Newest review: Here We Are by Aarti Namdev Shahani

By Ekta R. Garg

October 30, 2019

Release date: October 1, 2019

Genre: Memoir

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A journalist shares the story of her immigrant family’s journey from their birth country to the United States. She speaks with frankness about the double standards in the justice system and reveals telling details about the immigration process. As she works through the normal and unique challenges of growing up, she forms a stronger bond with her father. Author Aarti Namdev Shahani shines a light on many of the problems immigrants face in the fairly solid but overly long memoir Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares.

As the child of Indian immigrants, Aarti Shahani lives a life of contradictions. Aside from skin color, her home looks nothing like that of the other kids. When she gets admitted to one of the most elite high schools in Manhattan, her life becomes further divided into two factions. The conversations that challenge her on an intellectual level during the day don’t seem to have any place in her family at night.

Her fractious relationship with her father, too, bothers Aarti, despite her efforts to brush off her emotions. He fought for her with his own mother, walking out on Aarti’s grandmother when the “burden” of Aarti’s gender became too much to bear. Yet when he and Aarti’s mother migrate to the United States, it is Aarti’s mother who becomes Aarti’s greatest champion. Her father finds the cracks in Aarti’s veneer; her mother and sister fill them.

The irony is not lost on Aarti, then, when she takes up the battle cry after her father’s incarceration in prison on Rikers Island in New York. In a terrible, made-for-movie turn of events, Aarti’s father and her uncle are found guilty of selling electronic items to a prominent drug cartel. After all he does to achieve his American dream, including sweeping streets, Aarti’s father finds himself inside one of the worst nightmares this country has to offer.

As if going to prison isn’t enough of an ordeal, Aarti and her family members discover another complication: for immigrants, going to prison often means deportation. After her uncle is sent back to India, Aarti becomes determined not to let the same happen to her father. She begins educating herself on immigration policies, becoming an activist in the process, and finding her way back to her father and her roots.

Author Aarti Namdev Shahani tells her story in straightforward prose; she doesn’t mince words in sharing her father’s experiences or her own. Non-South Asian readers may shake their heads in shock or horror at some of the stories Shahani shares. For many South Asian readers, Shahani’s litany of woes will sound familiar.

Shahani brings to light revelatory information on the deportation of legitimate green card holders after their release from jail. Like many children born and raised in this country, she’s ignorant, initially, of this loophole in immigration policies. When her father’s future comes into question, however, she plunges into the reality of those policies and fights back as hard as she can. At one point, she begins writing letters to the judge presiding over her father’s case. Anything to find a way to keep her father in the U.S.

At some point, though, the book becomes less about her father’s struggle as an immigrant and more about Shahani’s own successes and failures. Her outrage at the treatment her father and so many other immigrants receive is palpable, but that outrage begins to fade into the background as Shahani navigates the struggles of her own life. Readers follow her through her activist days, her exploration of various careers, and her romances. While interesting, these mini stories feel a little like they’re padding the main narrative.

The book feels a little too long. It would have worked well at a much shorter length and with some of the less prominent stories summarized or even taken out altogether, particularly when they start with fanfare and then lose some of their principal characters (such as her brother’s wife, who seems to figure largely in the family for a while but then disappears late in the book.) While compelling, Shahani’s story might have packed an even greater dramatic punch at novella length.

Readers unfamiliar with the immigration process or its shortcomings will find this book fascinating. I recommend they Borrow Here We Are.


Latest review: The Storyteller’s Secret by Sejal Badani

Reviewed by Ekta R. Garg

September 26, 2018

Genre: women’s fiction

Release date: September 1, 2018

Rated: Bypass it / 2 stars

After experiencing a troubled time in her marriage, a woman travels to her cultural homeland to learn more about her family. What she discovers will change what she thought she knew about her mother and herself. Author Sejal Badani revisits the topics of identity and family in the unsuccessful novel The Storyteller’s Secret.

Jaya’s desperation for a child has begun driving a wedge in her marriage with her husband, Patrick. When she suffers her third miscarriage, it forces them to reevaluate their relationship. They decide to separate, and Jaya goes to her parents’ home to spend time with them. Maybe, she reasons, staying under their roof will revive her. At the very least, it’s a convenient runaway spot.

Her mother keeps her distance, which doesn’t surprise Jaya in the least. Throughout her childhood, she craved the affection of her mother, Lena, but never got it. Lena went through the motions, providing whatever Jaya needed except for an outward display of love. For inexplicable reasons, Lena never held Jaya close or told her she loved her. Even now, when Jaya needs the understanding hand of a mother to pull her close, Lena maintains a distance.

Through her father, Jaya learns that Lena has received a letter from India. Lena’s father—the grandfather Jaya never met—is dying. He’s asking for Lena to return so he can right a wrong. Jaya surprises everyone, including herself, when she says she’ll go in Lena’s stead. Lena tries to stop her, but Jaya knows in her heart that the trip will give her the change she needs. She boards a plane and travels to her mother’s village where she meets Ravi, the faithful servant who devoted his life to Jaya’s deceased grandmother and Lena’s mother, Amisha.

Ravi shares Amisha’s story with Jaya, a story that begins in the last years of British rule in India. Amisha, a plucky young woman, dreams of becoming a writer. Society dictates that she marry and bear children, sons preferably, and Amisha does so. She takes care of her husband’s parents and manages a household, spending the few precious minutes she gets to herself scribbling her stories.

In time, Amisha fosters a desire to learn English. Her children have begun learning the language, and Amisha wants to be able to help them with their homework. More than that, she wants to write her stories in English as well. She meets a British lieutenant in the local English school who volunteers to tutor her. The sessions change the course of Amisha’s life, as well as that of the generations that follow, forever.

Author Sejal Badani favors a sweeping love story over crucial story details. The result is a novel that many readers may fawn over; more discerning readers will question Badani’s story choices—or lack of them. For example, Jaya tells readers she’s a journalist but never specifies what type. There are vague references to working in financial journalism, then sports, and finally book reviews but no concrete information. The book opens with Jaya in the office and follows right away with the discovery of her latest miscarriage; readers never find out where her office is or what kind of publication she works for.

Also missing is the precise location of where Jaya goes in India. Again, vague references mention a village in the state of Madhya Pradesh, but Jaya doesn’t share the name. Indian states vary greatly in their languages, food, and cultural rituals. By leaving readers with a generic idea of Amisha’s hometown, Badani loses the opportunity to share specific cultural nuances. Non-South Asian readers may not care about the oversight, but South Asian readers will be sorely disappointed.

It’s disappointing, too, that Badani gets so many little things wrong. Jaya asks a minor character what grade he studies in, and the boy answers with the Western “Eighth” instead of the more typical South Asian answer of “Class Eight” or “Eighth standard.” Late in the book a married woman dies and is laid upon a funeral pyre in preparation for cremation; Badani describes the woman as dressed in all white when Indian customs typically dictate that a married woman be dressed as a bride for cremation.

The “secret” from the title is easy enough to guess and will make readers impatient for when it unfolds. Badani could have gone for a less cliché plot device. Instead, readers will spend chapters upon chapters waiting for the inevitable. After it happens, the rest of the book gets rushed to the point of annoyance. The story started off with Jaya and her relationship with her mother, Lena. It ends up being an homage to Amisha and her writing, which, incidentally, also disappears at one point without any explanation why.

Readers wanting a fluffy romance without substance will probably like this book; for the most part, however, I suggest they Bypass The Storyteller’s Secret.