In “The Arrangement,” one of the stories in Lalita Noronha’s engaging debut collection, Where Monsoons Cry, Suresh travels from America to India to meet a prospective bride. He panders to his mother’s wishes, assuming he can manipulate the negotiations and return to his American lover, only to find himself entranced and outmaneuvered by the woman in question. His prospective bride insists, despite his squeamishness, that they place all their cards, however soiled, however bruised, on the table.
In this story, as in the others, Noronha captures and conveys the disconnect and longing of the immigrant, and given that we live in a land of immigrants, this book has a resonance far beyond the culture with which it deals, a resonance for all who made the hard bargain between staying and leaving.
Born in India, Noronha now lives and works in Baltimore. Inevitably, comparisons will be drawn with authors Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Jhumpa Lahiri, especially in her portrayals of landscape and food that make savoring her work such a sensual delight, yet Noronha need not fear them. Her voice is unique, crisp and sure.
The short fiction form is difficult to master. Noronha proves herself more than up to the task. If, occasionally, the stories hint at a writer finding her way—a slight self-consciousness in a few descriptions, a tendency for some stories to last a paragraph too long—they never disappoint and often surprise.
Indeed Noronha’s skill strengthens as the collection progresses, and her touch is never more deft than when characters are forced to choose between their natural and adopted cultures. In “The Sari,” a young couple quarrels over the wife’s desire to wear traditional dress to an American wedding, and Noronha takes the measure of their marriage using just six yards of silk. In “Hybrid Mother,” she captures the contradictory desires of a daughter who wants her Indian-born mother to forget her former life of penury and embrace consumerism, while loving precisely her failure to do so.
Themes of bartering run through the book, and often it is the women, those “deep wells of sorrow” that are the commodity changing hands. Women, whose hopes of romance or self-fulfillment are pushed aside by the demands of practicality, by the need to have food on the table, a roof over their heads, a father for their children, or the memory of poverty eradicated, (the memory of that “scrape of spoon against vessel”), and who convince themselves that these things alone must suffice as proof of a life valued and well-lived.
Noronha is perceptive enough to know that they do not suffice, not in any culture. Jaya, who prostitutes herself with an American in order to secure a home in “Deep Wells,” is not so different from a woman (or man) who struts on reality TV in the hope of snaring a millionaire. Although one may act through necessity and the other through choice, the nature of the bargain is essentially the same. One day, both will be forced to measure what has been gained against what has been lost.
—Susan McCallum-Smith is a freelance writer living in Baltimore. She’s currently working on her first novel.