Song In The Ruins – An Immigrant Story Differently Told

Mohan, the only son of a police constable in a coastal village of Odisha, receives his coveted I-20 for a Bachelor’s degree in engineering at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, thus kick-starting his American dream. He is good at studies. Like the average Indian student from a lower middle-class background, he has very few interests or distractions.

His goal is to finish degree course in four years, move on to his Ph.D. and then land a lucrative job in the USA. He seems in perfect shape to realise his American dream and begin the life of a glorified NRI or NRO in the most sought-after land in the world.

Only it doesn’t pan out as planned. Mohan’s exposure to life in America, no matter how limited, unleashes something else in him. He falls in love with the down-at-the-heels Sophie, a tenant in the same apartment in Jefferson where he lives. Sophie is hardly the white woman of the Indian male’s desire, beddable yes, but wife material no. She is poor, and a divorcee to boot, with a young son (Andy) by a previous marriage to bring up.

She also shares her life with another confused, reckless and hedonistic man (Chris) at the time when Mohan gets to know her. But — and this is an unexpected twist in this novel among many twists and turns — Mohan is willing to set all these negatives aside and even his carnal fixation on Sophie for the pure love and affection he feels for her and Andy. He marries her and becomes a father to her son.

The inevitable outcome of such an inter-racial union is the estrangement of Mohan from his parents. The American dream turns into a nightmare. It is a huge coup pulled off by ‘Song in the Ruins’, the debut novel by Manju Mohapatra, US-based writer of Odisha origin, as can be seen from the brisk summary of the first part of this three-part novel.

But wait, there’s a bigger coup yet. The inter-racial marriage of Mohan and Sophie is bound to come under increasing strain. Both Mohan and Sophie experience self-doubt and guilt over their choice that flies in the face of convention both in India and the USA. Sophie is already an estranged and isolated figure, with neither parents nor siblings or friends to share thoughts and experiences with. On top of it, she feels weighed down by the guilt of having driven a wedge between Mohan and his parents.

As if these were not enough, she feels responsible for the death of Andy’s friend Mark in an accident because she had watched over him jealously, suspecting him and Andy of being gay. By now she has drifted continents away from Mohan. The death of Mark is the last straw that breaks the camel’s back: she takes her own life. By now the novel has turned into the bleakest canvas of ruins. What about the song then that the title speaks of?

This is where Manju Mohapatra’s novel takes its most unexpected turn — unexpected because at this point one would expect Mohan to return to his roots to rebuild the burnt bridges. But no, Mohapatra doesn’t take the predictable route. Yes, Mohan returns to his village almost three decades after he had left it. There is a reconciliation of sorts with his parents. But it is not as Mohan that he returns. In the meantime, he has listened to a different drummer. It will amount to giving out spoiler information if the story of this interim period is recounted. Suffice to say that something a la the Railway Raju’s momentous transformation in R.K. Narayan’s The Guide is at play here.

‘Song in the Ruins’, the first novel of a new writer, impresses with its bold move to pen the immigrant story in a different way. It doesn’t hand over eeither to the American ethos or entirely to Indian ethos, and yet is written in beautiful English. The epigraph from Pablo Neruda about finding oneself, for good or ill, provides an apt summing up of the novel’s search for self-knowledge.

(Himansu S. Mohapatra is a noted academic and translator)

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