- Amit Majmudar
- 260 pp.
- Reviewed by Alice Stephens
- April 19, 2013
Narrated by a nameless, terminally ill woman, this novel portrays the disconnect between Indian emigrants and their American-born children and the bonds that, nonetheless, tie them together.
Even if not one of the huddled masses of wretched refuse, but rather a neurologist educated at Ohio State University, an immigrant sacrifices much for a new life. Though you may have a successful, easy life in the suburbs, a life of plenty and free of want, you are separated from your parents, siblings and cousins, and your children inevitably grow up to be strangers, with secret lives that you cannot hope to understand. Such is the case for Gujarati Brahmins Abhi and his wife in Amit Majmudar’s novel, The Abundance. As the narrator, Abhi’s wife, notes, “This country gave us clean quiet luxury and charged us nothing but our children.”
The narrator does not have a name, and neither does the cancer from which she is dying. The reader only knows that it causes her stomach to swell as if she were five months pregnant, and it is terminal. When her children find out, they come for a series of visits, and the multigenerational and multicultural conflicts of the immigrant couple and their American-born children emerge.
After giving birth to her first child, a son named Ronak, the mother fails to pass an exam to get into the American medical school that her husband attends. Thereafter, she dedicates her life to caring for her children and husband. An excellent cook of her native Gujarati cuisine, she manifests her love for her family through her food, but it is not the sustenance that her children crave. Her daughter, Mala, is borderline anorexic, and her son is “scarcely aware” of what is put on his plate, wishing he were eating pasta instead of rotli and dahl.
Though her family is her life, its members disappoint her in many ways. Her husband has fallen “into the habit of ignoring the small chivalries” that let a wife know her husband treasures her. He doesn’t help her with her coat or pull chairs out for her. A practicing neurologist, he comes home to his real love, theoretical mathematics, often slipping away from family events to work in his study. Her son has strayed far from his roots, becoming an investment banker instead of a doctor or an engineer, defying the strictures of his Hindu upbringing by eating meat and drinking alcohol, marrying a woman named Amber who “isn’t compared to other white women, what Ronak is compared to other Indian men.” Her daughter, a successful otolaryngologist in an arranged marriage with a Gujarati man who is also a doctor, cannot contain her sharp tongue, unpredictably lashing out at her loved ones. As her father notes, “Sometimes she gets nasty for no reason.”
Her children a mystery to her, the mother indulges in fantasies of what goes on behind the red, white and blue veil that separates their lives from hers. She imagines that Mala had hidden romances with American boys before condescending to an arranged marriage. She makes up a back-story of sexual infidelity to explain why Ronak suddenly shows up for Christmas instead of spending the holiday with his in-laws, as had always been the case. She cannot imagine their inner lives. And neither can her children understand their parents. Ronak resents his father’s cavalier attitude towards his mother, even when she is terminally ill. Mala thinks her mother gives preferential treatment to Ronak even though she “did everything right. Became a doctor, married Indian, had the babies.” The mother observes that Mala treats her own son more favorably than her daughter, blind to the generational pattern she is repeating.
Even though the writing is lovely, and sometimes even brilliant, the plot and characters of The Abundance seem made from a recipe. One cup of culture clash, four tablespoons of family drama, a teaspoon of death, a dash of Indian cooking, serve up to your ladies’ book club with the recreated Thanksgiving meal of palak paneer, chole, bhartha and more that Mala cooks at the end of the book. Strongest when confronting the myriad ways that emigrants lose their children to the strange, new land they now call home, the story is carried along by the tension created by generational and cultural differences. But the dying, old-world parent meant to provide poignancy and depth is missing more than a name: she is missing an essential inner core, a personality, a flesh-and-blood vibrancy. She has no close relationships other than with her nuclear family, and no hobbies other than cooking. Not even her impending death distracts her from her children and husband. It is an existence as flat as papad.
Alice Stephens in a frequent contributor to The Independent.