A package of small glories: ‘The prayer room’ by Shanthi Sekaran

In the opening pages of The Prayer Room, George and Viji Armitage are flying to England after their impulsive wedding in Madras. The stoic, callous Brit and the free-thinking, resilient Indian do not exactly seem to be a match out of Bollywood, and they know it. Sent through separate lines at customs, Viji looks for her husband at the baggage claim, feeling herself "lost in a sea of British people … hair that was brown and lighter brown and lightest brown. They all looked like George. Which one had she married?" And even while comforting his wife after a humiliating exchange with her father-in-law, George thinks, "He didn't love her, of course, no more than he would have if they were still in Madras, meeting in the evenings and parting wordlessly each night."

At the beginning and throughout the book, Shanthi Sekaran (this is her first novel) demonstrates the conflicts possible in a cross-cultural marriage – perhaps too plainly. On the one hand, we have seen a dazed Indian bride before; on the other, Viji's past makes her more than a mere stock character. Still, it is difficult to imagine readers who could align their sympathies more with George than with Viji. Even after the shock of marriage wears off, her obligations to an aging father-in-law and, later, a demanding set of triplets drain her. Portraying Viji as a victim tests the reader's patience and the story's momentum. A robust, if ambling, plot, and Sekaran's clear gift for strings of insightful, potent detail, ultimately serve to explain what exactly is the nature of the crime.

Early in The Prayer Room, the couple moves to California for a teaching job that George has been offered. They begin to settle into the staid suburban environment in which they will soon raise triplets, befriend a divorced Indian woman who lives in the neighbourhood, and care for George's coarse, aging father. This mundane plot becomes engaging only because Sekaran subtly interweaves not just details but also weighty emotion and complex thought, letting the story emerge deftly between the sentences. At one point, Viji wonders when her husband will leave her behind. She looks at the rosebushes and the "so very American" carpets, which calm her: "She'd never had wall-to-wall carpeting before. The curtains were majestic and the furniture sturdy. It spoke of decades. It was beautiful and it was hers. She'd chosen none of it." Longevity in a foreign land, beautiful and privileged exile, the difficulty of being lonely while never being alone – these themes are evident in the objects themselves. Sekaran's ability to turn a phrase – to describe a face as "a package of small glories" – certainly kept this reviewer reading.

These small glories draw the reader past crudely sketched first impressions. George's earliest descriptions of his young wife are insulting, misogynistic and mildly racist: "How sluggish she was, with her languid blink and her swaying foot, how like a cow. He expected her to flick a fly away with her ear." (Never mind the unflattering comparison he then makes to his ex-girlfriend!) But a decade mellows him. When he thinks, "His children were disgusting. He wondered how they could eat around themselves," he is no more likable. But the writing is impartial, the rebuke habitual, ignored and kept to himself. Here, he is harmless.

Memory and knowing
The children, rather than a trio of developing characters, plateau quickly after a brilliant introduction. "The girl had to push her way out while Viji was still alone in the delivery room, before the exit door closed and sealed her inside forever," Sekaran writes. "She was irate at having been ignored, hungry from sharing a uterus with two larger males. She wailed incessantly." This striking sentence of characterisation allows Viji to admit the impossibility of loving her children equally, in part because she recognises the need to escape "before the exit door closed." In a sense, that is what her marriage was. After birth, the triplets seem more like a whiny Cerberus, the triple-headed hound that guards Hades, distinguished more than anything else by their shape, gender and oddity of name. Like Gogol of The Namesake, there is some moniker drama at the hospital, and the daughter is known to the family as Babygirl rather than Neha. And while it is unfair to compare many writers to Jhumpa Lahiri, Sekaran's publishers do not shy away from it. Suffice it to say that The Namesake was also a first novel, but with pre-teen dialogue far surpassing this pizza-distracted summation of the Armitages' first trip to India:

"It was good." George repeated. "It was good."
"I saw a man with no legs," Kieran offered.
"Interesting. And how did that make you feel?"
"Weird, I guess." With his finger Kieran pushed the butt end of a crust into his mouth.
"I see. Did you two see this also?"
"No," Babygirl said. "I didn't. But we saw lots of beggars."
"Yeah," Avi confirmed, "there were beggars and bums, like, everywhere. It was weird."
"Weird in what way?"
"Well, not like here. They don't have beggars here."

This scene occurs in a crucial point in the book, and the vacuous dialogue is a lost chance to understand what the children think and feel about a very complicated home life. Plenty happens in The Prayer Room, and Sekaran's details buoy the reader through some awkwardly paced episodes. These characters know the seductive power of loose hair and brown calves at a public lecture, and these details often serve as an easy springboard into reverie, with memory being central to the book. Viji must grapple with it for obvious reasons, but the most interesting parallel to her displacement comes from her nemesis, her father-in-law Stan.

Memory – or, rather, escaping the memories of a life with his late wife – is why Stan eventually comes for his extended stay. And memory – not just of the India she left behind, but of a past she has buried deeply – is what finally leads Viji back to India. Sekaran's use of detail here is evocative, both for the character and the reader:

When George had hugged his father, he could smell their lounge in Nottingham, specifically the old red sofa, infused with aftershave and turpentine and Sunday dinners. Smells faded, seeped silently away before anyone knew they were gone. Like the last edge of a sunset. It must be down to natural selection losing one's distinctive smell would make it easier to ingratiate oneself into a new tribe.

In a sense, the frustration of the book is its main joy. The members of the new tribe are still finding their own places, knowing themselves. To know these people truly must be to know them beneath the surface, to watch them act, sensibly and decisively, and speak, with power and consequence.

But I do protest too much. Good literature leads readers to re-examine the world in which we thought we had awoken. Halfway through the book comes the climactic scene, in which Stan and Lupe, the Mexican maid of a neighbour with whom he has been romantically involved, inadvertently desecrate Viji's prayer room: entering it with shoes, playing with the idols, mocking the gods pictured. The pain and insult that Viji feels is intense. Perhaps her humiliation stems from a painful memory during her childhood, which led her to leave Madras with George, the lesser of two evils. It is equally possible that her pain relates to guilt she may foster over her own inadvertent desecrating of her family's reputation in their city. The outline of her character is not sharp enough. Yet when compelling characters have fuzzy outlines, sometimes they will jump through the page into a reader's own life, bleeding like a pair of poorly dyed shorts.

A story: I am a white American married to the daughter of Indian immigrants. We live in an apartment in Brooklyn. It has a fireplace we cannot use. During a spate of home renovation, during which time I was reading Sekaran's book, I asked my wife what she thought of neatly boarding up the fireplace, and putting up a chair or bookshelf or photographs. "It would be nice with some candles in there," she said. It was a phrase I had heard her say before, but only now did I hear all of what she had said: A prayer room, Brooklyn-sized. I had seen myself and her – approximations, distortions, as in the bottom of a spoon – in Sekaran's book. I finally heard her. She meant a prayer room. In the fireplace were fake logs on a brass stand. We set them on the sidewalk for collection. (Like Sekaran's triplets they stuck together, and were unwieldy and memorable for that reason.) I wrapped a small cutting board in foil. In the centre, I placed a small, wooden Ganesh we had bought in India during my first visit. I walked two blocks to buy incense from a Trinidadian man.

We meditated there that night, and other nights. My cousin's wife died. We put her picture there. Without Shanthi Sekaran and her novel, we would still lack our Brooklyn mandir. Her book may have flaws, but it is also a first novel full of life. Any book that transcends the page to change ones own perspective is certainly one worth reading, its author a writer worth notice.

~ T K Dalton teaches writing at the City University of New York.

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