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Literary writing is a mirror of sorts; it enables you to see yourself in its pages.
For the first 20 years of my life, I had never read a book that reflected my life as an Indian or Indian-American. Then came my middle 20 years and with it, two miraculous decades of discovering myself through the fiction of R. K. Narayan, V. S. Naipaul, and Salman Rushdie. Sadly, with the explosion of books from and about the Indian subcontinent’s diaspora for the next two decades, I began to take Indian literature for granted.
Murali Kamma’s Not Native reminds me of the paradox of abundance; when we have too much of a good thing, we tend to diminish its value. Not Native is a marvelous reminder to appreciate the reflection in the mirror. Over the upcoming decades of my life, a life that is increasingly settled and looking in the rear-view mirror when life was more unsettled, I commit to reading more books that remind me of who I am and where I came from.
“Settled” and “unsettled” are good descriptors of the characters populating Not Native’s short stories. Grouped into four thematic clusters, these 20 stories are not always happy, but they are consistently heartwarming in how they bring to life the immigrant’s experience of leaving a settled space (India) for an unsettled one (America) and sometimes revisiting India.
Many of Kamma’s endings have a gentle hopefulness about them. To wade into Not Native’s waters is to be soothed by them in the same way a gurgling brook takes one’s troubles away. Especially in the first half of the book, one is reminded of how the legendary storyteller R. K. Narayan transported readers to his make-believe Malgudi. The gentle language slows you down, makes you forget about your worries, takes you nostalgically to a simpler time. And in Kamma’s elegant simplicity is an engaging sophistication.
There is a fine range in Not Native, which makes it accessible to a wide spectrum of readers. While I was especially fond of the first half of the book, some readers will lean toward the back two sections (“Schisms and Surprises” and “At Cross Purposes”) which are somewhat edgier and more overtly political, especially the short story “Fragments of Glass.” A couple of the stories have elements of a crime drama, with one hinting of tragedy at the World Trade Center in New York. But none of these pieces retreat from the hard-earned trust Murali Kamma has built with the reader in the opening chapters of his superb book. Surprise endings don’t end in tragedy, and endearing characters do not degenerate into mawkish sappiness.
NOT NATIVE: SHORT STORIES OF IMMIGRANT LIFE IN AN IN-BETWEEN WORLD. By Murali Kamma. Wising Up Press,2019. 173 pages. http://www.universaltable.org/libraryfiction/notnative.html
In honor of Gandhiji’s 150th birth anniversary, Dr. Oza recently recently published Satyalogue // Truthtalk: A Gandhian Guide to (Post)Modern-Day Dilemmas. He can be reached at www.satyalogue.com or at https://amazon.com/author/rajoza where he has launched his new book.