by Rahul Mehta
But I had made headway with the headstand. I could get into the pose and even hold it. I was up to two minutes. I thought of Ravana, standing on each of his heads for a thousand years, trying to convince Shiva he was sorry, even if he wasn't sure he was. I pictured Thomas doing the same pose at his ashram in India. I imagined the two of us, simultaneously inverted, on opposite ends of the world.
— from "Ten Thousand Years"
What links together Rahul Mehta's nine stories in Quarantine is the longing for connection. Each story's protagonist feels at least one degree removed from their own life, either through their romantic relationships or their familial situation. Writing from the point of view of Indian-American gay men, "otherness" arrives without effort as Mehta tackles themes of loyalty, tradition, and yearning. The stories are both immersive and contemplative, and exactly the sort of lonely romanticism that my literary brain loves.
Everyone in the stories feels a little bit (or very) adrift, oftentimes within family dynamics. In the title story, the narrator (if he his named, I didn't catch it) must act as though his boyfriend, Jeremy, is just a friend during a visit home, in order to make things easier around his grandfather. Notoriously difficult to those around him, his grandfather, Bapuji, has made his daughter-in-law miserable with his constant criticism. When the narrator and Jeremy decide to visit the nearby Hare Krishna commune, Jeremy suggests bring Bapuji, saying it will give the narrator's mother a nice daylong break. While visiting, Bapuji's demeanor changes.
When we return to the temple, the aarti has already begun. The curtains have been lifted, revealing a gold statue of Krishna in the center and Hanuman and Ganesh on either side. They are layered with garlands and surrounded by candles. My grandfather is standing in the front of the room before the statue of Krishna. To our surprise, he is leading the aarti, chanting "Hare Krishna, Hare Ram." He is holding a large silver platter with coconuts and flowers and a flame and burning incense, and he moves the offering in clockwise circles. He seems to weak to carry such a heavy platter. I wonder how he is managing. Everyone is watching him, following him, echoing his chanting. Jeremy and I sit back silently.
Afterward, several devotees talk to my grandfather. They want to know about India. Are the temples beautiful? Has he been to Varanasi or to Mathura, birthplace of Krishna? He is smiling and gesturing and he has more energy than I have ever seen. It is only with great difficulty that we are able to pull him away.
The story opens the book and sets the tone for the simmering discontent that follows.
However, that's not to say that Quarantine is an entirely unhappy book. Small moments of joy punctuate many of the stories, during the moments when the characters feel at ease and snugly nestled into a comfortable life-groove. Perhaps my favorite story in the collection is "What We Mean," in which the playfulness of Carson and Parag's relationship dissolve into a final breakup. The two meet at a Halloween party, with Parag dressed as Peter Pan, and Carson dressed as a green lawn, complete with a "Keep Off!" sign.
Towards the end of the night, after Jeff realizes we want to be alone and excuses himself early, I tell Carson I want to bury myself in him. He removes the sign and asks, "Front yard or back?"
I say, "I don't care." I whisper in his ear, "Plant me."
Though Parag's grip on sanity slips throughout the rest of the story, the entire thing is filled with such excellent wordplay, I'm not sure I've ever read a breakup story quite like it.
Overall, the collection makes me curious about what Mehta would do with a full-on novel. The intimate way in which he writes would do well in long form, I think, despite his short story style being more about snapshots into characters' lives. He could do a lot with the ideas of searching for home, complicated love, and travel. I know I'm speculating, but I sense that Mehta has a grand and sprawling tale gestating somewhere in his head. Maybe he's already begun; I do not know. Whenever it arrives, I will read it.
Full disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.