What if someone read your diary and spun a story out of it?Neel Patel's If You See Me, Don't Say Hi is uncomfortable in its honesty and vulnerability, and thus relatable in its plethora of everyday agonies.
Restless after being stood up at a date, a woman invites a mechanic to visit her place. A young boy explores his feelings for a classmate. A man lusts after a friend, so that his attraction turns to stalking, and then an all-consuming obsession. A man begins a clandestine affair with a dentist, only to learn an outrageous secret about his wife. A dissatisfied wife discovers her husband is planning to father a surrogate baby.
Indian-American author Neel Patel’s much-acclaimed If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi— collection of 11 short stories—is preoccupied with the lives and loves of relatable people. The common thread linking all of them is a pronounced edginess, a constant angst and dissatisfaction. The majority of them are teenagers or young adults, grappling with preconceived notions of commitment and sexuality, identity and individualism, motherhood and fulfillment. A host of millennials trying to discover something meaningful and worth living for.
The stories built around these characters feel like pages stolen out of diaries feverishly filled out as an adolescent. Many of us journal about our secret infatuations, life-altering events, questions that no one can give an answer to. Patel embellishes these diary entries with sometimes moving, mostly routine dialogue and a bunch of descriptions to craft stories that see into our soul. It forces readers to relive and question the turbulent years of young adulthood.
After a brief, ill-fated rendezvous with his classmate, a boy reflects, “Looking back on it, I realize that my experience with Jordan was just a phase, an initiation, an access point through which I entered a new world. I learned how to love and be loved in ways my parents had never taught me before, and, by the time I was in my thirties, I’d had my heart broken three more times.” Almost autobiographical in tone, such sage ruminations and analyses pop up throughout the book.
In the last story ‘radha, krishna’, one of the finer stories in the collection coupled with ‘world famous’, a woman’s parents ask her to send pictures of her family, house, cars. “I understood, then, that those pictures were not meant for my parent’s benefit but for their friends’,” she muses, “that my presence at Nishali’s wedding, my postmarital glow, was a form of redemption.” Thoughts that often occur to you as you relieve them to a therapist, or when you become overly aware and start looking for meanings in everything.
It is also interesting that Patel does not distinguish between characters or play a favourite. There are men who love men, women who use men, girls who pine for boys, boys who can’t figure themselves out. The author has revealed in interviews that the stories often come to him with their voices, and he tends to write them out as the voices dictate. That must be so, for the stories seem equally at ease with all kinds of characters. Interesting, too, that both the sexes are treated with degrees of derision and contempt. Even objects of affection are described in unflattering and startling ways, their ugly behaviours laid bare, their pettiness and meanness reviewed thoroughly.
The stories take us to different phases of our life, when we were struggling with one thing or the other. For none of the stories has a traditionally happy ending, choosing instead to veer into the unknown and rough. Very much like the unpredictability of life. And yet in one way almost all characters are similar—they turn immediately and constantly to sex as if it is somehow a panacea for their various challenges. It gets tedious after a while, as story after story, people meet and fornicate and leave, and repeat.
In fact, the stories gradually begin to lose their freshness and novelty as we go through seven stories or so. It is the same woman from the earlier story in the guise of a man, seeking salvation through a new sexual partner. This predictability, the constant whininess of the characters, the repetitive portrayal of the Indian-American life in the States without major variations diminishes the charm of this raw, vulnerable, turbulent collection.
A refreshing change in this pattern is ‘the other language’, where a young boy strikes a friendship with a household help in his trip to Kenya. In a tale that is faintly reminiscent of ‘The Kite Runner’ by Khaled Hossieni, Patel manages to infuse the anguish and confusions of an adolescent that aches to belong, and yet fears rejection.
The stories enclose, briefly, other serious issues, too. Such as a young person feeling ostracised due to his colour and race, language and food. The stories talk of bullying seen and unseen, they point towards the struggles of failing to embrace your culture fully while being refused entry in the society you mentally feel a part of. There is oppression and homophobia, sexual repression and pent up frustration.
‘these things happen’ attempts to incorporate the theme of mental health, but not very successfully—again, the characters fall back into the routine of “sex and talking, talking and sex”, as though that were the only plausible explanation. Even more bizarre is the story ‘an arrangement’, which just gets stranger and stranger before reaching an abrupt, unsatisfactory-feeling denouement. The stories are somewhat limited in their characters’ ages and maturity levels.
Even with their repetitions, the stories deserve special mention for capturing the mind of the confused Indian-American (or indeed, any other young person) who straddles two worlds yet feels nowhere at home. It is uncomfortable in its honesty and vulnerability, and so relatable in its plethora of everyday agonies.
Book: If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi
Author: Neel Patel
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Price: Rs 1,136