Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Book Review - Guy on the Sidewalk by Bharath Krishna

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Quest, as a metaphor has been an essential component of literature. From grail legends to the present times, the typical protagonist of the novels we read, strives to achieve something. When it comes to immigrant literature, quest is a given. Whether it is an entire family migrating to a different country in search of dreams, or whether it is an individual, pursuit is the foundation of the narrative. There is a sense of displacement as the protagonist tries to recreate a sense of belonging in a place to which he does not belong. There is cultural confrontation. If there are children involved, there is also a challenge to raise them as true to their native culture. All this enriches immigrant narratives to a great extent.


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Guy on the Sidewalk by Bharath Krishna is a novel based on immigrant experience too. But it differs widely in many aspects.There is a definite sense of displacement. The protagonist Jay, alias Red, is excruciatingly aware of his restlessness in a country he can never call his own. But the sense of displacement comes not just from being an alien in an alien country. It also comes from his being in an awkward space, socially speaking, in a society of immigrants who have come to the US for 'similar' reasons. He discovers that he is the 'odd' one as soon as he boards the flight. 

"I neither belonged to the category of college youth flying to the US.....nor the category of married couples...."

The sense of being a 'misfit' is reiterated in the numerous 'reasons' for Jay's coming to US and for his reason to return. Ironically, it is his own people, that is, the people of his own country, who fail to understand the logic behind his decisions. It is this sense of being unable to 'belong' that makes the novel 'different' from other immigrant novels. Immigrant literature has dealt with tensions across cultures, but here, one finds tension rising within the 'tribe', within one's own 'community' which fails to fathom the significance of the 'conscientious' return.

There is a quest too. But the path of the quest here takes the protagonist 'back' to the point he started from. This return is not something that comes unaware. It is a strand that is pinned to the motif of quest and the two hang together as if they are two pairs of a scale. The point is no longer going to be same however,  just as one can never cross the same river twice. The current changes, the stream keeps moving. The protagonist will have grown wiser too:

"Different college, different city, different people - is this what life is all about, a constant wandering with ever-changing situations and priorities?"

Jay's sojourn in the US helps him experience the comfortable, rule-bound America and the myriad characters chasing their 'American dream'. The stopover also helps him see his own country in a different light. Perspectives change when the point of illumination shifts. Jay is better able to critique the education system, the political system, the life-style of the two countries. He is able to experience not just the "plastic smile" of the West, but also "the great Indian stare". 

Relationships form an important part of the narrative, although they seem to be placed at the periphery. Women are a significant subject of Jay's scrutiny. While he is unforgiving in his analysis of a typical Indian housewife having a good time in US, he appreciates the awkwardly placed Siri for her independence. Siri is the odd one, and sometimes, as Jay observes, odd can be "beautiful". His relationship with Siri falls outside the confines of a traditional relationship. It cannot be defined. Therein lies the modernity of it, as well as its realism. This is again one point where the immigrant experience is enriched. It is neither a 'hookup', nor a 'liaison'. It is simply a 'connection', in a world of disconnects. It is a friendship that goes beyond any relationship status. It need not have a name. It does not need to defend itself. It is also something that does not 'belong' to the culture from which the two have come. Yet, it survives, seeking no explanations. There are friends who have been in Jay's life just like that. It is time to bid them farewell:

"Nearly everyone bid goodbye saying. "You are on my Facebook anyway" or " You are on my WhatsApp anyway" as if Facebook and WhatsApp guaranteed relationships."

But with Siri, 

"We were grown enough to understand that once I took that flight, practically everything would change - our lives, aspirations, priorities, everything."

Jay's journey from a developing nation to a developed world and back again is seen as that of a guy walking on the sidewalk. The use of sidewalk, which we in India would call a footpath, is an interesting one. Just as the sidewalk lies at the periphery, existing in a corner, watching the world come and go, Jay too is a spectator. He is a participant too because, being on the sidewalk, he cannot but participate. Whether he decides to walk or just stand, he is very much the part of the action. There is no escape from that, (although he feels it otherwise). And activity happening on sidewalks can very much alter the course of main traffic. Jay's return is a symbol, a possibility that becomes a reality for present-day immigrants. 

The book is one quick read. It is the present generation immigrant read too. For those who have lived in the US will vouch for the realist element in the narrative. The 'dryness' of the 'restrooms' while the Indian 'bathrooms' are always damp, 'pharmacies' selling cigarettes, Indians standing in line, the overcrowded guesthouses for the H1B job-seekers, the everyday jargon too - it is all real and lived experience of many, and I guess, the author's too.  And Jay's return is a reality too. While early immigrant novels had dealt with the stay and the challenges thereafter, this is the next step - the return. And hence, an important read. 

To buy the book, click here.



[Hi Friends - I have not been able to update my blog lately. I have also not been able to reach out and connect with my blogger friends. I apologize for that. But there have been some personal reasons. I hope that I will be back to blogging, reading and connecting by the end of this month. So, please bear with me. And thanks for taking the time out to visit my blog and to read me.]

15 comments:

  1. Your concluding reassurance is a relief!

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  2. सुन्दर प्रस्तुति।

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  3. सुन्दर प्रस्तुति।

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  4. Glad to know all is well:)
    Take care Sunaina:)

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  5. Nicely reviewed dear and we miss you.
    Take care.

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  6. Nice review Sunaina. I think a book on the emotional aspects of a person who has immigrated will gel with a lot of people. Take care.

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  7. Hey great review. Hope to see you back on the blog soon.

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  8. A very exhaustive review dear. We really miss you! :)

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    1. That is so sweet of you Maitreni...:)

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  9. We seem to feel the similar stirrings,Sunaina! I agree with your 'the quest within one's own tribe and community' thing as well as your point in similar experiences of the 'plastic smile of west' and the 'great Indian stare'too. Yes, Red is neither disillusioned with the West nor, high hoped about his own country, just a wiser guy.. making his own choices fearlessly. I have defended Red in my review simply because of that. The outcome of the choices doesn't matter, to be courageous enough to follow your heart does. Your last line said it all!A nice review, dear! :)

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