Fifteen linked short stories explore the lives of several Indian-Americans and a black high school student.
Set in the early 1990s, these stories circle back and forth among many different characters. Among them are Avi Sharma, a first-generation Indian-American and a school psychologist; the student he’s counseling, Yael Campbell, 16 and pregnant; Saya, Avi’s wife, a stay-at-home mom (or “Outraged mother and citizen,” as she signs a letter protesting a commercial’s waste of milk); Devu Sharma, a wealthy motelier, and his expensive, beautiful wife, Alisha; their daughter Rita, Saya’s cousin, who’s in love with Avi; and Devu’s stepsister, Rani, still living in India, among others. Many of the stories focus on characters finding their place in the world amid familial obligations; others deal with the power of memory. At one point, Rani recalls eating mango pickles with Devu: he would “pull aside the lid releasing the smell of spiced mustard oil into the air so heady he was afraid he’d pass out in excitement….We all have our own encounter with heaven. Eating stolen pickle was theirs.” Chawla, in her debut, portrays well-rounded characters whose different points of view usefully inform the collection as a whole. Alisha, for example, takes the power of her beauty almost for granted, although she worries about her figure; at the same time, her unkempt daughter Rita is becoming more confident as a woman—and they’re both attracted to the same young man. The author understands how families challenge and sustain their members, as when Avi, to please his father, agrees to listen to some old Jawaharlal Nehru speeches: “And father and son plucked an hour out of time, to be savored then stored in the cool, dark cellar of memory marked Private Reserve.” Only Yael’s teen-pregnancy story—sympathetic and well-told as it is—doesn’t quite fit, seeming to belong to another book entirely.
An absorbing, vivid look at Indian culture.