Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Meagre Tarmac, Stories by Clark Blaise

"Despite external signs of satisfaction, good health, a challenging job, the love and support of family and friends, no depressions or mood swings, no bad habits, I would not call myself happy.  I am well-adjusted.  We are all extremely well-adjusted.  I believe my situation is not uncommon among successful immigrants of my age and background."

Clark Blaise has created a short story collection (a few of which are linked) that explores the world of first-generations immigrants from India who now reside in the West.  Most are financially successful, and are often working in the business sector of computers and banking.  Extensive education in India and in London makes allows many of these immigrants to surpass the abilities of their American co-workers.  Yet as the quote above reveals, high wages and business savvy do not ensure happiness.

Ties to India and family remain firm, even though their new culture has a hard time understanding the connection.  A sense of family and standing within the family is underscored in many of these stories, and much of this is due to two factors:  the traditions of inheritance and arranged marriage.  In the case of inheritance, oldest sons seem blessed by getting most of the family wealth.  To be a younger brother means continually fighting for a fair share.  In many cases, extended family live together in India;  sometimes, one part of each family has just a room of their own, and are subject to the whims of the senior son.  In one story, a successful and mild physician at work turns into a plotting madman at home, scheming to get rid of the older brother by lawsuit or darker means.

Arranged marriages are a fascinating part of the story, especially in that even a very successful Indian businessman can feel a need to replicate the tradition and marry one of his "own" despite numerous opportunities to marry anyone he wants.  Children too, of first-generation parents have their own battles.  Raised in the US, they don't understand the traditions while their parents desperately want to keep their children out of harm's way.   They look back to India as a place of innocence and control.

In one story, a successful Pac Bell engineer is worried by his ice-skating prodigy daughter (who has her own secrets).  The sure answer to him is for them to return to India, but her objections raise entirely new issues for the family to deal with.  Many of the stories remind me of the style of Ha Jin's A Good Fall, which dealt with Chinese immigrants in New York.  Respectability and behavior are far more important to many immigrants than they are to long-time citizens.

Another story has a hugely successful banker seeking a Parsi bride, even being middle-aged, his mother is still nagging at him to find the proper Parsi wife that will honor the family, a tough search given only about 50,000 Parsis are left.  His search leaves him questioning his own beliefs and what exactly makes for a solid relationship.

Partition, castes, progress and family honor are all explored in this fascinating book that I wish had been longer.  Blaise ends many stories with a question...leaving the reader to imagine the ending.  I didn't mind that, but I'd love to see some of these characters again.  Especially intriguing is how many of the immigrants return home regularly, offering financial assistance and with an open mind to permanently return.  This was a surprise to me, as it seems that once people get acclimated to a new region, the past represents too many limits.  I was also intrigued by a point made in one of the early stories that Indian transplants do not form social societies here in the US, such as other races do.  Little Tokyo and Chinatown may be a way for some Asians to recreate a social and culture center here, while Indo-Americans resist unifying in social groups.

Special thanks to Biblioasis for the Advance Review Copy.

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