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Dreaming of India

VIDEO Stories By Meera Nair Pantheon: 196 pp., $21.95

April 28, 2002|MARINA BUDHOS | Marina Budhos is the author of two novels, "House of Waiting" and "The Professor of Light," and a nonfiction book, "Remix: Conversations with Immigrant Teenagers." She has been a Fulbright scholar to India.

"Video," a group of 10 stories by a new Indian writer, Meera Nair, had a little sizzle of celebrity a while back: The title story won the first PEN/Amazon.com short-story contest for unpublished writers in 2000 but was subsequently disqualified because another of her stories had been published in the Threepenny Review. The matter was deemed a "good-faith misunderstanding" by the contest sponsors, but somehow that tiny moment of Internet scandal, at the height of the dot-com boom, fixed the work in my mind as new, edgy and cinematic--perhaps the next exciting direction that Indian fiction would take.

In her first collection, Nair has chosen to make use of the simple folk-tale form to take a sly look at modern India with all its juxtapositions. These are miniatures, in which videos and porn jostle traditional extended families; in which political events are seen through the eyes of ordinary villagers and where Valentine's Day, which traditionalists paint as Western and corrupting of Indian marriage values, provokes a storm of emotion in an irascible elderly man.

This literary mixture is promising and is what we've come to expect in Indian fiction, ever since Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children" gave us a new grammar for India's simultaneous post-colonial, postmodern existence. Nair's techniques remind me of Shahzia Sikander, a young Pakistan-born artist who interposes contemporary pop images on fine miniature paintings.

There are real pleasures to this collection. The writing is juicy; the details lovely, luscious bits of description that waft pungently from the Subcontinent with true Indian-style density: a man who has a superhuman nose and can smell "the tight whirls of sharp, bright coriander wrapped into the pungent flare of pepper surrounded by the expanding corona of garlic"; a Goan fisherman who becomes legendary for crafting beautiful figures out of sand and who inspires in the local women "womb-tickling churnings" until the men grow jealous and rumors grow "ugly green wings and talons and flew around the village faster."

There are also touching moments when one realizes the jostling reality that Nair depicts: Dilip Alva of "The Curry Leaf Tree" grows up as the son of a cook, living in a "dim universe" of "perfect disks filled with red chilli powder, yellow turmeric, coriander leaves"; he grows up to become a software engineer and lands in America, where he's so changed his station in life that he can marry a contemptuous, fair-skinned woman from India who had never learned how to cook because she always had servants. These dizzying social trajectories--so much the story of Indians today--are slyly and beautifully captured.

But for all the commotion and disruption in these characters' lives, the stories have a curiously controlled, static feel; we're too aware of their design as we move down their tightly prescribed grooves. Too often I could feel the inexorable gears moving toward a logical end. Only the title story gave me that jolt of surprise, when a porn video leads to an interesting power shift in a traditional marriage and the wife mysteriously retreats to--of all places--an outhouse. Here Nair brilliantly exposes the underside to all this peculiar modernization: Naseer, the husband, feels as if "[h]is life was in shambles; there were objects collapsing inside him, shivering apart like a dilapidated house struck by a cannonball, and they were watching TV."

In many of the other stories, however, the hand of the author is less inventive. In "My Grandfather Dreams of Fences," the instant we learn the story is about an upper-caste landowner who is protesting the loss of a foot of land to a low-caste farmhand, we know where this is going: The proud, old world grandfather will lose his territory and live out his days among his rotting coconut trees that no one will pick.

The stories that are pinned to actual events are the weakest, for there's little organic meshing of the two parts. "A Warm Welcome to the President, Insh'Allah!" is based on the imagined response of a Bangladeshi village that President Clinton was supposed to visit on a south Asia trip: No surprise, they get all worked up, and he doesn't show. The villagers' shenanigans and squabbles don't really add up to anything more than what we've read in the news.

These stories with their hodgepodge blend of folklore and contemporary scenarios suggest explosive change and tumult, and yet they are constructed with a prescribed, fateful order. Imaginative premises become tidy conceits that are too tightly bound and inevitable in their unfurling. Nair shows obvious gifts as a new writer. I just wish she would trust her eruptive talent, take a risk and toss aside the tight miniature and let her characters fly into the cosmos and land where they might.

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