A quirky novel filled with oddball characters who manage to tug at your heart strings as they bumble their way through life—this is the basic premise of Rakesh Satyal’s newest novel, No One Can Pronounce My Name.
His debut novel, Blue Boy, was an award winning coming-of-age narrative about an Indian American boy who believes he is an avatar of Krishna. In No One Can Prounounce My Name, we have Ranjana, a middle-aged Indo-American woman, whose son has gone away to college and whose marriage is in a rut. She leads a semi-secret life as a writer and shares her work with a writers’ circle made up of mediocre aspiring writers. She has a day job as a receptionist for a gastro-enterologist. Harit is also an Indian immigrant in Cleveland, and he meets Ranjana through his co-worker Teddy, who had met her in a gay bar. How Ranjana found herself in a gay bar in Cleveland is another arm of the plot of this novel.
Harit lives with his mother who is grieving the death of Harit’s sister and seems to be in a perpetual state of catatonic grief. Harit tries to console her by dressing up in a sari and pretending to be his sister. He works in a department store with Teddy, a gay man, who has returned to Cleveland after several years in New York where he tried to explore culture and lost many friends to AIDS. Harit and Teddy become friends even as Harit tries to understand his own sexuality and mitigate his social isolation in the Indian-American community. Rounding off this collection of characters is Cheryl, Ranjana’s co-worker, who annoys Ranjana most of the time until they go on a road trip to a writers’ conference in Chicago. The novel also has a cast of well-drawn secondary characters including Ranjana’s husband and son, Harit’s mother, and Teddy’s friend Severine.
Satyal’s narrative has moments of self-consicousness. For instance, Ranjana remarks on the road trip that she was taking with her friends: “Here she was, surrounded by a mint-chewing coworker, a gay stalker, and an Indian man who thought it was normal to bring pakoras on a road trip with strangers. Wes Anderson would have had a field day” (325). Thus, he takes one of the enduring symbols of American culture, the road trip, and transforms it into an occasion to explore both the symbol and the ways in which many people fail to fit into mainstream America. Satyal’s narrative comically captures the awkwardness of college life, the banality of the ubiquitous Indian-American dinner parties, and marvelously satirizes writers’ conferences. His portrait of Pushpa Sondhi, the gorgeous Pulitzer prize winning author who is fluent in Punjabi, Hindi, and English and then learned Portuguese and began writing in it is a clear dig at Jhumpa Lahiri, the iconic Indo-American author, whose novels have become canonical.
Woven into this comic plot are heartwarming moments where completely different people overcome cultural and social barriers to become friends. Whether it is an awkward Indian man understanding his sexual identity and finding support in unlikely places or a middle aged Indian couple rekindling their marriage, Satyal finds the delicate balance between the absurd and the sentimental. Along the way he offers a different Indian immigrant novel—one in which the narrative is not just about being caught between two cultures but about finding one’s self in the company of other misfits.
Rakesh Satyal was scheduled to read at Elliott Bay Books on October 10 at 7:00 p.m. The reading has been cancelled due to a scheduling conflict.