In his convincing debut collection of short fiction, Quarantine (Harper Perennial 2011), Rahul Mehta chronicles the lives of openly gay Indian-American men, their disappointments and betrayals, and the hard-earned personal connections they come to cherish. In an intimate, confessional style, Mehta’s characters dwell on botched relationships, on their romantic, familial, and cultural failures, and on the difficulty of sharing space with another person. Most of the stories focus on Western-born children and young adults bored by Indian social and religious traditions—rich kids, overfed on pop culture, who have trouble connecting with those around them, whatever their ethnicity. For his part, Rahul Mehta is a technician of the first order. While his writing touts few linguistic flourishes, his storytelling is superb.
The title story follows a young Indian-American man visiting his family in West Virginia, accompanied by his boyfriend Jeremy. The narrator’s visit is not without pretext, as he intends to teach a traditionalist and verbally abusive grandfather a lesson about what it feels like to be made to feel small. “You will only see him the way he is,” the narrator says in the collection’s opening line, “not the way he was.” When the two arrive in West Virginia, the grandfather, Bapuji, appears from his room to greet them, his slippers frayed, his bare ankles “crinkled like brown paper bags.” The narrator must lower himself when Bapuji appears, performing pranaam, a ritual of respecting elders, that requires him to touch his grandfather’s feet. He gets money afterwards. “I never know what to do with [the money],” the narrator tells us. “I don’t want to accept it, but I can’t refuse.”
The story turns as the narrator and Jeremy accompany Bapuji to the Palace of Gold, a Hare Krishna commune on the Ohio River. The narrator spent summers there as a boy, but the palace has fallen into disrepair, with most of its gold leaf flaked off, a nearby town “even more depressed than I remember.” There are cow pastures, white men with shaved heads, women in saris and hiking boots. The narrator and Jeremy stroll along “a pond flanked by fifty-foot-high statues of Radha and Krishna dancing,” but Bapuji goes to the temple and leads the aarti chants, raising a silver platter with coconuts, flowers, and burning incense that appears too heavy for him. “He is smiling and gesturing and he has more energy than I have ever seen,” the narrator tell us. As they drive away from the Palace of Gold, Bapuji tells his grandson that he wishes to stay at the commune, and it’s then that the narrator loses his cool and verbally strikes out. (Some of the best drama in Quarantine takes place in cars—here, as well as in the story “Yours”—three men on a road trip, unable to escape each other.) To shock his grandfather, the narrator declares that he and Jeremy are lovers, “like you and Motiba were.” Adding, to Bapuji, “You are the worst person I know. You have caused nothing but pain in my family.” The narrator nearly crashes into an oncoming car, he’s so distracted and energized by finally telling off his grandfather. He reveals his homosexuality as a way to spite his grandfather, and to show that the old ways of living are over with—but he is the one who suffers most from his actions, as he is without compassion and unable to forgive. He doesn’t understand his family, and, despite their best intentions, they can’t understand his strife, either.
The antiheroes in Quarantine are mostly loving and accepting, even though they don’t understand the lives of those they’ve been paired with. In “Floating,” a couple vacationing to India tries to do right by an urban guide named Rajesh, a young man in a “form-fitting T-shirt, Diesel jeans,” only to find out later that the boy is a con artist with an erotic listing on a website called Men of India. In “Citizen,” an elderly woman named Ranjan leaves the subcontinent to move in with her American children, but then must pass a citizenship exam after 9/11 or risk being deported. She speaks no English, and the only person she ever talks to, her grandson Pradeep, speaks no Hindi. Regardless, he helps her study American television, portraits of George W. Bush, and the national anthem to prepare for the exam. Despite Pradeep’s best efforts and the friendship that blossoms, Ranjan has no hope of passing.
Quarantine caused a stir in India, where it was released in the summer of 2010, and it’s easy to see why. With its frank depiction of sexuality, its openness about the confusion felt by Indian-Americans, and its characters’ mistrust of tradition, Quarantine offers a candid appraisal of what it means to be a second-generation Indian-American, and particularly a homosexual Indian-American. One of the collections’ best stories, “The Better Person,” illustrates well the divisions between perception, hope, and reality. As his brother’s interracial, interfaith marriage is destroyed by mental illness, and as his boyfriend moves out after mutual infidelities, the narrator tells us that Hindi lacks a word for divorce, and that in the minds of his Indian relatives, “divorce is a Western concept and the English word should be used.” Going further, he wonders if there exists a Hindi word for homosexuality, reflecting on his own place among the cultures. “I doubted it,” he says. “I doubted, even, that the English word was used. For them, the concept is unspeakable.”
Theodore Wheeler’s fiction has appeared in Best New American Voices, The Kenyon Review, Boulevard, The Cincinnati Review, and Confrontation, among other venues. He is a senior fiction reader at Prairie Schooner.
Harper Perennial, 2011