Book Review of 'Border Less' by Namrata Poddar
Border Less is a novel, or rather, a set of short stories that stand perfectly well on their own, but are actually interconnected.
Dia Mittal, a former call centre employee in Mumbai, is the connection. The people she brushes past or engages with have stories of their own, that often have nothing to do with Dia. This includes everyone from wealthy and poor relatives of the large Mittal clan, and their househelp, to ladies in heaving local trains, and even hotel employees who recount incidents from a terror attack: “One gora jumped from his window to escape and died, while two motherfuckers waiting in their room got rescued.”
Dia, however, is the heart of the book. When we first meet her, she is young, ambitious, and determined to live the American Dream. Her dream comes true—she completes her education there and gets fabulous jobs. When she’s a senior analyst at Goldman’s, however, she yearns for a change: She wants to study desert arts across the world — Marwari dances, and haveli paintings in particular. She’s been a good girl and done the left brain thing, now the right brain is clamouring for her attention, and her roots demand to be acknowledged.
The course of Dia’s life doesn’t run as smoothly as her widowed mother would wish. All her efforts to make her daughter marry a good Marwari boy come to naught. Her mother rages on about boys from wealthy families she has found who don’t object to their middle-class status, but Dia counters that beautifully: “Actually, my MBA and American jobs make up for our bank balance in a desi checklist for trophy wife.”
When Dia finally does marry, the man is a second-generation Indian American she meets in the USA. Fortunately, Dia doesn’t experience the usual immigrant pangs that we often read about, but her in-laws certainly do. “Growing up in Mumbai, Dia had imagined American desis to be more liberal than those in the motherland. She was stunned to see no woman question the gendered division of labour and leisure at… parties, not even those educated in America’s elite schools.”
Through the ups and downs of her marriage (including those tedious extended family parties), Dia finds solace with a bunch of Indian origin women who vent and laugh over the men they have married, and acknowledge the awful truth: “What desi chick married her husband alone?”
Border Less is an engrossing, enjoyable read about the highs and lows of women’s lives in India and the US, teeming with interesting characters and situations. You’re never bored, because the sands keep shifting. The only thing that feels forced is Poddar’s frequent references to Marwari art, but perhaps that’s her way of paying tribute.
As for the immigrant angle, the book actually gives you a more lip-smacking flavour of Mumbai than it does of the US, but as Dia ruefully notes, people are not very different: “Those who lived in South Mumbai never went North, just like veteran Manhattanites who’d rather drop dead than go to Queens for dinner.”
By Namrata Poddar
pp. 159, Rs.399