Many of us jaded readers reflexively do the old eye-roll when we hear about a new book that falls in the “Diaspora fiction” category – which means it’s about immigrant angst, dislocation, etc, themes that one imagines have been done to death already. But reading Rishi Reddi’s Karma & Other Stories reminded me that it’s unfair to think of all such writing as stereotypical or aimed at exoticisation – that each work should be judged on its own terms rather than hastily relegated into a category/genre and dismissed because that category is seen as saturated.
Karma & Other Stories is a collection of seven stories about Indians, originally from Hyderabad, now living in the US (mostly in Boston). The jacket description "a multigenerational tapestry...depicting members of an Indian American community struggling to balance the demands of tradition with the allure of Western life", doesn’t reflect how gently perceptive and absorbing these stories are. Each of them is either told in the first person or has a central character who is our point of entry into the narrative, and Reddi adeptly draws the reader into these lives. She does this not so much through lengthy descriptions or reflections but through conversations that are laced with pithy but subtly provocative observations – about the implications of a glance, for instance, or a hurtful remark. There is a real feel here for the interplay between people – the intense moment of anger that comes with a person's realisation that a close friend doesn't share exactly the same values and attitudes; the quiet reconciliation that follows shortly on the heels of an argument.
Occasionally, some of the stories clarify popular stereotypes about Indians living abroad, but in many cases they also overturn these stereotypes. The story "Lord Krishna", for instance, begins with 14-year-old Krishna Chander being seemingly hectored by an evangelical class-teacher who hands out a magazine illustration of Lord Krishna as one of many examples of the influence of Satan in modern popular culture. This might appear to set up the classic minority community-as-victim scenario, but as the story progresses we see a delicate power shift take place. When Krishna's irate father goes to complain to the school principal about the insult to their religious sentiments, Reddi casually drops in a sentence implying that Mr Chander is a man of some influence and that he can arm-twist the school into firing the teacher. The effect of this is that almost before the reader realises it, the traditional roles are reversed: now the teacher (whose insensitivity, as it happens, stemmed more from ignorance than malice) is cowering, while Krishna's father is the smug bully holding the aces. The scene is a reminder of changing power equations, a reminder that an Indian family in the US (even if it's one of only two Telugu-speaking families in a small Kansas town) doesn't have to be the underdog. Incidentally, the story is set in 1981, which also allows us to reflect how much more things might have changed since then.
In "Justice Shiva Ram Murthy", my favourite of these stories, the eponymous narrator is a 70-year-old former judge who has recently moved to Boston to live with his daughter. Justice Murthy's steady but over-formal, occasionally awkward voice reminds us that he probably learnt his English as a youngster in an India that was still permeated by the British colonial influence – and that, in a sense, he's twice removed from the American way of life and speech. His refusal to accept that his accent might not be immediately comprehensible to locals leads to an unfortunate misunderstanding in a fast-food joint, which becomes the plot Macguffin for what is really a pen-portrait of a very lonely old man. Reddi's achievement here lies in giving us a first-person narrative that shows us the many ways in which Murthy deludes himself – how his self-righteousness and inflexibility make it difficult for him to adjust to this new country – but also allows us to sympathise with him.
The motif of old people losing power over their lives after they move to an unfamiliar setting is also reflected in "Bangles", about Arundhati, an elderly widow living with her son and his family and feeling increasingly alienated by their lifestyles and attitudes. She briefly feels in control when she enters a temple – "this was her domain" – but even here she is destined to be disappointed. Incidentally, both "Justice Shiva Ram Murthy" and "Bangles" contain passages where the protagonists have a vision of their past – an idyllic childhood or youth, living in a world that they truly belonged to, in control of their own lives (in Arundhati’s case, this is likely a rose-tinted memory, for we never get the sense that she was ever independent of the men in her life – first her father and brothers, later her husband).
Reddi is equally insightful about the personal conflicts of younger people. In "The Validity of Love", two friends, Lata and Supriya, privately make fun of their conservative parents' attempts to find a suitable Indian groom for them, but their friendship is severely tested when Supriya conveniently "falls in love" with just such a boy. In "Devadasi", 16-year-old Uma thinks of herself as "an American, who does not care about the differences between Hindus and Muslims" but later realises (during a visit to India at the time of the 1992 Babri Masjid riots) that such distinctions can matter after all; by the story's end, she is confused enough about her identity to wonder how she could ever have imagined sleeping with an American boy.
The last two stories are also reminders of the small ways in which culture and tradition can insinuate itself into even the most liberal, cosmopolitan lives. But equally importantly, for nearly every character who is afflicted by cultural confusion, there is a counterpoint: Justice Murthy's recalcitrance is balanced by the pragmatism of his friend Manmohan, who has adjusted much better to life in the US. And in the title story "Karma", the frustration of the jobless Shankar Balareddy (who finds validation in a very unlikely job) is tempered by the support he gets from his sensible wife.
And this really is the point: that none of these stories amount to pat generalisations about a community of people. Yes, they all deal with Indians living and adjusting in the US; in fact, one can particularise this further and observe that they are mostly about members of a Telugu community in relatively less cosmopolitan places in the US (so much so that some characters recur from one story to the next; the effect is like being at a cosy fireside chat where a narrator is telling us anecdotes from the lives of people we've seen in our neighborhood). But one can also step back, look at the larger picture and observe that these are believable human beings, facing different types of conflicts and responding in different ways.
Reading Karma and Other Stories is a reminder that we live in a world where people travel more extensively than at any earlier point in human history, where an increasing number of people are moving out of their comfort zones and settling down in places that their grandparents, even parents, might have regarded with suspicion. Given all this, the very label "Diaspora fiction" can be a restrictive one, more exotic-sounding than it needs to be, and not indicative of how commonplace immigrant problems are in today's world. It’s like the recent comic strip in a daily newspaper, with two children standing by a globe, one of them pointing and saying, "that isn't the world, it's the Diaspora".