Meera Nair’s first book, Video , is a collection of ten short stories with a wide range of settings and protagonists. She moves from a small Indian village to Phoenix, Arizona, from Hindus to Muslims to Catholics, from wives to husbands to children. She slides unobtrusively and almost effortlessly (only the children’s voices sound a little contrived) across the barriers of geography, religion, class, gender, and age. Video deals with many of the issues facing India and Indian immigrants to the U.S., but the cultural and political aspects of these ten stories never overwhelm Nair’s insightful sympathy for every character she creates. Nair’s stories could not be farther from didacticism; as in reality, the strands of political, cultural, and social conflict and change are woven into the broader, more immediate fabric of daily life. Unfortunately, Nair’s breadth of range is marred by her undistinguished prose and often formulaic story structure.
In ” Video” and “Vishnukumar’s Valentine’s Day,” the new desires aroused by Western sexual and romantic practices create painful conflict within couples. In both stories, Nair uses the point of view of the husband who is upsetting his wife, and manages to make the offending husband sympathetic in surprising ways. In “Video,” the husband’s desire for the oral sex he sees in Western porn seems sweet, natural, almost innocent. His sexual obsession, which leads him to an unforgivable violation, is expressed poetically: “I could have touched her brain if I’d wanted to, he thought, feeling excited and mellow at the same time. I was so close to where she lives, not somewhere down there far away; I was more inside her than I’ve ever been.” His wife’s outrage and revulsion, however, are equally understandable.
In “The Curry Leaf Tree,” one of Video ‘s most lyrical and original stories, an immigrant has an arranged marriage and is shocked to discover that his new bride does not know how to cook and does not want to learn. His attempt to teach her his mother’s art, source of his greatest pleasure and comfort, is far more complex than a man’s desire to be fed. What could be understood as a man’s attempt to impose traditional values on his wife becomes a tender and nuanced meditation on loneliness, familial love, class, cultural assimilation, and sensitivity. The main character has a special gift for smelling the ingredients in food, and this gift, lost and then regained, is the source of his greatest pleasure and comfort in the foreign and hostile world of Texas. His wife longs for assimilation and ridicules his sense of smell, resentful of his request that she cook for him. Their eventual compromise allows them to reconcile their conflicting ideas about their cultural and gender roles.
In “The Sculptor of Sands,” another of Video ‘s most interesting and lovely stories, a young boy on the beach finds the body of a beautiful strangled woman. Her corpse inspires him to create sand sculptures of sad, exquisite women, which move the village women to tears. They are overwhelmed by the idea of a boy who can understand a woman’s passions so deeply, but they are also overwhelmed by the memory of their own lost beauty. The men, who are also captivated by the sculptures, regret the fact that they will never meet a woman like the ones in the sand. The story is a subtle and delicate exploration of the nature of femininity, although Nair strives a little too hard and a little too obviously for the feeling of a magical realist fable:
Some of the women who lingered claimed to have seen the statue, a long slim shape on the surface of the water, long after the sand it was made from should have dissolved to the bottom of the sea. Later, in their beds at night, the men convinced them that they had imagined it. Only Manuela stuck to her story and swore to her dying day that she had seen a pale creamy arm rise from the surf as the woman set out on her journey.
Though her prose is often disappointing, Nair’s treatment of ideas is always intelligent and delicate. In particular, Nair’s even-handed perceptiveness in depicting gender and its significance is one of Video ‘s strongest points. There is never the slightest hint of authorial interference or prejudice as the reader watches the development and the sad results of a conflict between two people who have equally rational justifications for their views. These kinds of seemingly intractable conflicts, of course, are tragically frequent in modern South Asia-the most obvious example is the Hindu-Muslim conflict. Perhaps Nair’s focus on relationships between men and women, in which the personal and the political are always so inextricably intertwined, combined with awareness of tragic conflicts on a larger scale, helped her develop her subtle way of combining large-scale political events and conflicts with small personal interactions. In “Sixteen Days in December,” for example, riots between Hindus and Muslims over the mosque in Ayodhya rage outside a house, in perfect counterpoint to a woman’s reflections on her father’s degeneration and death. In “Video,” the introduction of Western sexual culture precipitates a bizarre series of events in the intimate life of a couple, and the wife’s reaction affects the entire village after she becomes a sort of guru for the other village women. The story weaves together the global, local, and personal elements of one conflict within a couple. Nair is consistently successful in using outside events to heighten and complicate the effects of her character’s actions and interactions.
Although Nair’s prose is adequate and pretty, it is not exquisite, and often sounds a little too careful and self-conscious. There are many uninspired adjectives and overly considered descriptions that fail to seem unique or alive. Apart from a few isolated phrases and descriptions, Nair’s sentences are not enjoyable in themselves, and she does almost nothing new or interesting with language. She overuses generically poetic words like “linger,” “slim,” “creamy,” and “smooth.” Moreover, some of her plots feel a little too ready-made for a short story, with neatly poignant endings or predictably magical moments. Nair’s stories often sound a little like they were written for a class rather than out of sudden inspiration, and some critics, citing her recently acquired M.F.A., have criticized her stories for sounding too “workshopped” and careful; I agree with this observation. Nevertheless, Nair’s enormous capacity for sympathy, insight, and surprising new points of view saves her book by filling it with interesting characters and lucid tenderness. Nair has not yet mastered the art of fiction, but she has an impressive understanding that carries her stories past their imperfections.