Cultures in Transit
Writing about fiction is difficult to begin with, and writing about short stories is even a step above that critical plateau. In high school and college, I always resisted when my professors tried to find symbolism in every damn aspect of a book, wondering why on earth they couldn’t just enjoy what they were reading.
A few years down the road, now, and I understand a bit better what they meant. There is always a subtext, accidental or contrived, subconscious or conscious, in any writer’s work, and making sense of that underpinning meaning—again, even if the author didn’t explicitly put it there—not only helps to understand the author him- or herself, but also to understand the work.
So, here I am, making my way through Ticket to Minto, Indian-American writer Sohrab Homi Fracis’ first collection of stories, and I’m finding myself looking for that underlying meaning, the thread that ties the whole book together. Sure, I can go for the most basic idea and say that, well, all these stories are about Indian people, but that doesn’t matter all that much, I don’t think, at least not to me; for as much as I know about Indian culture in general, the characters here might as well be Martians. Or I could point to the continuity between the stories, how Pesi from “Ancient Fire” is the same Pesi in “Stray”, simply all grown-up and living in America, or how Zubin Commissariat manages to pop up in three different stories, each in a different position as a character (bystander in “Holy Cow”. the turning point of an elderly piano teacher’s career in “Keeping Time”, and finally protagonist in “The Mark Twain Overlook”).
Neither of those really gets to what this book is about, however. In fact, it’s in the quasi-autobiographical piece “The Mark Twain Overlook”, towards the end of the volume, that I think the author hits it on the head—the stories here are about being “Other”, being an alien, an outsider. Fracis may live in America, but his heart does not—cannot, not completely—reside here entirely, and I think that he himself knows intimately what it feels like to be an alien.
This thread runs throughout, but it is most apparent in the specifically Parsi stories of the collection. An ethnic and religious minority in modern-day India, the Parsis are Zoroastrians, worshipers of the ancient fire gods of the Fertile Crescent, descendants of Persians forced to flee their homeland when the tide of Islam washed across the Middle East centuries ago. Not “real” Indians to some, the Parsis of Fracis’ stories are doubly aliens, both within the explicitly Western realm and within the predominantly Hindu and Muslim landscape of India. They remain a small, intermarried minority in both the U.S. and India, fighting for survival, that survival itself the subject of a number of pieces here (especially “Holy Cow”, which delves into a Parsi mother’s desire to see her daughter marry a Parsi husband and continue their family).
In “Ancient Fire”, young Pesi is an outcast before he even hits puberty, a distinction made by his bullying tormentors seemingly in part because of his family’s religion, but he finds pride and self-assurance, ironically, in the same primordial element of fire venerated for millennia by his ancestors. Later on, in “Strays”, he is forced to choose between his parents’ Parsi traditions and those of his newfound American friends, between his halfway-stuck-back-home-in-India Parsi girlfriend, Shenaaz, and the allure of women in America, as “alien” to him as he is to them. Pesi is trapped in the middle, in a kind of limbo between cultures, and this is the area that Fracis explores best in his stories. Even the shortest story in the collection, “Hamid Gets His Hair Cut”, which is barely three full pages long, manages to deftly encapsulate the struggles and choices of a Muslim Indian youth in the U.S.A., while the title story, “Ticket to Minto”, illustrates how alien-ness can be found within a country, as well as without.
The idea of limbo appears in a number of pieces, as well—in almost all of the stories, in fact, with the possible exception of “Flora Fountain”, which is more about staying put. This other meaning of Ticket to Minto is almost apparent in the book’s travel-sounding title; these stories are all about a transition, usually the journey from the protagonists’ home in India to the vastly different culture of America, which we never see in the actual stories, but also the characters’ internal transitions. Despite having reached their destination in the U.S., their hearts and minds are still very much in motion, possibly never able to reach an equilibrium with their physical selves. This ties in with the above notions of alien-ness, obviously—these transitions affect the alien-ness, whether causing it or alleviating it, either one.
Overall, that’s what really makes this book work. Naturally, it’s always fascinating to read about characters and situations foreign to us, even in their everyday lives (if that weren’t true, the science-fiction section at the bookstore would be completely empty), but it isn’t the culture itself that Fracis focuses on—let the scholars and anthropologists handle that part—but the transition, going from a comfortable, knowable home to a place where your skin, accent, and customs immediately label you as an outsider, as one of “them”. Nearly everyone alive knows the feeling, even if they can’t necessarily recognize it right off, and Ticket to Minto‘s is a valuable perspective, especially right now, with the current of xenophobia that can be found in modern American society. I doubt one book could ever hope to fix all that, but every step forward is at least a step, and that’s better than nothing, to my mind.