Wednesday, August 12, 2015

#BookReview: THE AMERICANS by Chitra Viraraghavan

At first, The Americans seems very disjointed. There are a lot of characters to keep up with and each has their own intricate story line. It’s almost enough to make you quit if you have a short attention span, but stay with it. I promise you, it’ll be worth it.

The connector of everyone is Tara, so it makes sense that she’s the biggest focus of the book. In her mid-30s, she’s come from India to the U.S. to help her sister Kamala out. On her flight, she meets CLN, a fellow Indian, traveling to the U.S. for the first time to see his daughter, Kavita, and meet his grandson in person. While Kamala takes her autistic son, Rahul, to see a specialist, Tara is to stay with her temperamental niece, Lavi. Ariel, Kamala’s Israeli housekeeper, has a better grasp on what’s going on in Kamala’s house than anyone else, but doesn’t interfere, only observes. This makes up the core group of characters, but there’s a sub-group that’s just as interesting.

Shantanu, a friend of Tara’s from back home, works at the Royal Bengal Tiger restaurant in the Little India area of Los Angeles. He’s always suspected that his boss, Nagi Babu, is trafficking immigrants, but takes action when he realizes that Babu has moved into sex trafficking young girls.

Akhil, another friend of Tara’s from India, works at a university, but runs a conspiracy theory website on the side. At first Akhil seems level headed, but watching his descent into madness is painful. I can’t quite decide if he was just overly paranoid or was dealing with deeper mental issues like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Madulika is Tara’s best friend. She’s married to Vinod, who is cheating on her with a white American who is pregnant by him. Madulika is obsessed with having a baby, so much so that she begins taking illegal measures to get one of her own. I found her attitude toward “Mexicans” interesting. She lumped a whole population of people into that group because she couldn’t be bothered to learn the differences between ethnicities. At first I thought this was a very Western attitude, but given that India has operated on a caste system for so long, it makes sense. In her mind, she didn’t see them as being on the same level as she was, likely because their skin was darker than hers. So she doesn't feel the need to learn who her "Mexican" housekeepers really are, they don't matter to her.

What stood out to me most about The Americans is no one seemed really happy. Kavita has a very short temper and always seems irritated by everything CLN does, almost like she doesn’t want him there. But CLN comments that Tara reminds him of a younger Kavita. And Tara is a kind person, so does this mean that America has turned Kavita into the person she’s become?
Kamala is obsessed with being perfect and, since Rahul’s autism doesn’t fit into her plan, she ignores Lavi while trying to “fix” him. She’s selfish and self-centered, yet doesn’t realize it until Lavi points out to her that she asked Tara to come all the way from India to stay with her, but she would never do the same for Tara.

Ariel is happy in her job at Kamala’s until she’s accused of stealing. Then her world seems to crumble and she realizes that her white American husband is lazy and she can’t stand her mother-in-law. When we find her contemplating whether or not to stay in Tel Aviv when she visits her daughter, it’s easy to believe that she might leave America and never come back, because what is she really coming back to?

I can’t say that America transformed these people, but you have to wonder if they would have been this way in India or Israel. Kamala and CLN both make comments that lead me to think it has. At one point Kamala comments that wished she could go home to India where people were treated as humans and stood by each other. CLN says that in India people are happy being independent, but know that they are connected to a larger community; in the U.S., there’s a sense of isolation. So maybe it’s the lack of a support system and a lack of humanity that has so many of the characters on edge. And maybe Tara has kept her softness, her humanity, because even though she’s lived in the U.S. in the past, she’s been living in India and has had time to recharge her batteries, to regain her humanity.

296 p.
Disclaimer: Copy of book provided by publisher, opinions are my own.

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