Book Review by Mitali Chakravarty
Title: Not Native
Author: Murali Kamma
Publisher: Wising Up Press, 2019
Not Native is a collection of short stories by Murali Kamma, an accomplished short story writer and the managing editor of Khabar, an American Indian magazine. The stories are of “Immigrant Life In An In-Between World” we are told in a subtitle on the title page of the book.
What is this ‘in-between world‘? It is the world created by migrants to America between 1983 and 2018 — both in America and India. Like the characters in his stories, Kamma with these narratives “straddles” between his country of birth, India, and the country he migrated to, America.
Kamma has divided his book into four parts — perhaps to focus on subjects that he felt were important for the immigrant population. The first part, ‘Sons and Fathers’ has four stories centering around the topic mentioned in the sub-heading. They address unique situations; in one the abandoned son on a holiday to India rediscovers his father in an ashram; in another death rituals of his father make the immigrant who returns to India feel more isolated and there is yet more tellings on the different worlds occupied by the fathers and sons. The one that is most poignant one, in which a bridge is built through generations, is set in US. The bridge is built with a story about the world’s oldest man and a proposed “interview” to be conducted by the granddaughter.
The second part, ‘On Distant Shores’, takes us to stories located in the world that the immigrants considered ‘greener’. It deals with how relationships fall asunder as the immigrants reach out to help each other in a new setting but, as a reader, one wonders why the interactions are insular.
When some, like Rohan, try to step out of their world, they are pushed back into the fold by the Americans born on the continent. “David would smile, not unkindly, when Rohan said that America was a land of opportunity for those who worked hard, regardless of their origin. It tickled him to hear Rohan go on about the ‘American dream’, which David thought was a cliché. He pointed out that the ‘dream’ only applied to folks who already had the advantages, not to those left behind in a brutally competitive market economy and a stratified society where factors like race, class and region still held sway. Speaking of clichés, David wasn’t above using phrases like ‘winner-take-all’, although Rohan had to admit that their discussions were always cordial.”
The most ‘cordial’ in this section is the story ‘Visitor and the Neighbour’ where two old men develop a friendship beyond borders. But is Prasad misreading the cultures when he compares Ethan’s lifestyle with his own? “Why did he choose to live alone? Was it because people here, as Prasad had once heard a commentator say, were more I-centric than we-centric?”
‘Schisms and Surprises’ has stories that shuttle between US and India, but the India we see here may not be the India everyone will recognise — it is the India of the characters’ experience. In this section the stories unfold the past of the protagonists to create a sense of schism in their lives. ‘What Sid Knew’ did have a bizarre telling — more dystopic than not — but like the other narratives in this section, the suspense is well maintained. Kamma’s skill as a writer comes to prominence in these narratives.
The last section, ‘At Cross purposes’ focuses on immigrants and Indians in their country who hover in the fray areas of illegality and existence, as the sub-head indicates, in conflict with their surroundings. This was the section that made for the most interesting read, especially ‘The Plot’, where the attitude of Indians within India is critiqued for their poor treatment of the blue collared worker. Despite a certain amount of violence, mystery and murkiness shrouding these stories, one must commend Kamma for skillful handling that creates an impact while conveying the complexity with a seeming simplicity of execution. One would like to pause and digest each story.
Not Native has been much lauded by authors like Chitra Banerjee Divakarni, Bharti Kirchner, Waqas Khwaja and the editor and publisher of Rosebud magazine, Roderick Clark.
One thing that is distinctive in the telling is that it addresses that portion of the immigrant population who feel they neither belong to their country of birth nor to the country they have migrated to as opposed to writers like Pico Iyer who has repeatedly stated in his essays and TED talk that: “For more and more of us, home has really less to do with a piece of soil, than you could say, with a piece of soul.”
For most of the immigrants in Kamma’s stories home is never found for they cannot identify with a piece of soul. They continue to hunt for the soil… for recreating the life they had back home, looking for familiar textures of skin and culture. “As he knew from experience, immigrants who belonged to the same home country were more likely to look out for each other, even if they had little else in common.”
Though Zafar Anjum, the editor-in-chief of Kitaab, addresses similar migrant issues in his book, The Singapore Decalogue, he shows that Singapore continues to be an island of immigrants who step beyond borders to interact and create their own narratives. As Iyer contends, they do find their own homes away from their country of birth. Whereas Murali Kamma describes a world that feels claustrophobic because of the inhibitions and borders that cage some of the characters, even if a few want to break free.
The stories make one think — will we ever transcend our tribal behaviour?
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