Tag Archives: Raj Oza

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 - 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: Author, Murzban Shroff and his book, Third Eye Rising

Third Eye Rising: A Pantheon of Displacement Stories

Some 15 years ago I wrote in these pages a review titled “An Omnibus Repast of the Century Past.”  Yes, in those distant days, our faithful magazine was printed on paper.  And, yes, my review was backward-looking, an appreciation of R. K. Narayan’s two-volume keepsake issued by Everyman’s Library in its centennial year and, serendipitously, in the 100th year of Narayan’s birth.

When Narayan was born in 1906, 89% of Indians lived in villages; when he passed away in 2001, that percentage had dropped to 72.  Today, less than 65% of Indians are in rural settings, but given the subcontinent’s population explosion, that’s still 900 million villagers. Imagine nearly all Americans x 3 living in villages. And then imagine all the stories that each of those villagers has to tell us.

Murzban Shroff’s fertile imagination does the imagining for readers open to exploring India’s rural-to-urban transformation. In Third Eye Rising, a compelling collection of stories featured on Esquire’s list of Best Books of 2021, some things in India stay the same, and other things evolve. What stays the same: a pantheon of gods and families. What changes: most everything else and thus a grand displacement.

The displacement suggests that the Rajasthani villages that my parents came from are no longer the sleepy mofussils that R. K. Narayan wrote about so lovingly in the last century. The village has moved to the city and the city has moved to the village; and in all this movement, the modern Western world has seeped into India.

I thought about all this fluidity while reading “The Kitemaker’s Dilemma,” the first story in Shroff’s book. The story opens rather innocently with a too-long sentence that conveys the languid oral tradition of Indian story-telling. It is January in Amrapali, a small North Indian town, ten days before Makar Sankranti, the festival that loosely marks the end of the winter solstice and the beginning of longer, warmer days.

“Schools were shut, shops downed their shutters, adults became children, and children were allowed to scream their hooplas as kite after kite was launched in good-humored, competitive fervor.”

In the midst of this languorous bonhomie, we meet Baba Hanush, a master kitemaker. For a moment, the reader believes that he is back in Malgudi, Narayan’s fictional South Indian town; one can almost hear Malgudi’s make-believe river Sarayu come to life. To be sure, there are low-grade tensions such as mothers negotiating the price of Baba Hanush’s priceless kites. And the tension grows more personal with Shroff outlining the death of Baba Hanush’s wife, a victim of a bamboo pit viper; but even this tragedy passes through a brief paragraph and is resolved with a whisper: “An artist is best in his grief.” 

None of these conflicts prepare the reader for what Shroff calls “a dark, liquid unease”: the story of Akash, a lonely boy who lives in a shuttered house on Burrah Gully. The viper’s poison is nothing compared to Akash’s father, a venomous drunk who murders his wife and then frames his chit of a son. The story’s denouement pulls at the heartstrings, but the gentle contract that Narayan had with his readers is clearly not the one that Shroff has with his.  

While kites still fly on Makar Sakranti as they have for centuries, India has changed.

People seem more ready to cut each other down the way they once playfully cut down each other’s kites with crushed-glass-laced string.  This is the bargain Shroff makes with his readers: I will give you a taste of the Incredible India sold by the Ministry of Tourism, but you will have to swallow the country’s disreputable underbelly as well.

Psychologically, Third Eye Rising has a mature voice without resorting to distasteful language. These are tales for the 21st century nurtured in the masterful hands of a writer who apparently knows India’s rich folk-tale tradition; perhaps this comes from the story collection being “born out of Shroff’s travels to the villages of India” as noted in the author’s bio. But although the ten stories feature numerous gods and goddesses, they are not didactic in the way of some episodes in the Ramayana or Mahabharata; and even though Third Eye Rising anthropomorphizes in “The Temple Cow,” it is not moralizing like the Panchatantra or Hitopadesha.  

The societal context here is different from the ancient texts or even the more recent Narayan stories. As Amarveer Rathore, the protagonist in “Diwali Star,” says to his wife after they watch the serialized Ramayana on television, “Different times, different values.”  The Rathores contrast the breakup of their extended family, each son going his own way, with the fraternal bond between Rama, Bharata, Shatrughna, and Laxmana.  

Just as most Americans – Christian and non-Christian – know about Jesus and the three wise men bearing gifts, just about all Indians – Hindu and non-Hindu – are aware of how Rama, Sita, and Laxmana lived in exile to honor the extorted wish of King Dasharatha. But those were honorable times in perhaps apocryphal history.  As celebrated at Diwali, when Rama returns to the kingdom after 14 years in the forest with Sita and Laxmana, his brother Bharata rightfully returns the throne to Rama. Right-minded men, doing the right things, in the right way.

Third Eye Rising doesn’t see its world in quite the same way.  While his stories are populated with honorable men like Rama and his brothers, Shroff is just as apt to focus on Sita’s perspective in writing which valorizes a feminist worldview.  Dowry is explored, as are sham marriages and a disconcertingly pragmatic concept called a “professional wife.”  

If M. K. Gandhi was right that “the soul of India lives in its villages,” then what to make of an Indian soul that is rapidly urbanizing in our neoliberal globalized world?

Shroff writes with a gimlet-eyed view of modern India. Readers may be asked to remove their rose-colored glasses to understand and embrace characters who embody Third Eye Rising’s ever-changing India. 


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. He can be reached at satyalogue.com or amazon.com/author/rajoza.