by Hari Balasubramanian
A degree in engineering from India, grad school at an American university, and a job at an American corporation: call it the Indian-engineer version of the American dream. Like hundreds of thousands of Indian immigrants, Ved, the 36-year old protagonist of A California Story, appears to have fulfilled this dream. He lives in San Francisco and works for a famous Silicon Valley company, Omnicon. Arora’s novel immerses us in Ved’s life at a time when the disillusionments of corporate life are gnawing at him and he longs for love and sexual fulfilment.
The opening chapter – the funniest in the novel and also one of the better takedowns of corporate motivational lingo and imagery I’ve read – describes a marketing sales conference organized by Ved’s company. The CEO opens proceedings with this: “Every morning I wake up and think, what can I do for my customers today?” As the presentations begin, “jargon fills the air: synergy, paradigm, bleeding edge, leverage, disruption, value-proposition, mission-critical, solution ecosystem.” Later on, Ved reflects on the art on display at the Omnicon office: art that was “once anti-establishment but has long been defanged and made chic: a Diego Rivera mural; a wall sized woodcarving of Che Guevara’s shaggy face – presumably to inspire ‘the rebels’ in their ranks, rebels, who, like him, work in identical beige cubicles in a large carpeted hall to raise Omnicon’s profits.”
Omnicon remains a constant presence throughout the novel – a composite backdrop of office scenes and interactions with coworkers – but it is Ved’s personal life that is more central to the story. Ved has been looking for a partner for some time. A dating website leads him to an outspoken liberal American, Liz. They begin to see each other regularly. Ved is also paying a beautiful Russian escort, Sasha, for sexual favors. Intelligent companionship and lust running on parallel tracks, it seems at first glance, but it is not quite that simple of course. Sasha’s presence is briefer, more sporadic but her story gets poignant towards the end. Liz, on the other hand, is the novel’s star presence; she also brings Ved’s personality into sharper focus.
The dialogues between Liz and Ved, unfolding over many dates and ranging from gender issues to expectations of a relationship, crackle with tension and intensity. Somehow there’s a lot of suspense on how the relationship will turn out even though what unfolds is quite predictable: dinner dates, activities together, sex, disagreements on how to take it further. Progressive, well read and traveled, Ved finds a lot to share with Liz, but Liz’s “million resentments at the world” – special targets include American corporate and military culture and the havoc they wreck upon the world – eventually begin to chafe at him. We also see that while Liz is more in touch with her emotions and unafraid to express them, Ved relies on his intellect too much. A hilarious example of this happens when Liz, during an edgy conversation, accuses him of not being in touch with his feelings. Ved retorts by saying that men and women may “have different problem solving techniques…which likely has its roots in the Pleistocene”. Pleistocene in the midst of a difficult relationship conversation – what could be more out of place!
Though written in third person, the narrative stays coupled to Ved’s thoughts: a faithful portrayal of his inner life and reflections is the central point of the book. This is not the kind of novel where a detailed plot drives the story; the novel works instead through a series of bittersweet encounters that Ved has with people in his work or personal life, encounters that are only loosely connected to one another. In addition to Liz and Sasha, we meet Ved’s parents who have their own old school Indian expectations and attitudes; Ved’s college friends in California, whose lives have followed more ‘typical’ trajectories – marriage, children, big suburban homes – and later in the book, we meet Eddie, an American who assaults Ved in a hate crime; and Rashmi, the wife of a Punjabi convenience store owner, who asks Ved for help.
One can easily imagine this structure of unrelated encounters become uninteresting after a while, too meandering perhaps, but Arora’s achievement is to somehow transform it into a page-turner. The unpretentious, easygoing prose keeps the story moving at a brisk pace. My own Indian-engineer-in-America background kept me intrigued: I’ve never read fiction where the protagonist’s life details and outlook match my own so closely. Ved’s interactions with his parents, to give one example, were so similar to mine that the resemblance was eerie.
Many Indian engineers come to the United States in their early twenties, when their views of the world are not fully formed. The sudden immersion into American life and the sharp contrasts with India in almost every aspect – politics, individualism, sexuality, civic life– creates a great deal of inner tumult. Events such as 9/11 and the Iraq war only deepen it further and raise all kinds of questions: where one belongs, how to make sense of the world, and what to do with one’s life. We see that Ved has grappled with these questions. Shaken after being assaulted in a hate crime, Ved realizes “he will always remain an outsider” but “the trick, he now thinks, is to see this not as a bane, but blessing – a feeling of home enough in India and the US, yet also an outsider enough in both nations – an undervalued aspect of the intellectual freedom in our age.” We don’t quite see how Ved evolved in his outlook and worldviews – that’s a decade-and-a-half long story of which we get only brief glimpses – but we see that he is curious about the world, reads and travels widely, and has learnt to think for himself. He’s not always truthful to others, but when reflecting on a person, situation, or his own failings internally – whether it is his nagging sexual desires (a recurring theme dealt with great frankness), or the absurdities of corporate life, or dealing with his parents’ way of looking at the world – he is sincere and able to contemplate different perspectives.
This then is what A California Story is about: one person’s honest examination of his experience at a particular time in his life. A simple premise but it takes a lot of skill to execute simplicity: to be sparing and uncomplicated with words, yet keep it engrossing. Namit Arora is well known at 3 Quarks Daily and elsewhere for his beautifully composed and well researched essays; his debut novel suggests he is equally adept at fiction.
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A California Story is published in India as Love and Loathing in Silicon Valley. For more information, visit this website.