You’ve heard the story before, right? Second generation immigrant from [insert country] works twice as hard to fulfill his parents’ dreams, hiding his own desire and bearing the brunt of assimilation—until everyone sees him Bend It, marvelously. To Rahul Mehta’s credit, such Hollywood clichés are turned on their heads in his serene, lingering story collection, Quarantine (Harper Perennial). Traversing queer love, sex and the myths of cultural conservatism, this young writer makes respectable use of a soft, meandering voice to challenge the legitimacy of the American Dream.
The collection begins with its namesake, “Quarantine,” in which a young gay narrator of Indian descent rebels against the kowtow required toward his miserable paternal grandfather. We expect a loving resolution that fits our sepia picture of polite Indian youth, but Mehta instead makes salad of stereotypical tropes. The defiant narrator forgoes a ritualistic touching of feet in favor of a homo-confession wielded like a club. Is this the rate at which old-country glue melts in America, or do those already on the fringe simply have an easier time shucking social expectations? It is a hallmark of Mehta’s collection that these questions are elegantly posed.
Individual stories in Quarantine work more or less well, but each has its pearl to offer with regard to character. His South Asian cast is artfully depicted between pluckiness and desperation, independence and the hobbled gait of the colonized. These stretches are juxtaposed with “westernized” characters who are likewise suspended in lives of relative plenty, tweaked by conscience. We meet a closeted villager too poor for an actual closet, but who manages to get online for sex, and an out American tourist who places himself in danger, seemingly to atone for a bad exchange rate. But regardless of who is doing the talking in Quarantine, what comes across is a Mehta meme: that of the dizzying power of desire and the inevitable pigtail-pulling it generates.
Mehta muses frequently on the asexual need for touch, as in “Ten Thousand Years,” where the Caucasian boyfriend caresses the narrator’s Bombayan grandmother. It’s a brilliant and electric scene, her pleasure in the young stranger’s strokes whispering not “I take what I can get,” but “We all find what we need.” Later, a beautiful, offbeat romance between the narrator and the older wife of his Long Island host revolves around laid-out midnight meals and cleared dishes. Once again, Mehta’s platonic May-September bonds die-cast through whatever rills they’re permitted, a hopeful sentiment in his otherwise dusky world. Mehta is clearly conflicted about the role of elders in the lives of the young, and in Quarantine, those under 35 need absence to grow fond—even of each other. Few characters in Quarantine challenge this morose wash, and it leaves the reader wondering what Mehta could do with some pep in the chorus.
The standout of the entire collection is “What We Mean,” a lovely, sad poem about the inability of external change to make us whole. Here, Mehta nails the stifle that coagulates between lovers: “I often have nothing to say. I only want to hear his voice. And since I have nothing to say, I meow.” Thus launches a Saramago-style query: What if our everyday coding became literal? Is the smoked-out semaphore of love any different than language actually encrypted?
Most unexpected throughout Quarantine is the sexual frankness between Mehta’s gay narrators and their mothers, brothers, and grandparents. Mehta seems to challenge his audience’s assumptions: Are traditional cultures also more practical? Can the lack of a name for something mean it’s a given, rather than a ghost? In Metha’s émigré households, homosexuality is usually doable and, often, speakable—tilting our portrait of the progressive West. Still, Mehta’s cultural note on Indian homosex never confronts the impact of gender-bending Hindu theism on Indian-American fathers; while mothers are resigned or amused (“Lala, you have found a fourth daughter”), fathers are never directly exposed to their sons’ orientations. This leaves gap in our understanding, hopefully meant to depict the age-old divide between fathers and gay sons across many cultures. Perhaps a last vestige of tradition permits Mehta’s narrators to confront only those males who are peers or relics, placing them in like company with the white mates to whom they unfailingly attach. In scene after scene among couples straight and gay, however, Mehta suggests that, even in the Indian diaspora, skin shade rules the day—so much so that one wonders if a Swedish boyfriend would be offered chai before a woman of color.
The author has a real gift for lifting the reader out of the clichés he’s apparently aware of creating, and time will tell if his ‘going meta’ elevates from gimmick to signature. Despite this and some occasionally lazy lighting,(when Mehta doesn’t want to work too hard to set mood, he drops in a musical reference to do the work for him; it seems beneath his ability) Rahul Mehta has crafted a solid series of planks that seems intended to help him, as well as the reader, bridge divides of age, culture and sexuality. It is difficult to come away from the author’s clean, simple language without the sense that progressing generations from every corner are marching toward a homogenous center. Admirably, Mehta leaves the reader to decide whether that destination is rapture or ravine.
by Rahul Mehta Harper Perennial Paperback,9780062020451, 224pp. May 2011