With Bangalore as the backdrop, Lavanya Sankaran’s first collection of short stories is an amalgam of all that is at once current and traditional. Bangalore is India’s answer to Silicon Valley, complete with the fast-forward, upwardly mobile, and mercenary desires of those who make their living there. Sankaran is deft at conjuring worlds seen from not only different ends of the spectrum, but also different sides of the spectrum.
The eight stories in this collection are quietly alarming as Sankaran seems to have perfected the art of subtlety with a twist. Each story is crafted in such a way that yearning, either for or against tradition, becomes a painful exercise and the reinvention of self in a new land often causes a disconnect not easily reconciled. While this theme is a common one in writers from India publishing in the United States, Sankaran has the freshest vision and the keenest insight seen in this type of writing in a long time. Her characters are flawed, to be sure, but the language is so real, the sentiment so raw, and the backdrop so contemporary that it bridges the great (and sometimes embellished) cultural divide. Pain, belonging, desire, and ambition become the all-too-human aspects that they really are, rather than simply contorted to fit a geographical construct. In her stories, those in India often pine for a life in faraway lands such as the United States. As well, Indians living abroad and having earned education and paychecks in the United States feel the loss of something valuable, something unnamed as a result of their own reinvention.
“Priyamvada knew that her father was, once again, not listening to her,” and thus begins a fascinating journey, in the story “Alphabet Soup,” of a young woman. Priyamvada’s idealist views clash with her father’s rejection of religious and cultural traditions because “they took certain practices beyond the realm of common sense,” leading her to form her own conclusions about what ultimately is a life well lived. In “Bombay This,” Ramu, of marriageable age (and then some), watches the flirtatious and beautiful Ashwini win over everyone she meets by comparing everything in Bangalore to everything in Bombay (Bombay this, Bombay that) causing Ramu to be repelled initially and then charmed, but for a price, and too late. The title story was first published in the December 2003 issue of The Atlantic Monthly and was, for most of us, the first glimpse of this writer. A riveting story of intent and class distinction, “The Red Carpet” highlights Sankaran’s talent not only as a writer, but also as a storyteller who dives deep below the surface.
These are stories that entertain and remain in the psyche. The Red Carpet, an extremely well-written collection, exemplifies the fact that no matter which side of the world we are on, modernity versus tradition touches, and sometimes hurts the very heart of who we are and who we might (or might not) become.