Seeing from the Inside Out A new collection of short stories and a recent book offer historical and social perspectives through fictional accounts.

When the offspring of someone close to you does something special — and we’re not talking awards — you feel an indescribable joy and pride. It could be anything: designing clothes, cooking up recipes, taking a break to travel the world, counselling a friend, making a tough decision, writing a book… Recently, I received a slim book published by Black Lawrence Press, titled Boomtown Girl. It’s the debut short story collection of Shubha Sunder and you will forgive me for going on a bit about her because she happens to be the daughter of a dear childhood friend who was my absolute reading role model. Many years and much water has flowed since we first met at about ages 6 and 8 or thenabouts. She’s in Moscow and I in Chennai, but we remain close friends.

Shubha’s book won the 2021 St Lawrence Book Award, and was a finalist for the Hudson Prize, the Flannery O’Connor Award, and the New American Fiction Prize. There’s more, but I shall stop with adding that she grew up in Bengaluru when it was still Bangalore, and now lives in Boston, Massachusetts. Boomtown Girl contains a set of nine stories, set in Bangalore, and presents a nuanced and detailed array of characters emerging from various crossroads and corners of the city. There’s a neglected young girl who is kidnapped, another who goes on an outing with her father, a young man desperate to study overseas, a boy who finds himself ‘protecting’ a foreigner aunty, a ‘quintessential Kaverinagar retiree’ who finds a sort of love interest, schoolgirls who get caught up in a horrific turn of events (the title story), and plenty more.

The writing is clear, precise, detailed, contained, even though the plotlines themselves are largely open-ended, giving a slice-of-life sense. Taken together, though, the stories in the collection create a world of darkness, uncertainties, even menace, at times. Occasionally, the writing may seem self-conscious but it also sparkles with possibilities to make you want more as it pulsates with real life and the concerns of the 1980s and 1990s. To give one example: In a story called ‘Independence Day,’ father and daughter are going to watch a film, Independence Day. It opens on a conversation between them about the kind of physical force acting on the car as they drive towards the cinema. After some back and forth on the subject of physics, the father says, ‘You got a ninety-one? … Without understanding Newton’s Laws?’ My mind goes back to several similar conversations during travel, featuring various children/parents. ‘You can memorize and regurgitate … But until you understand the concepts, you have learned nothing …’ he goes on, while his daughter reflects on how he went to the US to study at age 16 but ‘returned to India to pursue his career, how the country needed more people like him in this age of the Brain Drain.’

Further along, there’s another conversation, this time with a former employee of the father who asks, after the preliminaries, ‘… Are you still at Infosys?’ No, comes the response: ‘He told the businessman he had left that company because the work pressures had been too much.’ The workaholic father tells the man, ‘At your age, my friend, … you should be working 16, 18 hours day,’ echoing the ‘70 hours a week’ war cry of another workaholic we all know about!

From Shubha’s Bengaluru we travel to Brinda Charry’s ‘somewhere near Madras’ as her protagonist voyages from India to London to end up in Virginia, USA. Tony, the central character of The East Indian, is also the narrator of his amazing saga. To put the novel in perspective, here’s what the author says in her note: ‘While this is a work of fiction, it is inspired by the “East Indian” presence in colonial North America. Many of the very first East Indians (i.e., natives of the Indian subcontinent) in America probably arrived as indentured servants. They came via London, where they were most likely either servants to East India Company officials or sailors of East India Company ships. Most of them were brought over to America by agents scouting for cheap labour. “Tony” is the earliest known mention of such an East Indian worker.’

In the course of her research, Brinda Charry discovered records that indicated that one such person had worked as apprentice to an apothecary in London before being put on board a ship called God’s Gift to America. Inspired, she imagined a detailed narrative around the possible life and times of this ‘Tony,’ entirely fictional but firmly hooked to a historical context. For instance, if you are interested in or familiar with the birth of the city of Madras, you will recognise some names mentioned in the early part of the book, such as Francis Day and Andrew Cogan. They are believed to have been instrumental in the birth of this city on the Coromandel coast. In the Virginia bit, there is mention of a George Menefie for whom Tony works; it is recorded that George Menefie was a rich landowner in Virginia.

Indeed, the nonfiction element is tangible, yet not intrusive. Far from stultifying the telling, it makes the reading experience all the more engrossing in a rather unusual way, be warned, though: the text size is unforgivably tiny. But don’t let that stop you. Many readers are likely to have friends and relatives in Virginia and Maryland, more reason to read this book. The descriptions are evocative, the plot is engrossing… Brinda Charry does what only the rare book can, she carries you along Tony’s journey. It’s a story of separation, loss of identity, striving, struggling, slaving… but it is also a story about finding, receiving, creating. There is trial and punishment, but there are also insights and rewards. If all this sounds somewhat vague or intriguing, depending upon how you look at things, be assured the book is far from vague, but intriguing it is.

The writing is rich, lucid, elegant, of the time, yet of our time. Tony is adored by his mother, doesn’t know who his father is, and is scuttled away whenever they have male visitors. When Sir Francis Day visits: ‘ “White man here,” my uncle would announce, although he knew our visitor’s name, and although Master Day was less white than exceeding red in the heat, which bothered him terribly. I do not know what my mother felt about her Englishman, but she always welcomed him graciously and smiled as he took her hand in his to kiss, a gesture my grandmother thought was not becoming because it was performed in public.’

Tony sometimes sounds precocious, making observations ‘above his pay grade’. Still, we trust him and empathise with his situation. It’s a challenge: a brown man (not white, not black) navigating his way through a colonised subcontinent, an industrialising city, and trying to let down roots in a swampy, pestilence-ridden environment in which the original inhabitants are gradually being wiped out and ships of slaves are being brought almost daily to work in the tobacco fields. In an atmosphere overridden by the arrogance of ownership and the yearning for freedom, Tony chances upon a huge stroke of luck to become assistant to a doctor. You cheer him on as, through tragic losses and desperate choices, he learns to live and love.


The columnist is a children’s writer and senior journalist

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