The Americans by chitra Viraraghavan is about 11 people in the country of dreams United States and their immigrant experiences. Ten of these in some or the other way are connected to Tara, an Indian single woman who is visiting the US on her sister’s insistence to look after her teenage niece while the sister herself is away dealing her son’s autism.
The other lives which are explored in the book are an elderly Indian man from Chennai visiting her daughter in Chicago, a biology researcher at Boston university, another Indian doing odd jobs with illegal immigration status, Tara’s well settled sister, her teenage niece, her autistic nephew, Tara’s friend, Tara’s friend’s husband, An Isaraeli woman working as a housekeeper at Tara’s sister’s and one of Tara’s black American student from her Boston days.
The stories revolve around either making it big in the country of dreams or pretending to made it big, lack of identity and belonging and cultural misplacement.
The book is not about only Indian Americans and their problems. The different characters and their stories unsurfaced the various issues second generation immigrants are dealing with and despite the issues some of them chose to continue for the feel good factor of being in the dream country.
The journey of the old man from Chennai or Madras as he calls it and her stay with daughter’s family, reveals pretension of making it big. The researcher is paranoid about extra surveillance immigrants are subjected to, raises the issue of suspecting all immigrants after the 9/11 attack. A song writer overstays in order not to break family’s hopes end up doing odd jobs, exposes the atrocities illegal immigrants are subjected to. Tara’s doctor sister is self obsessed with her making it big and cannot except son’s autism, shows the character of typical Indian American who feel they are important just because they have made it in the US. The teenage niece is struggling between Indian parenting and American living, a cultural displacement. The friend and her husband stuck in an arranged marriage where they both dealing with the lack of belonging in exactly opposite ways, one by indulging in romanticizing life in the way Hindi movies depict and the other by despising anything which is Indian. Their story also touches the Mexican illegal immigration. The Israeli woman’s story is about shattered dreams of life in America.
Woven are the delicate subjects of autism and dyslexia, with all these stories of practical, behavioural and emotional issues.
Autism is a difficult situation and even this most advanced country finds it hard to deal it with the required sensitivity is highlighted with the case of Tara’s nephew, it also beautifully depicts the high imagination these gifted souls have.
The suicide of dyslexic student of Tara reveals the insensitive handling of the matter at one of the oldest university of world, also touches a bit upon the black American sentiments.
Each story deals with a different issue and the only connection between them is they all are acquaintances of Tara. Tara herself or the other characters are not the purpose of the book, neither their lives are being handled in a conclusive way. They are merely used to navigate through the issues.
They are all weak characters who cannot make sense of their own lives and the only ones that is Tara and the old man, who seem to understand and are close to their identity returns to India as soon as they could.
The book nicely describes the situations, places and mostly successful in creating the scenes around the life in the US. The people in various places ranging from east to west coast that is Boston, Louisville, Chicago, Portland, Los Angeles but none of the characters seem to relate with the places they live, they remain immigrants perhaps even after many years in the country or perhaps that’s a side effect of the lack of belonging or identity.
All the stories are open ended, nothing conclusive about the characters or the issues and exploring too many issues at a time and this leaves the reader perplexed. Sometimes one tend to forget the character name even though the problem can easily be remembered. Basically the immigrant community as a whole is the character of the book rather than an individual and this character is touched in breadth but not in depth.
The comparison with Jhumpa Lahiri is obvious here and the writing tend to be similar but only in terms of describing the places and situations. Jhumpa mainly wrote of first generation Indian (mainly Bengali) immigrants and their struggles around adjusting in America. Student life in New England is always present in Jhumpa’s books and Jhumpa’s stories deals with how characters come to terms with their identity or cultural misplacement crisis. In Jhumpa’s stories past life in India also plays important role in characterization. Chitra’s The Americans are second generation Indians, who knows how to live in America, who are at ease with the food, the weather and the advanced technology and are dealing with a new set of problems along with the old identity problem.
Overall a descent read which leaves you to want more to clear the maze of too many incomplete experiences.
Rated *** on Goodreads
P.S. I adore Jhumpa Lahiri.