Category Archives: Indian American

Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood by Varsha Bajaj

Abby Spencer Goes to BollywoodOkay, so what are the chances?! Varsha Bajaj‘s exuberant debut middle grade novel begins with a food allergy that sends her teen protagonist, the titular Abby Spencer, to the ER with an anaphylactic reaction. Talk about eerily prescient – less than 12 hours later, I’m repeating Abby’s opening number, Benadryl shot “meant for the baby hippo,” ambulance, and all. Before old age kills me, overcautious doctors will, egads!

“‘No one in my family is allergic to coconut,’” Abby’s mother tells the ER staff. “‘What about Abby’s father?’” is, naturally, the next question the doctor asks. At 13, Abby has spent her life explaining “‘Families come in all shapes and sizes’” when kids voiced curiosity about her absent paternal parent. Sure, she’s wondered, but Abby’s ever-caring mother and doting maternal grandparents have been all the family she’s needed … until now.

That coconut allergy is reason enough to want to know more at least about her medical inheritance. Although her mother is ready with a few answers, the internet ends up providing far more: Abby’s father, who has changed his name since he was a college student in Dallas with her mother, turns out to be Bollywood’s most famous mega-star. After a few fraught phone calls and Skype sessions, Abby’s flying first-class to Mumbai, to a family she never even knew she had … not to mention more glamor and surprises than she could ever have imagined.

Bajaj occasionally tries too hard to make her teen tale contemporary, even as she mixes in Taylor Lautner and Simon Cowell with the 1960s Jetsons and a so-called “PBS voice,” all in a few pages. If nothing else, such references are more likely to unnecessarily date her modern fairy tale. That said, Bajaj carefully presents Abby’s unexpected journey to the other side of the world as quite the eye-opening experience. Mingling with the over-the-top fabulous are important glimmers of reality: the grinding personal price of fame, the paralyzing consequences of tradition, parental neglect however unintended, the extreme poverty amidst vast luxuries that teems throughout Mumbai.

Young readers in search of an international adventure will surely enjoy accompanying Abby on the page. Bajaj’s vivid descriptions of paneer and pooris should inspire repeated visits to an Indian kitchen. Place an order for takeout, then queue up Dhoom 1, 2, or 3. Although no one compares to my Aamir, I’m guessing Abby’s Dad is not unlike Hrithik Roshan: “Dhoom again and run away with me on a roller coaster ride, dhoom again and see your wildest dreams slowly come alive.” Dancing yet …?

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Fiction, Hapa, Indian, Indian American, South Asian, South Asian American

The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic by Uma Krishnaswami, illustrated by Abigail Halpin

Grand Plan to Fix EverythingYou could just start reading Uma Krishnaswami‘s recent middle grade cross-cultural adventure and thoroughly enjoy it, but why have only half the fun? To maximize the knowing giggles, make sure to start with Dini’s 2011 debut in The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. Then check out this engaging latest Problem.

Spring break in Swapnagiri, South India, has brought Dini and her father back Stateside for a visit home in the DC suburbs. And who else has traveled half-way around the world but Bollywood’s favorite sweetheart, Dolly Singh, and her own true love, Chickoo Uncle? In just a week, Dolly is scheduled to premiere her latest dazzling film at … wait for it … the Smithsonian Institution, naturally!

Before she’s even arrived at her hotel, the fabulous Dolly has managed to lose her passport, not to mention at least a few sparkly baubles. That’s just the beginning of the many challenges that include runaway elephants, caterers absconded by the White House, Chickoo Uncle’s tranquilized experience, a cantankerous chef with a botanical complex, and so much more. Somehow, Dini and her best friend Maddie must make sure that opening night will be a spectacular success. Besides, there’s nothing a rose petal milk shake can’t fix, right?

Krishnaswami’s perfectly-pitched, can-do, chatty prose is again enchantingly enhanced by Abigail Halpin‘s whimsical art. Here’s hoping the delightful duo is planning many more multi-culti capers to come!

Tidbit: So, Smithsonian groupies … can you say SALTAF with a pachydermatous twist?! SALTAF refers to the annual South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival which happened every fall at SI for almost a decade; let’s hope it gets reinstated in the near future, ahem! Wouldn’t you know, Uma Krishnaswami made her own Smithsonian debut at SALTAF 2005, which just happened that year to host the U.S. premiere of Deepa Mehta‘s stunning, Oscar-nominated film, Water! Inspirational history …? I’m just saying …

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2013

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The Caretaker by A.X. Ahmad

CaretakerFor you DC-area-locals who were wondering, debut novelist A.X. Ahmad is one of us … I tell you that, not to make stalking easy, but to share with you book group groupies that, according to Ahmad’s website, he just might be available to join your gathering “… if you live within driving distance of Washington, D.C.” Really, I’m just quoting!

Let me also say that should you decide to stalk … I mean request! … him at an upcoming meeting, your groupies will have much to discuss. Caretaker is full of Very Important Topics to deliberate and dissect, from post-9/11 profiling, to military cover-ups, itinerant illegal immigrant workers, racial and socioeconomic hierarchies, political elites, the Pakistan/India divide, the North Korean threat, not to mention the more mundane issues like infidelity, mental instability, and the overprivileged lives of the rich and famous – all reaching boiling point together in one blood-pressure cooker of a ride.

Ahmad’s peripatetic thriller moves back and forth between a disputed glacier border 20,000 feet up in the sky, down to an exclusive island getaway on the other side of the world. His protagonist is a former Sikh Indian Army Captain, Ranjit Singh, who is forced to flee his home country after a tragic military disaster, and eventually lands on the posh Martha’s Vineyard hoping to ride out the off-season with multiple caretaking jobs for owners of empty luxury homes.

Unable to afford to keep his family even in a disintegrating rental, Ranjit risks temporarily relocating to the waterfront estate of a Massachusetts Senator, just for a few days while he attempts to arrange alternative accommodations. The family’s plush enjoyment is interrupted when two men enter overnight, setting in motion a chain of runaway events from betrayal to deportation to murder. Guided by the ghost of a fellow Indian officer and assisted by a terminally ill American veteran, Ranjit’s survival depends on an antique doll, a computer-savvy relative-by-marriage, and an override alarm code of BLUESKY.

If you choose to be aurally thrilled, the inimitable Sam Dastor will keep you running for hours (almost 11, to be more accurate). Dastor’s previous suspenseful experiences – he also voices Delhi-based Tarquin Hall‘s fabulous Vish Puri series – expertly enhances Ahmad’s prose. Hopefully Dastor’s reading days are not fully committed; Ahmad’s website also reveals that Caretaker is the “first in a trilogy,” an enticing promise of more chills and thrills ahead.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

LowlandSTARRED REVIEW
Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri‘s (The Interpreter of Maladies) unparalleled ability to transform the smallest moments into whole lives pinnacles in this extraordinary story of two brothers – so close that one is “the other side” of the other – coming of age in the political tumult of 1960s India. They are separated as adults, with Subhash, the elder, choosing an academic career in the United States and the more daring Udayan remaining in Calcutta, committed to correcting the inequities of his country. Udayan’s political participation will haunt four generations, from his parents, who renounce the future, to his wife and his brother, who attempt to protect it, to the daughter and granddaughter who will never know him.

Verdict: Lahiri is remarkable, achieving multi-layered meaning in an act as simple as “banging the edge of the lid three or four times with a spoon, to break the seal”; this, her second novel and fourth title, is deservedly one of this year’s most anticipated books. Banal words of praise simply won’t do justice – perhaps what is needed is a three-word directive: just read it.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, August 15, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Oleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Grandma and the Great Gourd: A Bengali Folktale by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, illustrated by Susy Pilgrim Waters + Author Interview

OleanderGirl.Grandma

When I recently caught up with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, she was in one of her rare lull periods at home in Houston, Texas, having finished almost three solid months of book touring for her latest novel, Oleander Girl. Like her latest protagonist, Korobi Roy, a young woman from Kolkata who crisscrosses the United States on a personal quest, Divakaruni, too, took to planes, trains, and automobiles, from one coast to another and back again to reconnect with her readers.

“It’s great to be home,” she confesses, “although I’m getting very little done.” She has less than a month left before classes start again – she teaches writing at the University of Houston – and has started “just a little” that waiting next novel. She’s recently gone digital, tinkering with a new personal website, which she proudly “overhauled” completely on her own. Her two college-age sons are home for the summer, so for a few more weeks, they get most of her attention – and her home cooking!

Since she published her first collection of poems, Black Candle, in 1991, Divakaruni has managed a near annual output across multiple platforms, from poetry, to short stories (Arranged Marriage, The Unknown Errors of Our Lives), to middle-grade titles (Neela: Victory Song and the three-volume Brotherhood of the Conch trilogy), and her best-known, bestselling medium, adult novels including The Mistress of Spices, Queen of Dreams, and One Amazing Thing. A novel and short story have been transformed for the stage, while two other novels and another short story have had film debuts. In the latest glitterati film news, her penultimate novel, One Amazing Thing, just got optioned by Hollywood.

Earlier this year in March, Divakaruni added her first children’s picture book to her growing oeuvre: Grandma and the Great Gourd: A Bengali Folktale, based on a favorite story her beloved grandfather shared in her youth, now vibrantly illustrated collage-style by artist Susy Pilgrim Waters. As celebratory as Divakaruni is, the timing of the book’s publication remains bittersweet for the whole family: Juno, the beloved family dog who has been Divakaruni’s personal muse for years – “when I am mired in writer’s block, I rub her belly” – passed away a few months ago. Juno herself “inspired” Divakaruni to write this clever rendition of Grandma, about an audacious grandmother who braves the dangerous jungles to visit her daughter and grandchildren, protected from afar by her beloved canine companions. “‘What’s life without a little adventure?’” Grandma muses; clearly she’s channeling some of Divakaruni’s far-reaching energy.

That “can-do” attitude is clearly displayed in Divakaruni’s seventh adult novel, Oleander Girl. Korobi, who was protected, coddled, and carefully raised by her traditional grandparents since she lost both her parents at birth, decides, at just nineteen, she will venture beyond everything she has ever known in order to find out who she really is. Her grandfather has suddenly died, but his death finally frees Korobi – and her hesitant grandmother – to discover the truth about Korobi’s parents and their long-buried relationship. Although Korobi is engaged to one of Kolkata’s most eligible young men, she realizes she cannot enter marriage without having a better understanding of her Indian future, which is only possible by discovering her American past. The question looms: when she returns home, if she returns home, who will she be to the people who love her most?

The first thing I must know about Oleander Girl is how you chose the name – Anuradha Roy – for Korobi’s mother? A real-life Anuradha Roy wrote An Atlas of Impossible Longing and The Folded Earth. Is your character’s name mere coincidence?
It’s a coincidence. It’s a fairly common name in Kolkata – I had several friends in school who were Anuradhas! And Roy, too, is a very old name, which goes back a century at least.

When we talked almost a decade ago about Queen of Dreams, it was your favorite among your novels. You’ve had several titles since. Do you feel the same? I know choosing a favorite is something akin to naming a favorite child, so I’m asking as delicately as possible…
Yes, it’s tricky to choose a favorite. But right now it is Oleander Girl, because I gave myself some new challenges in this novel and was pleased at how they turned out. For one, I wanted a book that captured the pulsating heart of contemporary Kolkata, caught between the old and the new, and this was a challenge because although I visit regularly, I haven’t lived in Kolkata in thirty years. The other thing I wanted to do is to showcase multiple narrators of different genders. The main narrator (in first person) is Korobi, the heroine who goes on a journey across the world in search of a secret that will transform her. But I was particularly pleased at how the male voices – especially that of Asif, the chauffeur, turned out. It allowed me to weave together the complex class interactions that are such a big part of Indian society.  [... click here for more]

Author interviewFeature: “An Interview with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni,” Bookslut.com, August 2013

Readers: Children, Adult

Published: 2013

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A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Fine BalanceReading four novels, each set in a major Indian city, one after another over a single week or so, has made the stories feel as if they might overlap, dovetail, conflate, creating quite the enriching literary experience. In the midst of A Fine Balance, I also read (oh so blessedly because it was assigned for review) Jhumpa Lahiri’s upcoming The Lowland, then continued with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Oleander Girl (interview upcoming) on the page, and Jeet Thayil’s Narcoplis (finally!) stuck in the ears. Both Lowland and Oleander happen mostly in Calcutta; Balance is centered on an unnamed city not unlike Bombay, which is where Narcoplis is setRead together, the four titles formed a quatrain that intently examines the last half-century of Indian political, socioeconomic, and even literary history.

But I’ve digressed (again …). Back to Mistry’s “City by the Sea,” where four lonely souls create an unlikely family-of-sorts when circumstances eventually gather them under a single shared roof, in spite of the political, social, and religious boundaries working relentlessly to keep them separately isolated. India in the 1970s is in the midst of violent upheaval, in a state of emergency declared by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Dina Dalal, whose apartment will finally become a home, has been a widow exponentially longer than she was a wife. With her eyesight failing and her options diminishing as she enters middle age, she welcomes a college student, Maneck Kohlah, the son of a childhood schoolfriend, as a paying guest. He arrives on Dina’s doorstep at the same time as Ishvar and Omprakash Darji, uncle-and-nephew tailors who have come in answer to her employment request.

Dina and Maneck are Parsi, of ‘good’ families with long histories, whose lives are forced to change rapidly as their country metamorphosizes around them. Since her father’s sudden death when she was a young child, Dina has tried to escape her conservative older brother’s demanding control. Maneck, a beloved only child, mistakes his parents’ desire to ensure him a future of multiple choices (in spite of his father’s ironic unwillingness to change even to save the family’s business) for rejection and abandonment. Ishvar and Omprakash, both born of the Untouchable caste, are the only survivors in their Hindu family of a heinous religiously-fueled purging, and attempt to find new lives in the big city.

The ‘fine balance’ of these four lives – with a vivid cast of many others around them – are revealed over 600 intimate pages (or 24.5 hours stuck in the ears as read by John Lee who, as Orhan Pamuk’s usual narrator, takes a couple of hours to get used to here, I must admit). That said, please do not let those numbers deter or distract you in any way … once begun, you’ll quickly realize that you’ll want nothing more than to go through such committed lengths in order to finally (bittersweetly) finish.

Readers: Adult

Published: 1996

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I Am an Executioner: Love Stories by Rajesh Parameswaran

I Am an ExecutionerTo put a word so violent as Executioner next to a muzak-soundtrack-inducing subtitle like Love Stories, on a cover sporting a cutesy, heart-shaped tiger’s tail is exactly the sort of unsettling experience you can expect from Rajesh Parameswaran‘s uniquely original debut story collection.

Animals take control of their narratives in a third of the nine stories here: in “The Infamous Bengal Ming,” a tiger newly smitten with his zookeeper unintentionally becomes a gory killer than a gentle lover; in “Elephants in Captivity (Part One),” a captive pachyderm’s hurriedly penned (trunked?) memoir is presented in translation from its original “Englaphant,” with more footnoted annotations than original text; in “On the Banks of Table River (Planet Lucina, Andromeda Galaxy, AD 2319),” the vicious mating rituals of oversized insects with each other, as well as humans, are revealed in churning detail.

While love among different species might be less than compatible, cavorting with one’s own kind is also no guarantee of ‘happily ever after.’ In the eponymous “I Am an Executioner,” the titular protagonist works desperately to start a relationship with his shocked new wife In “Demons,” a wife’s deathly wish towards her overbearing husband shockingly comes true – and then what is she to do? In “Narrative of an Agent 97-4702,” spouses can only share lives of half-truths and repeated deceptions.

When love morphs into power-play, tragedy inevitably ensues, from a failing computer salesman posing as a medical doctor in “The Strange Career of Dr. Raju Gopalarajan,” to a railway employee marrying up in “Four Rajeshes,” to a production designer’s desire to claim directorial control in “Bibhutibhushan Mallik’s Final Storyboard.”

Parameswaran’s imagination makes startling twists and manages to achieve unanticipated feats of bizarre fancy. A little shock to our jaded systems can only be a good thing – uncomfortable laughter, sudden squeamishness, unrestrained gasps all included!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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The City of Devi by Manil Suri + Author Interview

Let’s go back about seven years.

So a writer walks into a bar. It’s dark, but thankfully not smoky. The majority of the people there are more bookish (including Booker-ish!) than biker brutish. The writer finds a drink, and is standing slightly off the side with a couple of companions.

The trendy bar is the venue where the venerable Smithsonian Institution’s Asian Pacific American Center (my former day job) and its co-sponsor, the Network of South Asian Professionals, are hosting a pre-event welcome reception in anticipation of the annual South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival that begins in just over 12 hours. The close friends and admirers of four notable writers (including Kiran Desai, fresh from her 2006 Booker win) and two filmmakers with a debut film each, have gathered to celebrate. Among the guests, although not slated for the Smithsonian stage (that year – his turn comes two years later), is Manil Suri.

At first sight, he’s exactly as I expected the author of an exquisite, nuanced literary novel – The Death of Vishnu, his 2001 award-winning debut about the memorable inhabitants of a Bombay apartment building – who also happens to be a university mathematics professor, might look like. He’s elegant, genteel, and soft-spoken; he has an ever-so-slight hint of nervous energy about him, but that could be because his mind is moving so quickly that the rest of his body needs to contain his excess brain cells somehow.

So much for first impressions.

By the time he takes the Smithsonian stage in 2008, he’s published the second installment of his planned trilogy, The Age of Shiva, which features a headstrong young woman who becomes an overly protective mother to her less than appreciative only son. Suri’s literary star has been highly polished over the years since his debut, as have his creative impulses. What’s making the Internet rounds just in time for his Smithsonian appearance is a most revealing – campy, shocking, delightfully entertaining – video of Suri at the Brooklyn Book Festival, garbed in elaborately embroidered red drag, channeling his inner Bollywood diva. He certainly proved he can do more than just write bestsellers and teach a mean linear algebra class.

This month, Suri completes his promised trilogy with The City of Devi. Kiran Desai provides the most prominent blurb: “The City of Devi combines, in a magician’s feat, the thrill of Bollywood with the pull of a thriller… Manil Suri’s bravest and most passionate book.” If Vishnu was subtle and controlled, and Shiva impetuous and emotional, then Devi proves to be a psychedelic, surreal overthrow of expectations and conventions.

The end of the world – at least in one part of India – is nigh. The apocalypse is coming in four days, delivered via nuclear bomb directly to the city of Bombay. For the first time in centuries, the teeming city is virtually empty as its citizens flee in hopes of finding shelter somewhere, somehow. Sarita is one of the few left behind, frantically searching for her missing husband Karun who walked out of their apartment – into global chaos – claiming he was attending a conference.

Meanwhile, a mysterious young man seems to be following her: Jaz trails Sarita, his hopes also focused on Karun… and what will happen if they actually find him? In a lawless new world in which a single religious label is enough to excuse murder, cause war, and threaten complete annihilation, Sarita and Jaz are running toward true love. Just who belongs to whom will be a wee small detail they’ll have to work out, after they survive gangs, kidnappings, glowing goddess servants, elephants, a levitating multi-armed goddess-in-training with quite the nasty temper, and an evil thug with a bit of a God-complex. Oh, and did I mention the steamy sex scenes? Somebody (or rather, some bodies) must practice how to repopulate the world after annihilation, even if reproduction isn’t the actual goal. Practice makes perfect, right?

Did you plan Vishnu, Shiva, and Devi as a trilogy from the beginning?
The plan for a trilogy happened after I wrote the first book, The Death of Vishnu. I realized there were three deities in the Hindu trinity, Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma, so why not a book for each? By the time I tried to back out of this rash announcement, my publisher was already excited about the idea, so my agent told me I was writing a trilogy whether I liked it or not. After the second book, it became clear that what I had was a triptych, rather than a trilogy (since the characters and plots were unconnected), and by the time I started writing the third, poor Brahma (who’s supposed to create the universe in a single breath) had been shunted aside by the mother goddess Devi. Devi does make more sense than Brahma, because she has a lot more worshippers than he does. Besides, in the words of Karun’s father from the book, “Creation comes from the womb, not the breath.” And, of course, there’s Mumbai, which is a common thread in all three books. The patron goddess of the city is Mumbadevi. [... click here for more]

Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Manil Suri,” Bookslut.com, February 2013

Readers: Adult

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The No-Dogs-Allowed Rule by Kashmira Sheth, illustrated by Carl Pearce

Ishan Mehra has CDS … that is, Canine Deficiency Syndrome. More than anything in the world, he wants a dog. But getting his mother – indisputably already the family’s “alpha dog” – to agree is proving to be quite the challenge.

He tries to elicit the help of the rest of his family pack, namely his older brother Sunil and their father, but Mom firmly retains veto power. Besides, she doesn’t even like their neighbor’s lovable dog, Oggie, who turns out to be Ishan’s only opportunity for much longed-for canine companionship.

Ishan is one imaginative, active kid. He sets off the smoke detector making his own original version of his mother’s favorite parathas, thinks she’ll appreciate the ants as much as she loves the flowers on which they’re crawling, hides every possible pair of his father’s glasses when he’s trying to work, makes elaborate train scenes using the desserts intended to feed anniversary party guests, and indelibly decorates the newly painted family wall with cut-out pictures of dogs. He certainly gets his mother’s attention … but not necessarily her cooperation. How will he ever get his furry best friend?

Kashmira Sheth‘s first novel for younger readers is filled with mischievous, delightful fun (although as a mother, I’m also thinking thank goodness my children’s antics were never quite as creative as young Ishan’s!). The often goofy, light-hearted No-Dogs marks quite a departure from Sheth’s previous titles which have dealt with difficult issues, from tortuous child labor (Boys without Names), to childhood marriage and widowhood (Keeping Corner), to arranged marriage and debilitating cultural expectations (Koyal Dark, Mango Sweet), to jarring immigration (Blue Jasmine which won Sheth the Paul Zindel First Novel Award).

Until now, Sheth has also set her novels, fully or in part, in her native India; No-Dogs is her first based wholly Stateside, with Oshkosh, Wisconsin-born-and-raised Ishan whose “parents came from India a long time ago.” Sheth gently, expertly weaves in the occasional moment or two touching on cultural differences – names, language, food – but her tone remains cheerful and humorous throughout. Be warned: children with CDS will surely giggle and laugh through No-Dogs, all the while learning new tricks to convince obstinate parents the incomparable value of a furry, four-legged family addition.

Readers: Children, Middle Grade

Published: 2012

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Aerogrammes and Other Stories by Tania James

Thankfully, ‘sophomore slump’ is not part of Tania James‘ vocabulary. In fact, her second book is even better than her 2009 debut novel Atlas of Unknowns. And as rare as consistency can be in collections, James manages to sustain an unwavering level of resonating quality throughout each of the nine stories in Aerogrammes: each story is a world unto itself, standing fully formed with little lacking.

“What to Do with Henry,” the collection’s second story, stands out as a personal favorite; it was such a surprise of lingering poignancy that I’m actually loathe to tell you much about it – readers deserve to discover it without any intervention. Suffice it to say, “Henry” is a strikingly haunting tale of an unconventional family’s disconnect in the midst of our overconnected, global world.

Indeed, that sense of disconnect emanates from all nine stories, as characters criss-cross the globe from England to India to Sierra Leone to cities across the U.S.: a pair of Indian wrestler brothers seeks glory in London in “Lion and Panther in London,” a young girl tries to understand her estranged father who has returned to the family from Dubai in “The Gulf,” two elderly residents with vastly different backgrounds try to ease the isolation of their lives with each other in the titular “Aerogrammes,” a single, middle-aged dance teacher makes a desperate hypocrite of herself in “Light and Luminous,” and a struggling young writer tries to come to terms with his older brother’s devastating new paralysis.

I admit that Aerogrammes took a couple of months to read … albeit with good reason. With less than 200 pages, the slim volume moves far too quickly, which means a patient, well-paced savoring of story by story might be the best mode for lasting appreciation.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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