Books: Settled & Unsettled: A Reflection in Migration’s Mirror
(Left) NOT NATIVE: SHORT STORIES OF IMMIGRANT LIFE IN AN
By Murali Kamma
Wising Up Press, 2019. 190 pages.
(Disclosure: Author Murali Kamma , pictured at left, is the Managing Editor of Khabar Magazine. That being so, he has remained at arm’s length from the selection, processing, or editing of this book review.)
Literary writing is a mirror of sorts; it enables you to see yourself in its pages.
For the first 20 years of my life, I never read a book that reflected my life as an Indian or Indian-American. Then came my middle 20 years, two miraculous decades of discovering myself through the fiction of R. K. Narayan, V. S. Naipaul, and Salman Rushdie. Sadly, with the explosion of books from and about the Indian subcontinent’s diaspora, I began to take for granted this abundance over the next two decades.
Murali Kamma’s Not Native reminds me of the paradox of abundance; when we have too much of a good thing, we tend to diminish its value. Not Native is a marvelous reminder to appreciate the reflection in the mirror. Over the upcoming decades of my life, a life that is increasingly settled and looking in the rear-view mirror when life was more unsettled, I commit to reading more books that remind me of who I am and where I came from.
“Settled” and “unsettled” are good descriptors of the characters populating Not Native’s short stories. Grouped into four thematic clusters, these 20 stories are not always happy, but they are consistently heartwarming in how they bring to life the immigrant’s experience of leaving a settled space (India) for an unsettled one (America) and sometimes revisiting India. The word “unsettled” is used several times in this collection, as are cognates such as “unsure,” “homeless,” “uncertainty,” “insecurities,” “unnerved,” “divorce,” and “peripatetic.” That last one is a favorite of mine, not so much because it is a big ten-dollar word, but because it has the onomatopoeic sound to it of pitter-pattering across the earth, looking to settle in a place called “home.”
The story titled “In the New World” brings alive the challenges newcomers face. Amar has moved to America later in life, leaving the stability of India for the American good life. But he finds the transition difficult: “But, you know, it’s not easy being a new immigrant at my age … not easy to be jobless, face uncertainty.” There is a quiet desperation underlying each action (or inaction) that Amar takes, including standing at the ramp of a highway with an imploring sign: “Experienced engineer and operations manager seeks work commensurate with qualifications.” Lest you feel that this story, or really any of the stories, is too heavy and ends badly, please know that the author has a light, gentle touch. Indeed, it is not giving away too much by sharing that the story ends with the narrator reflecting how I as a reader felt about Amar’s transformation: “Then, in a gesture that surprised and touched me, [Amar] folded his hands and did a little bow.”
Many of Kamma’s endings have this gentle hopefulness about them. To wade into Not Native’s waters is to be soothed by them in the same way a gurgling brook takes one’s troubles away. Especially in the first half of the book, one is reminded of how the legendary storyteller R. K. Narayan transported readers to his make-believe Malgudi. The gentle language slows you down, makes you forget about your worries, takes you nostalgically to a simpler time. And in Kamma’s elegant simplicity is an engaging sophistication. Consider this one sentence from “Ashes”: “The traffic was still sparse when they veered off the highway and took a side road leading to the banks of the Krishna, which at this still hour, as the river flowed unthreateningly, only had a wavering moon for illumination.”
It’s all there in the writing—as stated rather directly in “Anil’s Visit”: “The very act of writing, I think, helps us uncover what’s hidden.” Another short story, “Indian Uncle Sam,” in particular helped me unpack layers of my own life that have been hidden for many years.
The opening airport interaction between a potential couple captured the subtle ambiguities of life, the nuances that consistently surprise and unsettle me. “‘What a surprise,’ Prakash said, reaching for Chitra’s carry-on suitcase. ‘Are you sure?’ She laughed. For a moment he couldn’t figure out what Chitra was referring to: his greeting or his offer to help.” Don’t we all experience this type of ambiguity in our relationships? While settling and unsettling are apt metaphors of the immigrant experience, I believe that all humans experience them. Don’t we all at times enjoy the frisson of surprise of settling into an old relationship? And at other times don’t we all feel shaken by the unsettling nature of our interpersonal dynamics?
Back in Prakash’s apartment with Chitra and Prakash’s mother, an apartment tense with a recent notice to vacate, “Indian Uncle Sam” explores the settling nature of domesticity and the unsettling aspects of eviction from our new homes. In order to not forsake the dreams of our loved ones and to continue to pursue our own dreams, we immigrants are willing to do most anything. Some, like Prakash, will even wear an Uncle Sam outfit to pay the rent. Others with advanced degrees will work as clerks in bookstores and convenience stores. No inconvenience is too inconvenient, no humiliation too humbling. We immigrants are desperate to stave off the shame of having to emigrate back empty-handed to the Motherland.
And so we have the story’s denouement with Prakash walking up and down the street near his apartment, dressed as Uncle Sam, advertising rental apartments in exchange for an extension to his own apartment’s unpaid lease agreement; suddenly and shamefacedly he sees his mother and Chitra walking toward him. This scene makes my heart race with empathy for Prakash, who in the blink of an eye has gone from being safely ensconced in an office to perhaps being homeless, who “given his visa status, unless he found another job soon, [would] find his time in America … come to an end, dashing or putting a hold on his dreams.”
I recalled how, years ago, after a solid career in management at Hewlett-Packard, after a successful launch of my own consulting practice, I was confronted with clients who said, “Sorry, Raj, with the Telecom Crash, we just can’t afford consultants.” There was no revenue for my practice, and my family’s cash flow was moving in the wrong direction. Despite my doctoral studies and professional experience, I accepted a job shelving books and helping customers at the information desk of Stanford Bookstore. Although I loved books and loved being of service to the bibliophilic students and faculty, I was always on high-alert for a customer who was an extended family member, friend, neighbor, client, or even casual acquaintance. I dreaded their stated and unstated questions: “Raj, what are you doing here?” How in the world did a trusted advisor get derailed in mid-career? Eventually my clients returned, and with them, a sustained equanimity. Like Prakash, I “liked the sound of” this word. Equanimity!
There is a fine range in Not Native, which makes it accessible to a wide spectrum of readers. While I was especially fond of the first half of the book, some readers will lean toward the back two sections (“Schisms and Surprises” and “At Cross Purposes”) which are somewhat edgier and more overtly political, especially the short story “Fragments of Glass.” A couple of the stories have elements of a crime drama, with one hinting of tragedy at the World Trade Center in New York. But none of these pieces retreat from the hard-earned trust Murali Kamma has built with the reader in the opening chapters of his superb book. Surprise endings don’t end in tragedy, and endearing characters do not degenerate into mawkish sappiness.
Rajesh C. Oza, Ph.D., who for many years wrote Khabar’s “Satyalogue” column, is an avid reader and freelance writer. As founder and president of OrganiZationAlignment Consulting Group, Inc., Raj specializes in helping senior executives better align their organizations to achieve success. He can be reached at www.satyalogue.com where he has launched his new book.
Website Bonus Feature
“Not Native - Murali Kamma debuts with a short story collection"
Review by Andrea Wintersberger
Published: 04 September 2019
"Short stories are a fickle thing: Within a limited number of words, the writer has to introduce the character, draw in the reader with an intriguing plot and hopefully tie up the end of the story with a neat bow that leaves a lasting impression.
"Quite frankly, it’s a difficult task to write a short story well enough to elicit the same reaction from me as a novel, in which I gasp at a turning point one hundred pages into the plot, familiar with the setting and attached to the characters. Murali Kamma, with his first published short story collection Not Native: Short Stories of Immigrant Life in an In-Between World, managed to trigger just that reaction, more than once.
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