Tell us a little about yourself.
I was born in Jamshedpur, India. Everyone was a transplant there and my parents had the experience of being immigrants, since they were from Kerala. My mother had to figure out what others spoke and what their cultures were.
I came to the U.S. when I was four months old. I have been going back and forth to India all my life. I have visited many places in India, including Kerala, Bombay, Delhi, and Madras.
When did you decide to write fiction?
I have always wanted to write. I wrote short stories in the school literary magazine. A friend wrote in my yearbook: “Be sure to send me a copy of your first novel.”
I never had any fear of writing. If I was in a science class, I would sometimes be frustrated and nervous. I always felt comfortable, however, about fiction classes. I was not quite so comfortable with poetry. I didn’t understand the process of making poetry although I enjoyed reading poetry. Among other genres, I like plays. I love the theater. My parents would take me to several theaters in the New York/New Jersey area. Writing a play is one of the things I would like to do at some point in time.
Is it better for a writer to be free from the constraints of formal writing or does it help to go to a place like Iowa Writers Workshop to learn the craft of writing?
I do not have a formal degree in Creative Writing, but writers taught me at various workshops. At Harvard I wanted to learn political philosophy, history, and literature. Writing is something you can do outside of university if you find a really good mentor. Being in a writing community matters. Also, formalized interactions are very helpful.
Different things work for different people. Other people have benefited from learning writing from university programs. I just felt that, for me, working in isolation from all the things that I am involved in did not work. It is nice to be rooted in the world I live in. It helps to be influenced by good writers and reading good books. This is different from getting a degree in writing.
Is the novel autobiographical in any way?
Somewhat—to the extent that these were some of my experiences. I have also attempted to represent how other teenagers have reacted to the problems they face.
Ammamma is the only character that is true to life. My grandmother is a special person. She has her own understanding of when it was time to intervene and when not to.
Have any of your Indian-American friends shared their problems connected with growing up here?
Yes. Maya’s story is not my own particular story but the story of many Indian-American teenagers growing up here. I am hoping that when daughters and sons read the story they see Maya as a representation of themselves. And when the parents read it, they can see Maya’s side of the story, and yet Maya also needs to see her mother’s point of view. At my readings, some Indian mothers came up to me and said: “Oh, when I read about Maya and Steve, I felt that I would have shipped my daughter to India if any of that had happened in my house.” I told them that I hoped that if they read the entire novel, they would see that there were other choices too, other ways of working things out rather than shipping their daughters out.
Another paradox is that mothers have a romantic vision of things in the India they left 30-35 years ago. That romantic picture of India as following a hoary tradition is so firmly rooted in their consciousness that they find it hard to accept some of the things going on here.
Even in India, people have had different experiences depending on which region they are from. For instance a person from Bombay has different experiences than a person from a village in Kerala. The conversations in the novel illustrate this.
The novel poses a problem that is universal for a teenager who is exposed to multiple cultures—the problem of identity. Did you have difficulties, growing up in an environment in which you were told one thing at home and had to face a different set of values among your peers?
Yes. It is a difficult problem. We solved it—not without disagreement. In the novel these characters experience much more extreme conflicts.
Have you been influenced by any particular novelists?
I have a classical humanities training. Balzac, Henry James, Faulkner, and Edith Wharton have influenced me. Wharton’s House of Mirth was written a hundred years ago but it amazingly represents India today—the transition from an old society to a new money-oriented society.
How did you find the time to write your novel? Do you have any particular work pattern for your writing?
I made a point of making room for my novel by taking a break. I took a year off to work fulltime on my novel. If someone had given me 5 million dollars and told me that I had the rest of my life to write a book, I bet I would not finish it even in 10 years!
I took the advice of a famous writer who said that it is better to stop at the end of a workday—even if you are writing really well, even if you feel that you are going to lose an idea. When you are in the middle of an idea, it is all the more exciting to go back to it the next day. Writing is a mix of the practical and the magical. You have to sit before your computer and not think of other things like the movies or friends. Think through your characters, and what is believable to them. If you can’t get far in your chapter, switch to another chapter, or write a profile of a character, what kind of job they have, and what experiences.
Many writers who write about India play with the language. Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth come to mind. They either use Indian-English or words from the native language. You use some Malayalam words without providing a cumbersome glossary: e.g. thorthu, and kanjivellum. Do you find that this hybrid language evolving from a fusion of native languages with English provides a special resonance to the English language?
I think it does. People in India have found a unique way to make English their mother tongue. I cannot always understand them when my relatives switch to other languages like Hindi and Tamil. I tried to make the language as natural as possible and gave explanations in simple terms.
I was struck by the narrative voice. It is very straightforward, and authentic.
Maya is hopefully an American voice. She grows up with the American lexicon. She translates the English in India into this lexicon. She is, however, not living at that intersection of two languages as someone growing up in India all the time, like Salman Rushdie, in an English-speaking/Hindi-speaking community.
What are your plans for the future? Any work in progress?
I don’t plan on becoming a fulltime writer because the cross-fertilization of staying in another job has been valuable to me. This is because of the time issue as well the experience of working with different kinds of people and having different kinds of ideas. A lot of writers who have 6 or 7 books, have characters who are writers, or professors, or people in a university setting. They are confined to the world they live in. I am interested in other settings and I want to have a foot in the real, concrete world. I am working on a new novel and I am excited about it.
A REFRESHING VOICE
MOTHERLAND by Vineetha Vijayaraghavan. Soho Press, New York. January 2001.
Among the writers articulating the experiences of Indian-Americans, an increasingly visible minority in our pluralistic society, Vineetha Vijayaraghavan is a refreshing new voice. She describes the dilemmas facing young Indian-Americans growing up in two cultures. Others have written on this theme but not from the narrative perspective of an insider, a teenager, whose journey from West to East results in the discovery of her identity, an identity that she can be comfortable with.
In her debut novel, Motherland, Vijayaraghavan’s narrator is fifteen-year-old Maya, open to learning from the traditional culture of her family as well as the culture of the land of her upbringing. With uninhibited frankness and a capacity for sympathetic understanding, she realizes in the end that “history and memory can trump geography,” and that she “could live anywhere, be grafted and take root anywhere, and anywhere could become home.” There is no complicated, abstruse mythology structuring the novel. It is a simple, straightforward story that reveals a deep sensitivity and genuineness. The opening sentence of the novel reveals this directness: “I was shipped off to India that summer because of the death of a deer.” Maya’s mother disapproved of Maya’s boyfriend, Steve, who had driven the car that killed the deer and had been arrested for driving under the influence. Maya’s mother was worried that her daughter was being corrupted by American society. She was sent to Kerala that summer as a corrective measure so that she could learn about her rich Indian heritage and become better acquainted with her grandmother and other relatives.
Maya reached India during the aftermath of the assassination of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by a Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger. Her first cultural shock occurred when the passport officer drew attention to her risky independence by asking: “You are fifteen and they [the parents] sent you by yourself?” Undaunted, Maya replied: “In America, I always get around by myself.” There were other clashes caused by the heightened security at the airports because of the recent assassination. She was relieved when she spotted her uncle in the crowd who took charge of her and her baggage. The unpleasant homecoming was redeemed when she saw her grandmother Ammamma in the airport lounge, waiting to greet her. Vijayaraghavan portrays this crucial figure in Indian families with great sensitivity.
Ammamma had been Maya’s first mother from her birth till the age of four and had nurtured Maya when her parents had left her as a baby in Kerala, since both of them were working in New York City. Ammamma understood Maya better than her own mother. Vijayaraghavan vividly portrays this warm, venerable figure, a repository of the best family values, and an archetypal link in the continuity of Indian culture. At the end of the novel, when Sunil, the kitchen help in her uncle’s household, brings her the journals written by Ammamma, Maya realizes that these were “the maps for the inside, maps of the heart, and those could only be drawn only by those who loved you.”
Maya notices external changes in Ammamma’s appearance. Vijayaraghavan captures these changes in sensuous detail. Ammamma wore a white saree, a reminder that she had now become a widow. She looked tired and older than the last time Maya had seen her, and her hair had grown gray knotted in a smooth bun at her neck. She smelled of rosewater, which she used in her morning prayer, as well as of Vick’s Vaporub, we are told in parenthesis, a reminder that she was asthmatic. She wore a light woolen shawl even in the premonsoon heat. Maya asks her bluntly why she had come to the airport, not to be rude, but out of concern that it was too much of a strain for her. Maya’s directness, the result of her American upbringing, contrasts with the formal decorum expected of her by her Keralite relatives.
Maya spends that summer with her uncle Sanjay, aunt Rheema, cousin Brindha, and Ammamma, and learns a lot about traditional Hindu family values. It also provides her with a perspective on her own identity. From being a somewhat rebellious teenager, growing up in America, she benefits from her exposure to her mother’s family, especially her grandmother whose unassuming understanding becomes manifest in subtle ways.
Maya notices several cultural differences between Indian and American societies and is not prepared to accept everything Indian uncritically. For instance, caste and class are very much in evidence in India. The servants know their place, even though they are treated with kindness and generosity. Maya happened to visit India during the aftermath of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by one of the Sri Lankan Tigers, a terrorist group. There is a taboo on discussing the Tigers in uncle Sanjay’s household because the Tamil servants like Rupa had secret sympathies with the rebel group.
Teenagers are teenagers whether in India or America. Brindha is sullen about going back to a boarding school. Maya compares her own predicament of having to live by her mother’s rules and feels that boarding school may not be such an awful proposition because, in that environment, “everyone was parentless.” The generational conflict seems universal.
Vijayaraghavan uses the motif of the journey with great effect to portray the maturing of an adolescent. For Maya, the journey from West to East and back to the West ends in wisdom, with the knowledge that the cultural graft could take root anywhere, and become all the more sturdy through the hybridization.
Lakshmi Mani taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology for 20 years. She is a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow.