Quarantine: An Enlightening Collection of Stories about Cultural Conflict

Quarantine ThumbnailRahul Mehta’s collection of short stories, Quarantine (2011), is a fascinating look at cultural conflict far broader in focus than the description on the cover implies.

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.

13 thoughts on “Quarantine: An Enlightening Collection of Stories about Cultural Conflict

  1. Pingback: A Good Book & a Cup of Tea (a Giveaway!) | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  2. This is such a polar issue in many cultures. Religion kicks in and civil liberties are ignored. Our country is diverse in this area too. I think, live and let live, but many do not feel this way. I cannot imagine living in another country having such staunch views on a human experience. It is interesting how the book looks deeper too, “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.”

    1. Yeah, equal rights and anti-discrimination measures remain controversial in the minds of many. My part of Pennsylvania is more progressive, but the rest of the state is not, thus emboldening twelve of our legislators to sue a gay couple for nothing more than trying to make a legal commitment to each other. We would all be better off if everyone just minded their own business.

  3. Enjoyed the additional info. you bring into your review of this book. It is interesting as I started off my day writing about the new Diagnosis Book for Mental Illness (http://alesiablogs.wordpress.com/2012/12/03/redefining-mental-illness) that our Doctors use. It has only been revised 5 times over a 60 year period since its inception. In 1973 removal of homosexuality occurred. That was 40 years ago! It is important to note when something is written as “the law” in a medical book of diagnosis, it may take years to remove the stigma all ready occurred.

    1. Thanks for stopping by! As you said in your post: “Change is not easy.” Sadly, some people STILL believe that homosexuality is a mental illness that can and should be treated.

  4. This sounds like a really interesting set of stories. I like the idea that some of them have sexuality as a central issue but that others simply happen to have a main character who is gay.

  5. What bothers me is that the U.S., which has always been touted as a progressive, visionary country, has remained backward in something as important as equal rights. Many other countries are far ahead of us in this crucial area.

    1. Yeah, but I do believe we’re headed in a good direction on this issue. People often don’t realize how different their rights are depending on where they live. Some states give their citizens more rights than others.

  6. You never fail to introduce me to fascinating reading I probably wouldn’t stumble upon on my own. Thank you! I’ve added this to my list. “Creative Pultrusions?” Humorous. I’m sure there’s a sister company here in intolerant-Indiana. Thankfully I’m on the northern side of the state which (thanks in no small part to its proximity to Chicago) is more progressive. Thanks for the great suggestion!

    1. Thanks! I hope you enjoy it. It’s definitely an interesting read. My husband’s family (before they moved to Mississippi, where my husband grew up) lived in Indiana, and it definitely sounds like a more socially conservative culture than where we live in southeastern Pennsylvania. The United States (like India) is large and diverse and there are many pockets of tolerance next to less tolerant areas.

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