It is not in the plot twists or obvious parallels that this book succeeds, it succeeds in writing with careful respect but unstinting honesty two cultures equally mystifying to outsiders through the eyes of the women that live within them. Only a couple of the short stories in this collection take place exclusively in India but their themes of domestic violence and the circuitous route of our lives sometimes in mirroring the unknown parts of our own parents’ history – despite considerable distance – are no less familiar to women of the United States.
The other stories share the lives of Indian women en route to or in America, connected to or intentionally separated from their home, all caught in the nexus of tradition and culture and values and ambition. The obvious conflicts are interspersed in various forms in different stories – sometimes taking center stage and sometimes providing a backdrop for a different theme. Conflicts such as pursuing education, starting a family, living with a signficant other before marriage, death, ambition, crime, and finding elusive “love” are strong anchors for the more nuanced perspective that is needed to communicate the subtle, and often more destructive, influences of being from one culture and living in another.
The story that most poignantly highlighted this distinction was called “Doors.” An Indian woman, raised in the U.S. since she was 12, is married to an Indian man who only recently moved to the U.S. from India. The woman, Preeti, insists to her mother that Deepak is different and that they will be fine; she pushes aside her mother’s caution. Readers suspect an imminent flare-up, but in fact, the couple resides happily for several years. It takes another person to knock down the door guarding their fragile existence.
Preeti is used to closing doors behind her: in her study, in her bedroom, in the bathroom. Her husband grew up in a more open and doorless environment: doors were interpreted more as a formality or even a hostility. Deepak has learned to accept this in Preeti, but when a close childhood friend comes and stays for an extended period, the guest assumes that this means unlimited access to most spaces and a level of access and informality that make Preeti uncomfortable. The crisis escalates. The time that Deepak shares with his friend reaffirms his shared values – and isolates Preeti. Preeti smolders. Doors slam at the end.
Doors are such simple parts of our everyday lives but in this clever tale the unconcious values that we associate with seemingly meaningless actions are revealed. Neither is”right” or “wrong” in their view of doors. While Preeti appeared to be adopting a version of Frost’s “good fences make good neighbors,” her husband and friend viewed them as barriers and suspect. A superficial distinction initially that becomes the catalyst for discord.
I enjoyed the simplicity of the stories. And while cultural discrepancies were emphasized through the lens of relational interactions, this was not a sociological read. The stories were approachable and often felt as though the protagonist was recounting the events to the reader as a personal friend. The complexity of human relationships prevailed above all else – mothers and daughters, friends, lovers, and parents and children. The universality of the human condition was enhanced by the revelation of it’s myriad differences.