Talented writer Blaise at peak of powers with 11 engrossing stories

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The Meagre Tarmac

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/04/2011 (4178 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Meagre Tarmac

By Clark Blaise

Biblioasis, 163 pages, $20

CLARK Blaise, born in the United States but acclaimed years ago as a CanLit star, has produced a collection of new short stories, his first in almost 20 years.

A master of showing how clashing cultures affect his characters, Blaise offers 11 engrossing tales that involve people from India finding success but not necessarily happiness in America.

The first three stories in The Meagre Tarmac show how a talented writer can use narrative point of view to add dimension. In The Sociology of Love, Vivek Waldekar, from Bombay and now a successful software executive living in Palo Alto, Calif., answers questions from a statuesque female sociology student who meets him “wearing shorts and a midriff-baring T-shirt with a boastful logo. It reads, ‘All This and Brains, Too.’ “

As he answers her questions, he reflects upon the affair he had while attending university in the U.S., at the same time as his wife was back home bearing their son. He is successful financially but unhappy in a marriage that his Indian parents arranged. He feels his son is already corrupted by American ways but he hopes he can save his 13-year-old daughter Pramila, possibly by returning to India.

The next story, In Her Prime, shows us Pramila’s bright and devious mind and we see how far from being “saved” she is. She is already having sex with Borya, her 37-year-old male skating teacher. Their “cover” is an elderly woman who owns the house where Borya lives and gives Pramila lessons in Russian. Pramila’s Chinese friend Tiffy adds another cultural dimension.

The Dimple Kapadia of Camino Real is the third of the trilogy, narrated by Pramila’s mother Krithika. Through a seemingly innocuous visit to market, we see a passionate side of her that we would never have seen if all we had was her husband Vivek’s point of view.

Two stories focus on Pronab Dasgupta. He grew up in Calcutta and, like Vivek, has become wealthy in California’s Silicon Valley. He too had an arranged marriage after his father rejected Pronab’s first love, who went on to be a famous actress.

Pronab’s wife leaves him and he loses much of his wealth; his desire to publish his memoirs takes him to well-known editor Connie Da Cunha, whose own colourful life is documented in yet another of Blaise’s stories.

The two funniest stories are Waiting for Romesh and Potsy and Pansy, both devoted to successful banker Cyrus “Chutt” Chutneywala. He meets a forward young Jewish girl in a Pittsburgh bar, but he can’t quite enjoy himself because his father is still trying to marry him to a Parsi woman.

As Blaise explained in his Selected Essays (2009), his itinerant Canadian father moved the family all over the eastern U.S., causing Blaise to feel like a “resident alien.” Blaise’s keen awareness of cultural differences (city to city, Canada to U.S., Quebec to the American Midwest) was further honed by his marriage to the India-born writer Bharati Mukherjee.

Back in 1977, Blaise and Mukherjee published Days and Nights in Calcutta, a two-part book in which he and then she gave an account of their one year living in her homeland. Now, all these years later, Blaise’s insight into life in India has matured to the extent that he can feel comfortable writing from the Indian immigrant’s point of view, despite the fact that he has spent most of his recent life in America.

The Meagre Tarmac (the title refers to the humble airports from which most of Blaise’s protagonists emigrate) shows a veteran storyteller at the peak of his powers.

Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg novelist.

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