Fish Out of Water

Lalita Noronha, who has a Ph.D. in micro-biology, can be said to have a “talent” for science. With her first collection of short stories Where Monsoons Cry, she can be said to have a talent for fiction too. Amazingly, in addition to being a scientist, she is also a writer—a rather good one, too.

These 19 stories, some of them linked, are a testament to the double bind of being a stranger in a new land. Noronha has a knack for honing in on specific qualities of the immigrant experience that almost anyone who has been a fish out of water in a strange land could relate to. The strange land in this collection is, of course, the United States, and Noronha is at her best when she shows through her characters how culture makes specific grooves in the psyche that many years of living in the United States cannot erase. “The Sari,” a particularly moving story involves a middle-aged married woman who selects a sari to wear to the wedding of her American husband’s best friend. After many years of marriage, the exoticness that first attracted husband to wife is now a source of embarrassment for him, total assimilation being the ultimate goal, if not for the wife, definitely for the husband. When he questions whether or not she will feel out of place since she gave up wearing saris years before, she ruminates on how much a part of her the sari really is, and how she has had to sublimate the desire to wear one for so long:

Never mind that millions of women slept in them, wore them to work in rice fields and factories, on construction sites and fishing boats—even spread their legs and popped babies out in them. No explanation sufficed; my Indian clothes were too far-out for a promising career in real estate and our social circle of friends. People wouldn’t identify with an Indian woman’s “costume,” they said. So I’d wrapped my saris in sheets like shrouds along with beaded bags, bangles, sandals, and arrays of paisley bindis I would no longer wear on my forehead, and buried them all under my bed.”

The other stories, in a similar vein, show the uneasy and shifting identity of having one foot in a new life and the strong pull of gravity that conspires to keep you in the old life. Though Noronha exhibits a refreshing insightfulness into the importance of place and culture in our lives, the theme of the stories, seen in the writing of Indian authors too, is rather tired and played out. The preponderance of the “homeless” theme in Indian fiction seems rather derivative and runs the risk of dulling our empathy toward the plight of immigrants. The glossary included in the back is unnecessary as is the italicization of words such as bindi and sari. While many readers may feel a sense of déjà vu while reading these stories, admittedly Noronha adds a fresh twist and crafts stories on this theme better than most.

Michelle Reale lives and writes near Philadelphia, and is devoted to the study of South Asian literature.

 

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