thought it to be a hypnotic feeling. She heard her name again being called out. The fictionist makes the climax of the novel very vivid: “The distance between them is only as wide as a well. And in Linno, a familiar dizziness returns, from trying to net a butterflying hope. In a blink, this all could disappear…. Anju’s eyes are bright and wet in a face much leaner than when she left. She takes a step forward. “Oh.” Linno’s sound is no more than a sigh. “Oh,” she says, and they reach for each other” (Ibidem, 319). The two sisters are joined together as though in a dream world, putting an end to their betrayal and remorse.
To analyze the depth of relationship between Linno and Anju, I wish to apply James Marcia’s theory of Identity Statuses, based on Erikson’s theory of identity development. It was Erik Erikson who explored to a great extent the psychological concept of identity. He makes a distinction between the ego identity or “the self”; personal identity (that separates one person from the other wit his/her personal idiosyncrasies); and the social identity or the cultural identity by which a person plays social roles. Erikson traces the identity formation across a person’s lifespan. According to him the development of a strong ego identity, along with the proper integration into a stable society and culture, leads to a stronger sense of identity in general. Accordingly, a deficiency in either of these factors may increase the chance of an identity crisis or confusion (Cote 22).
Marcia focused on adolescent development and notion of identity crisis. Crisis is defined as a period of identity development during which the adolescents choose between meaningful alternatives. Commitment is the part of identity development in which the adolescents show a personal investment in what they do. For Marcia the adolescent stage consists neither of identity resolution nor identity confusion. It depends on the variety of life domains. The four identity statuses are: identity diffusion (the status of adolescents who have not yet explored meaningful alternatives or made any commitments), identity foreclosure ( the status of adolescents who have made a commitment but have not experienced a crisis), identity moratorium ( the status of adolescents who are in the midst of a crisis, but their commitments are either absent or vaguely defined) and identity achievement ( the status of adolescents who have undergone a crisis and have made a commitment). The core idea is that one’s sense of identity is determined largely by the choices and commitments one makes for oneself and others (Santrock 400). Examining the identity statuses of Linno and Anju, it is evident that they have taken diverse routes to identity achievement:
|Position on occupation and ideology||Identity
|Crisis||Present (Anju)||Absent (Linno)||Absent (Linno)||Present (Linno)|
|Commitment||Absent (Linno)||Present (Anju)||Absent (Anju)||Present (Linno)|
The Atlas of Unknowns revolves around the deep-rooted familial bond that exists between the two sisters, Linno and Anju. Though they move out of each other’s lives through siblings rivalry, seeking to establish their own individual identities, they return to each other after trotting unknown territories. There is longing for freedom, yet family and emotional ties keep boomeranging with nostalgia for home. The fictionist has deeply delved into the mystery of betrayal, remorse and reconciliation.
Cote, James E. & Levine, Charles. (2002). Identity Formation, Agency, and Culture. New Jersey:
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
James, Tania. ( 2009). Atlas of Unknowns. New York Vintage Books.
Santrock, John W. (1997). Life-Span Development. Madison: Brown & Benchmark.
Tania. Email to the author. 21 February 2010.