A mother’s terminal illness reveals fault lines as well as enduring bonds in an Indian-American family.
Majmudar’s magnificent fiction debut, Partitions (2011), investigated the wrenching moral dilemmas posed by the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947; here, he trains the same unsparing yet compassionate eye on a contemporary family in the Midwest. His unnamed narrator, recently diagnosed with cancer, has made her husband, Abhi, promise not to tell their children and grandchildren until after Christmas. “I did not want the spotlight of their concern,” she confides. “The idea embarrassed me.” Ever since she flunked the exam for foreign medical graduates, she has asserted her self-worth by caring for others, particularly with the traditional Indian food she takes pride in preparing—and subtly nags daughter Mala for not making for her own children. Son Ronak, who married a Caucasian and calls and visits far less than dutiful Mala, gets much more hands-off treatment, which has not escaped the notice of his infuriated sister. Yet, as the story progresses and the narrator weakens, we see the profound love that unites the family. Mala, a stressed-out doctor who previously had “no respect for the art...[that] smacked of Old World female subservience,” asks her mother to teach her how to cook; their contentious relationship softens over the spices, and by the following Thanksgiving, Mala is making the entire holiday meal, assisted by Ronak’s wife, Amber. The accumulated grievances of decades still erupt from time to time, but they are mostly subsumed by the simple, basic knowledge that the narrator has very little time left. She allows only occasional glimpses of the grim particulars, such as having fluids drained from her cancer-swollen belly. “This is not a book about dying,” she informs us. “This is a book about life.” Indeed it is, and not life airbrushed by sentimentality, but life as it is actually experienced by flawed human beings—perfectly rendered by their gifted author.
Beautifully written and deeply moving.