Writing Across Borders
By Krupa ShandilyaDecember 10, 2019
The Limits of the World by Jennifer Acker
The novel opens with Urmila, a Kenyan immigrant of Indian descent, opening a box of decorative candlesticks, shipped to her from Nairobi. Urmila is devastated to see that all the candlesticks are broken — how can she sell them to her American customers, who know nothing of Africa or of India and rarely enter her store in an Ohio mall? Over the course of the novel, these objects, having arrived broken in their new homeland, become a metaphor for the difficulties inherent in finding home and belonging in a foreign land, not only for Urmila, but for all of the characters in this beautifully expansive novel.
For the educated doctor Premchand, Urmila’s husband, the United States is a land of opportunity, and he establishes a successful medical practice away from the suffocating kinship networks of his extended family in Nairobi. But for Urmila, this same lack of family makes America a blank, faceless expanse where she strives to forge connections with her busy, distracted husband and her American-born son, Sunil, who is desperate to distance himself from everything African or Indian and wants, above all, to embrace American culture. But America does not return this embrace, and Sunil, too, is left to navigate the choppy waters of racial difference and ignorance by himself.
Like many first-generation Americans, Sunil finds solace in the world of ideas where, he hopes, he is recognized for his mind rather than for the color of his skin. For Sunil that means a doctoral degree in analytic philosophy, the branch of philosophy most abstracted from the messiness of race, class, and politics as they unfold in the world around him. While at school at Harvard, Sunil finds Amy, a Jewish-American medical professional who is everything that Sunil is not — practical, energetic, and willing to confront the tangle of disappointment, anger, and frustration that result from Amy and Sunil’s secret marriage.
Their marriage is quickly put to the test when the newly wedded couple arrives in Nairobi to stay with Sunil’s extended family. There, Amy encounters the violence of Sunil’s mother’s dislike, Sunil’s quickly escalating anger at his family’s treatment of Amy, and also an unexpected ally — Sunil’s father, Premchand, who is delighted that his son chose to marry for love, rather than for the family obligations that have weighed down his own marriage.
In Nairobi, we also encounter Bapuji, the patriarch of the Chandaria family who once ruled over the family and a successful business empire he constructed from the sweat of his brow. In a gorgeously constructed first-person narrative, we learn of Bapuji’s journey from a small village in Gujrat, India, to the wilderness of Kenya in the early years of the 20th century, where he, like many other Indians, was tasked with building a railroad for his British overlords. Through Bapuji’s narration, we learn that the British consolidated their sprawling, transcontinental empire by exporting Indians as cheap labor to their African colonies, and then turning Africans against Indians, so that the two would never join forces to overthrow their English masters. The Indian migrant in Africa finds himself stranded between four worlds — African, Indian, British, and, later, American. As Bapuji recounts: “You here, you think you are African? And you over there, American? You see? Indian first, no matter which place we call home.”
What is home? In another, less accomplished novel, this question might be answered by heavy-handed expositions on intersectional identity positions. But in Acker’s novel, the question lingers like the scent of a departed lover, illuminating the past through the warm flow of memory and pressing on the conflicts of the present like the dull ache of a forgotten wound. Acker cleverly refrains from answering this question for any of her characters and instead leaves us to ponder how they might answer it. It helps that the central character of her novel is a student of analytic philosophy who poses ethical questions that run parallel to the events of the novel, unraveling and complicating them: Are we moral beings? Where do our ideas of moral truth come from? How do we understand our own actions and those of others in the context of an ever-changing moral landscape?
This last question presses on Sunil, when he is forced to confront his mother’s actions from three decades ago. She has hidden a life-changing fact from him: Sunil has a brother, Bimal, who was born in Nairobi and raised by Sunil’s uncle. Sunil is angry, then resentful, but when Bimal moves to the United States and gives him Bapuji’s memoir recorded on cassettes, Sunil is forced to recognize his mother’s decision to leave behind a son in Kenya, in the context of the painful history of the Chandaria family’s many migrations.
If migration leads to alienation and loss, then why do we move? Bapuji offers one explanation: “Fareh teh Chareh — He who roams advances.” And while this Gujrati proverb might explain Bapuji, Premchand, and Sunil’s decisions to leave home and find prosperity and success in another city or another nation, it fails, however, to take into account the experiences of the women who move with these men. When women are forced to roam, they rarely find a better life elsewhere. Each time Urmila leaves home, it is an uprooting, once again, of everything she’s loved and known, and she clings on in the only way she knows how — by demanding love, understanding, and sympathy for her predicament from her male kin, who in turn find her cloying and claustrophobic.
Demanding women are rarely presented sympathetically in fiction. It’s hardly worth noting that difficult men in fiction and film (antiheroes, beta males) rarely face such a fate; rather, their difficult personalities are seen as a mark of character. It is to Acker’s credit that despite Urmila’s constant criticism of Sunil and her need to blame Premchand for her own failures, among other dislikable character traits, we come to sympathize with her predicament. We understand that her decision to reject Amy is the only protest she can register to her son’s indifference, that her need to blame Premchand comes from her bitterness at being estranged from her family in Nairobi when he whisks her off to the United States. At the end of the novel, we mourn for Urmila when she moves to Nairobi to forge closer links to her son, Bimal, with whom she hopes she can have the relationship she never shared with the son she raised, only to discover that Bimal and his family have moved to the United States, thus once again pushing her to a life of loneliness and alienation.
What is perhaps even more noteworthy than Acker’s feat in creating emotional and textual space for a difficult woman is the fact that all but one of her central characters are brown. It’s very rare to see a white novelist take on the lives of immigrants with such sensitivity and insight. Acker’s formidable research into the little-known world of Indian immigrants in Kenya is apparent in the many small details of her novel. For instance, when Urmila serves tea to the family, she also serves them chevdo, a salty, sometimes spicy snack largely eaten by Gujratis around teatime. This might seem like an innocuous detail, but it is a remarkable one, for it shows that Acker is well aware that Indians carry their regional food habits across national boundaries. A less observant or rigorous novelist would have just written snack or named some other more generic Indian snack food like a samosa. Acker’s novel is filled with such glorious attention to detail that allows the reader to forget the subject position of the writer and focus instead on the unfolding of the story itself, a rare feat for any novel.
It’s an act of great courage to write a story that is not one’s own, and to write it with dexterity and finesse is simply a magnificent achievement. Acker’s novel immerses us fully into the lives and feelings of people who are completely unlike us and makes us learn to love them and hope for them, just as we love and hope for those who are like us. In this moment of vicious anti-immigrant propaganda, where migrants must constantly face the “limits of the world” or the intolerance of their adopted country, we need more novels like Acker’s to show us those limits and imagine their overcoming.
Krupa Shandilya is associate professor of Sexuality, Women’s and Gender Studies at Amherst College, with an affiliate appointment in English. She is the author of the monograph Intimate Relations: Social Reform and the Late Nineteenth Century South Asian Novel (Northwestern University Press, 2017).
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