Most fiction writing can be accused of privileging a single story, perspective, voice or character. When I heard Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie saying, during her 2009 TED talk The Danger Of A Single Story, that “we realise that there is never a single story about any place”, it reminded me of the risk of losing a trove of insightful stories that can arise from the oft-overlooked and unexciting parts of life.
Breaking away from the milieu of mainstream novels, which often tend to create a variety of binaries like central-marginal (in terms of narrators, characters and plots), Namrata Poddar’s debut novel, Border Less, with its elegant yet piercing dialogue, is a commentary on hegemony of all kinds, including that of stories.
For its discontinuous narrative style—markedly different from non-linear telling—Poddar deserves praise. With 19 chapters meticulously structured into two sections, “Roots” and “Routes”, Border Less seems like a collection of interconnected short stories.
American writer Brandon Taylor’s recent book, Filthy Animals, came to mind for this inherent similarity, as well as its themes. Several chapters from Poddar’s book have appeared in publications like The Kenyon Review, Jaggery and The Bangalore Review as short stories but unlike Taylor, Poddar describes her book as a novel.
Border Less begins with what appears like a typical middle-class person dreams big in Bombay story: Dia Mittal, a young woman working at a call centre, is trying to save enough money to go to a business school abroad. But it becomes, soon enough, also the story of a Nepali maid, Shalu; a fourth-generation Indo-African, Noor; and an art director, Rani.
As the novel shifts between Mumbai and California, we read the moving recollections of a terrorist attack from the staff at Raj Mahal, a hotel loosely modelled on the Taj Mahal Palace of Mumbai; we are shown the uber-rich Marwari families’ attitudes towards their staff, which reek of modern-day slavery; and we are privy to Indian immigrant men’s priority: to remain “rooted”.
Each of these stories underlines how ideas of belonging, the class-caste divide, misogyny, racism and queerphobia are deeply internalised in all of us. The interlinked format of the chapters—loose strands cleverly peppered throughout the book—offers a deeper view of the complex relationships we share with ourselves, our families and “others”. The lives of the characters intersect effortlessly, reflecting the human need for belonging despite each of them, like people in real life, being, to varying degrees, self-centred.
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Poddar’s writing is fresh and strong—it is never shaky, always surprising, and exceedingly restrained. She creates a world that commands a multidimensional understanding of its characters. In also being an everywoman’s story in more ways than one, Border Less is a refreshing feminist tale, an immigrant novel, or the developing world’s most exacting blow on the first world hegemony of storytelling. I would say it is all and none of the above.
Saurabh Sharma is a Delhi-based queer writer. On Instagram and Twitter as @writerly_life.