#DesiReads: Manini Nayar reads from her story collection, Being Here

Desi Books Ep 77 w/ Manini Nayar Desi Books


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Hello and welcome to Episode 77 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.

Today, in the #DesiReads segment, we have Manini Nayar reading from her story collection, Being Here.

#DESIREADS WITH MANINI NAYARINTRODUCTION

Manini Nayar is an associate teaching professor of English and women’s studies at Penn State. Her award-winning stories have been broadcast by the BBC World Service and published in Boston Review, Shenandoah, Bellevue Literary Review, London Magazine, Stand, The Malahat Review, and Alaska Quarterly Review.

In Being HereManini Nayar brings together a finely crafted collection of interconnected stories that follow “the daily miracle” of her characters’ inner lives. Nayar brings to the forefront immigrant women making their way in the world as mothers, wives, outliers, and rebels. She writes about their insistence on autonomy, the absurdity of the struggles they face, and their occasional triumphs.

These stories loop and double back across time and locations, linking characters through memory while illuminating lives forever changed by an offhand phrase, an act of will, or an unsought encounter. Readers will meet a wide array of characters, but it is Nina with whom they will become most familiar, as she appears throughout the collection: first, as a young wife brought to the US by her husband; second, as an older sister; and third, as a divorced mother whose daughter’s fateful rebellion remains the mysterious and incandescent center of the stories. Nayar’s exploration of inward lives as the locus of dramatic action and events allows both characters and readers to grapple with simply being. In doing so, Nayar reveals the performative aspects of language—particularly its ability to create, destroy, and heal connections.

In poetic and eloquent prose, Being Here constructs a luminous collage of restless immigrants united by their shared deference to a brave new journey. In their burgeoning voices, another America is found, both latent and radiantly alive.

On a personal note, I’ll add that, in the last decade or so, we’ve seen a few such story collections focusing on immigrant lives. So much so that, you know, when I wrote my own collection, I was very deliberate in trying to avoid what we have seen as the usual immigrant story. But Manini Nayar’s stories here are so immersive and profound because of her poetically restrained language. I thought that there is—to a certain extent—a Lahiristic quality. But the vulnerability here in how she shows the journeys of these restless immigrants—that feels more raw and more real to me.

Manini Nayar’s Being Here is a poetic and eloquent story collection that constructs a luminous collage of restless immigrants united by their shared deference to a brave new journey. A reading by the author in #DesiReads @DesiBooks

The transcript of this excerpt is also up on the Desi Books website.

And now, here’s Manini Nayar.


DESIREADS WITH MANINI NAYAR

[Excerpted with permission from Being Here: Stories by Manini Nayar. Copyright © 2022 Manini Nayar.]

Isfahan Is Half the World

“You can pack a bag, fill it up with wonder and clean underwear, why not, it’s in the scheme of things. If schemes were things, which they are not. Schemes, like history, are broken stories . . .” Manini Nayar reading from Being Here #DesiReads @DesiBooks

TWO TOWERS, A purple banana, a linen shirt, a clock without a face, a woman at a ticket window, a plane, all of which together could make up a Dali painting but not a history.

You can pack a bag, fill it up with wonder and clean underwear, why not, it’s in the scheme of things. If schemes were things, which they are not. Schemes, like history, are broken stories, full of what-ifs and almosts. Schema: a representation of a plan or theory in the form of an outline or model. In Kantian philosophy: a conception of what is common to all members of a class; a general or essential type or form. Travel is schemata, models of possibility; travelers, a conception of belonging within a type. A type that doesn’t belong, even in theory. I scheme, you scheme, we all . . . But ice cream melts. Like models and hopes of belonging. Instead you scrabble in the dust and kiss the earth. This is where your feet are now.

I got off the British Airways plane in New York in September 2002, still eating that rancid banana, all crumpled in my linen shirt and jeans, a smashed travel clock in my luggage (though I wasn’t to know of this until the unpacking, the disordered unpacking, in an airport hotel room). There was a woman at the subway ticket booth, scowling. She didn’t welcome me to America. She said, “You can’t eat here,” though she didn’t explain the reason why.

I am a painting in that moment, without history. A set of daubs and squiggles on a subway canvas. Arrival is an art of its own unmaking.

A tower, not part of schemata. Out of the blue, literally. But in itself, a thing alone, a history of the moment in its blaze of light.

.

By the time I stepped off that plane, NineEleven was already a single word. A word so full of its own weight it sank into silence as it was spoken. This was not always the way it was seen elsewhere. Back in India the word was lighter, fiery, prone to combustion. A word that implied that the fate of the world was both immediate and distant, like overhanging scaffolding on a broken beam. From afar, the word held mystery and threat; in America it was a keening. To me, the word meant the impolite ticket-booth woman, swaths of black and white and brown faces pretending they were part of the crowds, just
people with suitcases and a place to go.

By the time I stepped off that plane, NineEleven was already a single word. A word so full of its own weight it sank into silence as it was spoken.” Manini Nayar reading from Being Here: Stories. #DesiReads @DesiBooks

And behind it all, chaos and sorrow, but of a kind cinematic, in a blurred and parallel realm. Time magazine covers of somber men, and more immediately a sharp-eyed customs man: “What’s in your bag, ma’am?” And the meekness of my response. Just papers, money, a passport, cosmetics, a clock. No perfume bottles, no cologne. “You can move on.” SevenEleven had been the word once in parlance. Uncles, family friends, the gardener’s affluent brother-in-law. They were SevenEleven men, each with a convenience store in New Jersey or Indiana and an additional bank account in Mumbai, Calcutta, Pune. People who traded candy bars and toiletries over counters to strangers with change and cars growling in the lot, motor running. SevenEleven was the gateway to America. NineEleven shut the door.

Or that was the story I was told. Be very careful. Sikhs have been killed for wearing turbans. A man in jail for spelling his name out loud: “T for Terrorist, E for Ebrahim, K for Kalashnikov . . .” He thought his high jinks made him appealing to the airport authorities. He was from Ludhiana. Guantánamo sounded like a gecko or a Mexican song. Not so, he found out, the wrong way. He was the cautionary fault. Watch your step, be a good girl, visit Disney World, get a mortgage. A husband, maybe, but not necessarily. There are suitable options here as well.

My parents waved me off at the New Delhi airport, then moved again, to Ooty, after my father tired of northern India and found a small brick home up in the Nilgiris from where they could see tea plantations tumble down the hills through blue-lit mists. In the mornings they arose to quiet cups of tea and the newspapers. My childhood was their photo album, leafed through in moments, set aside. That was the past, and they were too contained for nostalgia. The present was what they sought, in walks around the tea plantations, in get-togethers with other retirees. The world came in through narratives from which they stayed remote. But yet narratives became their mode of connection and concern. Letters flew across the seas. Emails morphed into ceaseless counsel. Remember to work hard. Be watchful. Sikh men, Guantánamo. Be safe. Visit old friends, in Indiana, Pennsylvania, California. Nina, Anu, Maitreya. Maybe Siddharth, a nice fellow, really. Don’t listen to gossip. Keep those contacts intact, you never know when you’ll need a helping hand, or, even better, be one. Be strong, successful. Make us proud.

“But yet narratives became their mode of connection and concern. Letters flew across the seas. Emails morphed into ceaseless counsel. Remember to work hard. Be watchful.” Manini Nayar reading from Being Here: Stories #DesiReads @DesiBooks

I left them lonely, waving goodbye with a red checkered scarf before boarding the airplane, armed with the promise of a graduate fellowship at Syracuse, two hundred dollars, luggage, and a list of to-do’s. Here was my list, my private conception for belonging:

Baywatch
McDonald’s
Macy’s
The Mall of America
Baseball (and why it was not cricket)
Cartoon character fuzzy house slippers
Pineapple pizza
Crime (but not directly)
Everything in Washington DC
The United Nations
Dustin Hoffman
God (the American version, in good clothing)

I can’t say I had much success with the list apart from the pizza and McDonald’s, neither of which required effort but could be brought to your door or requested over a squawky receptor. Baywatch was no longer playing, and the slippers gave me a sense of squashing things underfoot. And meeting God in your Sunday best was disconcerting, rather like an appointment with a criminal defense lawyer who barely believed your protestations but felt obliged to anyway. Dustin Hoffman had grown old.

So it’s fair to say that my America didn’t quite work out as planned. Except for work at graduate school and the friends who were inevitable in a crowded dorm.

What sort of Indian name is Talina? demanded James, my dormroom neighbor. Is it Sanskrit? He was told all Indian names have origins in mythology, trailing weights of impossible expectation. He’d heard of Sanjay Gupta and Pico Iyer. Maybe a Raj or two, a Kumar and a Patel. The likes of Amartya Sen and Sundar Pichai were still down the road.

Not very, I admitted. Sort of made up. My father wanted to upend the status quo.

That made no sense but sounded pretty important.

News to me, said James cheerfully, and didn’t challenge the information. He was a Sunday-best sort of fellow, live and let live if you weren’t the same. All God’s children. He offered me half of his lunch sandwich, and a year later a diamond ring.

.

I think sometimes of that man from Ludhiana. I give him a history and a future. I fill in gaps and add flourishes. His is my other story. So he comes from a village where the Green Revolution was in bloom until the subsidies grew scarcer, the competition greater. He couldn’t compete against the agribusiness conglomerates that became a byword in Indian economic restructuring in the nineties. He decided to take his chances with a brother-in-law in New York who ran his own taxi service. The man from Ludhiana applied for the immigration lottery; he was chosen. What happens next is anybody’s guess. Perhaps he moved in with his sister and brother-in-law after the stint in jail and a host of warnings from the local police. He bought a taxi, then three more, with help from the brother-in-law. He developed a side business in imported spices. He married a woman from the Bronx, and they had two bonny children, a boy and a girl. He bought a house in Queens, two bedrooms and a tiny porch out front. He learned to barbecue pork ribs and flew the Stars and Stripes outside his door to allay the suspicions of neighbors, and so his turban would become a sign of melting-pot solidarity, not a threat. All his neighbors thought so too. They agreed he was one of the good ones. His son was partial to the Knicks; his daughter became a popular high school cheerleader. They all lived happily ever after.

Or not.

Perhaps he stayed in jail. Perhaps the authorities found probable cause for terroristic intentions. Perhaps he was deported.

Or perhaps, as neither extreme seems likely, he found work as a part-time doorman on the Upper East Side where beautiful women breezed past him, through the shimmering glass doors, through the shining foyer, up the speedy elevator, into a different ether. He smiled and learned the tricks of murmured compliance—“Good morning, sir (or madam), what a beautiful day it is today!” He softened his growling consonants to please the American ear. He was the right sort of immigrant, grateful and upbeat. One day, the beautiful women said to each other on their way to the elevator, he will have a fleet of taxis! Such a charming man.

I try out written drafts of all three versions.

I show James my Ludhiana-man stories, but he is unimpressed, even bored. Not very good, he says, not unkindly and in his best courtly manner. Just another immigrant story. Full of clichés, really.

My own story loops an easy arc from A to Z without much drama in between. The in-between is baskets of unwashed laundry, trips to assorted Greek islands in the summers, chicken biryani recipes, an unfortunate encounter with a drunken sailor on a Chicago bus, two job offers, a near-cancer scare, and a beat-up Toyota. The stuff of life, really. Belonging within the type. Nothing that resets a broken clock.

.

I married James and never regretted it. We are older now, and other than an unexpected affair in midlife, James has remained a good partner. Our marriage is an agreeable constant. We smile at each other over breakfast cups of coffee. We reach out our hands at Christmas and give thanks for our blessings. We send Christmas cards to everyone we know, even people we meet briefly on vacations. We celebrate birthdays and anniversaries with cake and fervent declarations. We live without distress. Our ranch-style house in Eau Claire has a flowing yard with red geraniums in a pot outside the front door. A blue-and-white-striped awning over the deck. A barbecue with room for five steaks and a single row of potatoes. We hang an Etsy sign on our front door that says:

IN THIS HOUSE, WE BELIEVE:
BLACK LIVES MATTER
WOMEN’S RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS
NO HUMAN IS ILLEGAL
LOVE IS LOVE
SCIENCE IS REAL
KINDNESS IS EVERYTHING

.

We see these signs spring up everywhere on immaculate front lawns. We tell ourselves we are good people. We agree we are one among millions. Nothing more, or less. When Minneapolis was burning (yes, one among many cities), I thought of SevenEleven. Not the falling towers but the frightened men huddled in their corner shops, waiting for ICE or the police to beat them out of hiding. People with mounds of basmati rice to sell, and mango pickles on a shelf. Mosques emptied and hearts in quarantine.

My man from Ludhiana has become a ghostly presence on the borders of the city. He will not go away.

.

“We are all now writing stories. Sometimes in memory, sometimes in air. Our stories scatter over continents . . . Our words tell us we will survive.” Manini Nayar reading from Being Here: Stories #DesiReads @DesiBooks

We are all now writing stories. Sometimes in memory, sometimes in air. The wind lifts and passes us in gusts. Our stories scatter over continents, camouflaged histories we cannot share. We await the apocalypse, or at least a bloodless street and a safe vaccine. Our words tell us we will survive. Our fingers knit and purl, purl and knit. The towers fall, and they are falling still.


Manini Nayar’s Being Here is a poetic and eloquent story collection that constructs a luminous collage of restless immigrants united by their shared deference to a brave new journey. A reading by the author in #DesiReads @DesiBooks


You’ve been listening to episode 77 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in. Today’s #DesiReads was with Manini Nayar reading from her debut story collection, Being Here.

Episode 78 will be up shortly. Follow on Twitter @desibooks, Instagram @desi.books, Facebook @desibooksfb. Tag the accounts if you have requests or suggestions. Please go to the website, desibooks.co, if you’d like to sign up for the free, weekly newsletter. And please share this via social media to support the writer and help raise the tide of South Asian literature. Thank you.

Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.


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