22 June 2010

Quarantine by Rahul Mehta

Gentle, sophisticated, even elegiac
When I started reading this collection of short stories, I wasn’t in a very receptive mood and remember thinking something on the lines of, “God, who wants to read this wannabe stuff? And I mean, how boring, what could a guy named Rahul Mehta possibly have to say! Why can’t people stop exploiting their minority advantage and just write something real? Will Random House stop the gimmicks please!” But the sour rumblings faded away and the next thing I remember thinking is, “Is it over already? I want more!”

What struck me most was Rahul Mehta’s story-telling craft. As I read, the stories absorbed me completely. There’s an unusual and impressive elegance in the way he constructs his sentences and the way he presents situations. I enjoyed the insights into the different cultures his characters inhabit – small-town America, various aspects of India and family relationships within the culture, and gay life.
The stories have a high emotional content but they are also very clever, with interesting observations and turns of phrase. One of the devices that struck me most was the way the author showed you someone’s point of view by using two other characters, one sympathetic and one antagonistic, so that you understand a lot about the person even when he or she hasn’t said a word and remains in the background all the while.
At a personal level, I have to say I empathized a lot with the Indian mother in the stories. She's hardworking and liberal
and yet seems to be missing the point a lot of the time.
For one who considers herself reasonably sophisticated, but constantly perplexed by the choices my own grownup children make
I tend to echo the longsuffering tendencies this woman displays in the book. Here's a wonderful (and much-publicized) excerpt which will show you what I mean:
Last week during one of our marathon telephone conversations my mother asked me which one of us, me or Frank, was the woman in our relationship.
"Neither of us, obviously," I said. "That's what makes us gay."
"Very funny," my mom said. "Someone on Oprah said that often gay couples have one person who plays the man and the other who plays the woman. So I was wondering which you were."
"Frank and I don't believe in hetero-normative gender roles," I told her.
I knew my mom didn't know what "hetero-normative" meant, so I figured she'd drop it.
"So who does the cooking and cleaning?" she asked.
I could have truthfully answered 'neither of us'. Instead I asked, "Is that what you think womanhood is, Mom, cooking and cleaning?"

I mailed Rahul with some questions that occurred to me while reading and which I think other readers would like answered too, and here are his answers.

Are you published in the US? Why India first, especially considering the “sensational” content? (Such a good book – I’m sure it wasn’t because you couldn’t find a publisher).

Quarantine is being published in the US and Canada in spring 2011. The main reason it was published in India first is because the collection wasn’t quite finished when an editor at Random House India stumbled across one of my short stories in a literary journal and got in touch with me. So the book was purchased in India before it was finished. I’m incredibly happy it worked out this way. Writing the book, I always wondered whether it would be something an Indian readership would respond to (I fervently hoped so). It felt really important to me that Indians would want to read it—I’ve made so many trips to India over the years and spent so much time trying to connect more deeply to my Indian heritage. So you can see why I am particularly thrilled that the book has been embraced by an Indian readership.

Why short story and not novel? I’d love to get into the details of these people’s lives :-)

Although these stories clearly have thematic and geographical overlap, they weren’t conceived of in conjunction with one another. Instead, they were very much individual stories written over the course of several years. Each grew organically and independently of one another. I LOVE short stories, both as a writer and as a reader. I love that, as a reader, you can sit down and after half an hour or forty-five minutes, you can have experienced a full narrative arc, a rich reading experience, a window into the lives of these characters. At their best, short stories have the economy and intensity of poems. When I was first beginning to write with some seriousness of purpose, so many of the books I loved most were short story collections. (Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America, George Saunders’ Pastoralia, Amy Bloom’s Come to Me, and Andre Dubus’ Dancing After Hours come to mind.) I think it was only natural that my first book was a collection of short stories.

And why did you avoid first person? All the stories read like they’re about you. At least, they seem like about the same person?

Even though I often use the first-person “I” in my stories, and the narrators often share some superficial similarities to me (gay Indian-Americans having grown up in West Virginia), the characters are definitely not me. I was just in India promoting the book, and I can’t tell you how many people remarked, “Wow, you’re so different than I thought you would be based on the characters in your book.”
When writing, I tend to draw on this persona who is much, much darker than the person I am in my real life.

I read somewhere that you hadn’t mentioned your book to any of your relatives in India … surely they’ve found out now … and how did they react?

It’s true, I hadn’t mentioned the book to any of my relatives in India. I also hadn’t explicitly told any of them that I am gay. But a couple days before I was to give a reading in Mumbai, where most of my relatives live, I called them all up and invited them. I didn’t say anything about what the book was about, I just told them that I was coming to town and that I would be reading. Much to my surprise, most of my relatives showed up. In fact, it was interesting to me that it was mostly the relatives of my grandparents’ generation: basically, my parents’ aunts and uncles. I can’t tell you how amazing it felt to have them all there, sitting together in a row. It felt really special. Afterwards, we didn’t talk about the book or the reading per se. We simply spent time together, like always, as family. We ate a big, decadent meal.

The heroes in your stories all have an Indian background, with typically Indian features that they describe as a painful part of their lives but to which they don’t really relate. Is that what it was like for you? Or…?

I’m not sure the characters see their Indian-ness as “painful”; that seems like too strong a word to me. But I would agree that most of the characters don’t really relate to their Indian sides, they don’t quite understand it or fully appreciate it, and in that respect, that is something that typified my earlier experiences. When I was growing up—perhaps partly because I was living in a town and a region that was overwhelmingly white—I didn’t feel much connection to my Indian self. But that really changed as I grew older, particularly as I started to actively seek out stronger links to my Indian heritage and I started to make frequent visits to India. Now I feel both very connected and very proud of that aspect of my identity. In fact, in so many ways I consider myself much for “Indian” than my parents, even though they were the ones who were born and raised in India.

In your story “Yours”, an investment banker cousin smiles mischievously at Jagdish, the hero hinting something, and Jagdish replies, “I did NOT jack off in my parents’ Dodge Caravan” although (in truth) he had. I was wondering whether there’s an element of this in most of the stories.

If you are asking if there is an element of truth in most of the stories, I would answer, yes. But I would quickly add that I’m sure all fiction writers, if they were being honest, would answer that way. Where else do you draw from if not from your own thoughts, experiences, and observations? Even fiction writers who are writing these way-out narratives—say sci-fi or fantasy—their characters have to come from somewhere, usually from some aspect of the writers’ own experiences.

Please tell us what you're working on now and when we can expect to see it.

I’m working on a novel. It’s something I’ve been thinking about and playing around with for several years now. I’d rather not say too much about it (I prefer not to talk about work while it’s still in progress, it seems to stifle the creative process), but I will say that it is set in part in India. It’s tentatively scheduled to be published in 2014.

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