Book Matters for September 2019
Polite Society (G.P. Putnam’s Sons) – by Mahesh Rao. Another title for Rao’s novel could be High Society or, as a newspaper puts it, Crazy Rich Indians. We are in Jane Austen territory again, except that Emma is the inspiration now and the author is an Indian male who takes the reader to Delhi for a biting satire of the moneyed elite, with Ania Khurana at the story’s center. Dearly loved and glamorous, she’s an unofficial matchmaker with lots of free time—and is, well, clueless. That last word was the title of a screen adaptation based loosely on Emma, and now there’s word that Polite Society will be made into a film as well. It’s an auspicious debut for Rao—or “Vikram Seth’s naughty younger brother,” as another writer called him. Rao’s earlier novel and a collection of his short stories were published in the U.K., where he had been a lawyer before turning to fiction. Rao, who grew up in Kenya, is now mostly based in India.
Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (Celadon Books) – by Aarti Namdev Shahani. This memoir by NPR’s business correspondent in Silicon Valley generated some buzz before its release. The business here is personal, dwelling on painful episodes of her family’s life in the U.S. While Shahani has attended top prep schools and universities, earning a master’s in public policy from Harvard, and won impressive awards and scholarships, her immigrant father’s life here was marked by struggle. Undocumented at first, he was later arrested for mistakenly selling merchandise to a drug cartel, throwing her family into turmoil. Becoming an activist, she fought vigorously for his release. While her father was able to avoid deportation, he died shortly after becoming a U.S. citizen. “I ran away from this book for quite a few years,” she notes. “I worried that by revisiting the past, I’d be trapped in it.” But she felt compelled to share the story and, just as important, show how the American judicial system doesn’t work for many people.
Gun Island (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux) – by Amitav Ghosh. In his latest novel, Ghosh touches on myth, migration, memory, and magic. Most important in the mix is perhaps climate change, an increasing preoccupation for Ghosh, who in his previous book, The Great Derangement, argued that the disconnect between humans and the nonhuman world came at a great cost to the environment. Here, Ghosh tries to bridge the gap. Dean Datta, a New York-based rare book dealer, has a startling encounter with a cobra deep in the Sundarbans of eastern India, leading to a chain of events that takes him back to America via Venice—and also takes him back in time. Datta learns about the legend of Manasa Devi, the goddess of snakes, and then there are the two women who shape his intellectual adventure. “In this Bengali Da Vinci Code,” writes Johanna Thomas-Corr in The Sunday Times (U.K.), “Ghosh draws strong parallels between human and animal displacement, as refugee boats and migrating whales meet in the ocean.”
The Limits of the World (Delphinium Books) – by Jennifer Acker. The author mentions M. G. Vassanji and Peter Kimani as writers who have given her insights into East Africa’s Indian community. Acker, though, grew up in rural Maine and has no Indian ancestry, making her sweeping, well-praised novel about the diaspora all the more remarkable. “In this wise, loving book I saw my mother’s family, exiled from Nairobi; I saw me,” says Suketu Mehta. Acker points out that she’s a generalist who likes doing research. More revealingly, she’s married to an Indian-American with roots in East Africa. Like the Chandarias in Acker’s novel, his family had to reinvent themselves in the U.S. In fact, her husband seems to have been the inspiration for Sunil, the younger Chandaria who secretly marries a Jewish woman. And then there is the other secret involving a cousin, Bimal, who turns out to be Sunil’s older brother. The Chandarias may be thriving in this country, but the placid surface conceals a bubbling cauldron.