A woman finds as many constraints in America as at home in India in 'Border Less'
When I finished Namrata Poddar's Border Less, I found myself mulling over the meaning of its title. Dubbed a "novel," the linked short stories that make up Border Less suggest multiple interpretations.
Poddar describes herself as "multilingual with 'roots' in Thar desert's migrant Marwari community." Born in Kolkata and raised in Mumbai, Poddar has lived in France, Mauritius, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, where she has taught in UCLA's English, French & Francophone, African and Global Studies, and Asian American Studies departments.
Border Less opens in a high-stress call center in Mumbai called "Voizone," where Dia helps support her family by working the night shift. Despite an unending stream of abusive American customers, Dia and her boyfriend, who also works at Voizone, dream of moving to America. They have laid out a path: to get promoted to a call center in the Philippines where they will apply to American business schools.
Dia gets impatient with a particularly nasty customer, loses her chance at a promotion, and loses the boyfriend too. Dia is the throughline in Border Less, although she doesn't appear in every chapter. We follow her eventual emigration to America and see her through several boyfriends and a husband. She travels back and forth to India to visit her widowed mother and reconnect with friends. Toward the end of the book, we see her as a 75-year-old woman reflecting on her life.
Border Less is peopled with characters who come and go, and several who appear regularly. Poddar's organization of the book into two parts: "Roots," and "Routes," is a clever play on words that makes for a clear structure.
What does the title mean? The lifestyles of the varied characters make it clear that borders remain fluid and somewhat meaningless after emigration to the United States or elsewhere in the west. Characters in this book tend to live near or in communities from their home country. They remain subject to their compatriots' social pressures and mores, while trying to adapt to American lifestyles and childrearing. When in India, they miss their American life; when in America, they suffer from homesickness generated by cultural clashes and being "othered" in their workplaces and daily life. Borders are blurred; there are fewer of them ("Less") because of the ability to travel. Cooking, language and lifestyles are transplanted too.
Characters in Poddar's stories face issues endemic to both cultures. Long-sought-after corporate jobs are soul-sucking and physically depleting. Women cannot prevail on their husbands to share housework and child care, so they cannot pursue their careers. "Dia told herself ... that real freedom involved the use of free will in forging one's path—a rational, proactive, masculine approach to life."
Solutions to these issues are equally intractable in both countries, suggesting another meaning for "Border Less": the stubborn tribulations of gender, race, and poverty cross borders too. Impossible demands afflict immigrant families dealing with the unfamiliar.
In trawling these waters, Poddar joins a plethora of writers. Novels about American's antagonism toward immigrants are rife. Steph Cha's Your House Will Pay, and Gabriela Garcia's Of Women and Salt are particularly fine, recent examples. Both of these books embed a compelling plot, allowing each author to critically observe immigrant life within the fabric of her book. In Border Less, however, one senses that Poddar's observations of immigrant life are the plot.
Characters experience inequities at home and abroad. Bombs explode in Mumbai and Sept. 11 fractures America. In a story set in Mumbai called "9/12," a character named Yadav spits on the floor, saying, "Everything in this country, everything everywhere sucks up to white skin."
Poddar is particularly skilled at showcasing the illusory nature of the American dream. America can be very unkind to immigrants with brown skin. Perhaps in the final analysis, the title of this novel is a call to action: May we please shrink borders in a meaningful way? May we try to understand each other better, even and especially people who hail from cultures different from our own?
Toward the end of Border Less, Dia discusses her inability to sell her immigrant story to Hollywood. She is advised to tell it like a Hollywood movie. "I told them ... I just want to share my story for the children of immigrants like me, and there are so many like me in America, a country made by immigrants. To this, they shrugged, and I decided not to bother with the publishing business."
Namrata Poddar, however, has decided to bother with the publishing business. She has created an engaging debut by bringing us into the lives of those who leave and those who stay. If she is tilling familiar ground, she is also giving us a new set of characters. That the individual stories in Border Less can stand on their own is testament to her literary dexterity.
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