Friday, September 05, 2014

Book Review of The Americans, a novel by Chitra Viraraghavan

                                            An Indian-American Burrito Bowl        

I have read this novel after returning to India from a three month stay in the US, my mind, a mélange of images involving all who constitute the melting pot called America. So, a new book called ‘The Americans’, authored by a Chennai-based Indian -- it sounded intriguing.

Of course, through the past decade, I have read a few ‘Diaspora Novels’ written by America-based Indians, about their own and others’ immigrant experience. Generally these have been breathless affairs about lonely souls languishing in a frozen impersonal landscape, remembering the warmth and bustle of India, caught between two cultures.

At some point this school of writing did get monotonous. And I stopped reading them, preferring instead the witty self-deprecating views of ‘international’ Americans like Bill Bryson and Paul Theroux.

In Chitra Viraraghavan’s debut novel, I hoped for a fresh perspective, different in tone from the ‘sitar-whine’ of a few other famous works.

Luckily, the book   lives up to the promise of newness, displayed in its artistically designed cover.

Expectedly, and ironically, the title refers to Americans who are for the most part, Indians. It is also a rather unlikely novel as far as structure goes. The characters get introduced chapter by chapter as they  move the story forward;  people and stories intermingle, and at select points, conclude each tale, though not always with a period. Sometimes it is a question mark.

 Be that as it may, the book begins well enough with, real, relatable, familiar people, – some, rather startling in their emphatic individuality.

 We are first introduced to Tara, a thirty-something self-employed professional, returning to the US after eight years. She is there at the invitation of her doctor sister Kamala – who needs her help. There is an autistic son she is attempting to understand; a seemingly bratty teenage daughter who needs unwelcome supervision and baby-sitting; a coping spouse; and Kamala’s own inner battles and outer conflict zones. And this is where the first non-Indian character appears—an Israeli lady housekeeper with her own back story.

These people are introduced by and by, but the character that charmed me, the gentle retired teacher from Chennai, C L Narayan – luckily, he makes his debut at the beginning, in the second chapter. Here is somebody one could relate to, understand. His hesitation  and misgivings as he makes his first trip abroad, his attempt to change his dollar supply ( a hundred precious dollars) to make a phone call while  at Chicago’s airport, his gratitude at finding  helpful fellow Indians – it’s all quite real without being boring.

Later on quiet Mr. CLN proves to be   surprisingly resilient and innovative, as he deals with indifference from a self-centered offspring. And I was actually cheering for him as he stepped out, explored and discovered a new country and its people.

The cast of characters is rich and varied, adding depth to a rather unconventional novel without a single trajectory. But the various lives do touch each other, leaving a few questions answered, and some with just a hint of promise or even despair as the case may be.

Some of the more unusual characters include, among others, a voice from the past – an African American student who connects with her empathetic Indian professor. Then there is weird, hyper sensitive Akhil, trusting no one, seeing enemies in shadows. And you have poor perceptive wise unlucky Shantanu, exploited by Indian gangsters in a foreign land. The poor chap,   a secret songwriter, is also ultimately a hero, but one destined to remain in the shadows.

 Completing the cast, somewhat, is an unhappy Indian couple. The wife is full of yearning and technicolour dreams while the contemptuous husband does his own thing – and yet finally, the man is there for his unfortunate bitter half.

This is character driven novel that simultaneously sparkles with dialogue, drama, action, feeling; there is also some humour, albeit  in small doses. Walking through a very Indian locality in urban USA, Shantanu sees the gaudy jewellery stores, clothes emporiums and restaurants; notices ‘the subtle difference in the way cars were parked on the street…He could have been in Lajpat Nagar market.’

Ultimately the story is essentially that of Tara, the pivot to this Indian merry go round in America.

However, I did feel that the ride ended rather abruptly, as the characters walk off to their own sunsets, some to a brighter dawn, some to a questionable future. Perhaps that’s life. There are no pat solutions.

To me, the value in the book lies in its richly drawn characters along with many telling lines. To quote one, the thoughts of the gentle 69 year old retired teacher: ‘Something perhaps that baffled his generation, something they were unprepared for -- the foreigners they seemed to have bred.’

Incidentally, during my recent visit, I discovered and enjoyed the burrito bowl. Something foreign, but Indian too, satisfying. Just right!

Here is a link to the book and its publishers:

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Lines from a Library-fest

One of the joys of this US summer holiday has been this -- access to a wonderful public library. Every fortnight I make a trip to the William K Sanford town library and spend a happy hour or two savouring a varied collection of books and periodicals. Have come across books that I am not likely to come across in India, considering they are not exactly bestseller material, nor particularly  India-centric.Then I cart home half a dozen books that please me and also spouse (who dips in, reads a bit, then dozes off). Me, I read all of it, then reluctantly return same to library. In Chennai i have often bought books that I have loved-- i mean purchased for a price when possible, from my very good local lending library, Murugan library, part of group. Can't do that here in the US! 

I re-read for the third or fourth time, one of my all-time favourites --  Bill Bryson's iconic work (now being filmed) --  A Walk in the Woods. Here's  a sampler.
From Chapter 8: 'Each time you leave the cossetted and unhygienic world of towns and take yourself into the hills, you go through a series of staged transformations --  a kind of gentle descent into squalor -- and each time it is as if you have never done it before.' 

From The Angry Island by A A Gill -- a witty critique of current day Britain -- some telling lines:

'It is in the nature of TV and the nature of nature on TV that it comes with a plot, a narrative and a purpose.'

'The English can cover nature with their own blanket of sentimentality and create a world they want it to be, not to be part of it, but to oversee it, to be custodians.'

And here is a line that is particularly fascinating :
'It's worth bearing in mind that the defining characteristics of fascists and psychopaths are great sentimentality combined with amoral cruelty.' 

Here is a dig at Americans and Britishers, together:
'Only Americans and those imitating Americans play basketball; and only those with some weird desire to imitate the English would possibly want to have the world's biggest dog show -- Crufts.'


From a wonderful collection, 2013 Pushcart Prize 37 Best of the Small Presses; the introduction:

'It's the MOST GHASTLY of times and the most glorious of times.

First the ghastly: politicians; lifestyle; consumers; a culture of celebrity glitter; an internet tsunami of instant facts, factoids and nonsense that obviates knowledge and wisdom; a 'greed is good' oligarchy; vanity publishers taking over the commercial publishing empire; legitimate and terrified publishers in a race to the best-seller bottom; bookstores collapsing; Kindle in charge; profiteers cashing in on wannabe authors with zero talent -- the result? A new censorship of clutter.Everybody into the pool and you don't have to know how to swim. A cacophony of drowning shouts.

Yet it is also the most glorious of times: of course there are thousands of examples -- for instance, the authors of the stories, essays, memoirs and poems printed and mentioned in this edition.....The Word survives indeed thrives in the ruins.'

From the collection, a hilarious and touching story published by Conjunctions, a small NY publisher.

A Family Restaurant by Karen Russell


This morning, my father approached me waving the new menu from RAY'S ITALIAN FEATS, our rival across the street, and demanded that I type this up for you. 

"Write the story.It's a menu, Leni, it's supposed to have the story."
"Which one?"
"Jesus, I don't know, the story, our story! The family story!"

.....Nineteen seventy-five: A restaurant opened up across the street from us. Ray's Italian Feats.
"Italian Feats? What, he's turning Dago cartwheels over there?"
"I think it was supposed to be 'Feast'. "

 The following poem is said to be the contribution of a fourth grader, Rasheda White. Published in ECOTONE


I hear an old man and woman playing chess
for some false teeth.I hear a tree knocking
in the sand and the sand flies up and down
and it sounds like a window. I hear cold
old shadows chattering their teeth in the winter.
I hear my sister polishing the shadow's fingernails.
I hear shadow kids playing with a shadow beehive
in the yard and a shadow kid gets chased by the bees
and all the bees are gone so a homeless man comes
down and gets some honey. I hear my mother
in the kitchen drying out the darkness.


Thursday, May 08, 2014

Rental Rant


I am writing this piece after reading the following article:

The BBC news item -- along with similar pieces in TOI and sundry web sites -- makes it clear that a section of Singaporean home owners are none too enthusiastic about renting their homes out to Indian and mainland Chinese  migrant-residents. Apparently these worthies are not house-proud and, well, their kitchens smell of cooked food.

A Singapore apartment block

My own two cents (or two rupees if you will), on this emotive topic:

A point I'd like to make, in defense of Indian kitchens, is this -- don't many kitchens carry a faint scent, as per the type of food cooked? Which is why it is important to have an airy well-ventilated kitchen – or  your asafoetida /frying sesame seed oil / frying  garlic--it's all going to waft out into a neighbour's space.

It is to be noted that this sort of  smelly problem has a long history. Even two decades back British neighbours were none too happy with 'curry smells.' And, I can report that at home, in India, orthodox vegetarians  may not be gung ho  about a gust of garlic/meat/ fish emanating from a neighbour's kitchen. But, and this is important, it shouldn't bother one beyond a point.

I live in a fairly cosmopolitan colony and realize that the occasional olfactory kitchen  assault has to be accepted with grace.

As did a Chennai friend when confronted with the overpowering smell of cooking cabbage in the homes of expat Koreans who worked in the city. She would give English language lessons to some families -- and Korean staple Kimchi was part of the package deal, perhaps.

 But kitchen smells are simply a small part of the whole problem, as per Singaporean home owners. Shabbily maintained dirty homes are not acceptable anywhere in the world, but particularly so in a small crowded island nation that is well-developed, but accepting of temporary migrants from developing neighbour nations.

Admittedly, in India or anywhere else for that matter, nobody wants to let out a home to a slob. I remember this middle-aged couple from my New Delhi neighbourhood, circa nineteen eighties; when they vacated their barsati flat they also left behind  a stunned and furious home-owner staring at soot-blackened and greasy kitchen, along with a dirty living room (the sole room).

The terrace flat was redone -- and not let out for the next six months.

I must make a point here --that poverty does not necessarily equate with slovenliness. My maid once mentioned that she kept a better home than some of her employers. You can have enough money and still reside in an indisciplined poorly kept home.

Part of the problem, as a net commenter mentioned, is the fact that Indians, especially men, are used to having a maid clean up after them. So a society sans help/maids --it's a problem initially, for an Indian on his own, abroad. And yes, even women can be slobs.

 Mostly, the wife is perhaps too tired to do all the cleaning, all the time.

 A family needs to be involved totally, together, in running a lean, mean, clean home. And Indian men need to help beyond the random token jab at housekeeping (when the wife is ill).

 Luckily, more men are now seen to be willing participants in housekeeping.

Or you are going to end up with a Singapore-like situation:  NRI not welcome.

It's a tricky situation. A home-owner is generally apprehensive about the fate of property being let out.While the rent is welcome, property damage is not. And mixed multi-cultural societies are fertile breeding ground for prejudice and discrimination.

 Ironically, it happens here in India, Indian  against Indian. We have all heard of Mumbai's predominantly  vegetarian housing societies and their refusal to entertain non-vegetarian tenants. But I am pretty sure that few would have heard of cases like this one-- a US based lady refusing to rent out a newly built Chennai home to an Indian family, preferring instead, an expatriate tenant. Her reasoning (besides the big bucks expected) --  the home would be better maintained. Of course this incident happened a couple of decades back --  and a developed India with a richer middle-class may now  not be host to such irrational biases.

Most residents, whether Indian or otherwise, we try and run ship-shape homes. And some criticism against Indian style living – it sticks in my gut. An Indian commenter from Australia noted that Indian homes look slovenly because of clothes flapping and drying away. Excuse me you shallow Aussie NRI. Freshly washed clothes on a clothesline dry up in a few hours, get folded, then stored away. A few hours of residential symmetry lost, but so much of energy saved. Yes, aesthetics do matter, but to me, saving the planet and its resources matters far more. Hand wash and sun-drying help in saving of  water and electricity, besides the clothes too, occasionally. A blanket social ban on clotheslines, -- not acceptable, in my book. A discreet clothesline should be well in order.

What is required is a judicious acceptance of Asian and Western lifestyles. Indians cook more at home, often from scratch. We live pretty healthy lives, are economical by choice, and ecologically too we are doing our bit, have been doing so for years.

So give us a break. Our homes are generally good. It’s the streets that need cleaning.

But  that’s another rant, India's  dirty urban spaces.Another day, another post.