THE PRAYER ROOM
By Shanthi Sekaran
MacAdam/Cage, 382 pp., $14
This question may sound a bit churlish, but sometimes it's a reviewer's duty to ask churlish questions: With writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, Bharati Mukherjee and Chitra Divakaruni among us, do we really need yet another novel about culture clash in the Indian diaspora? The simple answer is yes, when the novel is as engagingly written and sharply observed as Shanthi Sekaran's The Prayer Room. On the other hand, the genre – the novel of exile -- has begun to engender a certain feeling of déjà vu (or rather, déjà lu – the feeling that one has read this book before).
In Madras, young and somewhat rebellious Viji impulsively marries an Englishman, George Armitage. They settle in suburban Sacramento, where Viji gives birth to triplets, two boys and a girl. Before long, they are joined by George's widowed father, Stan, a lecherous old vulgarian. Viji adjusts to her new American life, but she also converts a small room in their house into a puja room, a refuge for meditation filled with statues of the Hindu deities and pictures of dead family members. As the children grow, the marriage of George and Viji stagnates until one day she announces that she is taking the children with her to India. She promises George that she'll have them back before school starts. What she won't promise is whether she'll come back with them.
Sekaran calls Sacramento her home town, but now divides her time between Berkeley and London. The Prayer Room, her first novel, is full of lovely and accomplished things, including some breathtaking observations of place. This is India as viewed (and heard and smelled) by George: “sweaty silk, water, the curiously thin coins, ... the empty smell of boiled rice, turmeric, coriander, cumin, coconut oil, cow dung, ... power cuts, irrigation ditches, billboards, hotels, mothballs, citronella, fire. All of it rushed into George each time he inhaled. And when he exhaled, none of it came back out.”
And here is England as encountered by Viji: “Every blade of grass looked like every other blade of grass, as if they'd all had a meeting and decided how to be. Blankets upon blankets of miniature flowers, atop the greenest green. Nowhere could she see the dusty roadsides or pointless rock piles of home. The English countryside was like English desserts: custard on pudding, cream on cake, sweet smothering sweet and holding at bay the salty bits of life.”
And as if in between both, a kind of tabula rasa for their new life together, the blankness of American suburbia. George's culture shock is almost as acute as Viji's. He had “stepped off the Greyhound bus expecting” to find the vibrant, jazzy America of movies and pop culture. “Instead, he'd found Sacramento.” As he later reflects, “his life would never, ever be anything like a Woody Allen film. No chance encounters on a busy sidewalk, impromptu cups of coffee, or wandering in dusky, cramped bookstores. ... Outside, the streets of Sacramento stretched wide and barren, the sidewalks pristine.”
First novelists often try too many things, as if afraid they'll never get another chance to do them. The Prayer Room is a little too loosely constructed, too much a collection of poignant and funny set pieces, without a strong and clear narrative thread to pull the reader through. Some of the narrative seems like mere novelizing: There are Family Secrets to be revealed, and some extramarital dalliance on the part of both George and Viji to be got through. And as an examination of lives led in exile, it has little new to tell us.
But delight is in the details, in the wry and often touching perceptions of Sekaran and her characters. A first novel is always a mixture of achievement and promise. They come in equal measure in The Prayer Room. Buoyed up by Sekaran's wit, the book inspires hope that there will be more and better to come from its talented writer.