When author Amit Majmudar tells a story, he chooses a unique approach. In his dramatic and touching debut novel, Partitions, he examined the effects of partition through the posthumous eyes of a Hindu father, husband, and doctor watching his children on their journey to be reunited with their mother. In his second novel, The Abundance, Majmudar’s narrator is a woman diagnosed with cancer. Written with compassion, charm, and wit, The Abundance is less about the effects of illness than about the healing between aging immigrants and their American-born children. In short, Majmudar keeps a sharp eye on the business of living rather than on the process of dying.
The book’s narrator, an Indian woman, mother, and wife living in Ohio, wants daily life to carry on as uninterrupted as possible. Husband Abhi, a neurologist, supports and protects her, understanding the reality of the situation without emphasizing it. She hesitates to share news of her cancer with her two grown children because she doesn’t want to disrupt their lives. Both have families of their own, are successful in their professions, and live elsewhere.
When circumstances force her to tell her children, daughter Mala and son Ronak are reluctantly drawn back to the Midwestern world of their parents. Mala, an ENT surgeon, eventually sees the cancer as a wakeup call for herself and decides to spend time learning the art of cooking from her mother. Frequent quarrels between the two erupt and subside, providing a familiar level of continuity in their relationship. When son Ronak—or Ron, as he prefers to be called—steps in and offers his assistance, sibling rivalries resurface, tempers flare, and the newly-found harmony between generations is threatened.
The Abundance offers a refreshing detour from the typical tale of immigrant experience, and this stems directly from the author himself. A nuclear radiologist and award-winning writer and poet, Amit Majmudar has a clear vision of both Indian and American cultures, allowing him to write with understanding and without judgment.
“I was born in New York City,” he told me. “I lived in Ohio until I was in second grade; then my family moved to India, and I did two years in school there; then we moved back to Ohio, and I’ve lived there ever since. I’ve lived in both societies; it’s not like I was a tourist or visitor to India, I really lived there and absorbed the language and habits. It changed me, I think for the better.”
“I tend not to condemn either way of life in strong terms, the American or the Indian; in fact, I think those terms, “American,” and “Indian” and “Indian-American,” vary so much from case to case, individual to individual, family to family, that they are almost meaningless.”
Both of the narrator’s grown children were born and raised in the United States, are self involved, and are, in their own ways, likeable. They are, interestingly, opposites from their spouses. Mala’s Indian-born husband Sachin and Ronak’s American wife Amber are more agreeable and family-oriented. I wondered what Majmudar was trying to illustrate by this contrast.
“At the time, I wasn’t trying to illustrate anything; that was just their characters. But in retrospect … it strikes me that their spouses come from traditional, more ‘rooted’ societies and family structures. Sachin has strong roots in India, Amber has strong local roots in Ohio; and this influences the way they perceive family and continuity.”
Told by a character that has lived more of her life in America than in her homeland, The Abundance offers ample opportunity for reflection. The narrator draws parallels between Indian and American societies. She thinks about how different her life is in America compared to her sisters-in-laws’ lives in India. She takes time to study her children, seeing who they were and who they have become. The ability to reflect so clearly comes with age, and while the toll of aging is examined in the book, it is not without a quiet celebration of the resulting wisdom.
In creating the book’s narrator, Majmudar managed to ignore gender constraints and create a strong, believable female character. She is vital and independent despite her illness. Considerate of others, she strives to maintain the quality of her own care giving (found, primarily, in her cooking), and she loves having her family around her.
Nevertheless, she understandably becomes irritated with her increasing inability to do simple things. She is such an honest and real character that I wondered if she were based on anyone in particular.
“Those ‘vital and independent’ characteristics derive from my own real-life mom for sure,” Majmudar told me, “although the actual personality and condition of the narrator don’t match my mom’s. Also my mom loves to cook for everybody, so that definitely is drawn from life.”
The narrator isn’t, however, without her failings. One source of frustration goes back to her early days in America, when as a young mother she failed to pass the exam required for foreign medical graduates. While she pretends to have let it go, there remains a fragment of disappointment and, perhaps, jealousy that is stirred up when she and Mala are together.
“There’s a lot of interpersonal complexity that derives from that vis-à-vis her daughter, who’s a successful ENT surgeon,” Majmudar explained. “She feels like a failure next to her daughter, which is an interesting source of tension. Also it motivates her devotion to her family; as if she’s overcompensating in some way; so it complicates that, too. There was just too much psychological richness in that incompleteness, that imperfection, to pass up.”
And in the end, the narrator remains unnamed. Not even in dialogue between husband and wife or in a quick scene with acquaintances is she referred to by name. At first, I found this odd, even discomforting, as if she were invisible. However, as the novel continued, I saw her namelessness bring universality to the character. Majmudar explains it as being “… in keeping with her selfless personality. Also, her namelessness kept her one with me. To name her would have separated her in some way from me. This way, she remained me. I still don’t know what her name is.”
In the acknowledgments for The Abundance, Majmudar says he writes his novels “out of fears I cannot overcome in any other way.” Now that he is two novels old, have Partitions and The Abundance alleviated any of his fears or helped him to understand them? His response was, of course, aimed at the heart of The Abundance:
“I probably understand them better, but the fears, naturally, remain. Whenever anything is precious to you, as my family is to me, you worry about them. But not too much, I hope. Just enough to keep me valuing them moment to moment.”
Amit Majmudar, who won India Currents magazine’s Katha short story contest in 2004 and 2005, is graciously serving as this year’s judge.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes from Wake Forest, North Carolina, where she is happily at work on her young adult novel.