Of secrets and betrayals
All stories are drafted in adolescence, I tweeted as I dove into this book, the story of an immigrant Indian family in western New York, frontlined by their son Kiran, aged 8 and 12 as the novel opens. “The best stories are stored in drafts,” responded a former colleague, far closer to her adolescent years than me. As I finished No Other World, I found myself thinking that maybe this book, too, should have hibernated in the drafts folder for a while longer.
It’s possible that my expectations had been set high by Quarantine (2010), Rahul Mehta’s very cool collection of short stories peopled by flawed characters, complicated homosexual and familial relationships and an ease with America rare among Indian-origin protagonists. In the panoply of diaspora fiction that seeks to dazzle, the anthology is marked by its quiet assurance: The nine stories declared Mehta as a master of the moment convincingly and without much fuss.
Many of the concerns evident in that collection carry over to No Other World. Much more ambitious than the garden variety gay-coming-of-age novel, this one looks to go beyond the usual India/America binaries and themes of displacement and disorientation, and into the grey areas of sexual abuse, blinding superstition, worldly failure and gender identities. I can think of no other work by an author of Indian origin that gives as much agency as Mehta does to Pooja, a transgender. And while she comes in only in the last third of the book and her world is barely explored, Pooja is as integral to the narrative as Kiran, the lynchpin.
Admittedly, that is something of a backhanded compliment to the author: On the one hand, Mehta requires little space and circumstance to make Pooja come alive; on the other, an entire book fails to round off many—too many—of the other major characters. Consider Nishit, Kiran’s father, who emigrated to the US at his family’s command to better their fortunes. He’s a doctor but his surgery seems to be merely an excuse for his absence from the book: For a health professional in small-town America, that too, an Asian, there is curiously little about his engagement with the milieu. In every one of his interactions—with his children, his wife, his brother, his nephew—it’s as if he’s filling out his one-word plot descriptor: dutiful.
At least his brother, Kiran’s uncle Prabhu, has a plausible reason for his silences: the shock of losing his wife at childbirth. But that holds only for a few pages, when one realizes that the death occurred all of 10 years ago. Again, his role seems to be merely functional: His big moment comes when he rescues Kiran’s sister Preeti, an act that must remain unknown to their parents in deference to that ancient Indian malaise, shame. Preeti herself is more outline than flesh and blood, but their mother Shanti fares better (and not only on account of the dreaded “likeability”). She, of all those who people this book—including, crucially, Kiran—evidences a measure of empathy and ownership for her actions and transgressions.
As a consequence of the cipher-like characterizations, the novel becomes more tell than show. And while Mehta is a rich writer, the verbosity of the omniscient narrator does not marry well with his style. The sharp, subtle vignettes that worked so well in the short stories become impediments in this tangled web of secrets, deceits and betrayals, like stubborn thresholds intent on stubbing the unsuspecting toe.
As annoying is the use of presentiment as a literary device: Nothing happens in the present without Mehta announcing there will be an echo in the future (or forcibly yoking it to something irrelevant, such as Pooja’s ignorance of the Nazi corruption of the swastika). Instead of upping the foreboding, it merely throws off the reader, making her think the author doesn’t trust her enough to connect the dots.
Consider this section from the narrative core of the book, right after Prabhu’s rescue act. His uncle has asked him a question but they are interrupted before Kiran can answer. “For now he would be spared from having to respond to the question, spared from the out-loud uttering, but not spared the repercussions of what he knew to be the answer. For years these twin weights—shame and regret—would threaten to pull him under.”
Alternately exasperating and engaging as No Other World is, it brought to mind a similar struggle I faced with another Indian-origin author (with somewhat overlapping concerns) in the recent past. Only, Mahesh Rao’s novel The Smoke Is Rising was published ahead of his short stories, One Point Two Billion—and, as an author, he might have been better served by that accident. No Other World is not bad, but it could have been so much better.