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The impossible war against clichés

  • Aruni Kashyap’s new book of short stories is set among Indians living in the US and India
  • The collection aims to capture the struggles of the characters to rise above cultural stereotypes

In one of Kashyap’s stories, a character gets upbraided for not writing about insurgency in his home state, Assam.getty images
In one of Kashyap’s stories, a character gets upbraided for not writing about insurgency in his home state, Assam.getty images

The stories in Aruni Kashyap’s His Father’s Disease move between faraway places. Between remote villages in Assam and cosmopolitan New Delhi, or even farther to New York and Minnesota. Wherever they are, Kashyap’s characters are trying to make sense of transitions—of movements between divergent cultures, but also between different versions of themselves. The dust jacket of the book—Kashyap’s second in English—describes it as bearing “the spirit of modern post colonial storytellers". That is also the collection’s biggest obstacle. In doggedly trying to articulate the complications of geography and identity, it remains inconsistent in developing fleshed-out characters.

His Father’s Disease: By Aruni Kashyap, Westland, 184 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>499.
His Father’s Disease: By Aruni Kashyap, Westland, 184 pages, 499.

In The Umricans, Himjyoti goes to Minnesota to study. He moves in with Mike, a student who knows little about South Asian cultures and yet aspires to be ever-embracing. When his new roommate moves in, Mike changes the Wi-Fi name to “Diverse Club" and later, “South Asian Station", because “he thinks it is more apt". Himjyoti quickly tires of having to shatter myths about his cultural background and resorts instead to another kind of coping—keeping quiet even when he has a lot to say. He may not be fond of his new world but his priorities are to succeed, not fit in. He harbours the classic immigrant’s dream and wants to “bring (his) parents to America and buy them meals at Olive Garden". His mother couldn’t be prouder.

Kashyap constructs the immigrant’s America in measured stereotypes. Disputes between Himjyoti and Mike about traces of Indian food smell in the kitchen are meant to read as ridiculous daily cultural wars. By laying out this network of clichés, Kashyap wants to push beyond them, to consider diaspora an experience borne by people and not cultural emblems. When Himjyoti receives word that his mother has died, his Indian friends try to comfort him. But he says, “like they do here in America, I am fine, can I please have a moment?" Kashyap manages to show the crux of his project—that geographical shifts are more fundamental than changes of custom; they can also be quiet emotional upheavals. Still, the premise of the story continues to feel time-worn.

Perhaps the struggle of the book lies in that it is too conscious of its political stance. In the opening story, Skylark Girl, an Assamese writer at a conference in Delhi is rebuked by intelligentsia for not writing about insurgency. The writer tells the audience member who questions him, “no one in Assam would ask me that question—why don’t you write about the violence?" He then goes on a spiel about the pressures on Assamese writers in English to talk about horrors in their homeland.

Although Kashyap’s argument through this character is valid, this kind of assertion appears too frequently. In another story set at a conference in the US, a writer of Nigerian descent is asked (by a presumably white academic) if she is writing a PhD on the novelist Chinua Achebe because of her heritage. To ridicule the shallowness of cultural stereotyping is clearly Kashyap’s agenda but in that attempt he also gives us visions of diaspora that seem too familiar.

The most novel stories are those about love between men. The title story, His Father’s Disease, is set in rural Assam, where Neerumoni must deal with the truth that her husband is having an affair with her brother. When her son also appears to be gay, Neerumoni believes he has inherited the “disease", though she tries her best to let him live out his relationships. She must reconcile her own trauma with her desire to be a good mother, and protect her son from being persecuted by the village. Although the story unfolds dramatically, Neerumoni’s character manages to emerge as both complicated and compelling—she stands out in a book that longs for many more fine-drawn motivations and emotions.

The concluding story, too, defies the typical student-struggling-to-assimilate trope. After Anthropology narrates a weekend in the life of spouses Raj and Matt as they go to visit Matt’s Fox News-watching father. It isn’t just conservatism that the couple is dealing with, but also the fact that Raj got a blowjob from another man and has told Matt, who doesn’t seem to be affected by it. The landscape of the story is multicoloured, and the marriage isn’t reduced to either its racial or sexual equation. This is one of the few stories in which the commentary reads as an undercurrent to the literary.

Despite having some charming stories to tell, Kashyap falls short of telling them fully. Turns in plot are introduced too suddenly for the resulting tension to be palatable. The prose is terse, perhaps wanting to be simple. But often that bluntness translates into us being told exactly how characters are feeling, and rarely getting a chance to infer their inner conflicts. We remain too aware that we are reading stories that are trying to make a point.

Poorna Swami is a poet, writer and dancer based in Bengaluru.

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