Dilemmas of the Diaspora

Irony, immortality and matrimony arise in stories of cross-cultural contact

Family is all we know of infinity, the insolence of fate. We are born to strangers we must learn to love, in a town or country we would not have chosen, into a tribe that defines and restricts our growth. We spend a lifetime overcoming the givens, only to turn back from the distant vantage point of fifty years when the parents are gone, to look back and say: this is what I am, something no larger, no freer, than they made me.

Clark Blaise, I Had a Father

Although he is referring to himself, a peripatetic American born to French- and English-Canadian parents, Clark Blaise could be describing any of his characters in The Meagre Tarmac: Stories. Members of the Indian diaspora in such cities as New York, Pittsburgh, Montreal and Palo Alto, they are successful engineers, bankers, editors and actors. They owe their material comfort to expensive American schools and to the doors opened by that education, and yet they are not as happy as they should be. As one character admits, “America gave me everything I ever wanted. But somehow, I, or America, could not deliver on what I really needed.” These eleven interlocking stories explore, with linguistic flair and an eye for arresting juxtaposition, the lives of those who, although they live far from the teeming subcontinent, continue to be shaped and governed by the dictates of family back in India.

The book opens with “The Sociology of Love,” the first of three stories about the Waldekars of San Jose, California. Its simple premise is brilliant. Anya, a Stanford University student from Russia, shows up on the Waldekar doorstep with a survey she says is an assignment for her sociology class. One immigrant asking probing questions of another, she is beautiful, statuesque and provocatively dressed in a tight t-shirt with the words “All This and Brains, Too” printed across her chest. The considerable time it takes paterfamilias Vivek to get the joke, and his ensuing embarrassment, reveal how little he has been Americanized after 20 years living there. In this regard he resembles Cyrus “Chutt” Chutneywala, protagonist of the collection’s “Waiting for Romesh” and “Potsy and Pansy.” A Wharton Business School graduate and Mellon banker overseeing accounts worth hundreds of millions of dollars, Chutt is remarkably ignorant of western culture. It is arguably excusable that he should fail to recognize such names as Christopher Plummer and William Shatner, but even the mention of a well-known Renaissance work of art leaves him shaking his head.

“I am of the Stanford generation,” reveals Vivek Waldekar, “that built the Internet out of their garages.” A talented electrical engineer working in nanotechnology, he had the chance to join his more daring classmates, but his natural conservatism, fear of debt and cripplingly low self-image (his father’s fatalistic voice in his ear) kept him from becoming the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Instead, he works for the phone company Pacific Bell, while trying unsuccessfully to shield his wife, son and daughter from the corrupting influence of their adopted country.

Vivek’s defensive retort to Anya—“Why do you criticize us for living like Americans?”—comes steeped in irony. His children may speak and act in ways indistinguishable from their American-born peers, but Vivek and his wife continue to hang on to Old World values. They barely acknowledge their daughter’s prodigious intellect, for example, for fear of inviting the evil eye. They might allow their son to date an American girl, for “practice,” but a resultant marriage, unarranged and breaching the bounds of Indian culture, would be unthinkable.

The objectivity of Anya’s survey crumbles when the personal intrudes. Distraught, she reveals that she is in love with an Indo-American boy well known to the Waldekars and that his family has ordered him to break off the relationship. Accommodation, suppressed emotion and hypocrisy are uncovered to memorable effect in this and the next two Waldekar family stories, which together read like the opening chapters of a compelling novel.

In Days and Nights in Calcutta, co-written by Blaise with his wife, Bharati Mukherjee, Mukherjee observed that “in India, history is full of uninterpreted episodes; there is no one to create heroes and define our sense of loss, of right and wrong, tragedy and buffoonery. Events have no necessary causes; behavior no inevitable motive. Things simply are, because that is their nature.”

Many of the stories in The Meagre Tarmac feel as if they were written to Mukherjee’s dictum. They tend to be layered with, even burdened by, the details of family history, especially the Byzantine search for suitable spouses, as if no individual, no matter how distinguished, could break free of this dense matrix of destiny. Several characters, pondering the meaning of existence within such an invariant structure, produce theories of immortality and the divine. Pramila Waldekar, a 13-year-old math prodigy and the youngest student ever accepted to Stanford, sees eternity in the infinitely recombinant nature of atoms. Her mother, visited by the woman with whom Vivek had an affair, senses a higher power in the lover’s arrival: “Something is watching overhead. Something knows everything we’ve done.” Another character expresses the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita: “We are entwined in the vast cycle of creation and destruction … We are the fruit and the rot that infects it, the mango and the worm.”

To base a story’s structure (or lack thereof) on an idea, however, one that brushes aside notions of causality and motive, is to risk trying the reader’s patience. “The Quality of Life,” for example, has a shuffled, random quality lacking the dramatic urgency of the Waldekar trio. Tighter is “A Connie da Cunha Book.” Connie, an accomplished New York editor originally from Portuguese Goa, is working on a memoir by an author who, without embarrassment, writes under the pseudonym Ramonah! Until now Connie has had an enviable track record, having edited six Nobel Prize laureates. By contrast, this current dilettante is so outrageous and egocentric as to be cartoon-like. The writer’s drolly titled work-in-progress, “Breastwords,” about her relationship with a Masai herdswoman named Mbala, is unlike any book Connie has edited. In this case, potentially high sales numbers trump literariness, just as Connie’s intensely private nature is shaken by exposure to her flamboyant author.

Blaise’s story, a sharp satire of the publishing industry, does misfire on occasion. Here, for example, is Ramonah! attempting to draw Connie, an undeclared lesbian, out of the closet:

She raked the hand of her editor, drawing blood. Her inner lion was on the prowl. “I didn’t think another dyke would object,” she said.

“Another what?”

“Oh, get with it, Connie. Every halfway sensible woman’s a Lesbian, but only a few can be dykes. Mbala’s fourth rule. First, be a dyke and you can aspire to becoming a Queer.”

This territory would prove a minefield for any writer. More successful are the passages that evoke Connie’s childhood on the islands of Goa, a multilingual milieu where her imagination and love of books first flourished. In other stories, Blaise gives us keen depictions of cultural displacement and global fluidity. Bengalis, for instance, sell a movable feast of Italian kitsch: statues of Michelangelo’s David in Florence, miniature gondolas in Venice and Leaning Tower t-shirts in Pisa. Wherever they are, they recognize another speaker of Bangla instantly as “brother.” In I Had a Father, Blaise writes that his fiction “is almost always about a self … claiming its sovereignty under the dome of parental skies.” In ways instructive and fascinating, The Meagre Tarmac expands the familial dome while subverting the idea that any of us can claim full autonomy while under its auspices.