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What Should the Indian-American Novel Be?

Rakesh Satyal’s funny, big-hearted book is an interrogation of the possibilities of immigrant literature.

Manjunath Kiran/Getty Images
Picador, 400 pp., $26.00

Rakesh Satyal has come up with a hell of a title for his second novel: No One Can Pronounce My Name. We’ll come back to that.

Satyal published his debut, Blue Boy, in 2009. It’s a dutiful but delightfully odd coming-of-age novel, tracking the exploits of a sissy twelve-year-old Indian kid in Ohio. It’s a book about being queer, being the child of immigrants, being other, and told with an authorial generosity—a warmth for the characters that feels like it’s also an affection for the reader.

No One Can Pronounce My Name has similar concerns and Satyal’s point of view remains warm-hearted, though leavened with enough humor that it never slips into sentimentality. It’s a more mature work, as one might expect, and initially feels like a pro forma sophomore literary novel: an artist, a few years older and wiser, interrogating the material already established as his own. While this is not a bad thing, eventually the novel reveals that it’s up to something else as well.

Name also takes place in Ohio, and follows Harit, a 40-something department store salesman who lives with his mother, as well as Ranjana, who has sent her only son off to college, as immigrant mothers are supposed to. She finds herself adrift, distant from friends and her husband, chafing at her work as a medical receptionist. Harit is profoundly isolated, in part because he is lost in mourning for his late sister, who was outgoing where he is retiring, assimilated where he is awkward. But it’s not just a matter of Harit being a brown guy in white America; he’s separated from the community of Indian immigrants of which Ranjana is a part by education and by class. It’s unlikely but also inevitable (we know how novels work) that Ranjana, in the grips of empty nest syndrome, would attempt to save him, and find instead her own salvation.

Satyal skips around, from Harit to his elderly mother, from Ranjana to her son off at college. He brings in a whole cast of supporting players (a campy coworker of Harit’s, a nosy coworker of Ranjana’s, various Indian aunties and friends) and moves the action from past to present, this country to India. Satyal doesn’t shy from more: names, backstory, detail. This exuberance is charming instead of exhausting because somehow the book remains engaging.

Name is like a Bollywood film—in its joyous embrace of excess, in how it takes the long way round to old-fashioned narrative closure—but it’s equally akin to a well-made sitcom, veering into B and C plots I could have done without, though always cutting back to the main action just in time. Perhaps it’s fitting to see this book, about how Indians become Americans, as a hybrid of those two forms.

The main story is how Ranjana and Harit find their way to one another. While I didn’t especially enjoy or believe the manner in which the two are forced together, I succumbed to the author’s affection for the players. I had a feeling things would turn out OK, but I wanted to know how; if you can say that about a book, it has worked its magic on you. I was eager to see how (not if) Harit would shake out of his profound sadness over his sister’s death, how (not if) he’d make the human connection he so clearly needed. I was eager to see how (again, not if) Ranjana would find purpose in her life having successfully completed the role of mother.

I was less interested in some of the subplots, and I’ll mention the one involving Prashant, Ranjana’s son. We witness his tentative steps toward adulthood as a smartass undergraduate, and learn a bit about his adolescence, difficult as that always is. There’s nothing especially fresh in his story, however satisfying I find it when the expensively educated children of immigrants grow up to be dismayed by their parents’ conservatism. While it’s the lamest critical crutch to bring in autobiography, I’m going to anyway: Satyal was born in this country to immigrants from India, so you might think he’d be most adept at writing Prashant, the book’s major American-born Indian character. You’d be wrong.

I think this is quite remarkable. There is a tendency to presume autobiography in fiction by women or minorities. Guys named Jonathan write universal stories, while there’s this sense that everyone else is just fictionalizing their own, small experiences. That can be charming but it doesn’t approach importance. So I’m strangely delighted that Satyal, an American-born, Princeton-educated brown guy, didn’t seduce me with his tale of an American born, Princeton-educated brown guy. It’s a higher compliment to point out that Satyal writes with insight about characters one would assume are little like him: Harit, the socially awkward salesman; his mother, an elderly woman seen as a youth in India; his coworker, Teddy, an irrepressibly queeny gent of a certain age; Ranjana, a vaguely dissatisfied woman in middle age.

Satyal conjures them quite fully. In a brief chapter that fills in almost an entire biography, we see how Teddy survived New York during the AIDS crisis and ended up selling ties in Cleveland; in a surprising (but not unearned) twist, Harit’s elderly mother has an erotic awakening. The book is so persistently charming it’s easy to overlook how gutsy this is; because Satyal’s cast is so diverse it’s easy to miss that he’s giving us the universality we hear so much about.

But Satyal is interested in more than character study; he’s telling a story, and this one culminates with a road trip. Even Ranjana seems to understand the absurdity. “Here she was, surrounded by a mint-chewing coworker, a gay stalker, and an Indian man who thought it normal to bring pakoras on a road trip with strangers. Wes Anderson would have had a field day.” But Ranjana is driven by her most fervent desire—not saving Harit, fixing her marriage, or being a good mother: she wants to be a writer. She’s been attending an amateur workshop in secret, thinking about stories while she cooks dinner, and cannot pass up the opportunity to attend a conference at which a great Indian writer called Pushpa Sondhi will be in attendance.

Ranjana writes paranormal romance—nothing like Sondhi’s genteel output. Still:

Ranjana had become a dedicated fan. She felt a bit predictable, since everyone who engaged her in any discussion about books always brought up Sondhi. Ranjana would usually sough off the conversation and move to another topic; she wanted to insulate her legitimate enjoyment of the author’s writing from any possibly racist observations that would have debased it.

Satyal barely pretends that Sondhi is anything but a stand-in for Jhumpa Lahiri, and as a brown person who is interested in books, I know precisely how Ranjana feels.

Here’s Ranjana, on her idol: “Children like this came from evolved lines that had perfected their efficiency and their comfort with success. Everything about Sondhi corroborated this: the evenness with which she spoke about her education, especially her grad school education in literature, and then the charming matter-of-factness with which she discussed her constant and steady success.”

Reading this, I thought: Damn, girl, and I’m not sure if I was speaking to Ranjana or to Rakesh Satyal. When I was first assigned to review this book, I rolled my eyes—a little on the nose, no, to have one gay, brown writer review the work of another? But when I read Ranjana’s musings on Sondhi I felt that elusive moment of recognition most of us love in art.

Back to that title: Satyal’s clever six words don’t appear anywhere in the book. The novel employs a shifting third-person point of view, but that titular my doesn’t come up even in dialogue. In a sense, the title refers to all these characters (even Teddy who, it’s worth noting, changes his name), but I think you can argue the title, catchy as it is, is the words of the author, not anyone inside his fiction.

In its last 90 or so pages, this jaunty, madcap book tilts toward metafiction; a book about Indians that decides to interrogate what books about Indians are supposed to be. “She would never approach Sondhi’s level of discourse just as Harit would never approach her own understanding of American ways,” Ranjana thinks. She later adds: “She couldn’t tell if it was defeating or liberating to realize that she wasn’t destined for greatness. It wasn’t like she was declaring herself a literary genius. She was simply trying to create stories that people would enjoy.”

I don’t mean to reduce this vibrant book, which is more than a text on the Indian-American novel. But I can’t help read Ranjana’s ambition (and, spoiler alert, considerable success) as the author’s real project, and I’m with them: I suspect that often we deem literary what we are reluctant to admit is merely boring; creating stories that people enjoy is a more than worthwhile endeavor.