Karma, chance, fate, destiny, and providence, are the muses for a set of tales skillfully crafted by Rishi Reddi in her debut collection of short stories titled “Karma and Other Stories.” Set mostly in the Boston area, the stories vividly portray the interconnected lives of the local Indian American community, who struggle to balance the demands of a traditional Indian culture with the charm of a modern Western life.
The title story, “Karma,” is deftly crafted. It follows two brothers, Shankar and Prakash, who live together with their families. About a year after helping him immigrate to America, the younger and the wealthier one, Prakash, asks older brother Shankar–an unemployed colonial history professor–to leave his house because Shankar lost his job as a convenience store clerk. Shankar moves out with his family and tries to find a job, any job. And while trying to file a claim at the Massachusetts Division of Unemployment, he inadvertently becomes a rescuer of birds in downtown Boston.
In “Justice Shiva Ram Murthy, “ which made the Best American Short Stories of 2005 list, an irascible retired judge reconnects with a childhood friend while trying to adjust to a very different way of life after moving in with his daughter and her husband. And in “Lord Krishna,” a teenager is frustrated and offended when his evangelical history teacher likens the Hindu deity to Satan. But the battle with his teacher gives way to a battle with his father, when the teen forgives his teacher against his father’s wishes.
A widow decides to return to her native village in India to flee her sons’ off-putting American ways in “Bangles.” And in “Devadasi,” a young girl visits Hyderabad, India to learn dancing from a famous Bharatnatyam dancer, right around the time of the Babri Masjid riots (when Hindu-Muslim fighting and tension was at a high). On her way to the dance studio during the unrest, her Muslim driver saves her from becoming a victim of the riot.
These stories are well written and delve into some thoughtful, spiritual, and social realms. But one oddity is the use of unusual spellings and pronunciations for some common terms, such as chalwar kameez for the more commonly known salwar kameez and sonnayi for shehnai.
The social themes of the stories are very relevant in today’s world. As Reddi notes, “Many of the themes ‘Karma’ addresses grew out of my family’s own experience as immigrants in America. Writing it was a way for me to understand my parents’ story, and thereby understand my own story.”