In the ’70s and ’80s, when readers were first getting to know the essays, memoirs, and, perhaps most importantly, the short fiction of Clark Blaise, the author’s idiosyncratic biography dovetailed with many of the political preoccupations of the time. Half Québécois, half Anglo-Canadian, and raised mostly in the United States, Blaise wrote stories offering insights for a North America fixated on economic continentalization and the future of Quebec. But from almost the very beginning, along with the cultures of his birth and upbringing, there was also the vivid presence of the culture he married into: India and its diaspora. Since 1963, Blaise has been married to Indo-American author Bharati Mukherjee, with whom he has two grown children.
“India was, initially at least, the great ”˜other’ in my life,” Blaise told the Georgia Straight by telephone from New York. “India is decidedly not anything that was part of my upbringing, or part of my experience, or part of my preparation. I really fell into it the way one should fall into it, you know—through love.”
Over the years, in the course of visits to the country, time spent living there, and immersion in family life, the “other” became an integral part of Blaise’s already hybridized identity.
“Indian standards of artistry, and Indian standards of humanity, and Indian standards of love, and of family, devotion, commitment, stand for me as the standard for how one should behave,” he explained.
In his wonderful new collection of interconnected short stories, The Meagre Tarmac (Biblioasis), Blaise introduces a rich cast of characters divided spiritually, physically, and economically between India and North America.
“I really didn’t feel I had to mould them much at all. They seemed to be precast, as actors waiting for their cue. They were just sort of standing around the wings.”¦It was almost a matter of just naming them, and then seeing who came out,” Blaise said with a laugh.
This may help explain why the characters come to life more vividly, and with more considered back stories, than the protagonists of most novels. There’s Connie da Cuhna, a formerly high-powered editor born into Portuguese Goa and now trapped in New York by a smoking habit that keeps her off the airlines; Pronab Dasgupta, a would-be philanthropist victimized by post–9/11 airport security, estranged from his fellow Americans by ethnicity and religion, from his fellow Indians by class and nonresidency; Cyrus Chutneywala, a Parsi financial wizard faced with choosing between his Jewish-American girlfriend and the sexy starlet with whom his parents have arranged a meeting in Toronto.
Though geographically scattered, these characters pass through each other’s lives, both symbolically and literally, often connected by the financial, telecommunications, and air-travel networks of the 21st century. In many ways, their lives represent both the dream and the nightmare scenarios of globalization: untold material wealth coupled with a terrifying rootlessness. The immigrant characters who attempt the reverse journey, back to India, find the transition fraught with challenges.
“A lot of the Indians who came to North America in the ’70s, and who made very successful adjustments, always had an idea of the India that they had left,” Blaise offered, “not realizing that the India that they had left has changed more profoundly than the America they came to. And so going back to India is not a matter of going back to the nostalgic innocence of their youth. India has in fact raced ahead, in ways that are more dazzling and more confusing than America is.”
Wealthy Indo-Americans are an especially interesting demographic in this respect, many having achieved riches and prominence in an America in decline, while their culture of origin surges in geopolitical and economic importance.
“There are some rich ironies there, is all I can say.”
Unlikely hope is manifested in one of the characters, who seems to be one of The Meagre Tarmac’s biggest losers: Abhi Ganguly, abandoned by his wife, chewed up and spit out by the dot-com boom. But Abhi’s trip to Italy, to dispose of his uncle’s ashes, becomes a moving tribute to the beauty of imperfection, as well as to the possibility of both new beginnings and a reconnection with the past.
It fits very nicely into the oeuvre of an author whose searing insights into displacement, deracination, geographical wandering, and cultural belonging are second to none.