The title of ChitraViraraghavan’snovel,The Americans, indicates that the Indian diaspora in the United States of America has indeed come of age. It also affirms that Indians in the US are not quite the outsiders who are trying to assimilate into the melting pot or are the hyphenated diasporics oscillating between two nations and two cultures. It sends the message that Americans come in all colours, shapes and sizes—warts and all.For me, a sociologist interested in how the diaspora negotiates its identities, a book about the Indian diaspora with a title that neither has the word ‘Indian’ nor anything else that invokes Indianness, is speaking to the idea that those who live and work in America today are quite comfortable with their American identity.Viraraghavanholds a refreshingly new lens on the lives of people of Indian origin in the US, exploring the real challenges they face without necessarily resorting to categories that are ‘Indian’.
Each chapter of the novel is organized around and named after one of the 10 central characters,an attention-grabbing device in terms of both form and content. You find yourself wanting to follow the characters and are sometimes captivated enough to stay with one of them. The one main thread in the novel is that all the characters are struggling through their own personal crises and most are barely on the verge of sanity. Most of the key characters come across as dysfunctional, except Tara the protagonist, who, of course, is viewing the Americans through her own life in Madras city. She has returned for a short visit to the United States, where she had spent a few years getting a degree. Tara is there to help her sister Kamala cope with her teen daughter and autistic son. Through Tara’s eyes, we see these‘Americans’facing their daily crises, small and big. Although Kamala, a successful medical practitioner, has apparently achieved the ultimate American dream of a big suburban house, luxury cars, a loving husband and two kids, she struggles with her autistic son, has tensions with her teenage daughter and, most intriguingly, with her Israeli maid, the latter bringing to the fore class and racial biases in the Indian diaspora. Tara’s familiarity with the United States helps her to understand her family and friends, but her return to India after graduate school, allows her the distance to empathize with theelderly CLN, who is visiting with his daughter’s family.
Intergenerational issues between the recently widowed CLN and his daughter Kavita, who is enmeshed in her own anxieties and insecurities, are all toofamiliar. CLN’s desire to discover America on his own and his daughter’s wanting to control and monitor his every move sound like a story recounted often by elderly parents coming back to their routines in Mylapore or Marredpally after short stints with their children abroad. But Kavita’s anxiety to not let her child get too close to her father seems to be a way of saying that the proverbial strong Indian family bonds are slowly but surely weakening, making the Indian community no different from other ethnic groups in the US. CLN is the lonely Indian parent who is proud of his NRI daughter’s success, but when he actually gets to live with her family, finds that his son-in-law lost his job and their life is far tougher when seen from up close. The novel steadfastly counters the idealized Indian family and portrays it asan average American family,with self-centered adults coping with relationship crises.A reverse stereotype, perhaps?
Shantanu’s character brings into the picture the working class American of Indian origin. He works at a restaurant, is abused and underpaid by his vile and exploitative Indian boss. He confronts his employer’s trafficking in illegal immigrants, and hates everyone around him. We become acutely aware of his precarious legal and financial status that even prevents him from attending his mother’s funeral back home. In a different era, Shantanu could well have been the stereotypical Mexican immigrant from across the border, fighting racism and prejudice in an unequal world.The Indian immigrant in Shantanuoffers us the underbelly of the ‘model minority’, a label that’s often affixed unproblematicallyon Indian-Americans.
Viraraghavan’s most cinematic character is the childless Madhulika, whose husband Vinod is having a rollicking affair with another woman. In a bizarre train of events, she attempts to kidnap a child from a shopping mall, and latercoerces her Latin American help to part with her new-born under threat of exposure to immigration authorities. While the class arrogance and racism of many of her characters ring quite true, the Madhulika plot seems to stretch credulity somewhat.
In some of her published interviews, the author has said that the novel was her way of reversing the gaze on Indian-Americans, who have been writing about India and Indians over the last decade or so with much literary acclaim. She certainly succeeds in debunking not only the myth of the American Dream, but also the much-celebrated figure of the over-achieving Indian abroad. In the process, she manages admirably not to exoticize either the Americans or the Indians. If I have any gripe with the book, it is with the uniformly dismal picture it portrays of the lives of people of Indian origin in the United States. There are few well-adjusted, contented characters here.
However, in the end, it is Viraraghavan’s gripping narrative style, weaving parallel stories into a common strand, and her uncommonperspective on Indian-Americans, that make this first novel such a brilliant debut.
Aparna Rayaprol is Professor and Head Department of Sociology, University of Hyderabad.