Tag Archives: #booklist

Second Debut Novel Gives Second Generation a Second Chance at First Love

The Shaadi Set-Up, Lillie Vale’s debut adult novel, is overflowing with internal angst, situational humor, and the oft-dreamed-of second chance at first love. It also examines the struggles mid-twenty-somethings encounter when finding their grown-up groove and combining business and romantic relationships. The result is positively entertaining friction-fiction.

Rita Chitness is a furniture repairer in Goldsboro, NC, who re-purposes unloved pieces into works of art that belie their origins. She’s also an interior designer who hasn’t officially gotten her business off the ground despite influential neighbors clamoring for her pieces and one who offers a big job. Romantically, Rita’s in a high-maintenance, semi-new relationship with Neil Dewan, which is kept secret from their parents because Neil’s father was once the love of Rita’s mother’s life.

Neil’s ready to make it official, and while he thinks marriage would solve his problem of a nagging mother, Rita thinks she has a better scheme: both of them subscribe to MyShaadi.com, create targeted profiles, get matched officially. That would be the perfect way to break it to her parents that she’s dating, of all the people in the world, Amar Dewan’s son.

Visiting her parents’ home in Chapel Hill, NC, Rita sees realtor signs for Milan Rao, her ex-boyfriend who had the gall to dump her via voice mail six years ago. When the doorbell rings, it’s Milan, himself. Because of a sneaky confab between parents, Milan ends up asking Rita to help stage a house he’s having a major problem selling. Eventually, reluctantly, Rita gives in. This is where the old fluttery feelings really start to return, but Rita does her best to stomp them to the ground.

Meanwhile, MyShaadi.com fails. Neil gets plenty of matches, but not with Rita. Rita is matched with… Milan.

With just the right amount of irritation, Rita gets into her zone and works her magic staging the house from hell. Milan is overjoyed when it sells immediately, but Rita feels she has merely fulfilled the agreement. When Milan brings back memories of time spent at Bluebill Cottage on Rosalie Island, things get extra complicated. He admits he bought the seaside house, intending to return it to its former grandeur in order to flip it. He, again, wants Rita to work her magic on the cottage so that it will sell in a heartbeat.

But the heartbeat and attraction belong to Rita and Milan, and the slow burn of the former couple, now adults invested in building careers, may mean starting over again. Maybe.

The Shaadi Set-Up hums with a sexy vibe and tons of heart thanks to great characters. Rita is adorably prickly and determined. Her best friend Rajvee, who acts as Rita’s sounding board, is a free spirit that should have had a larger role in the story. Milan is as lovable as a puppy, and Neil will make eyes roll. Even the neighbors who covet Rita’s projects are delightful, especially the one who surprises her with a second-chance story of her own.

The overly-concerned-about-everyone’s-marital-status first-generation parents are refreshing because they are thoroughly on board with and supportive of their children’s career choices that go against stereotypes. Even Rita’s grandmother is hipper than expected. In an interview by the publisher, Vale stated that she “… always yearned for a book where an Indian American character gets to just be, where their ethnicity isn’t the most interesting thing about them.” She unquestionably succeeded with this book.

As for love, Rita’s approach to it was damaged by her mother’s sad story and by Milan, so she believes that when things break, they can’t be fixed. The project of house flipping together is a clever metaphor for Rita and Milan taking a broken relationship and attempting to turn it into a comfortable one.

The concept of the second generation getting a second chance at first love is just too irresistible to pass up. If you love Lily Menon or Sonali Dev, you don’t need to re-purpose your reading list to add this gem because it will fit perfectly.

*  *  *  *  *

Vale’s second young adult novel, Beauty and the Besharam, publishes Summer 2022, and her second adult novel, The Decoy Girlfriend, will publish later in 2022.


Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in both Carolinas where she is a long-time contributor to India Currents and a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association. She also is a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee, SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), and NCWN (North Carolina Writers’ Network). 


 

America Calling: A Ph.D.’s Memoir Champions a U.S. Education

Each fall, thousands of students arrive with dreams and two suitcases each, ready to study in colleges and universities all across America. They are international students that add $45 billion to the country’s economy annually. Then, surviving the peculiarities of American life, untangling the red tape, and managing the wait, many remain, often contributing to the country through job creation, innovation, and research. Dr. Rajika Bhandari was one of those students, and as she argues in her must-read book, America Calling: A Foreign Student in a Country of Possibility, the impact of international students on America is as substantial as the obstacles they face.

In 1992, Bhandari followed her fiancé, Vikram, to Raleigh to earn her doctorate in psychology at North Carolina State University. Initially, she was hesitant about being faced with the post-doc choice of staying in the U.S. or returning to India. Plus, she feared there were just too many choices to be made in the U.S. She was right about both.

With hindsight humor, Bhandari relates cultural blunders and differences as a new student in America. Asking for more catsup for her pizza. Assuming hot dog relish is a minced side salad. Not knowing how to use a computer (a necessity). She also embraces yard and church sales, becomes an expert coupon-clipper, and marvels at the extensive choices at her local Food Lion grocery. She stumbles upon American racism, encounters Southern Baptists, and is grateful for the generosity of both the American woman whom Vikram tutored and the Shahs at their Comfort Inn on a treacherously snowy night.

But the most daunting aspect of life in America? The method of education.

“American professors taught us as if we were coconspirators, allies in the pursuit of knowledge: they advised, guided, and consulted,” she writes. “My Indian professors, by contrast, had commanded us from the front of the classroom, frowning and glowering, hell-bent on making us master the basics and, in the process, squelching our love for the subject at hand.”

Meeting students that were starting or finishing their degrees later in life, calling professors by their first names, and seeing an adult wearing braces, Bhandari writes she “was learning that, as with many things in America, it was never too late to do something different, to change course…America, I was discovering, was a land of reinvention.”

Six years later, she earned her Ph.D. and followed Vikram to Silicon Valley, where she discovered jobs for her were few. She did find a job, but because of the U.S. government’s predilection for grand hoops and prickly hurdles, it took six months before she had her H-1B visa. By then, she was nearly broke, as was her relationship.

Bhandari, using her own stories and others’, examines those hoops and hurdles that impede a skilled available workforce. Using data, she refutes the widely held assumption that these visa holders snatch jobs from the American workforce. After experiencing her own six-month delay to work in the U.S., she was granted EB1 status and given a green card.

Returning to India in 2005, she learned that neither the few available jobs nor the pay was commensurate with her degree and experience there. To India, she was too American. To Bhandari, India was too uninviting. America, however, offered freedom and respect.

Her life changed, however, when she learned The Institute of International Education (IIE) was looking for a director of research and evaluation. Using American moxie, she took a risk and was hired. With green card in hand, she moved to New York City to head the prestigious Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange.

In this capacity, she writes that she would “understand, document, and report on the goals, challenges, and problems shared by international students from around the world.” To gain insight, she spoke with students in-depth. She also studied historical events such as 9/11 and the xenophobic Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban that put immigrants at risk and dealt major blows to international programs. Certainly, too, Covid-19 has reduced the number of international students, yet Bhandari uses the pandemic as an opportunity to emphasize the fact that former international students created vaccines and the N-95 mask.

Author – Rajika Bhandari (Image from www.rajikabhandari.com)

I was curious what Dr. Bhandari thought her life would be like had she not studied in the U.S.

“I would likely have been living a fairly predictable and middle-class life in an Indian city like Delhi,” she told me. “I don’t know that I would have tried big and bold things or taken risks in my personal and professional life.”

The most important thing she learned having studied, lived, and worked in the U.S.?

“Education is a powerful tool and setting in which to learn about the world, and through which to expand our minds and challenge our beliefs,” she replied.

Bhandari is an inspiring writer, smoothly transitioning between personal memoir and scholarly clarity that data and research provide. She incorporates statistics and historical research, always enhancing her journey and the reader’s edification with stories and facts. When she relates the results of crunched numbers, she does so as easily as she relates her progress as a student and working immigrant. Thus, she is better able to present truth, conflicts, and trends.

Because of Bhandari’s engaging storytelling, the book will appeal to a readership interested in understanding cultural differences and the power of education. In the end, Bhandari shows that a U.S. education–one of the country’s top exports–is important, worthwhile, and a large part of how interconnected the world has become.

She is the Founder of Rajika Bhandari Advisors, which offers consulting services in evidence-based international education strategy. She also serves as a Senior Advisor to the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. Her books and writings in newspapers and journals emphasize the intersections of migration and culture, and her next book will likely focus on these areas.

Bursting with not only a compelling story but also a wealth of information, America Calling is a timely read in today’s complicated world.


Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in both Carolinas where she is a long-time contributor to India Currents and a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association. She also is a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee, SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), and NCWN (North Carolina Writers’ Network).


 

Homeland Elegies: A Clash of Civilizations

Ayad Akhtar’s novel Homeland Elegies is autobiographical as much as it is a work of fiction.  There is traumatic truth here in the tension between fiction and nonfiction; Akhtar finds his way through trauma by telling his own story, the story of his father, the story of their shared Muslim ancestry, and the story of their shared, but diverging, America.

As signaled by the novel’s elegiac title, there is a lamentation for loss and exile.  Akhtar’s parents are dead, their Pakistan is dying, and our America is disappearing in the time of Trumpism, racism, and unbridled capitalism.  A state of grace is not available to readers hoping for easy resolutions to the conflicts that Akhtar explores in his expansive novel of big ideas.  Given that it is autofiction, the novel might merit classification as a “bildungsroman.”  A simpler – and perhaps better – categorizing word would be “clash.”

The idea of the clash of civilizations was popularized by Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington. While a colossal conceptualization, this approach to clash is narrow in its faceless geopolitical substance; one can read Lewis and Huntington’s thesis as an abstraction drained of blood.  As a dramatist, Akhtar trades conflict in a way that has me caring about his characters as if they are my family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors; indeed, as if they are a mélange of my own mixed-up, confused self trying to make sense of my mixed-up, confused country.  He encourages an unyielding clash that blends the personal and the political: fathers and sons; Muslims and non-Muslims; white supremacists and racial equity activists; liberal progressives and neoliberal capitalists; believers and apostates.  Homeland Elegies uses the difficult Trump presidency as an unfettered background to put all this conflict into stark contrast.  Akhtar’s gift is his internalization of advice given to him by a college professor who becomes his mentor:  “Use the difficulty; make it your own.”

Akhtar – or rather the narrator who is Akhtar’s doppelgänger – absorbs difficulties to become a writer who has learned how to make sense of his world.  At its core, Homeland Elegies attempts to settle its narrator in two homes – America and Islam.  In dialogue peppered throughout the novel, both places of residence – geographic and spiritual – are found wanting.  

“America is not about what they tell you – freedom and opportunity and all that ….  It’s about racism and money worship – and when you’re on the correct side of both those things?  That’s when you really belong.”

“Top five words people associate on an unconscious level with Islam?  Anger.  Separate.  Suicide.  Bad.  Death….  Like cancer.  Nothing positive….  Even Cat Stevens?  …  Islam made him stop singing.” 

In another passage, the narrator is stopped by a cop who asks him where his name is from.  The narrator – perhaps Akhtar himself – “in the trying months after 9/11 … settled on a prophylactic strategy:  ‘India,’ [he] would say.  It was a lie….  [But] the answer had the obvious advantage of connoting not the referents of terror, murder, and rage that most associated with Pakistan but rather the bright colors and spicy tastes of delightful dishes like tikka masala, gyrating flash mobs in Bollywood movies, and yoga pants.”

In reviewing Akhtar’s book, I’ve tried to reconcile my settled feeling about my America – even during the surreal four years of Trumpish chaos.  Perhaps it’s a privilege to live in the sunny state of California’s diversity; maybe I’m fortunate to be born a Hindu; or maybe my Change Management consulting practice – which has me mixing with CEOs, COOs, CMOs, CFOs, CIOs, CISOs, and CHROs – has inured me to the harsh glare of capitalism’s cloudy violence.  Have the C-suite’s well-coiffed men and women blinded me to the world as it is?  Perhaps I’ve just been seeing (C-ing?) it the way they want me to experience the world:  while we riffed on strategic transformations, aligned organizations, reengineered processes, business-class flights, 5-star hotels, stock options, and mergers and acquisitions, I lost track of the jobs considered expendable in RIFs (Reductions in Force) justified by Wall Street valuations.

Change may be inexorable, but that does not always make it a welcome companion when it results in loss and exile.  Gentle readers, perhaps like Akhtar’s aging Father, perhaps like your loyal reviewer, “We’re all wondering in our different ways about how to find our way back home.”


 Dr. Raj Oza has recently completed his first novel, after publishing three works of nonfiction, and is contemplating which of his books have unyielding truth.


 

Is There South Asian Literature For Young People?

In recent decades, several South Asian authors have gained prominence – not only writers of novels for adults (such as Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundathi Roy, Amitav Ghosh, Kiran Desai, Vikram Seth, Rohinton Mistry, Salman Rushdie, Chitra Divakaruni, and many others), but also writers of outstanding work for young readers.  And in the past five or so years, the latter group has grown exponentially. What are some good ways for parents and educators to stay abreast of this growing list of South Asian writers dedicated to creating books especially for young people, featuring South Asian characters, settings, and themes? 

There are at least two important resources to keep up with: The South Asia Book Award seeks to shine a spotlight on some of the best books with South Asian content written for young readers in the English Language; and the website, Kitaab World, has numerous lists of books, interviews, and blog posts about South Asian authors and books. Indeed, the goals of the South Asia Book Award are almost precisely the goals shared by Gauri Manglik and Sadaf Siddique, the founders of Kitaab World, whose blog contains numerous curated lists of books with South Asian content. 

Rachel Weiss, the founder of the South Asia Book Award, directed programming at the University of Wisconsin’s (Madison) Center for South Asia for over 16 years and has personal ties to Southern India, where she once lived. Her vision went beyond just evaluating a book’s textual content. She wanted judges to pay attention to illustrations as well when they evaluated picture books. She furthered her mission by creating lesson plans and other resources for the books the award honored, to encourage educators (not just parents and young readers) to support these books.

If teachers or librarians use the books we have recognized, they will truly be exposed to the depth and breadth of the region called South Asia,” says Emera Bridge-Wilson, who has worked with the South Asia Book Award committee for over a decade. Kevin King, who has served on the SABA committee almost since its inception, has additionally sought to bring attention to some of his favorite South Asian authors via the Kalamazoo Public Library’s podcast.

While awards and lists are not necessarily always the best or only way to judge a book’s excellence or importance, their importance is undeniable. For anyone with an interest in supporting South Asian authors, a look at the past, as well as current and future award winners and honorees of the SABA award, and the books on Kitaab World’s lists, are excellent places to start. 


Padma Venkatraman is the author of numerous award-winning books for young people, including Climbing the Stairs, Island’s End, A Time Dance, The Bridge Home, and, most recently, Born Behind Bars; two of which have won and one of which was a finalist for the South Asia Book Award. Visit her at www.padmavenkatraman.com, @padmatv (twitter) or @venkatraman.padma (Instagram). 


 

The Sequel to ‘The Henna Artist’ Doesn’t Fail to Intrigue

In the last book, The Henna Artist, Lakshmi leaves Jaipur with her unmarried pregnant sister Radha and her protege Malik. But the hills give refuge to the henna artist. Radha was shipped off to Paris and Radha’s son, Nikhil, went with Kanta. Let’s not forget that Lakshmi got married to the doctor in Simla.

Alka Joshi’s sequel, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur is a coming-of-age story. Malik, the eight-year-old sharp-witted protege of Lakshmi, is now a young man, Abbas Malik. Educated in the prestigious Bishop Cotton School, groomed to walk the talk like a pukka sahib, Malik retains his native cunning. When Lakshmi sends him to Jaipur to learn the ropes of civil engineering, the twenty-year-old uncovers a secret. It is an unsuspected intrigue that links the Jaipur Royals, their trusted architects ‘Singh-Sharma’, Motilal jewelers, and the sheep that graze on the verdant hills in Shimla.

In a rich and intricately woven plot, Joshi exposes the guilty parties by unraveling the puzzle, literally brick by brick. Lakshmi’s journey from her garden of wildflowers and herbs to the sultry heat of the desert is sequined with scintillating detail. A few new characters emerge in the hilly terrain.

A recently widowed tribal beauty Nimi is trying to fend for her kids. She is thrown off-kilter by the unfortunate incident of her brother who succumbs to a fatal injury. Lakshmi’s adoration and concern for Nimi’s two children, Rekha and Chullu, is palpable in the narrative. I find her conversations with the little girl Rekha about clouds, rainbows, and books truly magical.

Lakshmi’s marriage to Dr. Jay is chronicled with a red bindi on her forehead, quiet evenings in their cottage sipping scotch and amorous caresses.

But the complex yarn is unraveled by Malik and his “Lakshmi boss”. Lakshmi leaves the hills to pay a visit to the queens Latika and Indumati. She brings to the palace her presence of mind and her trusted henna paste and emollients. After rubbing the dowager queen’s hands with juniper oils and tracing patterns of lion and saffron flowers, she convinces the ailing queen to pay a visit to the Royal Jewel Cinema. What happens next is an ironic unraveling of the intertwined secrets of greed, lust, and money laundering.

Alka Joshi highlights the royal heritage of Jaipur, Rajasthan opening her story with an inciting incident at the landmark Nine Jewel Theater (modeled after the famous art deco of Raj Mandir which was commissioned by the Surana family) and special kundan-meena jewelry propagated by the royals in the eighteenth century. Detailed descriptions of the glamorous meringue interiors of the cinema in Panch Batti, Jaipur transported me to my early days spent in Jaipur. As did the vivid, sparkling descriptions of the elaborate kundan and meenakari chokers, bangles, and bracelets on display at the Motilal (probably Surana) jewelers. Every incident in Alka Joshi’s book is arranged beautifully like a cabochon ruby. The chapters are enchantingly displayed like traditional wedding jewelry – the hallmark of Jaipur – coveted by every bride. 

To read The Secret Keeper of Jaipur is to sniff lavender and gardenias, uncover writings in the sky, sink your feet in the shifting sands, uncover dubious liaisons, and read the lips of the silent palace guards. Beads of perspiration formed on my own brow as I watched Lakshmi and Malik flirt with danger. But there was always a promised respite in cool drinks of aam panna, nimbu pani, and a swig of Beefeater gin with the queen in her regalia. 

Joshi does not fail to indulge her audiences by writing the final scene with a grand flourish, star-studded with ebullient children and mouth-watering Rajasthani delicacies, including besan ladoos and sewaiyan. An elusive account about the blue-eyed Nikhil, a stolen kiss, and possibly Ravi Singh’s revenge portend another book. Hain na Alka?

Once I started listening to this lyrical tale on Audible I could not stop. It was nice to hear the smattering of somewhat mispronounced Hindi words: Achha, Samjho, Akeli

I am certain that the gossip-eaters will agree that Laksmi and Malik are no Aira Gaira Nathu Khairas! I felt that I got more than my money’s worth. Next time I see her in person, I will have to tell her: Alka, your book was worth aam ke aam guthliyon ke daam.


Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.


 

Left to right: Book - Whereabouts and Author - Jhumpa Lahiri

Whereabouts: Delicate Threads of a Tapestry

Jhumpa Lahiri’s first book, a short story collection titled Interpreter of Maladies, seemed to come out of nowhere.  My friend Steve’s mother gifted the book to him, and he, in turn, passed it along to me. In the year 2000, Interpreter of Maladies won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  The BBC wrote that the win by the 32-year-old writer “surprised many in the US literary establishment.”  Steve, his mother, and I were delighted to be early readers, but I can’t say that I saw the Pulitzer award coming.

 Her appeal transcended gender, age, and ethnicity.  Perhaps it was the clean, elegant prose.  Maybe it was interest in the immigrant experience, specifically of those emigrating from the Indian subcontinent.  More likely it was Lahiri’s brilliant mastery of the universal theme of communication and miscommunication that defines the human condition regardless of what language one speaks. 

A lesser author might have basked in the applause from critics and lay readers.  A more mercantile writer could have become a scriptwriter and elected to cash in on her fame by turning to Hollywood, Bollywood, or Kollywood.  A less ambitious writer might have found comfort in a cushy academic position.   For all I know, Jhumpa Lahiri contemplated and acted on all these impulses.  Indeed, her second book, The Namesake, was turned into a film directed by Mira Nair, and she is a Director of Princeton University’s Program in Creative Writing.  

While it may have been easy for Lahiri to rest on her laurels and settle in her well-earned place of comfort, in 2011 she moved to Italy with her family; she stopped reading in English and began an unlikely second literary career as an Italian writer, or rather as an Anglophone wunderkind who writes in Italian.  As she wrote in her autobiographical In Other Words (written in Italian as In altre parole), “I have to accept that in Italian I’m partly deaf and blind.”  For basketball fans, this self-imposed handicap is like Michael Jordan retiring from the NBA to play minor league baseball with one hand tied behind his back.

Except…

With Dove mi trovo, Lahiri has written an Italian novel at a major league level — perhaps all-star worthy.

In her subsequent publication of the novel in English as Whereabouts, it’s as if she is a multi-sport Olympian, winning Gold in the winter and Silver in the summer.

This is a novel comprised of interconnected flash fiction.  Most of the 46 stories run two to five pages; the shortest one – “Nowhere” – fits a single paragraph, some 160 words, on a lonely leaf of paper.  The longest one – “In the Country” – is not much longer, no more than 900 words strung across a handful of leaves.  Together, Lahiri’s delicate threads are experienced as a memorable weave, as if one is spending a leisurely secular day in a literary version of the Vatican Gallery of Tapestries.

Individually, they are best described by a sentence in a chapter called “On The Couch”:  “Every session was like the start of a novel abandoned after the first chapter.”  That particular chapter is about a patient who makes little progress with a therapist but is taken by the ambiance of the apartment building where the sessions are held:  “Maybe I chose that therapist simply because I loved arriving in that courtyard, riding up in that elevator, entering that room.”

It is likely that Whereabouts’ readers will leave the book feeling the same way as the patient.  Lahiri writes with a mastery of description, mood, and feeling, but the plot takes us nowhere, and leaves the reader asking, “Where am I?” (which is the English translation of the novel’s Italian title, Dove mi trovo).  Readers, like myself, who have visited Rome might enjoy reading the short stories and finding themselves in familiar Italian locales like an enchanting stationery store; those who have not been to Italy might relate with how I found myself intrigued by “At the Beautician,” learning about a service I have never used.

Given that Italian is Lahiri’s learned language, there is a tyro’s habit of appealingly simple sentences that sprint the reader along; also, as a newcomer to her adopted language, the author senses that the marathon of an Italian novel would be overwhelming, thus the short fiction.  Or it could be that form follows function.  Lahiri intends to convey the fleeting nature of life and its attendant loss – thus the fleet-footed sentences and the quickly-read two paragraphs of  “In Spring.”  

The anonymous middle-aged woman that we follow across the seasons of her year in Whereabouts’ anonymous, Italian city, with its trattorias, palazzos, and piazzas, suffers in spring.

 “Every blow in my life took place in spring.  Each lasting sting.  That’s why I’m afflicted by the green of the trees, the first peaches in the market, the light flowing skirts that the women in my neighborhood start to wear.  These things only remind me of loss, of betrayal, of disappointment.” 

Several chapters later, in a story titled “In Winter,” there is a shift in feeling. 

“The winter sunset seeps in through some cracks.  It’s incredible, it feels as if we’re standing in a grotto, with light that darts though it like fish.” 

From a distance, Italy, America, India, or any other place has an allure that is built on mythologies of exceptionalism and superficialities of tourist guides.  Up close, the messiness of the human condition is universal.  To belong, one must embrace the messiness, perhaps even be a part of it.  One cannot be like the irritating worldly visitor in “At My House” who complains, “The amount of garbage is insane.  The streets are complete chaos.  How do people live here?”  Citizens are hurt by unwelcome criticism of their home, their homeland.  They, like Lahiri’s protective protagonist, will wonder, “What exactly did he learn about the world after living in all those different countries?”

For an immigrant exploring a new land, the relationship to the land is ambivalent and inverted.  There is a promise of possibility as one leaves the familiar shore, but also the risk of sinking in the newness. The unvanquished immigrant walks tentatively and then with certainty on the streets, sidewalks, and quicksand of unaccustomed earth (Unaccustomed Earth was Lahiri’s second collection of stories). 

As I wrote in my first India Currents contribution in June, 1990, “Desh is pardesh, and pardesh becomes deshDesh, the Mother Land, no longer is all-embracing; and pardesh, the foreign land, becomes desh.  Everything seems upside down.  After a while, one falls into the new society’s rhythm, and a helpful routine is developed.”  

With its universal music, its private musing, and its crossing of linguistic borders, Whereabouts rewards readers with the rhythm of Lahiri’s lived and imagined lands.


Dr. Raj Oza has written Globalization, Diaspora, and Work TransformationSatyalogue // Truthtalk: A Gandhian Guide to (Post)Modern-Day Dilemmas, and P.S., Papa’s Stories. He can be reached at satyalogue.com or amazon.com/author/rajoza.

This article is for Emily, Raj’s daughter-in-law, who transcends American, Italian, and Indian cultural boundaries.  


 

Left to right: Book - Are You Enjoying & Author - Mira Sethi

Mira Sethi Uncovers the Complexity of Pakistani Culture in ‘Are You Enjoying’

Pakistani actor, model, and author Mira Sethi’s recently released debut collection of seven short stories, Are You Enjoying?, brings out contemporary life in Pakistan, with themes ranging from adultery to politics, class divide, loneliness, patriarchy, homosexuality, #MeToo, religious identity, and national pride.

A graduate of Wellesley and Oxford, Sethi worked as the Books Editor at The Wall Street Journal before returning to Pakistan. Regularly appearing in mainstream Pakistani drama series on television, Sethi is also a contributor to various publications, such as the New Republic, The Daily Beast, and the New York Times. Daughter of journalists Najam Sethi and Jugnu Mohsin, Sethi currently lives between Lahore, Karachi, and San Francisco. 

Set in Islamabad, ‘Mini Apple’ is a story about Javed, a divorced actor turned TV journalist, who enters into a relationship with his neighbor, Marianne Almond, an economic officer at the American Embassy. After having dated for a few weeks, however, Marianne leaves suddenly for the US without informing Javed, leaving him heartbroken.

‘Breezy Blessings’, set in Karachi, is a story about Mehak, a 22-year-old struggling actress who lands her first lead role. The story underlines #MeToo and exploitation in the showbiz world. Along the way, Mehak realizes that being a good actor means to “make a pact with yourself that the job came before—and would withstand—the small treacheries detected by the heart.” 

‘A Man for His Time’, set within a university campus in Lahore, highlights, among other things, violence in the name of honor.

‘Tomboy’, a modern story set in Karachi, is the story about two childhood best friends who decide to marry—even though the girl in the pair is a lesbian.

‘A Life of Its Own’, a story in two parts, reflects different facets of the country, such as its politics, patriarchal attitudes, and the huge class divide between the rich and the poor.

The title story ‘Are You Enjoying?’, set in Lahore, is about 27-year-old Soni who embarks on an affair with a 47-year-old married man, Asher. While projecting the secret lives of the super-elite in present-day Pakistani society, the story also draws attention to other complex issues, such as addiction. 

All in all, the book highlights aspects of Pakistan’s culture that not many people are aware of. Moreover, it sheds light on the fact that though life in urban Pakistan is changing every day, people still routinely struggle with ideas of personal freedom and identity, particularly those belonging to more traditional, conservative backgrounds.


Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. 


 

Left to right: Book - Bowled But Not Out and Author - Ruchira Khanna

Bowled, But Not Out: Woman of the Match

Let’s open with full disclosure:

  • Over thirty years of reviewing books, I have pretentiously emphasized high-brow literature.
  • My one snobbish review that strayed from works worthy of Pulitzers, Bookers, or Nobels was of Chetan Bhagat’s 2 States.  The conceit of that review could be captured by the New York Times quote in the graphic accompanying the review: “the biggest selling English language novelist in India’s history.”
  • I’ve been too busy (or perhaps too high and mighty) to read books fairly or unfairly categorized as rom-coms or the more pejorative chick-lit.
  • When I received a request to review Bowled, but NOT OUT, I had just completed my own debut novel, Double Play, and was contemplating if any literary agencies would swat my queries like bothersome mosquitoes buzzing in their ears.

Why this self-deprecating self-disclosure?

Perhaps, gentle reader, I simply want you to know that your loyal reviewer has empathy for any writer who can, in the encouraging words of Anne Lamott, create a world of fiction “bird by bird.”  These three words – Bird by Bird – are the title of Lamott’s step-by-step guide on how to write and live. The subtitle, Some Instructions on Writing and Life, frames this review.

What Ruchira Khanna’s self-published novel lacks in craft, it more than makes up for in lively charm and compassion. After reading Bowled, but NOT OUT, I asked my wife if she remembered reading Harlequins from her college days. Mangla responded, “Yes, a few Harlequins, but mostly Mills & Boon. Why do you ask?”

I explained that I was reviewing a book that I thought was a romance novel, but I didn’t have any background in this genre. Mangla asked me about the plot.

Bowled’s plot is rather straightforward. In early 1980s Delhi, Saru Bhatia, a feisty environmental activist, shuts down the development of a government building because of the pollution caused by dumping construction waste into a local stream. She becomes something of a media darling and is interviewed on television by the dashing Sumeet Bajaj. Saru is taken by Sumeet’s “hundred-watt smile that showed off his pearly whites” and Sumeet confesses that none of his “attractive young women” admirers “have been honest, forthright, and fun to be around like” Saru. Saru blushes.  Sumeet proposes. And readers are invited to a cricket match of a marriage wherein Saru attempts to hit a few sixers but is eventually bowled out by a termagant of a mother-in-law. 

Sumeet is a “Mama’s boy” who provides Saru little to no emotional support outside of bedroom intimacy that results in a daughter, Simrn. Saru learned to love cricket when she herself was a child; her father, a retired Army colonel, encourages her to take charge of her and Simrn’s life, like a captain would his floundering cricket team.  Thus Saru leaves her marriage, leaves India, and makes a fresh start in New York where she earns a Master’s degree. Simrn grows up, meets Kabir at Cornell, and the cycle of love starts again, albeit in the American setting with the patriarchy smashed by a young woman who has absorbed her mother’s agency.

Mangla told me that Bowled didn’t quite fit into the Harlequin or Mills & Boon template.  For one thing, except for Colonel Bhatia, there are no alpha males (and even the colonel is more of a supportive husband and father than an Army autocrat). More importantly, Bowled’s protagonist is not the submissive sort; unlike the Mills & Boon heroines of yore who passively submitted to their dreamy and steamy heroes, Saru makes her own way in the world. She is a spunky multi-dimensional character who evokes two thumbs up from this hard-hearted reader.

Actually, I don’t have a heart of stone; that’s not my idea of a well-lived life. I just believe that as a reviewer, it is my duty to offer India Currents’ readers my honest assessment of a book. I’d rather be encouraging of authors whose books might (dare I say “should”) find a wider readership. 

Despite having occasional challenges with the craft of writing (tense, setting, anachronistic similes, a few typos, and the unnecessary privileging of non-Indian readers by over-explaining Indian culture), Ruchira Khanna’s belief in Saru’s story shines on every page, giving me hope that Bowled, but NOT OUT scores its author many centuries of readers, perhaps adding up to all of the runs credited to cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar.


Dr. Raj Oza has written Globalization, Diaspora, and Work Transformation, Satyalogue // Truthtalk: A Gandhian Guide to (Post)Modern-Day Dilemmas, and P.S., Papa’s Stories. His foray into fiction  — Double Play – has so far yielded 16 rejections.  He can be reached at satyalogue.com or amazon.com/author/rajoza.


 

Left to right: Book - All The Lives We've Never Lived and Author - Anuradha Roy

Anuradha Roy’s New Book Pulls Us Into All the Lives We Never Lived

Set in World War II India, All the Lives We Never Lived (Hachette, 2018) is a work of historical fiction centering on themes of freedom, love, and loyalty. Ranikhet-based novelist, journalist, and editor Anuradha Roy’s novel about a rebellious Indian homemaker who breaks social convention to seek artistic freedom was longlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature as well as shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award.

Author of An Atlas of Impossible Longing, The Folded Earth, and Sleeping on Jupiter, Roy decided to write the book one afternoon on a street in Ubud, where she was looking for the second home of Walter Spies. Spies, a German artist and musician, spent most of his life in Bali where he met the renowned poet Rabindranath Tagore as well as the well-known dancer Uday Shankar. He had wanted to learn Sanskrit and research Indian dance forms, but unfortunately, drowned at the age of forty-seven as a prisoner of war on a ship that was bombed and destroyed. To some extent, this book imagines what might have been had he made the journey to India.

The protagonist of the tale, Myshkin, is nine years old when his unconventional mother, Gayatri, runs off with a foreigner. Sixty-year-old Myshkin goes back into the past and recounts the various episodes that make up his life story. 

While Gayatri was growing up, her father took her to Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, and Santiniketan, where they visited historical monuments and appreciated different kinds of art, classical music, and dance. In 1927, when Tagore was planning a trip to Java, they decided to sail the same ship, visiting Borobudur, Angkor Wat, and the temples of Bali. Her father wanted to show her a shared cultural universe in Asia which had not been swallowed up by colonization.

During the voyage, they are able to closely encounter Tagore who tells them about Walter Spies. In Bali, Spies takes Gayatri, her father, and their friends to various dance performances, concerts, beaches, and painting schools. Gayatri was attracted to the bohemian life Spies lived — exploring the world, making music, painting, and sleeping on a boat in a lake. 

Soon after the trip, Gayatri is married off to one of her father’s students in a small Indian hill station. Moreover, with the birth of her son, she feels trapped and longs to be free. While the nation struggles for independence against foreign oppression, she fights an internal war for her own personal freedom — dreaming of wandering the world and adventure. In 1937, Spies comes to India to document a book on India’s dances. When he arrives at their little hamlet searching for Gayatri, she decides to escape with him to Bali, leaving her home and family behind.  

Roy’s deep love for gardening, nature, and the outdoors comes across powerfully through the narrative. With exquisite descriptions, the book is set against the backdrop of a picturesque Himalayan town, complete with deodar trees, blue skies, clear streams, and rich forests. Further, as a young man, Myshkin works as a horticulturist and maintains a botanical journal of his wanderings through the mountains.  

Through lyrical prose, the book also allows the reader to virtually travel to Bali of the early twentieth century. In her letters to her son, Gayatri describes the fascinating ‘storybook land’ complete with its medicine men, rainforests, strange flowers, volcanoes, springs, and temples cut from stone. Sometimes, her letters have pressed butterflies, leaves, or dried flowers in them. Gayatri also draws many parallels between Bali and India. When he came there, Tagore too reportedly saw many similarities between the two countries and is believed to have said that Bali felt like what India must have been in ancient times.


Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. 


 

Left to right: Book - Incense and Sensibility and Author - Sonali Dev

The Yin and Yang of Jane Austen Is Alive and Well Thanks to Sonali Dev

Yash Raje, the son of a royal family who’s uncomfortable with privilege, worked his way up the California political ladder. Now, he’s running for governor on a platform of fiscal and social reform, healthcare, and equity. At a rally three months before the election, shots are fired by a white supremacist. Abdul, his trusted bodyguard, shields him but is critically wounded. Yash, too, is wounded, and he’s unable to regain control of himself in order to control the situation.

And so begins Incense and Sensibility, Sonali Dev’s third well-crafted, grandly-romantic entry to her Jane Austen-inspired Raje Family series.

Survivor’s guilt. Trauma from gun violence. Rushes of stifling anxiety. Yash can’t resume his campaign. His beloved sisters, Nisha (his long-time campaign manager), Trisha (a top neurosurgeon, Book One), and cousin Ashna (a celebrity chef, Book Two) insist he sees their friend India Dashwood, a top Bay Area yoga and stress management therapist. Yash balks at the suggestion but acquiesces when Ashna reveals she’d suffered anxiety attacks, and only India could help her.

To the sisters, India helping Yash is perfect. To Yash, India is the one he secretly let slip away a decade earlier. To India, Yash is the supercilious one that led her on, then treated her badly. Thus begins the delicious dance of sexual tension that Dev writes so well.

When Yash and India come face to face ten years after their serendipitous-but-secret meeting and Yash’s sudden alliance with a high-profile businesswoman, neither knows how to react. Neither wants to release the feelings they’ve internalized for ten years: Yash’s regret, India’s hurt. Nevertheless, India sees his once-golden aura has diminished, and because of her innate kindness, she agrees to help.

Emotionally taxing for both, Yash and India become magnets, attracting and pushing each other away when they come too close. They can read each other but can’t say the words. They don’t know how to handle unspoken emotions and assumptions. India reminds Yash he’d told her that he wanted to be a public servant, not a politician. That distinction, dripping with honesty, ultimately sparks the choices both must make in order to move forward professionally and romantically.

The Raje Family series honors Austen’s brilliance while fresh enough to celebrate Dev’s creativity. Therein lies the delightful flexibility of interpreting Austen’s novels; they are timeless, and her women are second to none. Strong Indian, Thai, Ghanaian, Korean, Black, White, bi-racial, and LBGTQ women populate Dev’s story.

“I think Austen’s genius lies in the fact that she wrote from a place of complete honesty when it came to her belief that women deserved to get what they desired,” Dev told me.

And Dev, like Austen, aptly embraces social commentary. Essential issues—gun control and violence, immigration and racism, healthcare and equality—are interlaced without lectures; daily lives play out with their respective outcomes. Still, she judiciously balances those issues with love, tenderness, and the joy of purpose.

“[Austen] effortlessly dresses her themes in character and story,” Dev said, “but what she’s exploring is the power imbalances in society and the courage it takes to value yourself enough to shatter ranks in the face of those imbalances in order to get what you desire.”

So what inspired her to create the superbly romantic, ultimately joyful Austen-based Rajes Family series?

“I always dreamed of tying my four favorite Austen novels into one story universe,” Dev said. “The Rajes gave me an opportunity to explore and speak to things relevant in today’s world. I also wanted to spotlight the side of immigrant life that’s not dislocated and angst-ridden…there’s the personal strength and power of making and claiming home where you desire it.”


Book One: Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors Book Two: Recipe for Persuasion Book Three: Incense and Sensibility Book Four: To be published May 2022 based on Austen’s Emma.


Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in both Carolinas and is a long-time contributor to India Currents, a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association, and a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee. 


 

Jyotsna Sreenivasan Presents Indian American Stories With Sly Satire

These Americans is Jyotsna Sreenivasan’s debut collection of stories. She is the child of immigrants from India and was born and raised in Ohio. Her previous publications include a novel And Laughter Fell From the Sky as well as short stories in various literary anthologies and journals. She was a finalist for the 2014 PEN Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. The present collection of stories is unique among such collections since it includes eight short stories and a novella Hawk, thus providing readers a view of Sreenivasan’s versatility and ease in a variety of prose forms.

These Americans features vignettes in the lives of Indian Americans in a variety of contexts. What is particularly interesting is that many of the stories exhibit Sreenivasan’s gift for social satire and sly humor.

In the opening story, “Mirror,” a newly arrived Indian woman gives birth to a daughter in an American hospital and unexpectedly embraces the American custom of viewing the baby’s entry into the world with the help of a mirror, a practice she had initially rejected.

Two stories “At Home” and “Revolution” offer us glimpses of the immigrant experience from the perspective of children. In “At Home,” Amiya is readjusting to life in an American neighborhood after having left for India, earlier in her childhood. The gaps in her cultural assimilation are revealed when she does not win the Santa Claus-making contest because she creates a skinny Santa. In “Revolution”, Neel returns to India and interviews his grandfather hoping to learn about his contribution to the Gandhian freedom struggle only to be disappointed with the revelation that his grandfather had not participated in any revolutionary activities. Although he is most fearful of his grandfather’s persona through the visit, it is the grandfather who intuitively understands Neel’s predicament when his divorced father announces his new love interest.

The story in which Sreenivasan’s talent for comedy really shines is “Mrs. Raghavendra’s Daughter” — a widowed Indian American mother praying and plotting for an Indian husband for her second-generation daughter gradually realizes and accepts her daughter’s relationship with a Caucasian woman. The elaborate deceptions of the mother and daughter to avoid confronting the truth about the daughter’s sexuality produce much of the comedy in this story.

Mother-daughter relationships and the generational tensions they embody in South Asian immigrant families surface as a unifying theme in many stories. Often the second-generation daughter assumes that the mother is critical of her but sometimes, as in “The Sweater,” the story ends with an epiphany that love cements these overtly fractious relationships. In some stories like “Perfect Sunday”, we are offered a glimpse of inter-racial marriage and the tenuous balance between financial worries and the fleeting joys of childhood road trips that families must negotiate.

The most memorable work in this collection is “Hawk”, which is technically a novella. In this work, Sreenivasan returns to her engagement with the immigrant mother-daughter relationship. In this story too, the daughter is plagued by doubts of having disappointed her successful OBGYN mother by failures in her career and marriage. However, the story goes on to reveal secrets such as the personal crisis of the mother that she has sheltered her daughter from. The story also offers a sharp critique of the official multiculturalism practiced in schools, promoting diversity superficially, while still remaining non-receptive to any curricular content that challenges normative ideas about culture, race, and religion. I learned from Sreenivasan’s blog that she is a secondary school teacher. It is very rare that I read a work that I think I would like to teach in my own first-year college composition courses. “Hawk” is one such provocative novella, which is likely to jumpstart discussions about the teaching of race in America. Sreenivasan’s stories offer many teachable moments, without losing the ability to entertain us. The poise with which she navigates the comic and tragic aspects of immigrant life left me wanting to read more from her.


Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.


 

Thaathwik Arsha Abhilash with this book 'Dragon Summer: A Magical Journey of a Boy and his Dragon Friend'

A Magical Pandemic Journey of a 10-Year-Old Indian American Author

A child’s creativity has no bounds and holidays are the perfect time to explore their inquisitiveness. Once their imagination attains wings, it’s a magical world that transcends limits and expectations. For Indian American Thaathwik Arsha Abhilash from Brookfield, Wisconsin, Summer 2020 was that moment. When his third-grade teacher Mrs. Heitman came to school at the end of the academic year with summer treats, she fostered the idea of writing a story during the vacation.

Little did she know that the seeds of a budding author were sowed. And a year later, the book Dragon Summer: A Magical Journey of a Boy and his Dragon Friend got published and a ten-year-old author was born.

“I always loved writing and when my teacher suggested that I write a fiction story about what I would like to do during summer, I was really excited. As I love magic and flying creatures, my immediate choice for protagonists were dragons,” said Thaathwik Arsha Abhilash, a fourth-grader from Burleigh Elementary School.

Thaathwik Arsha Abhilash with family.
Thaathwik Arsha Abhilash with his family.

Started off as a short story with two chapters, his parents, Arsha and Abhilash, encouraged him to explore further and continue writing. “When he approached us with the first two chapters, we really liked the beginning and were curious to know how he would take it along. With pandemic and online sessions, we were in search of options to reduce the screen time and thought of giving this as a challenge and promised to publish the transcript once the story is completed. Just a single printed copy from a nearby shop was our plan and we never thought this would pan out to this extent,” beamed the mother, Arsha Abhilash with pride. 

The 30 chapter book boasts of fantasy entwined with magic and creativity. Travel through portals, dragon kingdoms, magic potions, unique names, and fancy passwords; it has everything that a kid desires. Not just wishful thinking, one can also witness the keen interest of the author towards science and nature through his writing. Annotations on different elements of nature, scientific explanations on birds and correlating them with flying dragons, it’s a story that goes beyond illusion and even educates the young readers. 

“Once the book was finished we as parents were indeed surprised but wanted to confirm its reach and potential before moving forward. We approached published authors and dear friends, Richard and K V Manikandan for a review and their feedback was endearing. They entrusted the thought that this book truly addresses the fervor and curiosity of a kid, written by a kid himself, which is actually a rarity to find. Hence, we landed upon the decision to publish it, considering it would also be an inspiration for more kids to come forward with their creations,” added Arsha, who herself is a blog writer and has a few published pieces in the Malayalam language to her credit. 

Teachers from his school district, Elmbrook School District backed the first-time author in the process with his favorite second-grade teacher, Mrs. Indestad, and current fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Erica Phillips writing the foreword and blurb for the book, respectively. The book is now available to order through Amazon for US readers and is published by Pithal Books in India. 

Not just in the writing process, Thaathwik also played an integral role in the illustration of the book. Being an artist himself, he had a fair perception of how the book should appear. Initially, he drew corresponding pictures for the first ten chapters but later, apprehending the time it consumed, he concentrated on finishing the book at the earliest. Eventually, a family friend and animator from India, Animesh Xavier came to their rescue and conceptualized the beautiful pictures for the book.

The book has so far received rave reviews from kids across the world with many of them posting online reviews and having lively discussions on the storyline with the author himself. However, for Thaathwik, who aspires to be an ornithologist cum writer, this is just a start and has already laid out plans for his upcoming book. “I have started writing for my second book named Apocalypse – an adventure of four friends with monsters. Am aiming for a series without limiting the story to a single book,” concluded the aspiring writer, who believes that one should always let their thoughts flow and never hold them back for any reason. 


Suchithra Pillai comes with over 15 years of experience in the field of journalism, exploring and writing about people, issues, and community stories for many leading media publications in India and the United States.