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Sunday, June 07, 2009

Love in the Time of Diaspora

By now, you recognize the Indian novel. Every week, it seems, there are new additions to the subcontinent’s thriving subgenre of immigrant literature, all of them sharing a few tell-tale elements: lush language; the vitality and musicality of India’s crowded gullies; its ancient spirituality counterpoised against a crass new materialism; its émigrés’ struggles to balance tradition and modernity.

Shanthi Sekaran’s first novel, “The Prayer Room,” contains all of these familiar and sumptuous treats, all the multicultural exotica we have come to expect. But it does not contain — and perhaps doesn’t need to contain — much more. The tale is this: In 1974, George Armitage, a young Ph.D. student from England, ventures to Madras to work on a dissertation about Indian temples. He does less research and more flirting than he expected, and ends up returning to England “on a Pan Am airliner with his new small wife beside him.”

He has, we are told, a history of regretting his purchases.
George’s new wife is an Indian named Viji, from a traditional family. They have married at the insistence of her mother, who was devastated to learn of Viji’s white lover at a time when even dinner dates were carefully arranged. Now Viji sets off, as so many Indians did in that era, to make a life with George in the West — first in England, then in suburban Sacramento.


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