Books: Savory with Heat

June 27, 2013

This is a story
about a woman and her family. The woman, our narrator, is fixing one last meal
and washing one last dish for her husband, her grown daughter and son, and her
grandchildren. She is no martyr, no passive-aggressive soul waiting to be
thanked for her role as a supportive wife and mother. She is a woman diagnosed
with a terminal illness, who continues to live without regrets, loving and
caring for her family as her body slowly deteriorates. This is the story at the
heart of The Abundance, the
impressive second novel by Amit Majmudar.

 

The novel opens
on a cold December night. Our narrator and her husband Abhi wait for their
daughter's arrival, which has been delayed by a late falling snow, perhaps
representing for us the cold that adds an edge to each of the family's intimate
relationships.

Throughout the
novel, Majmudar carefully details the quiet but intense struggle the narrator
feels as she seeks to preserve her sense of normal against the reality of her
illness. Such moments are revealed in the early morning hours when everyone in
the house – except our narrator – slumbers:

I love watching them sleep, daughter
and granddaughter spooning, Shivani resting in the curve of Mala. I used to
sleep with Mala that way. It is uncanny how some of the behaviors of love recur
on their own, without begin taught, as if particular configurations of embrace are
encoded in the genes. Did my own mother hold me to her chest that way, too, and
crook her arm beneath my temple, giving me the smooth pale swell of her inner
arm as my pillow? I imagine slipping behind Mala so the three of us might layer
like skins of a bud.

Majmudar deftly
stokes the emotional turmoil of his narrator with these comforting, memorable
pauses in which she reflects on what she cherishes about her family. "Savor
this," she notes to herself, though the advice could just as well be
directed at us.

With full
awareness of her approaching death, our narrator struggles to hold the
sweetness of a shared meal, a phone conversation, a trip to the grocery store –
though the tenderness is often undercut with a bit of  anger from herself or those whom she loves. Just as the narrator loves to cook for her family,
adopting the cooking strategy of cutting away too much sweetness with a bit of
savory, so too do Majmudar's intimations of a family simmer with just enough
heat to temper any cloyingness.

              Amit Majmudar

After a
particularly tense conversation that arises over a misunderstanding about a
family cookbook and memoir, her two grown children grow defensive and angry. As
the mother seeks to comfort her son who has rushed away from the others because
of his misplaced but well-intentioned attempt to publicize their work, she
wonders why she must be the one to provide comfort:

I kiss my son.
But even as I do, and feel the sobs fluttering under my ribs, there's part of
me that thinks, Why aren't you crying,
too? I am your mother and I am dying.
And the kissing becomes spiteful,
interrogative. What do I have to do?
Doesn't this love I am showing you override all quarrels?

A recurring
theme of comfort and consumption of food also accentuates these poignantly
crafted tensions, ones that seem interlaced with issues of alienation
particular to an immigrant family. After all, this family, so afflicted by our
narrator's terminal illness, must also deal with the struggles of families
driven by misunderstandings between spouses, quiet ambitions and failures,
parenting small children, and the sense of filial duty that cuts across
generations and continents.

Unfortunately,
categorizing a book like The Abundance as
an "immigrant novel" risks overlooking some of its deeply held
tropes, which can fairly claim to be an American story as well as a tale of
immigrants to America. In other words, the novel reads like a particular
telling of an American family that also happens to be peopled by a generation
of immigrants. Whom their children marry, how these grown children choose to
parent their own children, and what they choose to share with members of their
family along the way – such questions indicate not so much a non-native born
American perspective, but a look into a deeply American experience. Through Majmudar's
deft handling, the emotional life of his characters – immigrant and
non-immigrant alike – are vividly conveyed, even as the quiet action of the
story remains as muffled as footsteps in freshly fallen snow.

 Jee Yoon Lee teaches at the George Washington University and maintains the blog writinglikeanasian.blogspot.com.

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