Karma and Other Stories by Rishi Reddi. Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers: New York. April 2007. Paperback, 224 pages. $12.95. www.eccobooks.com. www.rishireddi.net
n Buddhism, the law of karma says that one event causes another, pleasant or unpleasant, according to the event being skillful or unskillful. In Karma and Other Stories , first-time author Rishi Reddi has skillfully—and pleasantly—created a series of seven short stories set within a fictionalized Telugu community in the Boston area. The result is a moving study of characters finding self, purpose, and place while realizing their karma.
“I wrote about what I’m familiar with and what’s important to me: the stories around Indian immigration to this country, what we sacrifice and what we gain as immigrants,” Reddi commented in an email interview. “Why do some people choose to give up everything that is familiar to them—family, home, and community—to travel to another country and culture and start from scratch?”
Several characters’ personal conflicts are rooted in an understandable inability to easily start from scratch. Clinging to their own ways, traditions, and beliefs, they are afforded a temporary safety net in new and unfamiliar surroundings. Nevertheless, the bottom line is that while all are vulnerable in their new settings, all must eventually discover how or if they fit in. How do they juggle family duty with individual needs, or tradition with freedom, or even expectations with sexuality?
“My hope is to depict individuals, with their unique motivations, desires, idiosyncrasies, and viewpoints, as accurately as I can,” says Reddi. “These stories revolve around a certain socio-economic class of Indian immigrant: educated individuals with a potential for affluence who are legally living in the United States.”
As with many collections, Reddi’s characters are associated between the stories; however, she has accomplished this without constructing these relationships in a contrived manner. The subtlety of the connections allows each piece to shine on its own. The common thread in the collection is that all of the stories deal with balancing Indian customs and American life; however, the fresh approach is in the portraits of the characters and how they come to terms with their placement in both their new homes and new country. Not all of the characters look down on America and Americans. Instead, many have learned to adapt in one way or another to their adopted country whether or not they are here by choice. Reddi has produced a piece of writing that masterfully contrasts the assumed with the experienced, myth with reality.
“Lakshmi and the Librarian” is a tender and caring story about a woman whose awakening and empowerment comes from within and perhaps as a surprise. Stepping outside of her ofttimes-judgmental circle of Indian friends, Laxmi befriends a gentleman librarian. When the relationship becomes more than a passing conversation at the library and extends to a concerned visit to his home, Laxmi finds herself freed of the constraints imposed upon her by her culture even in the new world. In the title story, “Karma,” a man struggling with his younger brother’s success versus his own unemployment and perceived failure finds purpose by rescuing birds in downtown Boston. Reddi, whose favorite of the stories is “Karma,” says, “Shankar’s journey in America is just so accidental; he never stops to ask if he is happy here. He just stays because it is expected of him.” Yet when he fortuitously connects with a veterinarian who welcomes his efforts, Shankar’s life in America begins to take shape and have meaning.
In “Justice Shiva Ram Murthy,” which appeared in The Best American Short Stories of 2005, Justice Murthy’s childhood friend argues that not every American fits the stereotype of rude, selfish, or thoughtless.
While finding themselves and their purpose, each story’s main character exhibits some sense of longing for home, but each resolves the issue according to his or her specific situation and temperament. “I think that the ‘longing for home’ is about searching for a place where we feel comfortable, and that every person experiences this longing, whether we are immigrants or not,” states Reddi. “I’ve noticed that members of our community often struggle with the notion of ‘home.’ Many first-generation immigrants believe that home is India, but they may have not lived in the country for decades, and despite enjoying periodic vacations there, daily Indian life is quite unfamiliar to them. They are not really attuned to changing lifestyles and social mores. They remember the India of 10, 20 or even 30 years ago, and think it is the same place.”
So how does that notion of home translate to succeeding generations? Reddi’s stories cross all ages, and the longing for home rests not only with the elders but also with the young. Uma in “Devadasi” reluctantly accompanies her family from Boston to India where she at first seems uncomfortable. Krishna in “Lord Krishna” longs for his home in Boston when he is transplanted to Kansas.
“For second-generation immigrants, ‘home’ may be an even more confusing matter,” Reddi continues. “They grew up in a family in which their parents referred to India as ‘home,’ but the country is quite unfamiliar to the children. They may have visited a few times, have an Indian name, love Indian food, perhaps even speak one of the languages, but the country, people, and social mores of America are far more comfortable to them than those of India will ever be. So how do they define ‘home’?”
The adage states, “Home is where the heart is,” but home might also be anywhere one accepts change in life. This journey into the lives of her characters has given Reddi an opportunity to explore how change affects immigrants. “If readers recognize some part of themselves in my characters, whether or not they share the exterior characteristics of gender, age, or nationality, I would think my writing a success,” she explains. “People of all cultures share the same joys and troubles; certain basic truths are part of the universal human experience.”
In this collection, Reddi tackles classic issues, but the difference lies in alternative resolutions that leave the reader with a sense of fulfillment and joy. And there are no more universal human experiences than self, purpose, place, and karma.
|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.|