Reviewing a flawed book is easy: As a responsible reader, one commiserates over the gap between what is and what was intended, and as a responsible critic, one tries to discern what widened that gap, and, therefore, contextualise the work. Reviewing an impeccably crafted book, however, is the real test: a few initial attempts at writing about The Best Possible Experience, Nishanth Injam’s debut short story collection, immediately after finishing it, couldn’t go beyond versions of a plea to “just read it”.
Injam makes mellow but unflinching prose work even in the most tender moments. This rare quality— one that, like strong journalistic work, employs the spareness of a truth to facilitate the journey towards emotion—triggers an almost visceral response to each of the 11 stories here.
Born and raised in Khammam, Telangana, Injam moved to the US for a master’s in computer science. Like many, he wanted an opportunity to be able to earn in dollars and send money home. However, nothing, he recalls in various interviews, had prepared him for the sort of culture shock and emotional dissonance that hit him in the US. The Immigrant, the third story in the collection, seems like an autobiographical, and accurate, rendering of the acute silence that pervades every bit of this experience, especially as a student.
With a consistent and measured voice, Injam slides in truth after truth. Rarely in single, punchy sentences, they build up over lines, culminating in something incontestable.
In The Protocol, Injam injects nuance into what could have otherwise been brushed off as a cliché in immigrant writing—that of green card marriages—and lifts it towards excellence. He does this through the protagonist Gautham’s quiet longings in the “fake” relationship, induced mostly by a deep loneliness and need to belong—to something, someone, somewhere: “If anything, it was his fault—he should have never left India. A country was an empty T seat; you should never leave in search for a better one. Once you go, there’s nowhere to return,” he writes, a third-person narrator observing Gautham’s mind. The Sea, with Rafi, a young Muslim schoolteacher in a suburb of Visakhapatnam, whose wife Nur dies in an accident, mirrors this sort of unbelonging upon losing a companion, especially when one feels misunderstood or marginalised by the world.
Masterfully done stories like Summers Of Waiting, The Math Of Living and the titular The Best Possible Experience are clear in their preoccupation with losing, specifically, a parent or parent-figure. Injam’s recent essay in The Atlantic, a moving account of him coming to terms with his mother’s death, is reflected in these stories, especially in the deliberately formulaic writing of The Math Of Living.
In interviews, Injam has said the collection comes from, and is about, an immigrant’s unquenchable yearning for something—home, belonging, love. To me, this is a refreshing look at how people cohabit, realistically, with life’s many griefs and through its various exiles. A shining example of new Indian immigrant fiction.