Review of “Where Monsoons Cry” in Towson Times

St. Paul‘s teacher winning awards for her first book

12/01/04
Bob Allen

Lalita Noronha-Blob, a biotechnology and advanced placement biology teacher at St. Paul’s School for Girls, is winning awards for “Where Monsoons Cry,” her recently published first book of short stories.

Two of the prizes are Maryland Literary Arts Awards; the third is from the Maryland State Arts Council. Noronha-Blob, a longtime Timonium resident, will be reading from “Where Monsoons Cry,” at Borders book store in Towson at 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 5. Yet Noronha-Blob, who writes under her maiden name, Lalita Noronha, earned her doctorate in microbiology, raised two children and spent years working as a research scientist at The National Institute of Health and an executive in the pharmaceutical industry before she even began to think of herself as a writer.

“My life was always very regimented in terms of my science career,” said Noronha-Blob, the oldest daughter of a scientist, who grew up in very modest circumstances in the Indian state of Goa. “I didn’t think about writing, but (in graduate school) all my friends were in the English or the theater departments.

“But my mother says I was always a writer,” said Noronha-Blob, the oldest of six children who came to the United States at age 23 on a Fulbright travel grant. “When I was 11 years old, my younger sister died from colon cancer and I sat down and wrote the story of her life, mostly because my other brothers and sisters were just babies and I was the only one who would remember her,” she recalled. “I took a lot of solace in that and felt that if I wrote about her it was a way of immortalizing her. My mother saved that (story) and showed it to me years later.”

Noronha-Blob said she made the career change from scientist and executive to teacher a decade ago when the pharmaceutical company she worked for moved out of state. “Where Monsoons Cry” (BlackWords Press, Alexandria, Va., $14.95) is Noronha’s first book. But she has previously been published in The Catholic Review, The Christian Science Monitor, The Sun and elsewhere. Her short stories have also been included in several published anthologies.

“When I left the pharmaceutical industry, I had time, for the first time, and all those buried things began to surface. I’d think about things like the women in India at the wells or the washer women,” recalled Noronha-Blob, who grew up in small towns and rural areas. “I would hear the sound of the flute of a goat herder in those little villages where I grew up.

“That’s how I still write,” added Noronha-Blob, who is affectionately known to her students and coworkers at St. Paul’s as “Dr. N.B.” and who describes her summers as resembling long writing marathons. “I think of scenes. I often sit at the window and write about what I see.”

The title of Noronha-Blob’s first book is drawn from childhood memories of the haunting sound of heavy monsoon rains falling on a corrugated roof. The stories in “Where Monsoons Cry” have titles such as “Under the Gul-Mohur Tree,” “Hybrid Mother,” “The Sari,” “Birthmark” and “Touch The Moon.”

Some were inspired by memories of women Noronha-Blob knew when she was growing up in one of Goa’s relatively few Catholic households. In her stories, these women are caught up in a culture that traditionally devalues women in subtle and not so subtle ways.

Other stories are about women like Noronha-Blob who escaped those cultural confines, yet have also paid a price in terms of an abiding sense of dislocation, occasional cross-cultural confusion and a subtle sense of alienation.

“Touch The Moon,” for instance, is about a woman whose husband blames her for having only female children and eventually leaves. “The older daughter (in the story) is trying to help the mother,” said Noronha-Blob, who is married to a physician and has two adult children. “Her ambition is to get a sixth-floor apartment of their own, where she can ‘touch the moon.’ But there’s no hope for her (to get that).”

As Noronha-Blob herself is fond of saying, only half jokingly: “You can take the Indian out of India, but you can’t take India out of the Indian.”

“There’s a story in my book called ‘Half and Half’ that’s about immigrants who always feel half and half,” she said. “They never feel like they really belong anywhere.”

Despite the recurrent themes of cross-cultural tension and subtle sexual politics that inform many of her stories, Noronha-Blob said she “had no agenda” when she began writing the stories in the late 1990s.

“I just wrote,” she added. “It was only pointed out to me later that I have a tremendous compassion for women and write about them a lot.”

And while her vocation as teacher and scientist and avocation as poet and fiction writer often compete for her time, Noronha-Blob insisted that the two pursuits complement each other beautifully. “I love science and it brings a lot to my writing,” said the writer who often shares her stories with her students and occasionally reads them in class. “If you see an amoeba dividing, you think of immortality. Science is very full of metaphors and very deep.”

 

E-mail Bob Allen at ballen@patuxent.com.