Red Carpet: Bangalore Stories

Red Carpet: Bangalore Stories

4.0 7
by Lavanya Sankaran
     
 

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Wry humor and a delicious grasp of the friction between generations in Bangalore are the hallmarks of Lavanya Sankaran’s fresh, deeply nuanced debut collection. “A potpourri of beggars and billionaires and determinedly laid-back ways,” Bangalore, India’s own Silicon Valley, is a crucible for prosperity, and at the chaotic crossroads between… See more details below

Overview

Wry humor and a delicious grasp of the friction between generations in Bangalore are the hallmarks of Lavanya Sankaran’s fresh, deeply nuanced debut collection. “A potpourri of beggars and billionaires and determinedly laid-back ways,” Bangalore, India’s own Silicon Valley, is a crucible for prosperity, and at the chaotic crossroads between past and present. Here, American-trained professionals like Tara return to their old-fashioned families with heads full of Quentin Tarantino dialogue; a successful entrepreneur is shaken when his partner suddenly reneges on their plan to return to America; a traditional Indian mother slyly circumvents her Western-educated daughter’s resistance to marriage; a neighborhood gossip is determined to discover what goes on behind the closed curtains of the hip young couple across the street; a chauffeur must reconcile his more orthodox credos with his employer’s miniskirt lifestyle.

Witty, affectionate, and wonderfully wise, Lavanya Sankaran’s first collection attests to her remarkable literary talent.


From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Carolyn See
I recommend this book so highly!
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Traditional values and new expectations confront the diverse residents of Bangalore, where rutted, nearly impassable roads and one-room schoolhouses lie a half-hour's drive from glittering department stores selling aromatherapy candles amid the piped-in tunes of Billy Joel and Eminem, in Sankaran's animated debut collection. In "Bombay This," Ramu, a 30-year-old software employee recently dedicated to finding himself a wife, employs his mother as a matchmaker (or "Connubial Pimp," in his casual, irreverent parlance) while keeping his own eyes open, and grows increasingly drawn to a vivacious Bombay woman whose modern ways his mother can't understand. In the title story, an impoverished chauffeur's affection for his boss, the kindly memsahib all the servants call Maydum, clashes with his discomfort over what he believes are her immoral behaviors. A willful young girl and her manipulative nanny engage in an escalating battle of lies and betrayal in "Two Four Six Eight," while a young accountant, already betrayed by her father's suicide, sees her work co-opted by a slick, handsome colleague in "Mysore Coffee." Though the stories often don't end as strongly as they begin-Sankaran builds tension brilliantly but doesn't always offer a climax to balance it-they are memorable for their subtle wit and convincing evocation of a dynamic world. (May) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Traditional southern Indian society clashes with fast-changing Western ways, in a debut collection of eight elegant, nicely developed stories. Sankaran has her finger on the economic pulse that motivates many of these striving young characters, all from the provincial city of Bangalore, to embrace modern technological changes at the peril of rupturing family and culture. In "Bombay This," the fine opener, a 30ish "software lad" tentatively invites his mother to begin matchmaking for him; as a member of the ruling class buttressing its traditional privileges with new technocratic trimmings, Ramu is heeding "the true Call of the Patriarchy." He and his mother separately land on the same prospect, Bombay-bred snob Ashwini, whose ultramodern ways prove both attractive and ruinous. In "Alphabet Soup," a young Indian woman who has grown up in America and attended elitist East Coast schools decides it's time to fulfill "multicultural obligations" and head back to India, where she can proudly be "Brown in a Brown country." She defies her father, who made the choice to come to America in the first place, but while she is in Bangalore she recognizes the "maddening" complexities that enter into the choice to leave or stay. "The Red Carpet" takes readers into two starkly different castes. Poor, uneducated Rangappa has to support his parents, sister, wife and baby daughter on a pittance of a salary as a driver, while his glamorous employer lives in idle richness. Scandalously modern in dress and habits, the attractive Mrs. Choudhary is liberal and kind toward Rangappa and his family, though she renames him Raju on some inexplicable whim. "Apple Pie, One by Two" revisits the chummy software lads, whohave attended the best engineering schools in America and are eagerly sought after for jobs. Each one plays out his childhood fantasies of success made in America: "the nabob in the storybook, another foolish Indian abroad."Well-polished, smartly relevant fiction.
From the Publisher
"By the end of this very first story, people half a world away have been transformed into complete human beings, full of frailties and fragile self-regard, achingly sympathetic. That's why THE RED CARPET reads like a revelation.... I recommend this book so highly!"—Carolyn See, The Washington Post

"Throughout these fine, articulate stories, Lavanya Sankaran brings to life the new and old social worlds of Bangalore. More importantly, she uses the quiet dignity of her characters to reveal what's universal in the wide rift between generations. It's an unusually elegant and nuanced portrait."
—John Dalton author of Heaven Lake

"[An] animated debut collection.... [These stories] are memorable for their subtle wit and convincing evocation of a dynamic world."—Publishers Weekly

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780307423368
Publisher:
Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
12/18/2007
Sold by:
Random House
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
224
Sales rank:
814,605
File size:
0 MB

Read an Excerpt

Bombay This

Ramu studied the animated woman in front of him, a slight smile on his lips. And apart from the minor variances: his gender, darker skin color, the carefully trimmed goatee resting on his chin, and the worrisome hairline that danced away from his forehead in the coy manner that plagued so many men in their early thirties, it was practically a Mona Lisa smile—full of mystery and hidden amusement.

The woman, Ashwini, was a recent import to the city, having moved to Bangalore with her parents after living her whole life in Bombay. After a year here, she was still going through withdrawal symptoms, and her conversation was frequently colored with Bombay this and Bombay that and in Bombay we and o god why can't Bangalore? If she were smart, he thought, she would learn that this invariably irritated her listeners, many of whom had lived in other parts of the country and indeed the world, but on the whole had managed to assimilate into this southern city with considerably more grace. One saw her everywhere however, in all the pubs and all the parties, because in addition to her list of nostalgic complaints, she was also armed with a lot of verve and fun. She was up for anything, a good-time charlie, a bustling ball of energy and laughter, a squeal and hug and kiss for everybody, her hips grinding inadvertently but pleasantly against the men she talked to as her bottom swayed happily to passing bits of music.

When she met people at parties, she didn't (as Ramu might) smile, chat, and withdraw from them until the next party. Instead she had the knack of making friends, and (before they knew it) of climbing deep into their lives. Then, there she'd be: visiting, cooing to their children, listening with concern to tales of their mothers-in-law, proffering advice on where to get the best blouse tailor versus the best pant tailor and who caters the best party souffles, all of which she amazingly seemed to know, pulled out of the air of a strange and new city by some inexplicable consumerist osmosis. Every party Ramu attended recently had some contribution by her: Ashwini did the decorations, the hostess would say. Ashwini brought the sweet. Do you like the curtains? Ashwini showed me where to buy them. And all this, of course, to Ashwini's tune of Bombay this and Bombay that.

As far as Ramu was concerned, she was just one of those women one met in the evenings and promptly forgot about in the mornings. It was only recently that his interest had taken a direct and more personal turn.

Now he studied her and realized how self-defeating her actions were. He felt a sudden urge to explain this to her (first, of course, sitting her down in a corner armchair, extinguishing her cigarette, placing her drink on a side table, and waiting for her eyes to focus on him instead of dancing about the room): Bangalore was a strange city, a potpourri of beggars and billionaires and determinedly laid-back ways. People dressed down here, not just on Fridays, but every day, and more so on occasions—and gently derided those who didn't. They spoke of their city's attractions to visitors in tones of disparaging surprise. Oh. You like the weather? Yeah, it's okay. I guess. Cool. Blue skies and all. Cosmopolitan people, you think? Yeah, they're a mixed bag. Different, one-tharah types. Not so hard-and-fast. A chill crowd, like. Doing ultra-cool things chumma, simply, for no reason other than to do it.

"See the software lads," he could say, by way of example. See the software lads shrug off their stock options. (No, no, I'm still a simple saaru-soru rasam-and-rice guy at heart.) See the software lads morph their inner Walter Mitty into Alfred Doolittle (I swear, da, it was just a little bit of blooming luck). See them stab each other in the back trying to prove that they too can please-kindly-adjust, the mantra that the city uses to exact merciless compromise from all of its denizens.

Such self-deprecation appeared modern, with its blue jeans and infotech ways, but was actually a very old courtesy. Deride yourself so others may praise you. Did Ashwini know this? Did she know she was spreading irritation before her like a virus? And here, Ramu found his thoughts slowing to a halt. Perhaps she wasn't. Perhaps no one else was really bothered by it. Actually, until recently, neither was he, previously just swatting her behavior out of his mind as he might a fly. At parties, after all, one met all sorts of people and thought nothing further of it.

Until recently.

"Oh god," Ashwini was saying, "you should just see them, yaar. Everybody does it, all the time. In parties, in bars, in people's houses. You're talking to somebody, and then suddenly, they're doing a line. It's crazy!"

The people listening to the excited pitch of her voice did so with an air of fascinated disapproval, like height-of-empire englishwomen being regaled with missionary tales of naughty hindoo heathens. Ashwini was just back from a trip north, and deeply impressed by the spread of cocaine in polite Bombay society. I mean, she said, you don't see anything like that here. In Bangalore. No indeed, thought her listeners primly, all of whom smoked the occasional joint, but nothing more. They were strictly old-fashioned in that way.

"Did you try any?" someone asked.

"Oh god, no! Even though my friends—from good families, you know, from big industrial families—even though they all kept asking me to do it, I said no. They kept saying: god, you're so cool, so hip, why don't you try it? I said, nothing doing, I'll drink all the vodka and smoke as many joints as you like," said Ashwini, proceeding to demonstrate, "but this, nothing doing! Shit yaar, imagine me doing cocaine!"

Shit, thought Ramu, imagine anyone giving a damn.

Three days later, Ramu left his mother's presence with a vague feeling of doom.

This was not going to work.

Entrusting such a crucial mission to his mother was becoming a farce: like sending someone to the market with strict instructions to buy luscious, juicy fruit, and having them repeatedly, idiotically, come home with boring, healthy-for-you vegetables.

Yet Ramu couldn't extricate himself easily. He was, like any unmonk, a captive of his desires.

In recent months, Ramu had found himself attracted, regrettably, not to the pretty young things he met all over the place (for apart from a fierce desire to shag them, there was nothing else he could imagine doing with them); rather, he found himself being drawn to the wives in his circle of friends. Women his own age, claimed by marriage and scarred by childbirth years before; women who waded comfortably between dirty diapers and smelly spouses and stressful jobs and thieving servants and occasional bright evenings filled with beer and good cheer. They laughed easily with him, without that brittle coquetry that younger, single women offered in the name of flirting. They sometimes shone with all the gloss of a recent visit to the beauty parlor, but were more frequently without makeup, displaying casually hirsute underarms and rough-stubbled legs dressed in old shorts. Yet he was seized with feverish desires to taste the beaded sweat on their upper lips as they frowned over some chore, and to bury his nose and mouth and body in the liquid warmth between their thighs. He wanted to make homes with them. He wanted to fill himself with their comfortable, lazy sexuality. He wanted to spend hours in their kitchens cooking vast and creative Sunday meals with them, and then spend hours more eating and drinking, and lounging around with newspapers, absentmindedly rubbing toes to the distant clatter of maids cleaning up the debris in the kitchen. He wanted to father their children. He wanted to have little domestic quarrels about curtains, and long conversations about career issues, and exchange bright little secret jokes in whispers about people they both knew.

It was time to be married.

Ramu's decision to supplement his wife-finding efforts with his mother's was a purely practical one. Ma had resources he would never have access to. Ma had a lifetime membership to that hidden, systemic device, specially designed for men in his position: the matrimonial industry, a sinister social syndicate redolent with its own brokers and goons and gossip.

Ma was a blessing. Effectively disguised.

As he'd expected, she shot into action. Ma had first broached the subject of his marriage five years earlier, but had been shouted at for her pains. Mind your own business, Ramu had said. She was doing nothing else, but she didn't tell him that, instead biding her time, waiting patiently for the right psychological moment to bring to her son's disposal a vast arsenal of resources, contacts, and networking facilities. Ma was a one-woman marriage-bureau-in-waiting. Waiting, that is, to match her Long-lived Chiranjeevi with someone else's Very-lucky Sowbhagyavathi; and to print up those invitations: Chi. Ramu, son-of-herself, to wed Sow, girl-from-good-family. Please do come.

This afternoon's conversation, like so many in recent days, was littered with the fruits of her research and followed a pattern that Ramu, with veteran discomfort, was beginning to recognize: Ma, bright, cheerful, animated; himself, uneasy, like a tethered animal sensing a storm; uneasy, and wondering about the forces of nature he had inadvertently released.

"So, what do you think?" she pressed him, as she served him with crisp fried vadas and a cup of tea.

Ramu dragged a vada through the coconut chutney, not willing to commit himself.

"So there is this Sundaram girl," she said, repeating herself. "Very nice. Very pretty. Good choice."

Ramu couldn't sit through it all again without comment. "Pretty? Please, Ma! She has a face like a dog's behind."

"Okay. Not so pretty, then. But a very good family, nevertheless. Very well-to-do. Eat."

She eyed him with speculative hope. "Or there is that other girl, from Visakhapatnam. Excellent family, decent people, and I really like her, Ramu. What is her name? Sukanya. She reminds me of myself when I got married. . . ."

Ramu's father grunted, in the wary manner of a man reminded of the same thing.

"She is really nice," said Ma. "You should meet her. You will like . . . Her mother says she is a very good cook. She has also been brought up in a nice, old-fashioned way. No boyfriends, or any of that nonsense. She will not want to go to work . . . and why should she? Certainly, we have enough money to support a hundred wives. She will stay at home, and she will be good company for me."

This was the problem. Ma appeared to be looking for a wife for herself.

"Ma," said Ramu, "if I want a good cook, I will hire one. I don't think I need to marry one. And what difference does it make whether she's had boyfriends or not? I want a wife, not a nun."

"Tcha!" Ma dismissed his words. "All those modern girls you like so much will not settle down properly. They will be too busy taking care of themselves to take care of either you or us. And besides, Ramu, when you get married, you must consider our feelings also. After all, we will all be living together, and your wife will spend more time with me than with you."

This was where Ramu begged to differ, but had still not found the courage to do so vocally. He lived with his parents in a large house. When he'd started working, he had moved out of his childhood bedroom and into a corner suite, with a separate entrance to come and go as he pleased, and joining his parents only for meals. It had worked well for several years, minimizing his housekeeping and maximizing his freedom, but now he suddenly felt as if he were wearing diapers. He wanted to move out, but knew that to raise the topic with his parents was to immediately invoke the reproachful deities of Family Shame and Abandonment. If he moved out after he got married, at least they could direct all their ire and blame on his (as yet unknown) wife.

It was a comforting thought.

His appetite for the vadas faded away. He glanced at his watch. He was supposed to meet some friends at the club later in the evening; perhaps he had time for a quick swim before that.

It was then that she brought up Ashwini.

Ma, of course, didn't refer to her by name, but by antecedents.

"Of course, if you really want modern, there is, as I said, that Desai girl. North-Indian, of course, but vegetarian. Parents are very good people, but the girl, I feel, is too modern."

Ramu heard her out in some confusion. When she'd first mentioned Ashwini's name a week ago, he had dismissed it out of hand. Surely there were better options to be had? But now, he wondered, perhaps there weren't. Maybe those other options would never be better than Wealthy Butt-face and the Virgin Cook.

"She has studied well. She has a good job. She probably does not know how to cook," Ma said, "so she will suit you nicely. Too modern!" Ma said: "Her mother tells me this girl—this, uh, Ashwini—does not even know that we have spoken about her. She will get angry, her mother says. What nonsense! But still . . . they are a good family, so she will adjust. . . . A good family, good background, and educated, also. There is a cousin," Ma said, "with a PhD."

"Wow," Ramu said, knowing that he had taken a wrong step.

He made his way thoughtfully to the club swimming pool. It was his daily habit: to swim thirty placid laps, and he did this throughout the year, shivering his way through icy winter waters, or ploughing through the hordes of summer children squealing in the shallows. It was now October, the monsoon rains had been and gone, and temperatures were rising once again, for a last late burst of warmth before winter.

As usual for this time of the year, the pool was empty of all but the group of four elderly men who never seemed to leave. He paused by the side of the pool, watching them swim. In his mind, he referred to them as the Buffaloes; they were swaddled in the fat of a lifetime and wrapped in discolored skin and liked to immerse themselves in the shallows. They cast vague smiles in Ramu's direction. On land, the Buffaloes stood transformed into his parents' so-respectable friends. But in the water they were part of some strange amphibious species, and Ramu eyed them dubiously before diving in.

The clear waters of the pool couldn't wash the truth away. The fact had to be faced: his mother was unleashed and gaining momentum. In his worst nightmares, of being swept away in a torrential downpour of maternal enthusiasm, Ramu clung feverishly to his lifeline—he had final veto. He had Final Veto. HehadFinalVeto.

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