Review: The Juvenile Immigrant by Namrata Verghese
Revisiting Namrata Verghese’s collection of debut fiction shorts that identifies the minute fissures that occur when the two separate worlds of ‘Indian’ and ‘American’ collide in the lives of Indian immigrants in America
Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. As a philosophy, it means an embrace of that which is flawed or imperfect. It aims to treat breakage and repair as part of the history of an object rather than something to disguise. Instead of trying to hide the damage the repair is illuminated.
In her impressive collection of debut fiction shorts, The Juvenile Immigrant, Namrata Verghese identifies the cracks, the minute fissures that occur when the two separate worlds of ‘Indian’ and ‘American’ collide in the lives of Indian immigrants in America. These fault lines run across identity, language, and politics. Not only does she display a discerning eye in identifying these hairline cracks, the gold that fills them is her insightful use of prose. She uses these cracks as bridges between two vast continents. In navigating them she presents an acute understanding of the Indian way of life especially when observed from an outsider’s point of view. This collection catalogues the sacrifices and compromises made to hide one’s roots in an effort to blend in. The eternal tightrope an immigrant walks between adapting to a new locale and preserving the traditional way of life. Where Verghese truly shines is in identifying these cracks. She departs from the staid, generalizations that have become the staple portrayal of NRIs in Bollywood movies. Instead, she presents light, thin slice-of-life moments; minuscule realities that hold power over the governing of our lives. She turns the Land of Opportunity on its head. When the Malayalam fades away and the English refuses to stick, her characters find themselves seeking words. In The Legal Alien, she uncovers in tantalizing detail the ramifications of immigration laws; the laws that prevent Rani from seeing Roya and keep Susamma dependent on Shaaji. Susamma is stunned by the brevity of official communication, that never lives up to the havoc it produces or the relief it brings. “How something so large can be conveyed by something so small.” In Guide To Bharatnatyam, an entire childhood is split into dance instructions. Spellbound is the clever use of irony bookended by Sanskrit and a Spelling Bee. Verghese is adept at the art of brevity. Her prose is like the security check booth at an international airport - brisk, efficient, touchy, and it keeps the line moving at all costs.
What adds dimensionality to these characters is a keen observation of the quiet, intrinsic rhythms of a both-parents-working-family-with-ambitions-for-their-children. In Aaja Nachle we meet Payal who eats a (beef) cheeseburger ordered by her friend because she does not want to make a scene and forces herself to vomit it out a few moments later in the privacy of a McDonald’s bathroom. Enough is the story of a homosexual man who chooses to take a wife to avoid disappointing his parents.
A father while commenting on the appearance of his wife and daughter feels guilty for producing a ‘bronze’ medal even though he is married to a ‘gold’ medal. It is such a relatable Indian characteristic – with even the appearance of children being factor in an intense competition.
The Juvenile Immigrant is like a series of déjà vu moments. Verghese describes the ‘obligatory intimacy’ which is characteristic of Indian functions, the perfunctory hugs and the peck on the cheek. She mentions the awkward silences that punctuate arranged marriage meetings; the grooms that are a “catch” because they work abroad; giving fake names at Starbucks so the baristas can pronounce them; and the cop-out names given to children so that embarrassed smiles don’t ensue when they introduce themselves to others. In a world of biryani feeding aunties, Verghese paints a portrait of loss both physical and existential; of a child’s ability to negotiate taunts directed at the colour of her skin, and the practicalities that ensue when cultures meld.
If there is a chink in the author’s literary armour it is that almost every story is devoted to an issue and carries the burden of a cause. This makes them somewhat predictable. The nuance of the prose, the delicate details of the milieu are dominated by the pervasiveness of the very issues they address.
Still, The Juvenile Immigrant is a work of refreshing acuity, a timely look at those that exist at the intersections of two separate worlds: the one their parents come from and the one their children will belong to. It is an intimate narration of the daunting, heartbreaking realization that they truly belong to neither. One hopes to read more of Verghese in these times when entire countries are debating the question of who their true natives are.
Percy Bharucha is a freelance writer and illustrator with two biweekly comics, The Adult Manual and Cats Over Coffee. Instagram: @percybharucha