Quarantine is Rahul Mehta’s debut short story collection. Nearly all of the nine stories in it center around gay Indian-American male protagonists who are trying to navigate the murky overlap between sexuality and cultural heritage. With the exception of “Citizen,” all of the stories feature second- or third-generation young men whose beliefs and lifestyles are often at odds with those of their close relatives. Mehta masterfully uses restraint, honesty, and humor throughout his stories, producing an insightful and memorable collection.
The book starts out strong with the title story about a man who goes on a trip to his parents’ house with his partner, Jeremy. Though his parents are aware of his relationship with Jeremy, they urge the men to sleep in the basement rather than the guest room so that the grandfather wouldn’t grow suspicious; “there is no way he could understand” their relationship, the narrator’s mother tells him. There are various “quarantines” under the parents’ roof besides the makeshift bedroom in the basement: Bapuji (the grandfather), an immigrant from India who moved in with his son after being widowed, often sequesters himself in his room, facing cultural and physical quarantines of his own.
Another favorite of mine was “Citizen,” in which an Indian widow, Ranjan, immigrates to the U.S. to live with her children. Mehta does an amazing job of capturing Ranjan’s sense of loss for her home and her rootless existence in the U.S. Even her independence is taken away from her; when she laments this sentiment to a friend, her friend responds, “Ranjan, darling, just do what they say. At our age, what else can we do?” Ranjan spends the same three months every year at each of her four children’s homes, shuttling back and forth with each new season. At her daughter’s insistence, Ranjan begins studying for the U.S. citizenship exam with the help of her grandson out of fear that she’ll be forced to leave the country.
There is much to love in this book: the writing, the sorrow, the humor, the characters, their unique observations of human nature. Personally, I loved the characters’ struggles with balancing their own experiences while trying to comprehend (or at least acknowledge) other members of their family who don’t approve, a fact that is often exacerbated by cultural values. I think this passage from “The Better Person,” in which the narrator’s family doesn’t approve of his sexuality, does a great job of showing the resulting internal and external tension:
“Someone on Oprah said that often gay couples have one person who plays the man and the other who plays the woman. So I was wondering which you were.”
“Frank and I don’t believe in hetero-normative gender roles,” I told her. I knew my mom didn’t know what “hetero-normative” meant, so I figured she’d drop it.
“So who does the cooking and cleaning?” she asked.
I could have truthfully andswered “neither of us.” Instead I asked, “Is that what you think womanhood is, Mom, cooking and cleaning?”
Mom got quiet. I felt bad. I imagined her cursing herself for coming to America and raising such a disrespectful son, for letting him attend a liberal-arts college and take women’s studies classes and think he knows more about womanhood than his mother.
The characters in Quarantine are all imperfect; several end up doing or saying things that will likely end up haunting them. But though some of the stories could have easily crossed the line into cheesy melodrama, Mehta reins his characters in carefully and deliberately, often ratcheting up the tension in quiet increments. This is one of the most enjoyable short story collections I’ve read in a while.
Quarantine: Stories was released on May 31, 2011 by Harper Perennial.