No Other World
New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2017
One of the greatest parts of being queer is that, by virtue of the fact that one is often rejected by, at odds with, or just a stranger in one’s family of origin, “family” becomes redefined. We make our own families. “Family” is based in the affinity of one’s heart, not simply in the affiliation of one’s genes.
I couldn’t help thinking about this as I read Rahul Mehta’s beautiful, beautiful novel No Other World. I also couldn’t help thinking about how the immigrant experience and the queer experience are, along the lines of displacement and family, along the lines of having to invent what you lack and creatively redefining the world and yourself, along the lines of being so often a stranger in a strange land, a nomad with no place which feels entirely like home, so similar.
Mehta’s World follows the Shah family. There’s Nishit and Shanti, who emigrated from India to start a family in the U.S., and their children, Kiran and Preeti. Their extended family—namely Prabhu, the brother Nishit left in India, and Prabhu’s son Bharat and Bharat’s eventual wife Ameera—barges in and out of this family’s narrative, too. Nishit is a doctor, and the family is financially comfortable in the U.S., but this does not necessarily mean they are comfortable. Shanti struggles to find her happiness somewhere between her arranged marriage to Nishit and her love affair with an American man. Preeti and Kiran grow up with one foot in home culture and one in American culture, and no sure footing anywhere (as teenagers, as immigrants, Preeti as a pretty girl and Kiran as a queer boy). When Preeti is assaulted by the white boy she’s dating (who, for some inexplicable reason calls her “Pochahontas”) and teenaged Kiran fails to protect her, the family begins truly to unravel.
This is one of those books I thought about when I was not reading and could not wait to get back to when I had the chance. I’ve finished the novel, but I’m still thinking about what happens to Kiran, to Pooja (the hijra girl, a sort of third gender in India, a vilified class of folks we might called “trans” in the U.S. who are treated much the way Europe treated its “gypsies”), whom Kiran befriends when he meets her in India, to Preeti (turned uberChristian after her assault)… all the characters, actually. This one reverberates long after the record stops spinning.
The novels dips in and out of different points of view, the omniscient narrator peering over the shoulder of, at different times, several of the family’s central figures. However, in my mind, this is really Kiran’s story, and it is Kiran’s point of view which flourishes and sticks at the end. He’s a flawed character, not always loyal or brave enough, not always calm enough, but so brilliantly alive and real—sort of like most of us actual human beings. I loved him for all of it.
The prose is neither overly ornate nor bald—it fades, as it should, into its own story very naturally. It’s the story itself, and the lives of all these characters, which pulled me in and kept me there. The narrative is so generous, keeping one foot in India (where some of the story takes place) and one foot in the U.S. (where more of the story is centered), an ear toward each of its characters’ points of view. It’s some wonderfully-choreographed gymnastics that a lesser novel would not have pulled off without the different characters all blurring together. Everyone here, every place and situation, however, is distinct. The novel puts the reader in a position sympathetic to all in the immigrant experience, for I developed empathy for Nishit struggling to raise a family apart from his own, for his wife who cheats on him, for their daughter Preeti who disappoints them, for the son Kiran who betrays Preeti and then the family, and even for the cousin who eventually betrays Kiran. I felt like I had eight legs, each foot struggling to stand in a different place, no firm place to balance, all the plates in tectonic shift. This was as it should be.
What a far-reaching, glorious novel. If I had to classify, I suppose I would call it a family saga, but I don’t think that covers it, exactly. It’s a generous thing, this novel, taking into it a broad range of characters, of places and minds and desires, of subjects and meanings. Right now, because of where my head’s at in this moment, I’m reading it in terms of its story about finding one’s place in the world (immigration, queerness, hierarchy, belonging) and confronting one’s past, one’s betrayals and selfish mistakes. Reading it again next year, I am sure I will think of it in a different light, and in another light the year after that.