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: