New Contact Lenses

Review of Sohrab Homi Fracis’ Go Home (L.A., U.S.A.: Knut House Press, 2016)
by Cyril Wong

 

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Political correctness in the United States can be said to be reaching an impasse. Not too long ago, a prominent black American gentleman declared his hope for a future in which his children might be judged based on the contents of their character, and not the colour of their skin (before he was, of course, assassinated). There is diversity, and there is diversity grounded in mutual respect and even compassion. For all its hubbub regarding identity politics and “microaggressions,” America remains far from united in any sense of a common humanity. Trump or no-Trump, any overly political emphasis on difference (based on gender, race, sexuality, etc.) has only maintained divisions between people (with the threat of violence only a few breaths away from any verbal defence of such differences.) Privilege and the blindness of entitlement (for a recent example, read American author Lionel Shriver’s “white indignation” speech at the 2016 Brisbane Writers Festival) will always exist, but the perpetual banging on the drums of difference has also clearly made no long-term impact in the so-called “land of the free.” At best, then, literature can mitigate the gulf between groups of people by inspiring empathy; at worst, it serves as a semi-cathartic echo-chamber, a cry for help, a space for lament, as if to say: “Here’s a story about one person’s suffering told for its own sake, or to make readers similar to the protagonist feel less alone in the world.”

As a novel, Sohrab Homi Fracis’ Go Home probably operates somewhere in between. Its title is attention-grabbing, for sure, inspiring sympathy from both violent racists and their victims alike. But the work of literature itself is more like a quietly-paced Sunday afternoon Hallmark Channel movie than a didactic diatribe about the terrible effects of racism. Its opening sentence basically sums up the entire narrative: “1981 was a bad year for a Parsi to come to America.” This was the time of the Iran hostage crisis. Viraf has arrived as a foreign student in Delaware, where he confronts racism – he is physically attacked for being different in a random encounter, an event that is recounted twice in the book for dramatic effect – and is generally conflicted about his place in between India and America. Eventually, he decides that being near his family in India is best, where he can return to work for his father’s construction company.

While in America, Viraf’s adjustments to American culture are mitigated in intriguing ways in the novel, particularly by dropping acid. A shimmering world of possibility beyond cultural fixities is only obtained when Viraf gets high with his American friends and has “given up trying to still the electric world.” There is no final mental transcendence here, only a painful navigation within a world of practical realities and everyday prejudices; even when “high,” Viraf isn’t free from doubt and suspicion regarding the motives of others, as when he observes his friends making faces: “All in fun, of course. Or was there an underlying intention?”

Contrasts between India and America are made repeatedly in the novel to emphasise the initial trauma of cultural separation: ” … his memory of India, no matter how nostalgic, had the consistency of a watercolor in contrast to the thick reality around him.” For Viraf, little things draw attention to the gulf between cultures, as when he comments to himself about the non-sharing of food among his American friends: “People didn’t do that here. They each got the dish they wanted, then stuck to it.” There is maybe even a dig at American individualism here, but such cultural criticisms are never extended, only hinted at implicitly in the novel. Differences between India and America aside, the novel also points to how we are already globalised, no matter where we are in the world. When Viraf returns to Bombay for the holidays, for example, his mother would “put on her favorite LPs—Jim Reeves, Nat King Cole, Skeeter Davis … Lata Mangeshkar, Don Williams, Mario Lanza, and others.” We have always been more multicultural than we like to believe, and given the speed at which globalisation seems to be operating everywhere in the world, even more so with every passing day.

But this novel is not really about such ironies regarding the contingencies of cultural differences in an interconnected world. Harassed by racists in a Bronco resembling “a large closed Jeep,” then verbally abused and savagely beaten by them, Viraf is stunned and traumatised and left to recover inside his Pinto, his glasses mangled and his body bruised. As he prepares to drive on, his fear dissipates, “giving way to something else. Something like hate. If they showed up now, he’d ram their fucking precious new car. And run them over if they got out. The woman, too.” Later, he questions, ” … where had that boiling hate and anger and contempt toward an absolute stranger come from?” It is a powerful and possibly unanswerable question that could be directed at both his attackers and at himself. For certain, neither the novel nor Viraf is capable of answering this question.

What we don’t know; what we have yet to discover; what we cannot see in ourselves, in others and the world around us—such unknowability or darkness in our vision becomes a theme that takes over for the rest of the book. Viraf fixes his glasses and regrets his rudeness towards an elderly optometrist and is even excited when he receives his new contact lenses (something he has never used before), commenting to himself that everything looks “unusually sharp”. He even jokes that those “bastards had done him a favour when they stomped on his glasses”. Never before had he seen the world “so clearly” as now, but the clarity is limited to his eyes and does not extend to his mind. Relating that earlier violent incident to, first, a boxing match from his past and, then, being slapped by his father for coming home late, Viraf can find no comfort in such private comparisons, when physical violence can be abject and irrational. In summing up what he has learnt from being a victim in America, he laments uselessly the absence of a meaningful lesson to be gleaned. Instead, in a tragic internalization of racist hatred, he summarises the incident with the Bronco-attackers thus: “Don’t turn onto the road in front of us or we’ll beat you up? Or just this is our land and you don’t belong here. You don’t fit in. Go home. Go home, you fuckin’ I-rainian, you motherfuckin’ dago. You goddam wop. Do you hear us? Go home”.

Whether from pride or fear (or both), Viraf resists telling his friends about the attack—friends, who subtly begin to take on physical characteristics of his attackers in his mind. A parallel between his mental processing of the trauma from the incident and the discomfort of his new contact lenses is set up consistently throughout the chapter following the attack: “Eventually his lenses began to bother him. He tried blinking more often to generate more moisture.” Shock and unresolved grief color Viraf’s interaction with the world at this point, with a growing hostility and wariness taking over his personality in ways that are newly poignant and even heartbreaking, considering his warmth and gregariousness towards his friends in the earlier chapters.

From a general perspective, change is traumatic for everyone in Viraf’s life, even for his grandmother, or Mamaiji, who fears technology after her own husband died in an accident, and who predicts “mankind would destroy itself with its own inventions”. The quickening pace of modern life and the omnipresent march of globalisation are signified by intimate allusions to such fears throughout the narrative. Global changes afflict not only the migrant but also the local who prefers to stay and eke out a living back at home, with varying degrees of mental distress and heartache. But Viraf also remembers the positive dimensions of cross-cultural influences when he recalls the titles of books he read as a child, from comics about Donald Duck and Richie Rich to the “horsey annals” of My Friend Flicka and Black Beauty, all alongside history lessons that depicted India as “a land of untold riches” and his subsequent education on British colonialism and Indian independence. In this case, Viraf’s glasses, too, become a sign of not just the pain of adulthood but also a loss of innocence from the “automatic clarity” of his childhood, which did not question “the way things were”.

One can only be a detached and childish reader of stories for a brief while. The demands and challenges of adult life wait for him as they waited for his embittered grandmother. A chapter of Viraf’s life and also of the novel closes poignantly in this way: “That was his last week without glasses. The world would never seem the same again.” It is also through accounts of his reading and understanding about Parsi history that, as readers, we might make our own connection between how the “Arabs’ devastating knockout” of Persia forced Parsis to migrate to India, and Viraf’s brush with violent racism in America. The history of the Parsis has already been one of violence and deracination, and as a migrant, Viraf’s life is doubly marked by the violence of both his ancestral past and his own actual encounter with racism—from which he seems unable to move on in a productive and life-affirming way. Instead, he becomes more casually belligerent, even to a school official who questions his lack of commitment at the academic institution; Viraf uses “words curiously like his attacker’s” when addressing his superior.

While in India, Viraf hears a cousin relate an encounter with inter-caste prejudice and violence, an account that resonates in a “gut-twistingly real” way for the listener. Later, an Anglo-Indian ex-classmate relates to Viraf his experience of being attacked by skinheads before he returned to India. These stories, which took place in both India and America, remind Viraf that he has yet to come to terms with his own personal trauma by talking about it. Increasing paranoia and hostility prevent Viraf from entering properly into meaningful relationships, even romantic ones. Increasingly, even inevitably, haunted by recollected and re-imagined taunts of “Go home, you fuckin’ I-ranian” and “Go back to India”, Viraf emphasises, mostly to himself but also to others, the need to return home to India to work for his father’s construction company.

At one point, the novel becomes just a tad obvious or didactic, as when Viraf has to describe the features of a possible rapist that attacked his neighbour to a cop, and much ado is made about slanted or not slanted eyes and “Sri Lankan or Bangladeshi or certain kinds of Indians”. The theme of race is already obvious in the novel’s main plot, without this needless (albeit brief) deviation into this self-conscious commentary about the arbitrariness of racial differences when defined solely by physical appearances. What is more gripping and memorable is the protagonist’s psychological wrestling with the challenges of being a Parsi migrant in between cultural worlds. Such a tangent only serves to diminish the emotional impact of everything that Viraf has been going through till this point.

Amidst internal fears and confusion, Viraf most closely reaches an enlightened state when he was involved in a misunderstanding with his friends over a tennis match: “How in the world could two honest people see the same event so differently?” There was a “fifty-fifty chance” that Viraf was in the wrong, in this instance. Could this insight apply to every other aspect of his life? Any profound revelation about subjectivity and intersubjectivity never quite takes hold, unfortunately (which is disappointing, at least to this reader.) But Viraf does change for the better, nonetheless. He can laugh again more naturally (tellingly, this change is accompanied by the use of “soft lenses” for his eyes). In a near-accident involving an irate driver of a trailer, Viraf gets his much-anticipated revenge-outburst, meeting aggression with verbal aggression that mounts towards a physical confrontation. At the crucial moment, Viraf notes that the driver is a mechanic in “brown overalls”. He was the “American counterpart of the frustrated [Indian] mill workers”. Seeing the parallel causes Viraf to exclaim to himself in a half-realization: “Your own life will take care of you”. But it is when the driver says, “I had a bad day, you understand … ” that Viraf is able to stand outside of himself, moving swiftly beyond the barriers of racism and classism to a finer appreciation of a more universal idea of human vulnerability and suffering.

In the end, however, Viraf becomes resigned about being different; he has “had it with being the foreigner”. When he visits his family in India again, it is “(in) their happy company, (that) Viraf could unwind and re-assimilate”. Assimilation or belonging is what matters most to him, after all, more so than any life-changing insight that he has garnered from being a migrant. The narrative, even in its concluding paragraph, is always more thoughtful and enlightened than Viraf himself, who only ever remains (tragically, perhaps) on the brink of some deeper and more permanent understanding about his existential predicament: “At some point, the idling of the Pinto roughened, bringing him back to himself. The chill had cut through his jacket and sweatshirt. He straightened. The air seemed clearer. High above the tower, the lightest pink now streaked the sky. He took a last look over the rail, up and down the breadth of the river. Faintly, in the distance, he could see both sides.”

 

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Cyril Wong is a poet and fictionist in Singapore. His last book of poems was The Lover’s Inventory (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2015).

About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

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