A Review of The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).
Rahul Bhattacharya’s The Sly Company of People Who Care is a funky novel, without a really sustained plotting, but provides some very interesting takes on an Indian transnational who is enchanted by the beauty of the South American country of Guyana. In my limited knowledge, the country of Guyana has not necessarily been the subject of much representation by English-language writers. Thus, we can expect that Bhattacharya’s protagonist is going to have an ethnographic eye and much of the novel is focused not only on the narrator’s exploits, but also on providing a layman’s history of the country. Based upon biographical publications, it is clear that Bhattacharya has modeled the narrator on his own experiences as a cricket journalist who had covered the sport in Guyana. But, beyond this, I think the novel gets at a very interesting issues in terms of the South Asian diaspora: how does the contemporary Indian national connect to or understand the diasporic “coolie” community? The narrator continually meets those of Indian descent living in Guyana and often feels that their Indian-ness supersedes his precisely because there is an attachment to a homeland, however imaginary that might be. While the narrator traipses through the Guyanese interior, we are caught often by his attentive ear to dialect and to his ability to render the landscape in the most majestic of ways. We can thus come to understand the narrator’s interest and desire to stay in Guyana although he doesn’t seem to have much to live on, nor does it seem as if he has a purpose but to learn about the culture he is growing to love. By the conclusion of the novel, we get a strong sense of the country’s history, its troubling contemporary economics as depicted through the diamond trade, as well as the complications that arise when the narrator romances a local woman. It’s not a sentimental novel at all and in this sense succeeds in a kind of ethnographic realism that I think can be extremely difficult to pull off in a way that isn’t too appropriative of other cultures and contexts.
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A Review of Tara L. Masih’s Where The Dog Star Never Glows (Press 53, 2011).
One of the most astonishing elements from Tara L. Masih’s debut collection Where the Dog Star Never Glows is the attention given to setting and landscape. I have always been a big fan of regionalist writings because of the focus not only on local communities, but also the ways that the narrator sees the environment. These settings are often rural, with specific kinds of flora and fauna. Even in the shortest stories, Masih is intent on letting us understand these rich landscapes. Here is one example:
“The red wheelbarrow squeaks through the dry, shrunken undergrowth. I push it over scrub and dormant vines of wild strawberry, sumac, and deadly nightshade. Rowan and I have slowed in our quest to keep the woods between our homes clear of the kinds of small, weedy greenery that impedes progress. His side is especially overgrown since he began summering in Maine—front lawn overtaken by myrtle, rhododendrons, tall grasses, and towering pines. I force the barrow through the trees, aiming for the hot orange light flashing between the trunks” (123).
This passage is largely more indicative of Masih’s aesthetic, where characters are firmly rooted in the world around them. These landscapes are fitting because they often present a major contrast to the kinds of lives the characters lead, which seem often hollow, bereft, slightly off-kilter, and in an appropriately plant-like phrase, struggling to thrive. Thus, Masih’s work tends to be naturalistic in its scope and understated in tone; many stories focus on fragile marital or romantic relationships or intergenerational ruptures. Masih is also quite ambitious in terms of the geographical terrains covered in the collection as a number of stories take place in other countries (Dominica, Puerto Rico, Holland, and Mexico for instance) and even within the United States we are taken everywhere from Montana to Long Island, NY. The most provocative short stories, in my mind, book end the collection as Masih explores tourist economies. Perhaps, my favorite is the last story, “Delight.” The story’s title refers to the main character, the titular “Delight,” who works in a candy store in Puerto Rico. The story is structured according to the days of the week and on each day, Delight is working on a different recipe or duty related to the candy store. Her life changes when an American surfer walks into the store and begins to court her. She begins to believe that he may more than just another tourist. Delight’s father, naturally, is suspicious, but given his own tendency to gamble away any savings, his viewpoint and his opinions seem hollow. Masih clarifies the unequal plane of power that exists in the tourist economy, in which Delight does not simply engage in a romance with this American surfer, but realizes that this love affair might be entry into an entirely different life. Another one of my favorites, “Champagne Water,” takes place in Dominica and here Masih succeeds in illuminating the incredible tension that exists between a couple whose marriage is rocky. Masih, who is of mixed race South Asian descent, does include some a couple of clear analogs to that particular ancestry in two stories, “Huldi,” and “Memsahib,” but largely she travels far outside the framework of the prototypical Asian American narrative. Nevertheless, her stories are always infused with a political context and even a racialized undertone. The touching friendship that emerges between a white housewife and her Mexican maid in “The Dark Sun,” is especially illustrative of the ways that Masih considers multiple axes of difference that both push apart and draw characters together. An admittedly uneven, but ultimately promising work.
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A Review of Hari Kunzru’s Transmission (2005, Penguin)
I have been meaning to read Hari Kunzru’s Transmissions for quite awhile. Kunzru is a four time novelist, author of The Impressionist, Transmission, My Revolutions, and Gods Without Men (the latest seems to have only been released in UK and it’s not clear when it will be receiving or if it will ever receive a US release). Transmission peaked my interest initially because it is based partly in Silicon Valley. Arjun Mehta, one of at least three ostensible protagonists, receives a job opportunity that seems to suggest he will embark on a lifelong dream, to come to America. However, once he actually gets to the United States, he realizes that the supposed guaranteed job he has been given is not guaranteed at all and further still that the company that he is working for has posted him within positions that are often more akin to temp jobs. Once Arjun finds himself in a terrible position occupationally and that his visa may be revoked, he undertakes a drastic decision that will have global consequences. This novel is clearly Kunzru’s take on the politics of labor outsourcing (Arjun’s sister, for instance, gets a job at a remote call center) and the continuing evolution of the brain drain. The other two protagonists are not at first clearly or intimately linked to Arjun in any way. One, Guy Swift, is a business magnate for a company called Tomorrow* whose business profile is as murky as it is made to generate profit out of the seemingly inane skill set it offers. Another, Leela Zahir, is an incredibly popular Bollywood Star. Arjun happens to have a major crush on this particular star. The fact that Arjun will eventually be on an elliptical collision course with Leela and Guy is a testament to the way that Kunzru is forcing us to consider our interconnectedness in this global moment. The novel is also a clear nod to the post 9/11 rise in surveillance technologies. Readers will certainly laugh at this darkly humorous novel and Kunzru’s assured storytelling always keeps us moving briskly along. A novel that would be a wonderful addition to any course focusing on science and technology, global/anglophone fiction, or Asian American literature.
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A Review of Amit Majmudar’s Partitions (Metropolitan Books, 2011).
Amit Majmudar is having a banner year, having released both his debut novel and a second poetry collection. I’ll speak first about Majmudar’s Partitions, a particularly exceptional work that has to be, in my mind, one of the strongest pieces of Asian American literature I have read in a very long time. I’m admittedly biased about novels; I tend to like them shorter; I tend to like the prose to be denser and more lyrical and I tend to like some narrative invention. Majmudar succeeds on all these counts. He takes a very risky approach in leaving the narration to a “ghost” figure. That is, the narrator is a man who has already died and who follows the people most important to him as they attempt to survive the 1947 Partition of India. The narrator has particular powers, if we can call them that, to read other people and to briefly inhabit their psyches. The narrator most closely “follows” four figures: his two sons, who are identical twins, born of a marriage between him (a Hindu) and Sonia, a Muslim; Simran, a youthful Sikh girl; and Mashud, a Muslim doctor. In this way, Majmudar creates something akin to an omniscient narrator. Because the topic is so weighty, it was often difficult to read portions of the book. There was one sequence that I simply had to stop reading and go back to at a later point. In this regard, Majmudar’s narrative power is reminiscent of Sabina Murray’s The Caprices and Mariko Nagai’s Georgic in that he is willing to plumb the depths of humanity’s darker moments to grant us an entry into historical events that are really, in some sense, unfathomable. There was a certain point where I wanted to disagree with the characterizations offered by Majmudar, that some people could not be so evil, but the import of Majmudar’s novel is really about the question of healing and the question of medicine and where our loyalties lie in the process of care. In this regard, Majmudar succeeds in writing a novel that I would wish any medical doctor would read. An extraordinary work; I will no doubt teach it.
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A Review of Nayana Currimbhoy’s Miss Timmins’ School for Girls (Harper, 2011)
I was seriously surprised by Nayana Currimbhoy’s debut novel, Miss Timmins’ School for Girls. I don’t always read much about a book before I start reading it. In this case, I knew it was basically about a young South Asian woman who ends up teaching at the titular girls’ boarding school that is located in Pangchani, India. Little did I realize that the narrative would take two incredible turns. First, the protagonist, Charulata Apte, will end up developing a romantic interest in a fellow schoolteacher, that of the Englishwoman Moira Prince. Second, the novel will take a very nourish turn when one of the major characters ends up murdered. Thus, queer sexuality, noir, and a South Asian ethnic narrative combine together. Complicating these various intersectionalities is the fact that Charu comes from a family with a shady reputation. Her father, it is implied, has come under some scandal and thus the family struggles to maintain a semblance of a middle class existence within these shadows. In some ways, Charu’s work at the titular boarding school is to escape what is left unsaid in her family life; she wants to carve out an independent existence without having to worry about her family’s dishonorable past. She develops a quick friendship with the aforementioned Moira Prince, otherwise known as Pin, and Merch, a man who plays chess. These two figures will make the teaching experience far more enjoyable for Charu to the extent that she even comes to cherish her time amongst some of the stodgy faculty members at the school. As the novel continues onward, Currimbhoy complicates the plot by shifting the narrative perspective, moving our attention to Nandita, one of the more advanced students. At that point, we’re completed committed as a reader to Currimbhoy’s story and we’ll want to know how the murder mystery shakes down. Like Tahmima Anam, Currimbhoy is particularly adept at pulling the readers in through a winning narrative stylistic. Unfortunately, the second half of the book takes too much time to draw out the various red herrings that are admittedly a part of the noir genre; nevertheless, at over 400 pages, the novel could have used some pruning in this area. The drama heightens again within the last fifty pages and while I wasn’t terribly satisfied with the murder plot’s resolution, Currimbhoy’s gift is that she makes it clear that murders are as much about interpretation as they are about the indisputable evidence.
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A Review of Tahmima Anam’s The Golden Age (Harper, 2007) and The Good Muslim (Harper, 2011)
I won’t spend much time discussing Tahmima Anam’s A Golden Age because pylduck does an amazing job of reviewing it here:
I have many similar reactions to the novel; Anam is a supremely gifted prose writer. You’re just in the plot and never want to leave the storyline. Anam’s other important talent is that she’s able to draw out the relationship between the “personal” and the “political,” in that one family’s domestic drama is intimately tied up to the question of nation-building in light of the Bangladeshi independence movement that culminated with the creation of an independent state.
I was excited to see that Anam would publish a sequel, part of a planned trilogy, to A Golden Age, because the characters are really unforgettable. While A Golden Age was narrated primarily following the perspective of Rehana Haque, The Good Muslim takes the viewpoint of Maya Haque, Rehana’s daughter. It focuses mostly on the disintegrating relationship between Maya and her brother Sohail (also Rehana’s son). In A Golden Age, both Maya and Sohail operate in different capacities to help make Bangladesh an independent nation. The Good Muslim explores what happens in the aftermath of Bangladesh’s independence. It shows for instance how women became both casualties of war and heroines of the new nation's developing identity. The Good Muslim of the titles refers to Sohail who turns so adamantly toward religion, he strongly alienates his liberal sister, Maya, and to a certain extent, their understanding mother. Maya, believing that Sohail can be changed, pushes back and attempts to show that Sohail’s path is an unproductive one, but Sohail cannot be swayed. Maya thus spends some time away from Sohail and Renaya, working as a country doctor and performing abortions for women in need. When Maya returns to her hometown, she discovers that Sohail has become a huge leader within the Muslim community, is more devout than before, has fathered a child (named Zaid), and that his wife, Silvi has died. Maya attempts to reintegrate herself into her hometown and discovers how difficult this process will be. The Good Muslim was another novel I really couldn’t put down and the ending, while particularly tragic, seemed absolutely right given the narrative logic of the fictional world. I look forward to seeing where Anam goes with the last novel in the trilogy.
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