Friday, December 14, 2007

Rishi Reddi's Karma & Other Stories

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".


  1. for once j.wock i really liked and agree with your review...the book is resonated with me maybe because after so many yrs of living in canada and dreaming of india i have started liking it here

  2. I think the whole point is that not every immigrant has the same struggles, simply because not every immigrant is like every other immigrant, even if we overlook the differences in their localities (smaller towns versus big ones in foreign lands). And of course, diaspora fiction has to evolve as the challenges that immigrants face change with time.

  3. Very nice review which reflects the book pretty well. Some of the things she writes resonates with me especially because I'm from Andhra and have been a student here near Boston for the past few years.
    I started reading this at one of the book stores when it first came out but didn't actually buy it as I was broke. But I kept going back to the book store to many times and finished the book!! I think I will go ahead and buy the book.
    I've been reading your blog for a while and I like :).

  4. I have started ignoring the diaspora books for the exact same reason you mentioned in the beginning. I'll give this a chance now :).
    New to your blog.. like it.

  5. very good review. i rely on your reviews for some book-buying decisions and i must say i haven't been disappointed so far :)

    i think i'll pick this up on my next visit to crossword

  6. Sounds like a really good book. I think we really need some "diaspora fiction" that looks at everyday desi life in the U.S..

  7. @Lekhni: There is a lot of such fiction. A few that come to mind at the moment are Jhumpa Lahiri's 'Interpreter of Maladies' and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's 'Queen Of Dreams' and 'Mistress of Spices'. However, I must mention that I couldn't finish QOD (didn't like it at all) and have only watched the MOS film with Aishwarya Rai.

  8. Thanks for the heads-up on the Hitchcock fest, I have seen them all, but never hurts to see them again. Even though I have missed all of it so far, I managed to let a few others catch it.

  9. Based on your reco I toddled over to Landmark and since I couldn't find it in the Indian Writing secion, I asked the counter for help. He helpfully took me to the yoga section and said here, madam, all yoga here, karma yoga also here. You think I'd have been prepared for this, since I once asked for "Butter Chicken in Ludhiana" and was sent to the cookery section.

  10. Radhika: those are relatively minor mistakes compared to the habit most Delhi book stores have of tossing graphic novels (or basically, anything with lots of pictures) into the Children's section. I shudder with glee at the thought of parents discovering their eight-year-old toddler flipping through a manga laden with sex and violence.

  11. Jai, that's true.

    Most of the bookstores are staffed by aliterate cretins. I can't understand why a savvy store like Landmark doesn't put the book's categorization and shelfing instructions on the database so that the said a.c. staff could find the stuff. It would make life so much easier. Also more boring, I suppose, sparing me the mild shock of finding Manjula Padmanabhan's book Kleptomania in the children's section - the title story with its dark and graphic description of a child being sodomised by his mother's party guest made me feel sick and I thought I had a cast-iron stomach.

  12. A set of smoothly readable stories. I liked the interlinking of some characters - though in one place she refers to a son-in-law when she means the son. It was faintly annoying to see salwaar spelt alternately as chalwaar and as schalwaar. Also had a doubt - she talks of a bride in a telugu brahmin family having a veil - to my knowledge south indian brides don't cover their head or their face.

  13. Edit to above comment - south indian hindu brides.