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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : One Girl's Inventing of an American Self : LOVE, STARS AND ALL THAT by Kirin Narayan . Pocket Books $20, 304 pages.

March 04, 1994|ELAINE KENDALL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Joining a growing collection of novels by young women from the Indian subcontinent, "Love, Stars and All That" is the latest entry in a uniquely American literary category.

Like their European predecessors, these writers are concerned with the invention of an American self, a process differing in several essential respects from the experience and the literature of earlier immigrant groups. In company with Bharati Mukherjee and Anita Desai, Kirin Narayan is an academic, one of an increasing number of Indian students who came to the United States and stayed on to teach.

This author's field is anthropology, a discipline ideally suited to her fictional but clearly semi-autobiographical subject: the gradual, occasionally painful and often hilarious process by which a girl from a sheltered background steeped in tradition and custom becomes an independent and successful American woman.

When Gita Das arrives to pursue her graduate studies at Berkeley, she's a winsome innocent, an alumna of a strict Catholic convent school and the university in Delhi. At 23, she's not only a virgin, but has yet to experience what she thinks of as a real kiss.

To her roommate, Bet, an aspiring actress "celibate by default," Gita is an incomprehensible phenomenon who spends her Saturday nights washing and conditioning her knee-length hair while poring over highly specialized folkloric texts.

"Look, I don't need to waste my time dating because I know when things will change," Gita says. "My Saroj-Aunty's astrologer has already told me: In Chaitra twenty-forty I'll meet the right man." According to our calendar, that's March, 1984, the month and year in which Gita's American odyssey begins.

A generous amount of flashback supplies Gita's pre-Berkeley history. The daughter of an Indian nationalist father whom she scarcely knew and a frivolous social butterfly mother who remarried a diplomat soon after her first husband's death, Gita grew up spending her holidays in the spacious home of Saroj-Aunty and her genial husband, close friends of her real father but no actual relation. As a result, her ties to these honorary relatives are far closer than those to her mother and stepfather.

Once a passionate radical, Saroj-Aunty has aged gracefully, happily accepting the luxury in which she now lives but maintaining a delightfully rebellious spirit. Even so, she's enough of a traditionalist to believe in arranged marriages, particularly for her proteges, a sizable group of "nieces" and "nephews" in which Gita is clearly a favorite. That prior life--bound by ritual, influenced by the lingering heritage of caste and eased by platoons of servants--is about as far from the usual route to Telegraph Avenue as you can find on this planet.

Although there's a network of other Indian students on campus, they're all busily engaged in making their own accommodation to the strange new world in which they find themselves, too preoccupied to spare much time for the newest arrivals. Except for an occasional encounter with Firoze, the rumpled and earnest "cousin-brother" of a school friend, Gita is on her own.

When Saroj-Aunty meets a San Francisco poet in an airport and asks him to deliver a bottle of perfume to her "niece," Gita immediately decides that he is her ordained fate.

It is, after all, the magic month, and despite the fact that Timothy Stilling in no way resembles the darkly handsome Indian husband of her dreams, Gita falls in love with him, a one-sided attachment that soon leads to her involvement with a friend of his, one Norvin Weinstein, a professor whose wife is conveniently teaching in another city.

Ever since a pilgrimage to India in the '60s, Weinstein has been romantically drawn to that country and to its young female exports. Gita is exactly what he has been seeking and soon responds to his practiced approach.

The burgeoning relationship with Norvin affords the author a wonderful opportunity to send up not only the American academic Establishment but its Indian counterpart, both of which Gita is in a perfect position to observe when she becomes Norvin's second wife.

The courtship is a satiric delight, especially the scene in which Gita nervously enters a Marin County hot tub, completely veiled by her luxuriant hair.

Although the marriage unravels, Gita's academic career flourishes, bringing her poise and self-assurance along with success. From time to time, the dialogue delineating this transformation seems a bit didactic, but the process itself is entertaining and excruciatingly realistic, replete with meticulously observed characters from both sides of the cultural chasm.

Even the rushed and anti-climactic ending doesn't spoil the effect. After all, the real finale was the moment Gita cut her hair, a step as drastic and definitive in its way as Nora Helmer's slamming the door in "A Doll's House."

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