[27 August 2008]
It’s been four years since Saumya Balsari’s The Cambridge Curry Club debuted to add its story to the growing body of Indo-British fiction that focuses on the cultural impact of Indian diaspora. But the life of Balsari’s story extends beyond that 2004 debut and this reprinting.
The guts of this story began as simply The Curry Club, a play written for a competition that Balsari managed to win, which secured a reading of the play at the Soho Theater in London. A publisher at the reading offered her a contract for a novelization of the story, which debuted less than a year later. But despite the strong reviews it received, the publisher, BlackAmber, closed its doors, and after two quick print runs had sold out, there were suddenly no more copies in production. Only when Arcadia Books bought BlackAmber and its inventory did Balsari’s book get a new chance for life. All of which humorously stands in contrast to this story of a single extraordinary day in the lives of four women working a charity shop in Mill Road, Cambridge.
At its core, The Cambridge Curry Club is the story of four immigrant women of diverse backgrounds sharing the complicated experience of adapting to cultural dissonance. Coming together as volunteer workers at IndiaNeed, a charity secondhand shop, the women—three from different regions of India, and the fourth from Ireland—sort through the cast-offs of their adopted society and sell them back to its own inhabitants in an effort to raise money for a poor Indian village. That sense of circularity winds throughout the book as a subtle illustration of cross-cultural economics, but this is merely an underlying thread. Instead, this is really a study in different lives and origins, actions and consequences, and the way they collide puts each in contrast and gentle relief.
The heart of this book is the interplay between the three Indian women, who form a triptych of differences and commonalities. At the center is Heera—chatty, grounded, spirited, strong, the day manager-as-leader. Childless in middle age, Balsari offers Heera’s gifts as a party and family hostess as the substitute for her motherly persona, while her role as peacemaker and spokesman for the women of the shop play to her protective side. To her left is Durga—young, hyper-intelligent, rambunctious, challenging. Durga’s love of droll wordplay and button-pushing paint her as the image of the new youth in a multicultural world, restless and uncertain. To the right is Swarnakurami—the oldest, traditional, conservative, halting, superstitious. Despite having spent many years in her adopted England, Swarnakurami still clings tightest to the cultural mores of the India she left behind.
While each of the women have the interplay of daily life in the shop to bind them, as well as the shared confessions of frustration at being outsiders in a land where their cultural identity has been muddled and even co-opted, they also have their secretive home lives to set them apart. Over the course of the book, we discover that Heera’s husband Bob, a white Englishman, has come out of the closet as a bisexual and has left their home to move in with a male co-worker. Swarnakurami lives in a near-chaste relationship with her husband, Mr. Chatterjee, an uptight, ordered Co-coordinator of the Neighborhood Watch who silently fights the urge to indulge in the lustful world of girlie magazines and Internet porn. And Durga—despite her vocalized independence and having been born and grown up in London before being shipped to India for her education—suffers the private humiliation of being tied to a husband through a loveless arranged marriage. These details seep into the conversations and debates of the shop workers, even when most of the information is kept hidden, revealed in half-confidences in the guarded intimacy that the workplace demands. But the reader is given the complete tour of the back of the house, led inside the minds and histories of all of these characters in a sort of omniscient peep show.
It’s in these details of private lives that Balsari’s book most excels. From the principle characters on down to the most fleetingly introduced cast members, Balsari draws back the curtain between public and private life to reveal snatches of the interior lives of each. Even when all we get are glimpses, those details draw the reader into a world that feels deliciously complicated. Balsari’s ability to make those small facts as revelatory as major events propels the story and helps keep the book moving at a brisk pace. You’re over a third of the way in before you’re reminded that these personal histories are past events leading up to the one single day in which the action takes place.
And what a day it is. Out of the diffuse swirl of back-story, side-story, and the seemingly ephemeral, Balsari draws all of this accumulated history into a day when consequences and happenstance all build to a climax—all of which passes through the doors of IndiaNeed on this particular Thursday. The owner of IndiaNeed, Diana Wellington-Smythe, is a pompous cast-iron bitch (with her own demons, of course), rude to her staff and convinced that one of them is stealing from the shop. A strolling professor walks through the doors and falls in love-at-first-sight with Durga. Heera’s first love decides to look her up on the same day that her straying husband calls to profess his need for her. The prim Mr. Chatterjee sees his wife at work for the first time in his life. Between these and the perverts, cross-dressers, harangued parents, angry thugs, and, oh yeah, a dead customer, it is indeed a day to remember for the small shop.
If there’s somewhere that The Cambridge Curry Club reveals its own origins as a play, it’s in that single-day set-up. On stage, it’s the kind of continuing action and comedy of errors that works to captivate an audience in one setting for a couple of hours. Here, it feels a bit unnecessary, and maybe a little too comic for the subject matter, but as previously stated, it’s easy to lose sight of that timeframe constraint in the reading. In some ways, Balsari has simply unfolded the people, places, and actions of that one day and spread them out into a map that covers a broader range of time. Imagine if, say, High Fidelity took place in one day with the remainder told in flashbacks—it would be possible, but it would feel a little contrived. With Curry Club, it’s a hold-over, unobtrusive, and forgivable, but maybe too rigid. In fact, Balsari is forced to include a 30-page-long epilogue to give the book its falling action, which is where the gentleness of the book finds its resolutions.
But if satisfying conclusions are a goal—and this is exactly the kind of book where you love the satisfying conclusions, especially when they retain a little unresolved frisson—then the one real complaint with The Cambridge Curry Club is the treatment of the character Eileen. Sullen and dark, but a keen observer, sharply intelligent, and loyal, Eileen remains as much a mystery as anything, despite her involvement in the shop. It may be asking a bit much of Balsari to take a predominantly Indo-centric exploration and deviate into imaginations about an Irish immigrant experience, but Eileen receives less detail than some of the walk-on characters. Her demons remain shrouded, and yet Balsari teases the reader by indicating that she is nearly desperate for the friendships afforded by the shop. Her disappointments and compromises aren’t aired in the way that those of the other characters are, and she remains a thorny presence even after the epilogue.
That complaint aside, Balsari’s book is an easy recommendation. It shines a clear light on a number of shadowy topics, but always with a twinkle in its eye and a relatively sympathetic smile. Rather than feeling like a confessional or a spectacle revelation of private lives, the foibles of its characters are treated as the beautiful flaws of an interesting portrait. The language and tone of the novel are lovely, without being sappy or particularly prosaic. It mocks gently, but with an all-inclusive hug. A playful wind’s capricious, omnipresent self-amusement introduces the story, and that seems about as appropriate as anything.
Even given its early setbacks, Balsari’s once-rare book has been critically well-received, recognized as a premiere example of immigrant experiences whose reprinting earlier this year has only managed to improve its longevity. The Cambridge Curry Club is an education through entertainment using the oldest tool in the world: the story. Rather than impacting readers with a powerful set of events, this collection of small individual stories colliding together weaves a web where experience shared is a pleasure multiplied.