Neel Patel’s stories are about Indians living in America, but instead of ethnic divides or cultural disparities, he writes about people falling in and out of love and messing up their lives in the process
The blurb on the back cover of If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi tells us that it “examines the collisions of old world and new world.” Far from it. Unlike, say, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck, no story in this collection by Neel Patel revolves around bridging the cultural divide or nostalgia. In many ways this is refreshing: there are as many second-generation immigrants who make the best of both worlds as there are those who struggle to juggle the two, so why should a writer, who happens to share two cultures, be expected to focus on only that?
The characters that populate Patel’s debut short story collection aren’t conflicted with their hyphenated identity, but are motivated by something as old as stories themselves: love. In Patel’s world, Indian Americans navigate the pitfalls of relationships, find and lose love, self-sabotage their marriages and find themselves embroiled in family feuds that last for years. The culture of their two worlds forms the background of the narrative, but human flaws drive the plot. The author does reference Indian American heritage, but in a nuanced way: a picture of Shiva links two parts of one story, whereas in another, the narrator is irked by her arranged marriage and is determined to derail it, confessing: “I never wanted to marry Akhil. My mother found his picture on a website I had never heard of (and to which I unwittingly belonged).”
The 11 stories in If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi are homage to heartbreak and regret. In ‘God of Destruction’, the protagonist rues that “No one ever told me that happiness was like currency: that when it goes, it goes, and that few people are willing to give you some of theirs.” In ‘World Famous’ and ‘Radha, Krishna’ — connected stories that are some of the best in the collection — community gossip tears Anjali and Ankur apart. Told from the perspective of each of the two protagonists in turn, it explores how leaving things unsaid can erode a relationship. By the end of the story, like Anjali the reader is also left wondering: how did it all end like this? What happened?
It is in such stories of people grappling with what life throws at them that Patel’s strength lies. He excels in capturing the way you move forward in life — or so you think you have — till you find out that you have come full circle, that you are right where you didn’t want to be. Often Patel’s protagonists connive, plot or push against fate, but they soon realise that fighting is just futile. The narrator in ‘Hare Rama, Hare Krishna’, for example, is determined that his relationships will be unlike his parents’ crumbling marriage, but eventually it dawns on him that life is like “a strong current, sweeping you in whichever direction it chose.”
In ‘An Arrangement’, a wife sets out to sabotage her marriage only to find herself the victim. Another story, ‘Taj Mahal’, drives home the point that no matter how far we try to run away from our personal tragedies, they will always be there, shaping us and waiting for us to confront them. Ankur, the protagonist in the previously mentioned story ‘World Famous’, is reluctant to return to his childhood home, but eventually resigns himself to the inevitable: “When I didn’t match, I went home to Illinois and became one of those ghosts you saw at the mall: the ones who never left.”
And there is plenty of something or the other in Patel’s stories that most readers will be able to relate to. The titular story of the collection revolves around two brothers who have a falling out and consequently drift apart. They haven’t spoken to each other in years, hence, ‘If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi’. The catalyst for this conflict is — predictably — a girl. Meanwhile in ‘Hey Loser’, a medical student named Raj is continually drawn towards the same former girlfriend, the distance of geography and time cut short by Facebook. How easy it is to relate to this, for who amongst us hasn’t looked up an ex on social media and wondered, ‘What if’?
The genius of Patel’s writing lies in this — in stories that anyone can see themselves in, in protagonists whose struggles often mirror ours, with Indian American culture humming in the background. In If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi, Patel shows he is a writer worth watching out for: the author knows how to economise his words well to draw the plot forward and is adept at writing stories with surprising twists and endings. With these 11 stories, Patel compels you to see the good, the bad and the ugly of love, up close.