Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

No One Can Pronounce My Name

In the tradition of Jhumpa Lahiri, Nell Freudenberger, and Akhil Sharma, Rakesh Satyal’s NO ONE CAN PRONOUNCE MY NAME emerges as the funniest, freshest story of the lot. There’s a market for Indian fiction, as the author astutely observes through the lens of his protagonist, Ranjana, and NO ONE CAN PRONOUNCE MY NAME has budged itself right to the front of the line. This beautiful, hilarious, and richly reflective novel explores the fate of the Indian family on the North American continent, with the narrator’s observations constantly drawing parallels between East and West, old and young, ancient and modern. Ultimately, the Indian-American family is reshaped, reformed, and refashioned into a motley crue of friends: The flamboyantly gay Teddy, the tentative Harit, the gaudy, talkative Cheryl, and the literary Ranjana. In America, the author seems to suggest, the family that endures is the friend group we adopt.

In smart-but-not-isolating prose, Satyal presents the lives of disparate characters whose lives intersect. There’s the Indian contingency—we first meet Harit, who, despite ten years in the States, feels no more acclimated than he did when he arrived. Donning saris and lipstick each night, he pretends to be his dead sister for his mother’s sake, though it’s not until the last quarter of the book that we learn the true, stupid reason for his sister’s untimely death. (We also learn that, all along, his mother knew it was him—such is the humor of this clever, tightly-wound book.) With the gender bending of the first few pages comes an element of the queer—unexpected for a book about Indian families, but knotted deeply into the fabric of these interconnected lives Satyal has designed.

From Harit’s life, we move to the story of Ranjana, who has lived in the States for fifteen years but who, the narrator reveals, still doesn’t feel a part of the culture either; she doesn’t drink, doesn’t flirt, doesn’t walk on the street with men she doesn’t know. In our flirty, sexy culture, Ranjana is an outsider: at her job at a proctologist’s office, in the market, and even, it seems, in the company of her own husband. The conversations she has with her college-aged son over the phone are conversations among strangers; Prashant, the son, can never end the call soon enough.

Ranjana’s only peace is her writing hour, after she’s served her husband dinner, worked all day, and completed all errands. Late at night, all alone, unfueled by wine or weed or caffeine, “It was easily her favorite time of day,” Satyal writes, “work barely a memory, dinner accomplished, her husband appeased, a story her only world for an hour or two. It was at once fun and disorienting.” It is Ranjana who sails the rest of the book forward, she who guides the fumbling characters towards unity. “That was what writing really was,” she observes, “an excuse to gild your loneliness until it resembled the companionship of others. It was entertaining yourself when you had no other entertainment. It was the way out.” Just as her own writing becomes a “way out,” so too do the characters, for each other, become an alternative to the realities they occupy.

            As Ranjana’s taste for writing develops, she joins a writing group, where, each week, the members tear each other apart while defending their own bad writing to the death. Ranjana, for her part, spends the hour feeling self-conscious and reading her worst work, hiding her bloody Indian vampire stories for after-hours, when she’s alone. It’s only when she finally shares one with the group that the other members take note of her ability, and she’s invited to a writers’ conference.

            Because I’m a writer, I loved this book, whose climax concluded with two days spent at said conference. The book’s four central characters – Ranjana, Cheryl, Teddy, and Harit – end up making the trip together, in one car, though Ranjana’s the only writer of the group. In one of the final scenes, the four of them meet Pushpa Sondi, the book’s version of Jhumpa Lahiri, and Ranjana’s initial reaction is not admiration or awe but envy, “jealousy, the top of her mouth turning to metal. All the goodwill that she had built up – the warmth that she had felt upon ingesting the stories and their beauty – was effaced upon the author’s entrance….there was no emotion as swift and complete.” This is the type of writing that makes me love NO ONE CAN PRONOUNCE MY NAME; such fumbling grace, so real, so true. The envy is Ranjana’s and mine.

            Just as quickly, Ranjana’s envy melts at the woman’s next words: “Fear is as common as blood,” Sondhi admonishes her audience. “It courses through us and is, in its way, a vital source. It is the requisite formula for our continued work as writers.” Ranjana is “immediately reenergized,” and begins to wonder how her own writing, however humble its beginnings, could provide readers something that even the great Sondhi’s words could not.
            Like others that have come before it, NO ONE CAN PRONOUNCE MY NAME is a poignant reflection of what it means to be the Other, the relocated, the one who came from somewhere else. This is an Indian story, but it might as well be mine—or my grandmother’s, who came here from Finland at twenty-two with a fake passport and no English to speak of, but who worked as a maid in rich ladies’ houses to raise my mom right. While my grandmother grew old and white-haired and feeble, I became a writer myself, shaping stories around the journey she’d taken so many years ago. At the book’s bold close, Ranjana seduces her husband, rekindling a love she thought had died years ago: “She turned her head to his and pressed her laughing mouth to his agog one. She kissed the man who had brought her to this country, to this house.”

            In NO ONE CAN PRONOUNCE MY NAME, all of your wildest dreams come true: A housewife goes on to earn bestselling fame. A bumbling Indian man finds love in Men’s Furnishings. A chatterbox receptionist rises above her child’s death, and a man forgives himself a fatal mistake. In the characters’ fumblings, we recognize our own, and my only response was compassion. 

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