A novella and short stories interconnect in Bhaskar’s (Shielding Her Modesty, 2006) strong collection set in India and the United States.
The title novella begins with a young Tamil couple, Kasturi and Nagaraj, who are working to establish themselves in life. Simply applying for a job means a scramble to scrape up enough small coins for a postal order. As time goes on, their fiery, willful daughter, Subhadra, gets arrested after organizing a student strike; her father, too, is jailed overnight during an Indian national emergency. Subhadra immigrates to America with her new husband, and years later, her assimilated teenage son, Abhi, gets into drug-related trouble and is sent to India for a reformative visit. Initially dismissive of the idea, he eventually gains a new perspective on family ties. The remaining 11 short stories mostly have links to the novella through place or family. They’re also linked in their themes of the powerful and the powerless, culture clashes, and the emigrant experience. Bhaskar writes with subtlety, wit, and strength in these excellent pieces, particularly when pointing out the Orwellian nature of power and its narratives. In “Bring Democracy to Islam,” for example, an emigrant Sikh praises America to his wife: “ ‘You can be what you want in this country.’…Serala noticed he did not say as much when they drove past American Indian reservations, only that he was silent for several miles after that.” In “Swayamvaran,” police round up confused male and female workers for unclear reasons and follow the event with a hurried ceremony. A policeman finally explains: “You got married. Didn’t you know?...The number of couples married equals the chief minister’s age. Where can we produce so many couples on such short notice?” A policewoman’s final comment sums up the attitude that’s needed to survive in such a world: “Fate has given you a wife who can turn a political farce into an auspicious occasion. What more can a man ask for?” Bhaskar’s deft, sympathetic, but unsentimental characterizations of such people as a Chicago teenager or a street vendor add further dimension to the collection.
Engaging stories that illuminate the contradictions and beauty of the Indian experience.