The Juvenile Immigrant | Indian Stories from America | Namrata Verghese |
Speaking Tiger 2019 | ISBN 978-93-89231-09-0 | pp 170 | 399
Stories of alienation and dislocation
This debut collection of short stories by Namrata Verghese, is an insightful look into the lives of Indian immigrants, particularly Malayali ones. Being a Malayali and a `Juvenile Immigrant ‘herself, who was born in India, but moved first to the UK and then America, she understands the pulse of the Immigrant community to a nicety. Her stories are diverse and cover a plethora of experiences. She captures the identity crisis, racism and the general sense of disconnect that they feel with both the land of their birth and the land to which they have migrated, exceptionally well. While these are specific to the immigrants, some aspects of her stories like marital problems, mental illness, homosexuality, are universal. She has found a fine balance between the two in her stories.
A distinct feature of her writing is the use of second person narrative in some of the stories, which add a different dimension to it. She has a fluent and evocative style, and her narratives are tinged with humour and quirky turn of phrases. Some stories are in the past tense while others are in the present tense. She has made use of these writing styles to suit the story being told, and done it very effectively. Having read these stories, one feels that they could not have been written any other way.
In the very first story, a young mother, waiting to board a plane to India, is worried about how to explain the arbitrary “pat down”, that brown skin people are subjected to, during security check up in America; to her little daughter. There are several other instances when racial profiling and discrimination is highlighted, like the young girl in the story, “Monsoon”, who is ostracized by her school friends, who call her a “savage” and ask her to “Go back home! Get out of my country”. The young girl speaks about how she “will carve myself from the inside out, bleeding, blurring the lines between reality and pretense”, to fit into the groove among the Americans.
The eponymous story, “The Juvenile Immigrant,” is a heart wrenching story of a disabled boy, through the eyes of his sister, who shares an awkward yet loving relation with him. Yet again, in this story, the racial discrimination faced by brown skinned people is brought out excruciatingly, when after shooting the boy, his racist neighbour claims he did not recognize him as “They all look the same”. She also touches briefly on Srinivas Kuchibhotla, who was shot dead by a man inside a bar, as he considered Srinivas and his friend,” terrorists”, as they were “Middle Eastern men” and doubted their legal status.
The internal conflict of the young Immigrant girl in “Monsoon” is brought out poignantly, when she describes her own childhood in India as “Crayola skies and humid nights”, whereas, that of her sister, born in England as, “plastic dolls and costume tiaras”. She fears the day her own sister will” grow up and recognize her superiority over me”. And when she comes home to India, she feels, “I am a tourist in my home country”. She speaks about how people stutter and stammer with her Indian name, which we never get to know till the end, and how she often fakes her name at Starbucks, so that the counter person does not fumble over it or make her repeat it or spell it. Such little anecdotes speak volumes about the every day adjustments and awkward situations that the immigrants find themselves in. Then, there is an instance in another story, where a young boy is able to identify his new born sister, from a room full of newborn babies, “as she is the only brown skinned baby in a room full of pink and red ones”.
Her dark brand of humour is evident in the short story “Ash”, where a young girl is carrying her grandmother’s ashes back home to India in a jam bottle. On being questioned about the contents by the airport security officer, she promptly replies, “My grandmother, Sir!” The American fad to come to India to “find themselves”, has also been touched upon in one of the stories. The instance when a white yoga teacher plays “Hindu” music, while teaching yoga to a predominantly white class, is worth mentioning, particularly when she explains that Namaste means, “I honour the way your body moves.”
She also touches on contemporary topics like Beef Ban and how it effects the friendship between a Hindu and a Muslim schoolgirl, in far way America, as their parents are deeply invested into their respective religions. The shame of homosexuality and trying to hide it behind an arranged marriage, a paranoid wife’s dependence on her husband’s H1BVisa, arranged marriages, infidelity are some of the varied themes in her other stories. Her humorous take on the Indian obsession with fair skin, in the story, “Butter Chicken” is delightful, so also is the light hearted narrative, “Shaadi. Com”, about arranged marriage.
She describes the Indian-Americans as, “They live somewhere along the hyphen,” and further adds, “The Indian American is a paradox. Suspended between worlds, second generation immigrants necessarily shoulder the burden of representation without the pride of ownership.” And in writing about these people living along the hyphen, she has done a great job of fleshing out her characters who are as varied as the Indian Subcontinent itself. While writing about Neil, the central character in the story “Hyphenated,” who is an Indian orphan, brought up by an American gay couple, she remarks, “Sometimes, he forgets that his insides don’t match his outsides”. This in short, is what the immigrant experience, as seen through the author’s perspective is all about.
Though many books have been written about the immigrant experience, Namrata Verghese has been able to give a bold and fresh perspective about it, without sounding clichéd or repetitive. It’s a great read, with the words flowing effortlessly and painting a vivid, unapologetic picture as they go along.
Issue 89 (Jan-Feb 2020)