Diverse gifts

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday August 8, 2017
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Diverse gifts

No One Can Pronounce My Name, a novel by Rakesh Satyal; Picador, $26

Rakesh Satyal's second novel about Indian immigrants culturally adapting to the U.S. arrives at an auspicious time, revitalizing our spirits by showing that the American Dream, though a bit bruised, is still alive and kicking. The book appears seven years after Satyal's debut "Blue Boy," on the trials, tribulations, and fantasies of a 12-year-old gay Indian boy in Cincinnati who thinks he is becoming a god, won praise and a Lambda Literary Award as best gay debut fiction.

"No One Can Pronounce My Name" will probably have wider appeal, though the gay aspect is not quite as prominent. Based on the title, the reader might think the novel will be a critique of American attitudes towards foreigners. But the book is more in a comic vein, gently satirizing the ups and downs of becoming socialized into American society. ("Co-workers can't pronounce your name, but will eagerly repeat the Sanskrit phrases from their yoga class.") Even with its flaws, it's compulsively readable.

The novel focuses on two characters, though they don't meet til halfway into the book. Ranjana is a middle-aged wife and mother who came to the U.S. from India with her new husband Mohan (an arranged marriage), a chemistry professor in suburban Cleveland. They have a son Prashant, now a freshman at Princeton, following in his father's science footsteps but longing to major in English literature. Rummaging through Mohan's browser history, Ranjana discovers he has been visiting porn sites and web "tutorials" on oral sex. Because the couple has been more or less celibate for the past few years, Ranjana (who has never experienced an orgasm) concludes Mohan is having an affair. She has a few close Indian-American women friends, but is reluctant to discuss her problem with them for fear of becoming the center of gossip.

She has a job as a medical receptionist in a proctologist's office headed by an Indian doctor who, believe it or not, is named Dr. Butts. But her main passion is writing erotic supernatural fiction a la her literary mentor Anne Rice. She has joined a women's writing group who, with a smile, carve each other to shreds. She starts meeting a much younger gay Indian-American patient of Dr. Butts, Achyut, who has been rejected by his family after coming out and sees in Ranjana the mother he lost. Eventually, through him at a party, she is introduced to a middle-aged Indian-American man, Harit.

The unmarried Harit lives with his mother. They are both grieving the accidental death of Swati, Harit's younger sister. To console his desolate mother, nearly blind from cataracts, he dresses in a sari every night to convince her his sister is still alive, an act cathartic for both of them.

Harit works as a salesman in the Men's Furnishing section at Harriman's Department Store. He's befriended by his co-worker Teddy, a campy older gay man, who meets him at Happy Hour at the local TGI Fridays. Eventually he strikes up a friendship with Ranjana. The novel culminates in a road trip to a writer's conference with Ranjana, Harit, Teddy, and Cheryl, her prying co-worker at Dr. Butts.

This novel is character-driven rather than plot-advancing. It functions as an immigration (both first- and second- generations) story, coming-out saga (more than one, the second a surprise you won't see coming) and feminist tale of pursuing your dreams. Characters work through their loneliness, develop deeper connections with each other, and become more self-actualized. Satyal's observant about the different ways we grieve in life, both for people we miss as well as opportunities lost. Changing your identity, especially sexuality, features prominently. The author capably balances all these concerns through interlocking back stories peeking into sometimes dark past histories. But a light tone always pervades. Because Satyal clearly cares for all his characters, so will the reader.

But there are two problems with this sophomore effort. First, Ranjana is a far more intriguing character than Harit, who isn't fleshed out, seeming too timid. Second, the ending seems made for a Hollywood movie, with plot threads tied up happily ever after. Still, this novel is tender, empathetic, and uplifting. Perhaps its chief asset is its underlying assertion that diversity brings gifts to our nation rather than threats. Why not send a copy of "No One Can Pronounce My Name" to the White House?