Friday, May 9, 2014

The Americans - Chitra Viraraghavan

'The Americans' is a smashing debut novel by Chitra Viraraghavan. I must also add that it has been a long time since a debut novelist has done such a fine job. As one might surmise it is not really about American Americans but about Indian Americans (who are sometimes more American than some others) and Chitra shows the reader the often missed-out, glossed-over, vulnerable world of Indians who live in America through a host of characters, some visiting, some stuck, some rooted and some uprooted, but all real people we know. Take away the swagger, the clothes, the accent and suddenly we find the self assured immigrants not so self-assured anymore.
4th Estate, 283 p, Rs. 499
So we have Tara  (who if the book were made into a movie would be just like Chitra) going to the US to babysit her niece while her sister Kamala is taking her autistic son Rahul to an alternative Indian treatment. Then we have CLN, retired school teacher from Madras visiting his daughter Kavita on a rather forced visit that he is regrets embarking on. These two unlikely travellers become friends on the flight to the USA as Tara helps the old man on his first visit to the USA. (The Indian guy at the airport had potential too, nice chap who lends his mobile and all.) Once these two get to the USA we meet the self-obsessed doctor sister Kamala, her husband Ranjan, their daughter, the fully American (as she sees herself but not seen as such by white Americans) fifteen year old Lavanya, Rahul and his delightful patterns, their help, the Israeli lady Ariel who is married to a younger American man, Shantanu who has burnt his bridges and has decided to stay on in America come what may until he succeeds with his songwriting, his bosses Nagi Babu and Chenni Babu and their shady trafficking deals, Akhil and his paranoia of the American conspiracy, the dreamy baby-wanting Madhulika and her drifting, disinterested husband Vinod. Their worlds are so fragile and vulnerable and Chitra carefully uncovers those delicately balanced lives, bringing out the drama of their underlying fears and apprehensions, the slowly slipping dreams and illusions. And ours too.

It is in the small things, in laying bare the subtle feelings, that Chitra's novel rises to the dramatic level of a thriller. We find drama in garage doors, snow shoes and televisions, in parties and boyfriends, in new friends and an autistic boys patterns, in a world more inhabited by Shahrukh Khan than the husband, in laws that scare migrants to the extent that they do not protest the kidnapping of their child, in a dare-all stunt to get the missing songbook back, in a moment of madness to go to a party and impress the boy, and much more. Chitra effortlessly takes on a new tone, a new world each time a new character comes on (and they come on pretty rapidly thanks to the short chapters) and the details that character sees, feels, smells are so very personal to them that you fully enter their lives. This is where she scores brilliantly, bringing each character totally alive, making them stand up and talk, dance and jump as she pleases.

It is quite obvious that Chitra has a story to tell and she tells it compellingly, honestly, credibly. No frills, no fancies, no trying to show off or impress. Its all about being honest and bringing the character honestly to the reader.  No wonder that all her characters come alive, including fringe characters like Gentry, Sameer, Pink Girl. For someone like me who has never been to the USA her imagery was so powerful that even now I see the scenes playing out like a movie in my head, shades, smells, colors and all. The snow filled drive on which CLN walks as he finds his library (be careful there please, don't fall), Lavanya's party scene (don't take the window), Shantanu's room (sigh), Tara's heroics with a reluctant Gentry (great action, scope of romance), the heart stopping thoughts of Rahul, roads, freeways, pedestrian crossings, shoe racks, door mats, nothing escapes detail. The scene where Shantanu and Sammie hide in a closet - you can feel it, see it, smell it.

Some have made their choices, some hope for some external force to jolt them out, some are resigned to their lives in the USA. Nothing hits you more than the helplessness of the immigrants when they come to know of someone close who has died. They cannot do more than rationalise it and grit their teeth and go back to work carrying that dead part, the guilt, for all their lives, in contrast to those in India who get done with it after a shortened funeral. Funnily I cannot help thinking that you'd feel more resentment if the relative in the USA did not turn up though you may sympathise with someone in Dubai or Saudi for not turning up.

Frankly I cannot remember the last time when a book had such delicious promise each time I put it away. So good was it that I'd almost delay picking it up to savor the juiciness of what was to come. Will the girl get the boy? Will the boy be alright? Will the father find his voice? Will the young man survive? It is a book of the underdog, shown from his and her viewpoint convincingly. I would be ignoring the obvious if I fail to mention the problems of autistic children, the trauma that their caregivers undergo, the insensitivity of society at large. Rahul, Danisha.

I would be doing a great injustice if I failed to mention the superb effort that has gone into designing the cover by Krishna. It's one of the best I have seen and the Indian publishing industry can do well to take a lesson here and invest in such quality work instead of coming up with amateurish, half-baked, thoughtless designs that take the energy away from the book. Over 90% of book covers fall into that category and I have seen some fine books hidden behind mediocre covers. It's time publishing houses realised that they can support the book well through its cover. You cannot ignore such compelling cover designs. Here finally, is a cover worthy of the book, and vice versa.

Great effort Chitra. Fantastic debut. If you can find and enhance drama in those fine spaces of life, it is obvious that you can write a book about anything and make it fly. Anyone who has had friends and relatives in the USA will identify a lot with this book - I can think of so many people I'd like to gift it to, recommend it to, just so we could discuss it over a coffee. Pick it up, you won't regret it.


Chitra said...

Hari, what can I say? Incredibly generous as usual. Much love, Chitra

Harimohan said...

Thanks Chitra. You deserve it all and more. Well done.