A book that sets out to describe what it means to be an Indian in the US, but does not succeed, says Tulsi Badrinath.
A lot has happened since the time four students from India met during their college days at UCLA: Jayant and Frances married each other, Lali married an American cardiologist and Vikram accepted an arranged marriage. They have all chosen to make America their home, and have had varying levels of success in their lives.
When they reunite after 25 years, at a party thrown by Vikram to celebrate his son Nikhil’s graduation from MIT, they do so with misapprehensions about how they will be perceived by the others. The truth of their present, such as the fact that Nikhil wants to become a chef rather than join his father’s company, and the secrets of their individual pasts are all hidden behind a façade of pretence. Cherian uses certain markers, such as virginity and college grades, to show how the same thing that holds so much importance in one culture is not of particular consequence in the other, forcing Indian immigrants to constantly tread invisible borders. Post party, they are all forced to renegotiate their present in the light of certain revelations.
In The Invitation, Anne Cherian intends to portray the competitive, often jealous, nature of Indians in America, revealing the many diverse strands of caste, community, region and religion that separate them even as they have in common the single label “Indian”. Her protagonists come from different religious and social backgrounds. Frances is Goan Catholic married to an upper class Hindu. Lali, the Jacobite Syrian Christian, has to deal with her husband Jonathan’s deepening interest in his Jewish faith. However, Cherian is not able to mine this rich spiritual seam for the possibilities it offers a novelist.
Unfortunately, Cherian has chosen very dull and limited characters. While the world may be filled with such people, it requires skill to present them in a way that portrays their “smallness” without conflating it with the universe of the novel, or more importantly perhaps, that of the novelist. While she marshals a great many detail to make each character authentic, her writing is not of a calibre that results in creating something larger than the facts presented. She does not distinguish between the telling detail and the unnecessary one and that is her undoing. She takes her time introducing the many characters, sketching their histories, before actually bringing them face to face at the party.
The narrative tension flags long before this point, and the atmosphere of the “party” is not evoked vividly, making it seem more a plot device than a key event where these four lives re-converge.
One comes away with the impression of having read something meant for non-Indian readers, a book that sets out to educate them on what it means to be Indian in America but does not quite succeed.
The Invitation, Anne Cherian, Hachette India, Rs.350.