Immigrant anecdotes

These were usually not software people, but they were engineers, and their stories have been overshadowed by the new wave of computer-savvy Indians, co-founding startups in Silicon Valley.

Pradeep Anand was one of these engineers who migrated to USA 25 years ago and worked in the Texas oil and gas industry. An Indian in Cowboy Country, though billed as a novel, could almost be the story of his own life — its hero, Satish, passes out of IIT, works in Texas, marries an Indian girl from Mumbai, faces discrimination from his white co-workers, and finally achieves his dream life: family, home and a senior management position. The book has the air of a middle-aged man chatting at a get-together, telling stories from his life to a crowd of interested onlookers.

This same style, however, undercuts the impact that such a topic might have had. The target audience of the book, for example, seems to be American, not Indian. When Satish returns to India after a decade in the US, Anand describes him enjoying his mother’s cooking: “He continued the pleasurable task of using the bottom edge of his right palm as a squeegee to stop the rasam from migrating too far from the rice.”

This would leave most Indian readers puzzled. They’ll all know that you’re meant to mix rasam with rice, but they would not have heard of a ‘squeegee’, a typically American word. Reading further, they’ll find detailed descriptions of pickles and state transport buses, and no explanations of, say, barbecue grills and freeways.

The chapters of the book are not tightly knit together. They’re episodes from Satish’s life, ordered roughly chronologically, often with several years let out in between. The book ends with Satish’s worth being recognised by his friends and being offered a dream job — in other words, when he is at his peak, with no shadow of any misfortune over him.

In fact, Anand seems to deliberately avoid unpleasant phases of Satish’s life: the discrimination suit that he files against his company, the break-up of his first marriage, the initial difficulty in finding a job, the emotional distance with his parents back in India. Any one of these things would have made a compelling story, if focused on and explored fully (Jhumpa Lahiri comes to my mind here).

But they’re all skimmed over, explained away in a cursory way. Instead, Anand has stuck to the conventional, clichéd experiences that everyone already knows about: bride hunting in India, networking with American colleagues, conversations on how India is changing. Even the interesting side characters — an NRI with political aspirations, a Texan who marries an Israeli — are briefly mentioned and then dropped.

The writing style seems forced. A thesaurus has been used extensively — instead of saying things in a natural way, there are phrases and words forced into sentences, in order to sound literary: “He slapped various spots on his thighs and calves, hoping to dispatch an astonished vermin to its maker.”
All in all, the book is a wasted opportunity and offers nothing new to the Indian reader. An American might potentially find the descriptions of Indian customs interesting, but is bound to be put off by the lack of character development and any real tension in the story.

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