Book Review: Why Rishi Reddi Gets It

I experienced a bit of uneasiness in deciding whether or not to read Rishi Reddi’s Karma and Other Stories.  It’s just that any time I pick up a book with stories about South Asian-American life, I know that there are certain uncomfortable and close-to-home themes to expect:

  • struggles with leaving India behind to live the life of an immigrant in a foreign country,
  • challenges of raising a child who considers themselves American and doesn’t want to maintain familiar traditions,
  • elderly relatives brought from India to live in the west whose heartbreaking connections to their homeland can’t be forgotten,
  • contradictions between doing with is right according to culture and tradition and maintaining one’s own sense of self and needs,
  • emotions of being picked on / stereotyped as an Indian-American in by youth of other cultures while at the same time being picked on by Indians who see them as “too Americanized”,
  • arranged marriage and everything that that brings along with it, from the unwillingness of young people to figuring out how to navigate relationships in this way,
  • and the list could go on and on.

And there are always the novels that tap into the “spices and scents” of India to reach out to new Western audiences.  My partner and I have talked about that, why it seems to me so off-putting to start one’s experience with a novel in that way.  There’s something about tapping into the senses of India that can seem like some kind of marketing strategy to appeal to readers outside of South Asian cultures, treating traditions as exotic, that seems like a great adventure for people who can look in from the outside, but seems bitter in some way for those who are living it.  But then I had an experience once, at the Old Town School of Folk Music, when I took an Irish fiddle class.  The teacher had asked us to go around and talk about why we enrolled in the class.  When it came to my turn, I talked about how much I loved the music of the Chieftains, a world-renowned group of Irish musicians that have put out dozens of albums and who I had the luck to see perform at the school.  The teacher scoffed at my response and said something to the effect of the Chieftains being cultural sell-outs, and that that wasn’t true Irish music.  I was so embarrassed and the class got quiet before the next student spoke.  And I thought to myself later, well, how is anyone supposed to access the richness of any culture unless you start somewhere?  Sights and sounds are the most obvious aspects of a culture.  So after that I started to understand why tapping into the senses might be one way to help someone unfamiliar with Indian culture to experience it as a reader.

But, I’m getting off topic.  Let me get to why Ms. Reddi’s wonderful book put my initial trepidations at ease.

This beautifully written book of short stories had me hooked from the first page.  Why?  Because Ms. Reddi does tap into all those typical cultural issues that I have grown to expect from South Asian-American literature, but she tells about incidents that are unfamiliar in a way that is shockingly familiar.  There’s something almost telepathic about she’s created this fictional world of a Telegu-American community in a suburb of Boston that seems it could be the community that I grew up in.  It’s a balance between the traditions, gossip, straightforwardness, and expectation that we have experienced as part of an Indian-American community while at the same time being able to read about the characters’ reflections and emotions reacting to those experiences.  I have felt as uncomfortable and angry as Uma in “Devadasi” when I’ve had aunties, who I felt knew so little about me, take it upon themselves to talk about my future marriageability.  Probably every girl who grew up in an Indian-American community can relate to that, and everyone handles that situation differently.  But where Ms. Reddi takes the story beyond our expectations is that she has Uma throw herself into cultural situations during a trip to India that help her construct meaning out of the conflicting ideas of culture that her Indian and American communities have forced on her, and she finds ways to find the truth and create meaning herself.  And we’re along for that journey.  Ms. Reddi doesn’t tell us what to think, but we get to hear how the characters are processing their experiences, and every time I found myself either connecting to the characters or seeing some perspective in a new light.

What’s really interesting is that I’m seeing characters communicating in ways and about topics that I haven’t seen before.  Old friends now retired and starting new chapters of their lives in the U.S. have trouble seeing eye-to-eye on a disagreement in a local taqueria in the first story, “Justice Shiva Ram Murthy”.  It is through the troubles in communication of these two friends that we see the main character’s inner struggle with having to start a new life so far away from everything he knows.  In “The Validity of Love”, we see what happens when we have two friends, who’ve spent years commiserating about being put in the “boy search” process to finding a potential husband, fall apart when one actually finds happiness through the process.  In “Karma”, we see a married couple, new to the U.S. and struggling to get settled, communicating with a tenderness and honesty that I haven’t seen very often in real life in any culture!  Ms. Reddi gets it: she captures all of these tiny moments between characters, because not only do they seem real and possible, but she does so in a way that reminds her readers that everyone has a story, and that we can’t always tell what internal chaos people are experiencing when they are quick to judge or react to a situation.

This book has a good mix of characters of all ages and Ms. Reddi has expertly handled tapping into all of their emotions, regardless of age.  These stories are so interesting because we don’t always get to hear those stories and perspectives in real life.  So many Indian communities prefer to hide internal challenges and put on a good face to the community.  But it is discussion of our troubles that helps us heal and find commonality in our experiences, which in turn leads us to understanding, forgiveness, friendship…  And this is why Ms. Reddi’s book has left me with lots to think about even after having finished it.

RishiReddiScreenPrint

This is a screen print of Rishi Reddi’s website. I’ll be checking up on this to see if she publishes any new work.

 

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