My sister gave me this book as a gift, and I read it based on its compelling, if incomplete, description, which bills this collection as an examination of the challenges gay Indian Americans face as they “grappl[e] with the issues that concern all gay men — social acceptance, the right to pursue happiness, and the heavy toll of listening to their hearts and bodies [as] they confront an elder generation’s attachment to old-country ways.”
Sociological research describes the perception of same-sex sexual relationships in the “old country” — India — as ranging from ambivalence to outright hostility, and same-sex sexual activity was illegal until 2009. The United States was not far ahead of the game on this issue. Laws criminalizing the private sexual conduct of same-sex couples existed in several states until 2003, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Lawrence v. Texas, with dissents from three justices, two of whom are still on the court. Discriminatory marriage laws* and insufficient anti-discrimination laws remain in many states, too, including in my home state of Pennsylvania, where 12 state legislators and an amusingly named business (Creative Pultrusions) had the audacity to sue a gay couple for attempting to obtain a marriage license in 2004. So, while American culture tends to have more progressive views on dating and sexuality in general, there may be more similarities between the cultures in these two countries than people often realize.
Mehta’s collection of stories features gay Indian-American men, often in relationships, but it also deals with other aspects of cultural conflicts between the Old World and New that concern immigrants and second-generation Americans, whether gay or not. In addition to touching on poverty in India, caretaking of isolated elderly relatives, and citizenship issues, the book features the impact of the Old World’s patriarchal norms on daughters-in-law and mothers as well as on their gay sons living in the United States.
In some stories, the main character’s sexuality is central to the story, but in many others — despite the cover description — the fact that the protagonist is gay seems incidental to the story rather than the focus. The cast of characters (slightly out of order) includes an emotionally abusive grandfather adhering to the old ways, a savvy local Indian tour guide, a downtrodden daughter-in-law fulfilling her “duty,” a displaced grandmother longing for home, a man with a compulsive disorder, a closeted gay man trying to fool everyone about everything, and an openly gay son whose loving mother asks naively, “Who is the woman [in the relationship]?”
This collection is a captivating look at cultural conflict and traditional patriarchal norms through the lens of fictional members of Indian-American families. It serves as a reminder of some of the cultural challenges immigrants and their children face as they adjust to living in new communities, a lesson that those of us who work with these communities should keep in mind (as I discussed in a previous post, When Do Books Stop Changing Our Lives?).
Not only are these stories interesting from a sociological perspective, but they are also a pleasure to read because of Mehta’s clean prose and elegant humor, which lighten the otherwise weighty subject matter. I recommend it.
*On December 7, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear two marriage equality cases, one about the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and the other about California’s Prop 8.