'Sort of fusiony'

Books Tania James's debut novel is part of a new wave of migrant fiction, one in which members of the global middle class struggle to make sense of the world.

New Yorkers of Indian and Indo-Carribean descent gather last month in Queens to celebrate Holi, the Indian festival marking the arrival of spring.
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Adelle Waldman finds Tania James's debut novel part of a new wave of migrant fiction, one in which members of the global middle class struggle not to get by but to make sense of the world they inhabit.
Atlas of Unknowns Tania James Simon & Schuster Dh72 Not long ago, novels set in "developing" countries tended to fall into one of two categories: they were about members of an economic elite, whether native-born or foreign, with the means to focus on literature's standard existential questions, or else they were about the impoverished masses, with their struggles against hunger, disease and homelessness. But that has changed as quickly as English speakers worldwide have become used to complaining about their broken computers to Indian call-centre workers. In pockets of the world once characterised by extremes of wealth and poverty, global capital has wrought the emergence of a new middle class, and with it a new fiction of transnational middle-class life and aspiration.

Atlas of Unknowns, the debut novel by the Indian-American author Tania James, is an excellent embodiment of this trend, navigating a world that is no less real for the fact that it came into existence the day before yesterday. In this world, the internet enables artistic girls in remote Indian villages to sell their wares to wealthy American socialites with results as ripe with comic potential as they are with economic possibility. Here, boundaries are bureaucratic rather than geographic. A visa to come to America is as coveted as the hand of a wealthy heiress in Henry James. (Inevitably, the path to obtaining an F-1, J-1 or H-1B is as fraught with difficulty as any courtship, and the success or failure of such a bid equally subject to caprice.)

James's novel is about two sisters from Kerala, Anju and Linno Vallara. Anju wins a year-long scholarship to attend a posh private school in New York City, where children of the wealthy are taught to question authority while being groomed for Ivy League universities. She moves from a small house in a remote village - in which she, though middle-class and hardly "deprived", bathes with water from a bucket - to a plush Manhattan apartment with her own private bathroom (in the shower, she "finds herself endlessly shocked by needles of water so fierce and hot that she is forced to... turn her back against the onslaught").

James, the American-born child of Indian parents, grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and studied at both Harvard and Columbia. She is as squarely positioned as anyone to write about the inner workings of elite American educational institutions and the people who attend them. But her family also returned frequently to Kerala, her parents' birthplace. Drawing on this background and her considerable talent - especially as a vivid and frequently funny social observer - James has produced a contemporary immigrant story that bears only the faintest similarity to the seminal coming-to-America novels of the early 20th century, such as Thomas Bell's Out of this Furnace, about a Slovak family's hardscrabble life in a Pennsylvania steel town, or Anzia Yezierska's books about Jewish immigrants in the crowded tenements of New York City.

Since Anju comes to New York on a prestigious scholarship, she is not representative of the many who still come to America (legally or otherwise) to work at the bottom of the economic ladder, let alone the struggling immigrants of the American past. (Nor is Anju's experience particularly similar to that of the Indian-American immigrants in Jhumpa Lahiri's recent fiction, men and women - usually the parents of Lahiri's protagonists - who came to America with their spouses decades ago for careers as engineers, professors and doctors.)

But it is not just Anju's method of arrival that is different: the America where she lands is not as nakedly hostile to newcomers as the America of old. Anju is never confronted with outright prejudice because of her accent or skin colour. On the contrary, at her politically correct new school, Anju's classmates are "distantly welcoming". She finds herself "constantly receiving thanks, for no apparent reason. If she answers a question about the time, they thank her. If she gives them a pencil to borrow, the receiver thanks. She wonders if this is part of a larger national psychology, a combination of good intentions and guilt. Or maybe thanks is simply thanks. She also wonders if her lack of thank-you's leaves the impression of thanklessness, when in truth, the gratitude she feels for her classmates, her teachers, this country, all of this weighs so heavy sometimes she can but lift her eyes from the blond wood floors."

In Atlas of Unknowns, affluent Americans are not characterised by prejudice or ruthless indifference but something much more au courant: a combination of good intentions, cluelessness and overweening personal ambition. In New York, the Solankis, a successful Indian couple, serve as Anju's host family. He is a doctor; she is a television personality on a show (apparently modelled on The View) where four women sit around and discuss "issues", from current events to dieting tips. Anju overhears Mrs Solanki talking to her producer on the phone, explaining her decision to open her home to an Indian student. "Oh, I'm happy to be a host parent if it means promoting higher education among young Indian women," she says, before quickly bringing the conversation around to her professional aspirations, which involve doing more "serious" reporting. "As a dual citizen, I think of women's rights on a global scale, Jeff," Mrs Solanki continues. "I'm sure that even in Kerala the girls have fewer opportunities. Did you know that four million Indian girls have been slaughtered by infanticide? ... Yes, China's much, much worse. But that would be a topic, wouldn't it? Infanticide?" Anju's reaction to being invoked as a generic victim of Asian sexism is understandable: "At times like this, Anju wants to holler ? that female infanticide is about as popular in Kerala as a winter parka. But here among the lace and pulled silk pillows, yelling would be unseemly, especially at the one who has provided the pillows."

James's America is also a place where many Indian-Americans are thoroughly integrated into the vagaries of America life and mores. When the Solankis' son Rohit, who is taking time off from Princeton, announces his intention to become a filmmaker, his father is nonchalant. "I thought he was going to say that he's a gay," he says to his wife. ("It's gay, Varun," his wife replies. "Not a gay.") Rohit, a well-drawn portrait of entitled, upper-middle-class American youth - sheltered, self-involved and faintly pathetic in his childishness and self-delusion - is disappointed that his parents aren't more scandalised. He intends, after all, to abandon the straight and narrow path to financial security that Indian parents are supposed to desire for their children. "I work in television, darling," Mrs Solanki tells her son. "I have been in the entertainment industry for 15 years. If you wanted to rebel, you should have become a doctor." Mr Solanki chimes in, adding insult to injury: "Gay director, straight director, direct traffic for all I care. This is not a revolution, Rohit, what you are doing."

In this novel, as in the world today, the experience of America is no longer limited to people who migrate there. Though Anju's older sister remains in Kerala, her life is touched by the same forces that affect Anju in New York. A gifted artist, Linno teams up with an ambitious local businesswoman to produce high-end invitations for western customers, and like Anju comes into contact with a very contemporary slice of Americana. One wealthy young Indian-American teenager for whose Sweet Sixteen party Linno is designing invitations writes an e-mail to tell Linno that the invitations should be "sort of fusiony? Maybe like 65 per cent Indian and 35 per cent American because that's how I divide myself up. Nothing religious because I don't consider myself religious, just spiritual (it's complicated)." James has a pitch-perfect ear for such pampered youth, portraying not just their chirpy self-importance but their bland niceness, especially to those deemed less privileged. Naturally, the birthday girl ends her e-mail to Linno with effusive thanks.

Another of Linno's clients, a WASP, wants to order party invitations that have "Asian flair". Linno doesn't know what she means until she watches The King and I. "Not authentic Asia, but this kind of Asia," Linno realises, "filled with pagodas and gongs and bonsai trees." She produces "a scarlet and gold-leafed card that opens up from the bottom edge. Modelled on the silhouetted set pieces of The King and I, a flat-roofed pagoda lifts from the back page, complete with two thin columns and two tiny steps that lead into a shallow inner chamber bearing the gold symbol for harmony. The party details are printed on the lower half of the card, in a computer font called Chopsticks." The client is thrilled: "It's like you climbed inside my head!" she gushes.

James has a satirist's keen eye for the absurdities of contemporary upper-middle-class American life. But when her novel attempts to transcend satire - to be instead a sprawling intergenerational, transcontinental family drama - it is less successful. Her descriptions of life in Kerala are not nearly as vivid or as pointed as her perspective on American life. Nor does the plot hold together well. Atlas of Unknowns juxtaposes Linno and Anju's adventures with the story of their mother, Gracie, who died when they were young, a supposed suicide. Over the course of the book, we learn of Gracie's dark secrets, from both Linno and a woman named Bird, an old friend of Gracie's who has since moved to New York.

Bird's entrance sets the stage for a whole other section of the novel, set in Jackson Heights, a Queens neighborhood teeming with working-class Asians and almost as distinct from the Solankis' urbane, monied Manhattan as it is from Kerala. James captures some of the dynamics at work in these neighborhoods extremely well. For example, at Bird's apartment, Anju is brought "a mug of chai, a box of Entenmann's chocolate-chip cookies and two napkins impressed with the McDonald's arches". There is pathos in these details: this is the patchwork hospitality of a lonely person who, though free to travel from America to India, feels at home in neither.

The transnational world James writes about matters a great deal, not just because of its political and economic implications, but also because of its confusing impacts on personal life the world over. This new world presents fiction writers with a special set of challenges: the possibility of multiple audiences with few shared assumptions, a new diversity of locales and phenomena to describe and account for, the temptation to make every story a location-hopping piece of Big Globalised Think. Atlas of Unknowns grapples with these obstacles admirably - and often succesfully - but also suffers from the diversity of its parts. At times, it feels as if James combined the fragments of multiple beginnings into one book, with somewhat awkward results - brilliant bits connected by a forced plot that lurches towards a sudden and unsatsifying conclusion. Anju, Linno and their peers around the globe are here to stay, but their story has only begun to be told.


Adelle Waldman is working on a novel called The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.