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Border Less, Namrata Poddar’s debut novel, is a collection of stories and vignettes tied together by the main character, Dia Mittal. We follow Dia’s life as the book progresses, the stories placing Dia in a new place, career, location, time, state of mind, and state of heart.
In the early pages, the stories seem disjointed, but as the thread winding through the narrative becomes more apparent, they coalesce. The characters spend parts of their lives in different countries: India, the United States, the U.K, and Mauritius. Story by story, Poddar links the characters together, widening the circle until it encompasses the entire world and much of womanhood.
Several stories tell of deferred dreams and compromises. In the first story Help Me Help You, we meet Dia Mittal, a call-center employee with aspirations of getting an MBA in Manila, en route to a life in America with her boyfriend Aziz.
She has much on her mind: the increasingly expensive chemotherapy treatment for her father’s cancer; the time spent caring for him, and the home; all of which leave her scant time to prepare for her college exams or even sleep, let alone attend a dance class that could relieve her stress. All this is compounded by her boss Chaya’s relentless focus on efficient call-center metrics, on which Dia’s future seems to ride.
The early days of child-rearing can be brutal, overwhelming, when you may lose yourself as a person, and your spouse and you, each other, as a couple. Some paragraphs in Ordinary Love are cries for acknowledgment, for understanding. They sketch the exhaustion of early motherhood, the inability to have even a few minutes to one’s self, the responsibility that all too often falls primarily on the mother. Poddar sums it up with this diamond of a sentence, luminous and hard: “Women are educated to seek division of labor. Men are not taught to deliver it.”
The book is sprinkled with many such achingly acute observations. In Shakti at Brunch, four friends – Dia from India, Noor from Mauritius, Malaika from South Africa, and Gul from Iran – meet for gluten-free scones and mimosas garnished with thyme at a new age-y brunch place. A sensitive observation on their path: “It wasn’t a rocky road that was hard to walk on, it was the feeling that one walked it alone.”
Poddar has a gift for describing the daily slog, the crushing workload, and the schedule that many working-class women experience. In Ladies Special, as various women head home on a crowded train after work, the narrator, a travel agent who does ticketing for “rich college kids backpacking in Europe, all eager to live their Bollywood adventure, get plastered, get laid” cuts vegetables on a cutting board in her lap to save prep time at home.
Poddar depicts blue-collar workers with empathy: the maids, the drivers, the cooks, the servers. She calls out their bosses – the society wives, the upper crust, the throwers of parties— for their callous manners in interacting with the staff and their immense entitlement. In contrast, the staff endures the abuse meted out to them with resignation, biding their time, hoping for a better tomorrow. She opens windows into their conversations with one another, their opinions on politics, and life.
The story Blue and Brown, set in Mauritius, is a sharp piece on tourists who come with no knowledge or history of the place they are visiting. “They nap, they snore. So happy with their sneak peek into local life.” Their life with suntan lotion and shopping bags is in stark contrast to the narrator, an immigrant aiming to work at one of the tourist hotels.
The longing to belong, the pain of feeling that one doesn’t, pervades the book. Having returned to Mumbai on holiday in So Long, Cousin, Dia feels estranged from her rich cousins who sideline her on WhatsApp groups, and responds late, if at all, to her invitations to meet. In her jobs in the US, she is the other. and In the story Firang, years later in Rajasthan, she is marked as a foreigner. With her husband and his friends, she and her immigrant friends are fobby.
As an immigrant myself, I found the feelings evoked by the stories all too familiar. These emotions are driven by the feeling that one is perpetually reaching for a dream and wrestling with the complexity of the word home. Once when I returned to the US from a trip to India, the immigration officer looked through my passport, stamped it, returned it to me, looked me in the eye, and said with a warm smile, “Welcome home.” I walked away with my passport in hand and tears in my eyes. Even after so many decades, the mention of home can raise a plethora of emotions.
A flashback to 9/11 in the story Bar Fancy, a telecast of people of color saying “I am an American,” evokes the pain of immigrants in just a few words: the need for American Muslims to justify their existence, to publicly, repeatedly display their allegiance with America for their own safety. This shock and estrangement experienced by American Muslims in their own homes are elaborated in Wajahat Ali’s new book Go Back to Where You Came From (And Other Helpful Recommendations On How to Become American.
While Border Less is a page-turner, it is not an easy read. The chronology is not obvious. There are flashbacks and flashforwards, and I felt tossed back and forth, with some stories ending in a heavy-handed way.
In Brothers at Happy Hour, some aggrieved lecturing creeps into the text towards the end, indignation about the brothers not taking enough responsibility for their marriages.
Ordinary Love has a few sentences at the end on what the couple needed to do to resolve their differences and improve their marriage. It seemed like a bit of a psychology lesson, and for me, detracted from the story. When such insights come through the words of one of the characters, they are far more compelling. For example, in Chutney, when Dia debates her mother on marriage and asks if she and a boyfriend should marry even if they don’t want the same thing, her mom asks “Which two people have ever wanted the same thing?” A profound and moving question.
These are impressionistic stories, the characters sketched with quick, sparse strokes, in smart, sharp prose. Thus, in the end, I was left with feeling a general loose connection with all of them, not a deep connection to any one character. The collection left me with a lingering feeling of sadness. These are poignant stories, rather than amusing or entertaining. Poddar demands your attention and the stories insist that the reader examine his or her response to each of them.
The stories lash out at the patriarchy, particularly the last one, Kundalini which evokes the anger of the goddess. Yet, in this expanse of alienation and frustration, there are moments of tenderness and grace. Through it all, women compromise, bide their time and build a life, longing for the day when they and the goddess will rise. But first, their stories must be told. Border Less does that with distinction.
Raji Pillai lives in the SF Bay Area and writes at www.rajiwrites.com.