Friday, January 27, 2012

Spicy Mac 'n Cheese: American Desi

Today I was contacted by a reporter affiliated with Public Radio International. She wanted to find out my views about the Indian diaspora in the U.S.--how issues of class and caste continue here long after we have adopted a new homeland. While the weighty topic deserves its own time in the sun, her question reminded me about how little time I spend every day pondering the larger issues. I am an Indian American yet both parts of me are completely fused together. At home, we eat "Indian" food and go "international" (yes, even macaroni and cheese counts) at least as often.

Just about every American I meet for the first time will ask me: "Did you have an arranged marriage?" The answer, No, seems genuinely disappointing to most. Already my husband and I don't fit into easy narratives. Yet our Indianness permeates our lives in many wonderful ways--in the aloo paratha my older daughter claims is her comfort food or the kailas jeevan my younger daughter will use when she burns herself making chocolate chip cookies.

Pondering over the reporter's question made me wonder about the times when my Indian side and my American side show up together and how they resolve themselves, most of the time, without any incident.

One recent episode comes readily to mind. I ran into an Indian friend who lives in the same town as I. Lalitha and I shop at the same desi store. The term desi is often used as an adjective in a slightly derisive tone, and translates loosely to "country bumpkin." In the U.S. it is used to describe pretty much anything of South Asian origin. Lalitha tells me how in a desi store in New Jersey, apparently they had found a snake nested in some exotic produce the store was selling. The story went that the snake bit the man who was fishing around in the box preparing a bag to bring home to his family. In half an hour the guy was dead. Both Lalitha and I knew that the story was probably not entirely accurate--that in its telling and retelling, it was quite possible a few spicy details had been added.

Still Lalitha was rattled enough to approach our own desi store lady and ask her what precautions the store was taking to make sure such an accident doesn't happen here. The incident didn't faze the store owner. "Uska time aaa gaya hoga," (his time must have come) was the response Lalitha managed out of her. "Can you imagine?" Lalitha asked me, taken aback by the answer. Both of us shook our head in indignation. The silent fact left unsaid was that such a thing would have never happened in an "American" store and that the manager would never have replied so callously to a customer's genuine concern.

Yet both Lalitha and I knew exactly where the store owner was coming from. Fatalism is a vital undercurrent of everyday life in India; it's an easy way of coping with life's unexpected challenges. Brushing disasters off as something out of our hands, as His way of making sure things come out even, makes life tolerable.

In the wonderful book Mumbai Noir, the editor points out that many have wondered how Mumbaites for example, can continue to persevere, to carry on unfazed, even after so many incidents of mass violence and terrorism have taken place in the teeming city. His rationale, that the city is comprised of many "mini cities" each doing its own thing, seems right but doesn't reveal the entire picture in my judgment. What binds Mumbaites together is a sense of a larger purpose, all of us moving together in a crowded suburban local, each a puppet whose strings are controlled by someone else. Fatalism. When a bomb blast goes off, it's not callousness that makes Mumbaites move on, it's an essential survival technique. Uska time aaa gaya hoga, someone says and shakes his head. And everyone moves on.

REVIEW: Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron

Thank you, for publishing my review of this wonderful book. Here's an excerpt:

[E]ven though this novel's subject matter offers plenty of opportunities for gratuitous violence and melodrama, Benaron thankfully steers clear of both. Through much of Jean Patrick's training, Coach emphasizes pace - the key to running the 800-metre, we learn, is not to burn out early. Benaron, herself a competitive runner once, seems to have translated this lesson well to the pages of her debut novel - which turns out to be a precisely paced, taut read.

The rest of the review (you need to be a member to read the entire text) is here.

REVIEW: The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht


This spectacular debut novel by the talented Téa Obreht, is narrated mostly through the voice of young Natalia Stefanovi. Shortly after the novel opens, we learn that Natalia has followed in her grandfather’s footsteps and studied medicine. Just recently done with medical school, she has taken on a volunteer assignment to inoculate children in an orphanage in a small seaside village called Brejevina. The book is set in a war-ravaged country in the Balkans, quite possibly Obreht’s native Croatia. Brejevina, Natalia explains, “is forty kilometers east of the new border.”

The rest of the review is here.

Monday, January 23, 2012

REVIEW: The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

Excerpt: The essential premise of the breathtaking new novel by Ben Marcus is this: language is toxic. The very same language device—mere words—can’t do justice to a review of the incredible and heartbreaking The Flame Alphabet.

As the book opens, the narrator Samuel, and his wife Claire, are getting ready to forever leave their home in a small town in upstate New York. They are to leave their teen daughter Esther behind for it is her speech that is slowly killing Sam and Claire. Esther will be taken care of in a special quarantine with other children, they are promised. It is a sign of just how bad things have gotten in the bleak landscape that hundreds upon hundreds of families are split asunder this way, choosing to slink away from their toxic children, trusting that the authorities will know best what to do with their most precious assets.

The rest of the review is here.

Review courtesy of ARC from Knopf.

REVIEW: The Odds by Stewart O'Nan

Many years ago, during happier times, the newly married Art and Marion Fowler had honeymooned in Niagara Falls. At the time, the grandeur of the falls and its associated magic seemed like just the right launching pad for a successful marriage. Now, around 25 years later, the couple is back. This time they’re hoping to revive their failing marriage by banking on the seedier side of American commerce that the falls also represent. Plagued by financial woes and the ghost of marital infidelity, Art and Marion decide to spend one last weekend together at the falls. He vainly hopes to resuscitate the relationship trying to exorcise it of the ghost of his past infidelity, while Marion just hopes “to endure it with some grace and get back home so she could start dealing with the paperwork required to become for the first time in her life, a single-filing taxpayer.”

Equally (if not more) urgent are their financial problems. Both Art and Marion are without work—Art having been laid off more recently. Whatever little nest egg they had was wiped out with the market swings of the great recession. “The crash was too fast, or he was too slow. Like his mother, he prided himself on being a buy-and-hold investor, and expected a rebound, if only the vaunted dead-cat bounce. Their portfolio was conservative and diversified, but by the time he made up his mind to pull their money out, the Dow was below 8,000 and everything had slid.” Credit cards almost all maxed out, Art proposes they bet it all—literally—in one weekend at the area casinos. Art has studied how the casinos operate and is convinced his technique will allow them to win at least some amount of money to tide them over and pay the bills for a while until the horizon looks clearer.

Stewart O’ Nan is a prolific writer and over the years he has developed a special ability to tell stories with a focus not so much on a dramatic narrative arc as on the minutiae of the human interactions that punctuate our everyday lives. His Last Night at the Lobster tracked down the last day unfolding at a closing Red Lobster restaurant and beautifully afforded the reader peeks into the manager’s trying life and his interactions with the restaurant staff. In that book, O’ Nan proved that one needn’t write a doorstopper or a saga spanning large periods of time to craft beautiful stories. A snapshot frozen in time will work just as well. He uses a similar technique in this slim new novel. The Odds follows the 52-year old Art and Marion over the course of a single weekend. And it is their smallest interactions, now worn to a routine over time, that make up for the bulk of the book and give the story its ballast.

Art has reserved the honeymoon suite in a nice hotel and bought Marion a special ring—yet the generosity seems lost on her. Marion, for her part, is trying her best to be nice and gracious to her husband, but has already written the marriage off as a lost cause. Over the course of the weekend, as vacation gives them the perspective they need, Art and Marion come to realize that they need each other’s routines and company more than either of them had imagined. “The real answer, the real reason the question tortured him, was that without Marion he wouldn’t know what to do or even who he was,” O’ Nan writes about Art, “He could send his laundry out, but he would belong to that legion of aging, unloved men buying frozen dinners and six-packs at the grocery store, or worse, working there, bagging their sad purchases and wishing them a good evening.” If nothing else, sheer force of habit in companionship is hard to break. It remains to be seen whether this force alone is strong enough to have them stay together.

O’ Nan uses the backdrop of the Niagara Falls—its cheap and tawdry commercialization, yet its irresistible place in the American psyche, to good effect in the book. Just like the casinos surrounding the natural wonder that ring hollow despite their attractive facades, Art and Marion too wonder if marriage has lived up to all its promised riches. “What had she done with her life?” Marion reflects, “For a moment she couldn’t think of anything. Become a wife and a mother. A lover, briefly, badly. Made a home, worked, saved, traveled. All with him.” Yet both Art and Marion accept that the life that exudes the falls, “even if it was all just a show,” is better than going home to “dark, empty apartments”

There is a reason that the couple’s favorite song is the 70’s ballad, Crazy on You. The song’s opening refrain “We may still have time, we might still get by,” just might apply.

Thanks to Netgalley for providing an electronic galley of this book. The full review will also be published on