For the last couple of decades of the twentieth century, as Indian diasporic writing carved a niche for itself in the publishing and academic world, the rubric was used as a fairly monolithic one, encompassing a range of what many seem as distinctive conventions and characteristics. The clash of cultural value systems, the longing for ‘imaginary homelands’, fraught attempts at getting back to one’s ‘real’ roots, the angst-ridden sense of not quite belonging, of being a perpetual foreigner in the new homeland and an alienated other in the one(s) left behind. For those willing to make simplistic readings, these have come to be some of the thematic staples of diasporic writing and anyone looking for these ingredients in Karma and Other Stories will not be disappointed. It is heartening to see things changing however. The diasporic rubric itself now has variants that serve as alternative catchment terms—transnational, global and immigrant, to name a few—and many problematize the putatively normative conceptualization of Indian expat communities as undifferentiated, especially in terms of how they see themselves.
Simultaneous multiple affiliations arising out of ‘old’ and ‘new’ diasporas such as the Caribbean Indian population in the UK and Canada or the Fijian Indian population in Australia are being delved into, as are issues and experiences linked with axes such as gender and sexual orientation.
Rishi Reddi’s Karma and Other Stories clearly depicts not a generic ‘Indian’ but a more specific and complex set of Hindu Telegu first and second generation diasporic experiences largely located in the Boston area in the last decades of the twentieth century. The closing story in the collection, ‘Lord Krishna’, underscores the lived implications of this differentiation when it opens with: ‘Krishna Chander was fourteen years old when his family moved from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his mother could buy a decent sari at a store in a certain neighbourhood, to Wichita, Kansas where there were only twenty-six Indian families in all and only one, other than his own, that spoke Telegu…. It was 1981 … India was a Third World blip on a map, just a notion that had faded away with the hippies’.
Though Reddi’s book only deals with first and second generation immigrants from a Telegu Hindu background, it does so in a nuanced way addressing the concerns of at least four separate age brackets and in all except one age bracket dealing separately with gender-specific experiences from male and female vantage points. The book is symptomatic perhaps of a greater general willingness to explore the distinctive affective economies of generational diasporic experiences as third and fourth generation ‘diasporic’ entities grapple in various ways with issues both different and similar to those of the first and second generation. There is also an increased engagement with the phenomenon of serial diasporic positions as people relocate from one country to another and yet another for myriad reasons; for example, to escape political turmoil, due to family compulsions, to be with their children as they age, on account of work requirements or in search of greener pastures and a still better lifestyle. Rishi Reddi herself was born in Hyderabad and brought up in the UK and the US and currently lives in Brookline, Massachusetts. Reddi has been an enforcement attorney for the state and federal environmental protection agencies, as well as a lawyer for the Massachusetts Secretary of Environment and serves on the board of directors of South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow and has signed a two book contract with Harper Collins.
Rishi Reddi’s debut offering Karma and Other Stories is a collage of seven short stories that subtly brings together diasporic vignettes of varied hues. The unobtrusive reappearance of marginal characters in one story as central characters in another makes this text hover in the liminal space between being a collection of short stories and a covert novel. When asked about this, Reddi averred, ‘The characters re-appearing just happened on their own. I was working on “Karma” and going to “Bangles” and I realized I needed a snooty character. Since Prakash had already appeared, I just thought he needed to come over to the new story. And, when you think about it, how many Indian families could there be in Boston? Only so many, so it made sense that they would know each other.’ The stories map a host of situations and perspectives, evoking in the process numerous distinctive voices and positions within the Telegu Hindu community in Boston that Reddi chooses to spotlight and tracks some members of the community in their sojourns in Wichita and Hyderabad.
The acclaimed opening story and ‘Bangles’ are significant for their sensitive treatment of the travails of elderly immigrants who having spent a lifetime in India, migrate (often after a spouse’s death) to be with their children. In both stories the protagonists—one a former judge, the other the wife of a former chief minister—grapple with the loss of status, the inability to transpose the value systems of the world they have recently left behind; cultural disorientation and the sense of their identities being compromised in America that this precipitates. Both find different ways to negotiate their respective situations.
‘Justice Shiva Rama Murthy’ first appeared in the fall 2004 issue of the Harvard Review and was later chosen among the 20 stories in the 2005 edition of The Best American Short Stories by the Pulitzer Prize-winning guest editor Michael Chabon. The rather pompous title is symptomatic of the ordinery seventy-year-old protagonist who moved to Boston to be with his ‘only daughter’ after his wife died. He prides himself on many counts, including his adaptability and his comfort levels with English— ‘I am very very comfortable with English. All of the courts in India are operated in that language only.’ Reddi’s ability to capture the stilted formal idiom and idiosyncrasies of it eponymous narrator allows the story, as it unfolds, to reveal his self-deception and throw sidelights on the way others perceive him, without quite allowing the readers to withdraw their sympathy completely. Reddi says the idea for this story came from a small newspaper article about an Indian Hindu man who had sued a fast food establishment because he had eaten French fries made with animal fats instead of vegetable oil. Similarly ‘Bangles’, which elicits comparisons with Chitra Divakaruni’s ‘Mrs Datta Writes a Letter’ and the more recent Thrity Umrigar’s If Today be Sweet, came from Reddi’s reflections about an elderly woman she encountered on the subway in Boston in particular and widows in Indian culture in general. The story foregrounds the secondary status of girls/women in many Indian homes across generations and continents and the phenomena of grandmothers being roped in as convenient ayahs. Arundhati’s responses to what she sees as slights from her son and his family reveal what has gone into constituting her sense of identity and expectations. Her gold bangles are both the symbol of her wifehood and a mode of retaining independence as they can finance her return to her village where her brother stays. She prefers that to staying with her son in America, in spite of her village being a naxalite hotbed. Rukmini who agrees to aid her escape comments, ‘I think Americans care for their elders just as much as Indians do. In India we make more of a show of it.’
Shifting generational gears, the title story ‘Karma’ and ‘Lakshmi and the Librarian’ deal with first generation immigrants of the middle-aged category. ‘Karma’ delineates the fracturing of the facade of ‘the old Indian way’ of the ‘combined family’. Prakash Balareddy is a successful cardiologist and his brother Shankar is an unemployed ‘professor of colonial history’, former convenience store clerk and taxi driver, who in the course of the story perhaps finds a karmic calling in animal care. Ironically, both in their own way struggle and manage to stay afloat in their careers; both pay a personal and familial price to do this. The characterization is convincing and poignant. Reddi seems to hint that the penalty for not conforming can be quite serious however, America does seem to offer spaces where that difference can be accommodated constructively. The story is a personal favourite of the author’s, especially because of her environmental background. She says, ‘I love that the story has birds in it, and it means a lot to me that Shankar (the main character) is lost and kind of stumbles into his life in the U.S. He didn’t plan on coming to the U.S., and I think that’s what happens to a big chunk of immigrants—they somehow just end up here. So I like that he feels lost, and I like how he is quirky—that he would save birds.’ The story grew out of an article in The Wall Street Journal about a man in Toronto who rescued birds during the migration season. ‘Lakshmi and the Librarian’ is narrated in the present tense and is a taut evocation of the unspoken undercurrents of longing and unarticulated loves of Lakshmi Chundi whose has lived most of her life in America strictly adhering to Telegu social norms. Her simple gesture of reaching out and touching the life of Elias Filian, the librarian when he goes through a rough patch and refusing to shut him out as a friend is etched against a backdrop of the unstinting community gaze that relentlessly slots, judges, makes assumptions and tries to hem her in‘The Validity of Love’ has a very contemporary flavour to it and portrays from the second generation female points of view of Lata and Supriya, the ironies of combining a liberated upbringing and the ‘talons of tradition’ especially in the realm of choosing one’s profession and partner. The persistent and at times conflicting pulls of modernity and cultural conservativism; putative veto power within the decision making process and the silent treatment used to coerce; stereotypical notions of what’s the done thing; the struggle to stay in touch with one’s ‘real life’ while shouldering the burden of family commitments are etched in a way that clearly reveals a gift for recreating a character’s internal contradictions without sounding too biased or judgemental. Reddi comments, ‘There’s a real irony in that people travel abroad from India to give their children the best of everything, but they are attached to centuries of traditions. Indians in India don’t need to put the fences up against other cultures, so while they progress and develop, Indians abroad are more traditional and more tied to traditions from the 1950s. As a second generation Indian, what is Indian to my parents is the India of the 1960s and 1970s, which doesn’t relate to what Indians in India are thinking today.’ The story’s conclusion with its unwillingness to give more than a glimpse of what the future portends encapsulates the general formalistic mode of this story cycle.
The last two stories ‘Devadasi’ and ‘Krishna’ carry the narrative trajectory to the world of second generation adolescents and away from Boston. The former is a coming-of-age narrative of sorts that tangentially maps the growth of the troubling VHP base in the US and the Hindu-Muslim divide against the backdrop of the fissiparous Babri Masjid demolition. It also explores dance as a means of transmitting culture. Uma’s dance teacher in Hyderabad sagely avers ‘You must study the history. Then, you must believe what your own mind and heart tell you is correct. Isn’t it true of so many things?’ The latter is set in Wichita, Kansas because according to Reddi it ‘was more natural for the religious conflict in “Lord Krishna” to take place in a smaller town than Boston. It’s a fairly common experience for immigrants’. The delineation of the tension that surfaces when Krishna Chander’s evangelical teacher equates Lord Krishna with Satan using an image from an ISKCON flier throws up issues of stereotyping, parochial mindsets and the healing power of forgiving and letting go. His aggressive father’s awareness of himself as a ‘self-made millionaire’ and the power that his generous donations to the school gave him also bespeak the changing power equations in the world the successful and moneyed immigrant inhabits.
As a collection, Karma and Other Stories does not attempt or do too many overtly radical things. Reddi however does emerge as a nuanced raconteur with a gift for convincing characterization and weaving compelling narratives that not only entertain but nudge the reader to engage with a range of issues. It’s good to see the Telegu Hindu diaspora find such a lucid and dexterous hand to give voice to a multiplicity of positions. It’s even better to hear that Rishi Reddi has no intention of being straight jacketed in terms of fictional range. She is currently working on her second book which is set in the 1920s on the west coast along the Mexican border in Southern California and deals with a community of Sikh men, among the first to come to and settle in America, who owing to strict immigration laws that made it impossible for them to bring their spouses, eventually married Mexican women and had bicultural children. Interested? Well then, we both have something to look out for.
- Thomas teaches literature at a Delhi University college and is an inveterate traveler.