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THE PRAYER ROOM by Shanthi Sekaran. MacAdam/Cage: San Francisco, Calif. February 2009. $25.00. 375 pages.

A few rules: never wear shoes in the puja room. Never go in dirty, or before taking a shower. Never enter during the first three days
of menstruation. Refresh the flowers and water daily. Sit with your legs crossed or tucked beneath the body, but never with your feet stretched forward. Never blow out the flames of the oil lamps—wave them or snuff them out. The left hand shouldn’t be used unless absolutely necessary.”

Those are the rules established by Viji Armitage in Shanthi Sekaran’s satisfying and congenial debut novel, The Prayer Room.

In the mid-1970s, Viji falls for George Armitage, an English graduate student in Tamil Nadu. After a hasty affair, the peculiar couple find themselves married and living in cramped quarters with his parents in Nottingham, England, and then in Sacramento, Calif., where George is offered a faculty position at the university. Now, farther from her home and in an environment alien to even her husband, Viji and George are absorbed into suburban life when they buy a ranch house and have triplets. Thus begins a life of supermarkets, backyard swimming pools, and the quiet sameness of an American subdivision.

Incongruous with suburbia, but a link to Viji’s identity, the puja room provides a sanctuary where Viji converses with and seeks counsel from photos of deceased loved ones. In an email interview, Sekaran told me that this prayer room is a place where “Viji’s true self [is] free to exist, almost a secret hideaway from her American life. It [is] where she [keeps] her love, her fear and her past.”

Safe haven becomes imperative when her active, pre-teen sons and daughter, and her newly-arrived, boisterous, larger-than-life father-in-law become too much for Viji. In the prayer room, Viji finds the calm she craves despite her late mother’s imagined scoldings and finger-wagging. However, when the rules of the puja room are violated by Thanksgiving guests, Viji freaks out. She realizes that it is time, after a dozen years, to finally honor her sister’s wish and return to India for a visit. The decision is final, but Viji can only say that she’s taking the children with her for a short time. Whether or not she, herself, will return is an unspoken matter.

This sharp-edged, sincere, and witty debut by Sekaran is an examination of the impact immigration has on families as well as the conscious and subconscious choices immigrants make in navigating their new lives. Family in The Prayer Room is often an unpredictable entity: Between George, his father, and the triplets in California, and Viji’s sister and elderly aunts in India, Viji experiences bewilderment about which world is more real to her and in whose world she truly belongs.

The novel is different from much of today’s immigrant literature in that it is less defined by place of origin than by its characters. And the novel itself had a simple but appealing genesis. “I was having dinner at my aunt’s house one evening when she started telling me about some of the people whose pictures were hanging in her puja room,” Sekaran relates. “I started out wanting to tell the story of a woman and her relationship with one of these pictures, and the book just grew from there.”

Sekaran also felt the need to capture that inspiration in a realistic story. “I’m not sure what the norm actually is in terms of immigrant literature, since there’s so much out there,” she explains. “I did end up writing a story that delves a little deeper than the ‘A vs. B’ model, because that’s how immigration works today and has worked for a while now. The world is a very interconnected place, and family is often a patchwork of elements. I set out to portray that complexity.”

The complexity of family and immigration is gallantly and cleverly told from two perspectives. While Viji can be considered the novel’s “primary immigrant,” it is important to remember that her British husband, too, leaves his home, thus adding an additional face to the immigration mix:

“When they’d first arrived in America, George and Viji were no different from any other two immigrants. They’d searched, like truffle-seeking pigs, for the something-in-the-air that every immigrant wanted: a sense of normalcy. That warm, bread-in-the-oven certainty that seemed to cleave to everyone around them. From their first steps on American soil, that long ride from the airport, their descent into the Sacramento Valley, they yearned for a normal, ten-finger-ten-toes life.”

Conversely, Sekaran allows Viji to take her American-born-and-raised triplets to India, a country the children know very little about; they are, as Viji realizes once they put foot on Indian soil, woefully unprepared for the differences between the comfy life of Northern Calif. and the earthy life of Southern India. After they arrive at Viji’s childhood home and the children are asleep, Viji ponders the cultural collision between India and her children:

“She watched them sleep and wondered if they had any idea where they were. They must have been imagining themselves at home in their beds, surrounded by white walls and carpet, the stark valley winter waiting at the window. What a shock it would be when they opened their eyes and saw this room, with its chalky blue paint, lacquered-wood furniture, and stone floors. How strange to discover that outside of this bed and their mother, they knew nothing and no one … when they woke she would guide them through this world, infants again, showing them what to eat and where to walk and when to sit and how.”

Immigration as portrayed in The Prayer Room is a two-way street, a veritable highway with entrance and exit ramps. The beauty is that when an immigrant loses her way, she has options for finding her way to wherever it is she realizes she needs to go. “Immigration is such a multi-valenced experience now,” Sekaran says. “The Prayer Room is a part of this new wave of immigrant literature that addresses the intricacies of today’s globalized society.” With her novel, Sekaran clearly recognizes this phenomenal shift and ushers in a new direction for diasporic fiction.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she freelances as a copywriter and teaches Creative Writing to children through the Center for Gifted-National Louis University.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in beautiful Central North Carolina where she is a long-time contributor to India Currents and a long-time Books for Youth reviewer with Booklist magazine/American Library Association....