Unable to think straight

Unable to think straight

But each story goes beyond that main relationship and explores the ties of the hero with his own family. The most fraught scenes are played out with grandparents, whose minds are shaped by a culture so vastly different from that of an Indian-American. 

The narratives are not peculiar in themselves, but they all explore the same character (whether he is named Sid or Pradeep or Squirrel or nothing at all). Perhaps this volume does not contain material for a novel quite yet, but we see this young man visiting in India, studying in West Virginia, at college, working in New York, at any of those half-jobs in which he is not yet successful, facing up to his grandfather, not quite facing up to his grandmother and, most of all, loving and betraying his American lover. 

In the opening story, a nameless young man visits his parents along with his boyfriend, Jeremy. His parents have accepted his sexuality, but they ask him to introduce Jeremy to his grandfather just as a friend. Also for that grandfather’s sake, the lovers sleep in two separate beds rather than in a double bed. Over the next two days, long-standing tensions of the household are teased out. 

Bapuji, the grandfather, came to the United States after he was widowed to be taken care of by his son, which means by his daughter-in-law. Over the years he grows from a selfish old man into a smouldering, inescapable horror, forcing her to hand-wash his clothes, complaining about her food, and following her about the house, barking orders.
During a game of Pictionary on this particular holiday, there is a hint that the old man may also be guilty of attempted physical abuse. Overlooking the game, he leans against his daughter-in-law till she shouts at him to get away.

What Jeremy sees is just a helpless old man, and Bapuji exploits Jeremy’s sympathy to needle his own grandson. When Bapuji continues to abuse the woman who has thanklessly served him for years, saying she has always been selfish, the young man finally shakes free of his characteristically Indian deference behaviour. He stands up for his mother and accuses his grandfather of having brought unhappiness to the home. He also tells Bapuji that Jeremy is his lover, not just a friend. These truths hurt the old man. The young man is not happy at the end of it, and the motives behind his coming out to his grandfather are mixed, but he is unmistakably satisfied that those truths were told. As are we. 

It may seem strange that Bapuji looms so large. He is just one character among many, in one story among many. But that’s the peculiar thing about this book. The stories all seem to be about the young man, but they are not. The character is drawn clearly enough, harsh with the harshness of youth, angry about inevitable cultural constraints, impatient with his lover’s fumbling attempts to understand the Indian family, but also jealous when his lover does achieve that understanding. 

Still, he remains an observer, and other people seem to be the kernel of each story. His lover is more mature, more detached, and almost certainly “the better person,” as one story puts it. But that lover too remains an observer. They observe in tandem. They judge in stereo, the lover more kindly. 

The conventional volume of short stories often feels like we’re nibbling at this and that. Mehta’s more cumulative mode of storytelling comes closer to a proper feast.

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