Book review: Navigating the New World

  • Janice Pariat, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Nov 01, 2014 10:55 IST

Chitra Viraraghavan’s debut novel The Americans begins with flight. CLN, an elderly gentleman from Madras, and Tara, a woman in her thirties, are making a transatlantic journey to visit their expatriated families.

Flight, as motif recurs through the book packed with characters who in some way or another desperately seek to escape. Their stories are narrated through swift, interlinked chapters, a postmodern pastiche ranging from school notes, diary-like entries, third-person points of view, some more convincing than others.

Viraraghavan’s characters are scattered across cities — Louisville, Kentucky; Los Angeles; a small town outside Chicago; Portland, Oregon; Boston — their varied voices rising in chorus, orchestrated into everyday operatic drama.

Much has been written of the migrant experience, and yet, as we see, much remains. We meet Kamala, Tara’s elder sister, worriedly driven to distraction by her young son’s autistic condition, and peek into the sullen, sulky world of Lavi, her fifteen-year-old daughter, discovering (non-Indian) boys and beer in their suburban neighbourhood. Ariel, Kamala’s Israeli housekeeper, is rethinking her ‘American dream’— of making a life in a country that "gave you space and time to rethink who you were, who you could have been, who you one day might be."

Elsewhere, Shantanu, a struggling songwriter whose tunes are still trapped in a notebook, faces threats from an abusive restaurant-owner boss. While we sense a compassionate authorial eye behind most characters, Viraraghavan has been most astute — not with Tara, the steady yet dull core linked to them all — but CLN. We encounter him on his way, for the first time, to visit his estranged daughter Kavita and her family. He’s brought to life with the smallest details — the paper napkin he lays across his lap before the in-flight meal, the raisins he pushes aside with his fork, the yoghurt tub he cannot pry open. How would he manage three months in a foreign land, he asks himself, and we wonder too.

Most of all, we find that we care. Through the book, we watch him navigate a strange new world, his daughter’s sharpness and distance, the tremendous wintery isolation. Yet Viraraghavan imbues him with growing authority. Finally, CLN musters the courage to venture outside (wearing, hilariously, women’s snow boots), cross icy streets and sidewalks to a library. His adventure later culminates atop the tallest building in Chicago, where “he felt his heart was going to unmoor with lightness and freedom." The author also grants Rahul, Kamala’s autistic son, a similar flight to freedom in a passage where he floats above the city that was "joined end to end in a perfect circle."

These transcendental moments, though uplifting, are rare. Running through the book are fault lines of despair and isolation. Kavita lashes out at CLN when her husband loses her job. Tara’s friend Madhulika drowns herself in romance novels and obsessive online shopping, while her husband Vinod embarks on a secret liaison with an artist. Shantanu watches helplessly as his boss and cronies abuse two immigrant girls, all the while waiting for news of his ailing mother "back home". "Back home" becomes mythical, precisely because, like the new homeland, it is imagined. As with Shakespeare’s Fool, marginal characters who somehow utter the truth, Akhil, an academic, takes this dislocation to the extreme. Convinced the US government has deployed "Operation Code Red Indian", where "unimportant people of colour are vapourised", he slowly loses his grasp on reality.

Yet even his radical rants echo with jaded arguments—"Don’t we contribute our brains and labour to build this economy as much as the next person?"

More poignant would have been to push ideas of ‘belonging’ and ‘citizenship’ further than the usual quantitative neo-liberal justifications. And while the fragmented narrative structure does well to highlight fractured experiences, it also fails to help build and sustain empathy. With characters snatched away, shuffled, and rearranged, as though caught in constant turbulence. The novel rises, but rarely soars.

Janice Pariat is the author of Boats on Land: A Collection of Short Stories. Her novel Seahorse is out this month.

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