By Rajat Singh
Review of No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal
Rakesh Satyal’s new novel, No One Can Pronounce My Name (2017), features a cast of Indian-American characters who complicate the stark loneliness that literature has made of the immigrant experience. Satyal—whose first book, the award-winning Blue Boy (2009), about a brown boy discovering he’s gay—is a writer finely attuned to the ways his characters experience social isolation. Ultimately, through his generous and moving storytelling, Satyal recuperates the potential for queerness to transform the Indian-American experience in this warm-hearted novel.
Satyal immerses readers in a world few on the outside ever get to see, and which many assume to be either homogeneous or mundane. His eye is uniquely trained to scope out longing in the smallest of details, like men who help women prepare chai or the “bedsheets repurposed into curtains or throw rugs” in immigrant households. Moreover, he pays close attention to the cultural markers that set Indians apart from one another in America: some women at the temple wear “gleaming saris with so many beads on it that it looked like someone had rolled [them] in glue and then pushed [them] down a hill of rubies,” while others don demure versions. Some Indians find jobs as janitors; others, as chemistry professors who live in large homes. An aunty’s manicured nails, a gay man’s muscular arms, the grime around the collar of Harit’s white shirts - these details of material differences within the Indian-American community matter. They also make for a trustworthy narrator, one who is deeply attuned to the anxieties these realities can effect.
Building on the theme of queerness in Blue Boy, No One Can Pronounce My Name features characters that perhaps bear a double burden as they struggle with being both gay and Indian. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Satyal is both of Indian origin and gay (he’s married to John Maas, the New York literary agent and cabaret performer). His novel asks readers to consider how these dual identities jostle with one another, especially in characters who come to realize their identities late in life. In No One Can Pronounce My Name, each character living in a fictional Ohio suburb is in some way out of place. Harit, for example, immigrates to Ohio but does not enjoy the same sexual freedom that Achyut, a brown gay man born in America, experiences. Harit eventually discovers the longings his partially blind mother, Parvati, feels for her aide, which adds to the many complexities of human sexuality in the novel.
But Satyal goes deeper. He challenges readers to consider queerness as a sentiment beyond same-sex desire. For characters that are not necessarily gay, queerness seems to be an opportunity to see themselves and their attachments to one another in new ways. It provides a lens to reexamine the body. And in moments of hilarity and hope, Satyal’s story shows how queerness reconfigures the possibilities for friendship among the unlikeliest of friends. Possibly derived from an ancient root meaning “to twist,” queerness enables Satyal to probe the intense, scrambled feelings that his characters experience.
Ranjana, for one, is a demure, middle-aged Indian woman who tires of the monotonous routine of married life. She is convinced that her husband, Mohan, is cheating on her. She wants him to pay more attention to her, wants him to want her like he used to, but takes comfort in her loneliness by writing vampire-fiction inspired by Indian culture. Ranjana longs to “create a sense of self as a writer and a wife and a woman to be desired,” and her acquaintance Seema, an Indian gossiper and friend of convenience, convinces her to buy lingerie to surprise Mohan. She wishes to rediscover the passion in their uneventful marriage, but what of the “striated dough of her thighs, the jiggly wideness of her breasts”? An aspiring writer (who nevertheless crumples her own work), Ranjana also yearns to be read.
When the novel opens, Ranjana’s son, Prashant, has just left for college. In their newly empty house, she and Mohan do not say much to each other. She cannot endure the tedium her life with her husband has become: his playing tennis every Wednesday, his farting into his armchair after dinner while watching TV, his frugally searching for the best-priced gas. Any sense of verve, zest, and sparkle has dissipated from her life. Her loneliness is palpable: “She had traveled across the world not so that she could live in a different country, one of promise and prepackaged foods, but so that she could live in an imaginary country of her mind.”
Harit, too, lives in his imagination. A passive and awkward Indian in his forties, Harit lives with his ailing mother and works at a department store. He seems stuck, though, and is unable to write a future for himself. While the death of Harit’s sister, Swati (for which he blames himself) keeps him tethered to an unbearable past, Ranjana dreams of “writing herself forward,” and over the course of their friendship Ranjana and Harit’s lives are enlarged immensely. Both delight in the surprising ways they come to see themselves anew.
When readers encounter Harit, he first appears to Ranjana “an outsider in his own home,” and she takes it on herself to rescue him from being submerged by his own loneliness.
Harit struggles to see himself at all. He is unattractive and has been deprived of sexual experiences all his life; his body seems without purpose. Following his father’s death, Harit leaves Delhi for America along with his mother and older sister Swati. But Swati dies not long after arriving in America in a lurid accident in which, we come to discover, he had a hand. “Stunted by tragedy,” Harit “no longer [sees] life as a forward-moving thing but as a carefully-maneuvered looking back.” He dresses in a sari each night, pretending to be Swati, so that his mother will not find out the truth. Cross-dressing as a woman reminds him what his body is for. One suspects he is fulfilling a duty to his mother, perhaps protecting her by disguising himself, even though she is not fully blind. However, Harit’s fascination with his sister’s childhood Barbie doll still haunts him – its body gives him purpose while simultaneously standing as a specter for his complete lack of desire for women.
Throughout No One Can Pronounce My Name, queerness frames how Satyal re-imagines the uses of his characters’ bodies. It offers Ranjana and Harit new legibility by attending to what their bodies can do. Ranjana teaches Harit how to tell his story and how to discover “a way forward through his grief to a place of resilience and acceptance.” Ultimately, Harit finds peace and a sense of belonging, despite the seemingly pat ending in which Harit sits at home, comfortable that he has come out to his mother. Ranjana’s act of reaching out to Harit is also not entirely selfless; by taking on the task of protecting Harit, by offering him community and security, Ranjana manages to save her own life.
The immigrant experience can seem empty without quiet obligation. Years earlier Ranjana “simply had to tolerate getting from one end of the other without losing the unmistakable, ephemeral foundation of her status-as-bride.” Harit tended to his mother at home and prepared her tea and kept her from drooping in her chair. Their birth families and the ones into which they marry disappointed them. Not only do Satyal’s protagonists quietly nurse their restlessness thousands of miles from home, but they are also stuck in their longing for a self they have either lost or have never known. Harit and Ranjana create families of their own beyond the strictures readers might assume as emblematic of the Indian-American experience.
Queerness makes space for alternative readings of the body, as well as other possible forms of kinship. The more Satyal’s characters see this for themselves, the more they swell on the page. Ranjana comes into Harit’s life “so that he can open himself up and begin to answer some of the questions about his life that he has been afraid to answer for so long.” Optimistically, then, No One Can Pronounce My Name reveals how we can be more for each other than our solitary longings. We can be one another’s joy.
Rajat Singh is an essayist living in New York. His work has appeared on Catapult, The Offing, LitHub, The Millions, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. He is a Tin House Scholar, a Lambda Literary Fellow, and will be a 2018 resident artist at the Spruceton Inn. He is working on a collection of essays on queer melancholy.