Title: Quarantine: Stories
Author: Rahul Mehta
Release Date: May 31, 2011
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Genre: Literary Fiction, Multicultural Fiction, Short Stories
Rating: 5 out of 5
In these nine stories, Rahul Mehta presents the issue of homosexuality in Indian-American males and their struggles to be accepted by their families and culture.
Though I don’t usually read short stories, Rahul Mehta’s collection Quarantine had me very intrigued. Homosexuality is a difficult issue among Indians, as it is in many other traditional cultural communities. I was eager to see what Mehta had to say about homosexuality, as well as his musings on Indian culture and traditions.
Mehta’s writing is absolutely breathtaking in Quarantine. His prose is gorgeous and so achingly emotional. With just a few words, he conveys so much beauty, grace, and wonder. Even the more difficult parts of the stories are executed with amazing empathy. His writing is so nuanced; I can’t praise it highly enough.
There are overarching themes that run through Mehta’s stories. The most common is, of course, that of homosexuality – Indian-American men who have to grapple with a country’s laws (homosexuality is illegal in India) and a culture’s prejudices in order to be who they truly are. These struggles are similar to those that other gay men and women have had to endure, though this collection does focus on the Indian experience, albeit mostly about the children of immigrants to the United States.
However, there are other important themes that run through these stories, universal truths that can speak to any reader. There is the indignity of aging, of the loneliness that comes with not having a place to really feel welcome. There is also the difficulty of the generation born in the United States being unable to relate to their grandparents because of the barriers of language and culture. Though all the protagonists of the stories are Indian, the plots of each don’t necessarily involve their culture or nationality. Sometimes it is just a fact of the story, and moves on from there.
The book is named after the first story in the collection, Quarantine, and this story completely blew me away. In less than twenty pages, Mehta manages to tackle so many issues that concern Indians specifically, while also being widely applicable. The unnamed main character goes home for a visit with his boyfriend, Jeremy, but isn’t allowed to tell his paternal grandfather (who has lived with his parents for years) that Jeremy is anything more than a friend. The grandfather, Bapuji, is unyielding and difficult, blaming all his troubles on his daughter-in-law, who genuinely tries to follow his wishes. This harsh treatment over the years has understandably created resentment within the main character’s mother. At the same time, though, as much as the reader wants to hate Bapuji, they can’t, and this is where the beauty of Mehta’s writing really comes into play. Bapuji is just a lonely old man who is far away from his home and wants to feel like he belongs somewhere. This dynamic is so sad, yet so completely real. I was shocked by how truly I felt for each of these characters, especially considering Mehta didn’t have the broad playing field of a novel to develop these characters and their story.
The story “Citizen” brought tears to my eyes as an elderly Indian woman named Ranjan applies for American citizenship at the behest of her children and focuses on her citizenship interview and exam. My own grandmother went through this process a few years ago, so I couldn’t help but replace the woman in the story with my grandmother’s image. It really got into Ranjan’s head and put her fears and thoughts out on the page for the reader to see, and was just a beautifully executed story.
Mehta’s ability to convey so much emotion and compassion with just a few words left me speechless. I couldn’t believe how nuanced each of these stories were, nor how absolutely complete they seemed, even though they were just a short few pages each. I look forward to the day that Rahul Mehta writes a novel – with his writing abilities, he is definitely an author to watch.
Note: Since posting this review, a commenter has informed me that homosexuality has not been illegal in India since 2009. I apologize for the error!