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February 25, 2008

Review of Rishi Reddy's debut collection of short stories

This collection of short stories is about diasporic Telugu Indians in America. It is a collection which deserves attention because some of its stories depart from the usual clichéd storylines, and focus attention instead on a different age group, not the working class age group, nor yet the 2nd generation Indian Americans, but the age group of grandmothers and grandfathers, who having spent a lifetime in India, migrate in their old age to be with children and grandchildren.

Although less often explored, this is by no means completely virgin territory; Chitra Divakaruni had explored it in her short story Mrs Dutta Writes a Letter (which appeared in The Unknown Errors of our Lives, 2002), featuring a grandmother from Calcutta moving to her son’s home in San Francisco; and more recently, this theme was also the storyline of Thrity Umrigar’s eloquent novel, If Today be Sweet (2007), which unfolds Tehmina Setha’s cultural journey, making the transition from her lifelong Bombay home to Cleveland, her son’s home, after the death of Tehmina’s beloved husband.

The first of Reddy’s stories is called Justice Shiva Ram Murthy, and this mouthful hints a little comically at the story of an old man, very much on his dignity, who has to adjust to being ‘nobody’, or at least nobody in particular in USA after a lifetime of being distinguished, respected and well-known in his position as barrister and high court judge in India.

Mr Justice Murthy, as he wishes to be called, is proud of his adaptability,
“…when my story begins, I had been living in U.S. for three months. Already I had opened my own bank account, obtained a law library card, and successfully settled the living arrangements with my daughter, Kirin, and her American husband.”
However, when a young girl serving in a fast food place fails to show him the respect he deems he should be accorded, Mr Justice Murthy is outraged, and further incensed when he finds he has little empathy from others around him.

The story is well told, exposing Mr Justice Ram’s value system and expectations, which he has clearly transposed wholesale from India, and juxtaposing these with the conflicting ones of the community around him. His particular Indian-inflected English lends an authentic ring to the story, “What are you talking, Manmohan?”, and “I am considering quite seriously of suing that restaurant.”

Another nice little study along similar lines is that of Arundhati, widow of the ex-chief minister of Andhra Pradesh. Coming from a family of landlords and accustomed to a life where she held a position of substantial social status, Arundhati struggles to accept her new life in USA, where her grandson shows her no respect, where she feels alienated, and where even her dutiful son fobs off his responsibilities to her by asking a virtual stranger to ferry her around.
“ “Rukmini says she comes every Saturday [to the temple]. She’ll pick you up. She lives only ten minutes from us.” The words paralyzed Arundhati. But Venu [son] was smiling and Kamlesh [daughter-in-law] too, seemed pleased. The young woman, this Rukmini, looked at her sweetly. What sort of shame was this? Since when had she needed help from people she did not know?”

Finding that no one understands her values, and no one cares to abide by them, and lacking the power to enforce any, Arundhati resolves to return to her village, in spite of her son’s stubborn refusal to allow this, and in spite of uprisings around her old home. Her story is much like Mr Justice Murthy’s, in that both feel their pride injured, both miss the deference they were accustomed to in India, both feel a disrespect (whether intended or otherwise) due to a disregard of them by the community they now live in, and both very much feel their identities being compromised in USA.

Reddy also devotes 2 of her short stories to the working age group. One of these tell of a very traditional housewife, Lakshmi, who has lived most of her adult life in USA but almost wholly by Telugu conventions, and mostly within a Telugu community. Lakshmi touchingly finds her inner self when she dares to pursue a friendship with a person outside of her community, and with surprising ease, shakes off the shackles of tradition, which she had willingly lived within, for so long. The other story of this age group has a male protagonist, Shankar, who would have been a professor of colonial history in India, but has been unable to keep his jobs thus far in America, as a check out clerk in a convenience store, and a taxi driver. Reddy hints that for this age group, the inability to swallow what her protagonist regards as very serious affronts to his dignity, carries a very severe penalty, beyond feelings of alienation and sorrow. Shankar is reduced to near poverty, suffering both personal and financial humiliation.

The rest of Reddy’s stories are given over to relating the experiences of the 2nd generation American born Indians, and these stories are somehow less compelling than the others. They deal with fairly well-hashed themes of being simultaneously insider-outsider, of being culturally misunderstood by the larger community, of wanting to subscribe to Western values while being pulled in another direction within the family sphere, etc. Nothing ground breaking here, in fact.

However, this is a collection worth reading, for the handling of the 3 different generations’ experiences, and the relatively nuanced and multi-layered depictions of situations and personal responses. As a debut effort, it is praiseworthy, and I look forward to even more subtle and sophisticated offerings from this author.

Posted by Lisa Lau at February 25, 2008 08:01 AM


Great review! I just finished this book this week and felt the same as you did. Lots of similar themes to Lahiri and Divakaruni. I felt we got a taste of Telugu rather than Bengali.

There were a few moments when I wanted her to push her characters more. For example, the librarian in "Lakshmi and the Librarian" was too stereotypical and not believable. Even Shankar in "Karma" was good, but I didn't know him well enough.

There's a lot of interest in classical dance, so I'm assuming Reddy is a dancer herself?

I think the first story was written well in the voice of Justice. She really captured the nuances of the Indian English, as well as the personality of the man. This was on NPR's Selected Shorts last year.

Posted by: Ashini [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 2, 2008 07:21 AM

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