So here we have the interesting case of an author born in America (and who currently lives in California) finding his way onto a Canadian literary prize list for a book he wrote that appropriates the voice and experience of South Asian immigrants. And thank goodness, too, because The Meagre Tarmac (2011), one of the three short story collections on the Giller Prize longlist, is excellent.
Though this is a collection of short stories, there is a caption above the table of contents that says, “These stories are intended to be read in order.” I recommend that as well. The first three stories center around the same family, and I don’t think the third with no relation to the first two would be as strong. The fourth story takes us somewhere new, but throughout the stories refer to one another, and I believe that it is really when taken line-upon-line and then as a whole does this book succeed.
The Meagre Tarmac is an immigrant book. It focuses on the successes and troubles of (usually) first generation Indo-Americans, as they attempt to make it in a foreign land while dealing with culture and family. They are dedicated to business and the sciences (never the arts!) and succeed beyond their wildest expectations only to find that something is missing. While this book is precisely about what I’ve just described, I want to say that I’ve purposefully begun this review with such a generalized description that sounds in many ways just like thousands of other books about the immigrant experience. Indeed, one of the characters in The Meagre Tarmac is a book editor who specializes in such novels: “They featured potent memories of ancestral homeland, twisted loyalties, religious and sexual and political schisms.” The Meagre Tarmac features all of these, but for me it is more and better, in part because of how well it delves in such a personal manner into the nature of that intangible, inexplicable something that is missing.
The first three stories — “The Sociology of Love,” “In Her Prime,” and “The Dimple Kapadia of Camino Real” — focus on the Waldekar family. Here is how the first story, narrated by the patriarch, begins:
A monstrously tall girl from Stanford with bright yellow hair comes to the door and asks if I am willing to answer questions for her sociology class. She knows my name, “Dr. Vivek Waldekar?” and even folds her hands in a creditable namaste.
Vivek Waldekar is one of those successful immigrants. He left his wife and newly born son in India while he received his education and finally secured a job in the emerging tech industry in California. Plans went perfectly and he eventually brought them over to America where they had another daughter. He is quite proud of his upbringing and how he has managed to meld the best of it with the best of American culture. Of course, underneath his pride, he’s confused. And with good reason. We learn in the next story that his thirteen-year-old daughter, Pradmilla, whom he barely mentions while extolling his less talented son’s endeavors, is quite content to be the current conquest of her ice skating coach, who thinks that girls of thirteen are perfect in every way. No one in the family knows about this secret relationship, but when moving back to India is brought up, Pradmilla simply says that she will commit suicide if her father takes her back to India, and she means it and we believe her. Mrs. Waldekar has her own secrets that arise from an attempt to catch something she felt was missing, but really it just makes whatever is missing that much more conspicuous.
Most of these characters are unhappy, and it shocks them. A character in a later story, “Dear Abhi,” articulates it perfectly:
When something is missing it’s not exactly easy to place it. I have given this some thought — I think it is called “evidence of things unseen.” Despite external signs of satisfaction, good health, a challenging job, the love and support of family and friends, no depressions or mood swings, no bad habits, I would not call myself happy. I am well-adjusted. We are all extremely well-adjusted. I believe my situation is not uncommon among successful immigrants of my age and background.
I’m focusing on the “overall” experiences that are common to all characters in the book, but I also want to show just how well Blaise takes a moment and injects it with a very personal response, familiar to us all, while maintaining the type of detail that includes the character’s unique cultural make up. Here is an older man looking back on the moment he first felt a sexual awakening. The girl would become the great love of his life, though their situations would take them in completely opposite directions. They are playing tennis.
We lost a point, but she ran up to retrieve the ball even before I could scoop it, and when she bent over, and when she turned to toss it back to me, I saw for an instant the entirety of her body as though she had disrobed in front of me. She was as naked to me as if we had been in the shower. It was a lascivious moment in a young man’s chaste trajectory. It meant that new terms had been introduced into the rather simple-minded equation of work+study+success=fulfillment.
Blaise’s stories are filled to the brim with those unexpected and intangible “new terms” and that “evidence of things unseen,” and the reader can feel it, too. One of my favorite stories, “Potsy and Pansy,” deals with the intangibles — and the tangibles — involved in love and sex. The main character, “Chut,” is Parsi, and for most of his life he has done things right to achieve his modest success in Pittsburg while his parents worked to arrange a proper Parsi marriage. It was completely unexpected to Chut when he found contentment in the arms of an American girl named Becka. But now his parents have found the perfect marriage candidate, a Parsi movie star up in Toronto. On the one hand, he feels he owes it to his parents to meet his marriage candidate. On the other hand, he isn’t particularly attractive and cannot see himself in a relationship with a movie star; plus, he’s content with someone already. On another hand, he sees the possibilities for a completely new life for himself as this movie star’s husband. It’s the perfect opportunity to grab a hold of something that’s been missing, even though he’s smart enough to know he’ll also be losing something else.
I enjoyed the bits and pieces of the book, and they add up to something even greater. Three cheers to the Giller for bringing Blaise to my attention.