kumar amongst the harolds
Readers should not be put off by an opening that might seem to
promise an epistolary novel, an italicized letter by the protagonist,
Gopal Kumar to "Beloved Younger Brother" that uses an overabundance of
process verbs to imitate the intonation, I believe, of Indian English: "I
am arriving safely in America and finding good apartment near
University." Anurag Mathur's detail, even in Gopal's embarrassingly
stereotypical voice, is hilarious: Gopal drinks so much Coke on the plane that the
cabin attendants cannot control their laughter. ("We have our own," he
explains later, to his cousin, Sunil, in New York, "But Coke is Coke.")
At Immigration the greeting, "How's it going?" inspires Gopal to
expound for ten minutes upon the problems and hopes of the family
business in Jajau town; to the official's comment, "totally, totally nuts,"
Gopal reveals his fondness for cashews, which he filled himself with
also on the plane, "because I am not knowing what is food and what is meat."
A customs official tells Gopal "Watch your ass," inspiring Gopal to marvel on
American intelligence that can know about the family's purchase of a donkey two
days before Gopal left for the United States.
After three pages of letter the novel continues in third person,
varying Gopal's predominant perspective with that of the Americans,
hyphenated or hybrid, that he meets. Before he reaches his
destination for a year of chemical engineering, Eversville, in an
unidentified state, Gopal must survive a clock radio he can't turn off,
McDonald's, and Times Square on an overnight visit with his cousin, Sunil.
The offer by "a very good looking, black man, dressed in a breathtakingly
beautiful gray overcoat" of "some real live pussy" begins the theme of the
book, Gopal's quest, initiated without his slightest understanding, to get
laid before he returns to India. "No thank you, sir," Gopal declines.
"I'm vegetarian." And when he returns to his cousin unscathed (and
unlaid), he says, "I met friendly man selling cats."
Mathur treats us to Sunil's perspective on "this hopeless,
gangling, earnest young man so far from home and his natural surroundings."
Inspired by Gopal's convoluted account of their family relationship, Sunil thinks
about cultures' tendency to develop synonyms "to distinguish the shadings of any
element of which there was an abundance in the environment," like the
Eskimos' "half a dozen names for snow" or Indians' names "for a nearly
endless number of specific relationships." What has "the largest number of
synonyms in America," he wonders. Gopal points out yet another billboard
painted with naked people. "***, thought Sunil with sudden inspiration.
The *** act has more names in America than anything else."
In Eversville Gopal meets his designated host, Randy. ("Why?" Gopal
asks, at Randy's identification of himself. The next morning when Randy
returns with "Remember? I'm Randy," Gopal says, "Still?") Aptly named
Randy Wolff finds his "life meaning and a direction and a goal" with
Gopal's admission that he has never dated a woman. ("One boy quietly went
on a date with a girl," he has told Sunil, "but their parents
made them marry afterwards," so there was no chance of dating in Jajau.)
That there are still some two hundred pages to go after Randy's stated
intention might suggest the obstacles Gopal encounters even after Americans'
obsession with *** has infected him with a lust rivaling even Randy's
(if that's possible). Meanwhile Gopal experiences football, "which had very
little to do with the foot and nothing at all to do with a ball," parties, topless
bars, drive in movies, even love, *** shops, brothels and even a gang bang.
In a series of incidents Mathur wisely portrays America's racism, which
separates Gopal from the three white Americans who take him to a restaurant
("Is that a table for three, sir," the headwaiter asks Randy.) Gopal nearly loses
his manhood in a more chilling, equally believable near lynching for his
"Eye-ranian" appearance and equally erroneous threat to the
jobs of working class white men. In a touching scene Eversville's football
star, "black, about six-and-a-half-feet tall and to Gopal appeared to be at
least as broad," the Peacock drives Gopal past the run-down buildings
and rusted cars that in the Peacock's words, "ain't as cute as white America, is it?"
"Take my hand, my child of love
Come step inside my tears
Swim the magic ocean,
I've been crying all these years"
"I liked the world where i used to live
I never really wanted to live"