NEW YORK – Neel Patel’s debut fiction collection ‘If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi’ (Flatiron Books, hardcover; $24.99), comprise of 11 short stories, all of which revolve mostly around Indian American characters. The stories are immensely enjoyable for its intricate-yet-realistic modern plots, which speed, careen and hum along smoothly like a new car out on a traffic-free, though, winding highway.
The stories that Patel builds up meticulously, of men, women and teenagers who jostle, hustle, and long for love, want to placate unrequited love, and seek redemption, pique interest, has increasing urgency as it courses through its narrative. The endings are often provocative, with a wry twist.
Patel’s style of simple, terse sentences that pile up relentlessly, to paint the lives of his flawed and brittle characters, humbled by karma – and their own doing, seems inspired by Jhumpa Lahiri, whom he acknowledges with a quote in an epigraph to his collection.
That quote, taken from Lahiri’s superb novel, ‘The Namesake’, is arguably the most profound, and sad line, an immigrant would ever read, and relate to, of the finality of a decision to make a new life in a country he never knew of before, leaving people and places he loved behind: ‘Remember that you and I made this journey, that we went together to a place where there was nowhere left to go.’
Patel’s modern, cosmopolitan characters, with liberated sexual identity and mores, are caught in a vortex of love and lust of their own making, which churns their lives. They often have limited options to find succor.
There are no emotional umbilical cord cuttings in Patel’s stories. The characters remain entwined to the consequences of their surreptitious past, and often, the past, despite its fortitude, colors and mars, the future.
A signature element in Patel’s stories is also a tendency to rush stories along, like a river that falls in a cascade off a rock face, after gurgling on placidly for miles. Years and decades are rolled over at times to bring perspective to the mettle of his characters.
Three of Patel’s stories have a religious connotation in their titles, but the stories are anything but that. Instead, they are a stunning reminder of the vestige of faith that’s imposed on the second generation, and how they truly translate, and relate to it, in the real world. Or well, sort of, since this is fiction, after all.
In ‘god of destruction’, a young Indian American woman, who’s an interior designer, preparing to go out on a date with a handsome Indian American engineer – whom she’s met on shaadi.com, finds herself that very night in a one-night stand with a White stranger, who’s riveted by a picture of Lord Shiva, the God of Destruction.
Patel toys around with this notion of Hindu mythology, though, but in a different sense altogether. Destruction of such myths, literally, in Patel’s book, is not just of tradition and belief, but of memories too.
The poignant ‘hare rama, hare krishna’, brings to the fore bitter marital discord and disintegration of relationships, and ugly, violent bullying in schools, with devastating after effect.
Patel weaves all those factors into the coming-of-age of a gay, teenage Indian American boy, whose father is a womanizer, separated from his mother, and the brutal victimization of a young, male school mate.
Like in ‘god of destruction’, Patel has no mercy for his characters. He prods and experiments with tender lives, till the reader realizes that chants and imploring to God sometimes are not just confined to serene surroundings in temples, but in battlefields of life too.
In ‘radha, krishna’, which is also the last story in the collection, and is narrated more so than any other story in a Jhumpa Lahiriesque-style, a young Indian American woman’s love for a former heartthrob, an Indian American boy she knew from her school days, is a tightrope walk over years and decades.
The love, and passion, which lies dormant in her sub-conscious, is ready to rear up at a moment’s notice. It has the potency to destroy a carefully manicured world of a successful marriage and children with a loving husband, that she’s nurtured, and her parents cherish.
The title story, ‘if you see me, don’t say hi’, is the story that perhaps many Indian parents don’t want the world to know of, of discord because of an embarrassing black sheep in the family, who makes poor, bad choices in life.
It’s a hard task, especially when tiger moms and obstinate dads who expect nothing short of terrific success in every aspect of life, abound in the community. More often than not, the success of a child is the final frontier for immigrants in America.
It’s also a rather clichéd story with its predictable fault lines, and crumbling of relationships, as two brothers with different personas and professional tracks in life confront their demons, and relationships. Yet, that’s perhaps more so for the acute realism of the story which may make many a reader wince, bring home truths that were carefully tucked away in a closet.
Patel’s stories have a fault line: they remain confined to the upper middle class Indian American families, and homes. There are characters from less fortunate backgrounds too, but they interact with mostly affluent Indian Americans.
Patel writes what he’s most comfortable with. He doesn’t try delve into seedy neighborhoods and hard scrabble lives; refuses to go there.
Perhaps, that’s coming next.