Notes on The Meagre Tarmac

Here I provide readers' notes, explaining the background or "deconstructing" the stories in The Meagre Tarmac, story by story.

1. “The Sociology of Love”
"A monstrously tall girl from Stanford with bright yellow hair comes to the door and asks if I am willing to answer questions for her sociology class..."

For two years, our nephew from India stayed with us in San Francisco while he earned his MBA degree. This meant that for two years we had a third son who was an excellent cook and delightful companion. Also, as a snoop and general busybody, I was able to observe San Francisco, and America, through the eyes of a hyper-intelligent, multilingual outsider.

One thing I noticed are the quirks of language-construction, even among fluent English-speaking non-natives. As an example (quoted above) for native-speakers, a “blonde” is someone with yellowish hair. But if you come from a culture devoid of blondes—like India—the category of “blondness” is unevolved. It’s not a category; it’s devoid of examples. When our nephew, lacking access to the concept of blondness, described a classmate as “yellow-haired”, he de-categorized her in my imagination. She became something plastered in yellow, something a little freakish, like the purple-, green- or blue-haired girls with piercing and tats in our Lower Haight neighborhood. I saw her briefly as he did, alien and exotic, and perhaps a little frightening.

In India, yellow hair exists, but mainly among people suffering from the latter stages of progressive albinism, called leucoderma. Far from an alluring asset, it is considered disfiguring, a hindrance to normal life. I’m not ascribing those emotions to him in this instance (we in fact met her during the year, in one of the masterful dinners he prepared: she was a lovely, yellow-haired Russian).

But “yellow-haired” stuck as an alien construction, something disrupting. “A monstrously tall blonde” just wouldn’t do, and wouldn’t have given me access to the guilty, paranoid mind of the story’s narrator, Vivek Waldekar.

2. “In Her Prime”
"Nothing is hard if it can be reduced to numbers, and everything sooner or later, is just numbers."

“Literary Fiction” has always crawled with precocious, sensitive child-narrators. They’re self-portraits of most young writers. Sensitivity is easy to dramatize (I’ve done it dozens of times), but intelligence, unless you’re Thomas Mann or Vladimir Nabokov or an august Latin American or European, is hard. But in the first story of this collection, we’re told that Pramila Waldekar has published a mathematics paper on imaginary numbers and that she will be admitted to Stanford at age thirteen. Easy enough to make the assertion—but where’s the proof? I’ve told, but I haven’t yet shown.

Pramila’s mind is a lively place, always thinking, always trying to reduce emotional complexities to mathematical certainties. In some ways, she’s a fairly typical adolescent, critical of her parents and brother, willing to trade her parents for her skating mentor, or her Russian teacher. For such a critic-in-training, she’s also a little too trusting. She analogizes complex emotions—mysteries, really—to trigonometry, algebra, geometry and calculus. Her gifts, and her arrogance, are those we might find in an extremely high-functioning, undiagnosed Asperger’s patient. She also recalls the girls of my adolescent fascination, when I was a young astronomer grinding my mirror in the basement of Buhl Planetarium in Pittsburgh, or a member of the Junior Archaeologists of Western Pennsylvania on digs in West Virginia—the girls also grinding their mirrors and sifting through sands and shale, revealing themselves, rather openly, as sexual adventurers, usually with older men, often their teachers. It was the 1950s, an age of secrecy. They smoked. They complained. They were funny. Boys of their age, like me, were so pathetically stupid, but that’s all right, they’d say, touching my wrist, you’ll get over it. In fact, you’re not so bad, just a little fat. They were lovely, they were charming; I hope, through Pramila, I’ve done them justice.

3. “The Dimple Kapadia of Camino Real”
“…and these days, I’m totally free and restless.”

Of all the stories in The Meagre Tarmac, this one is the most dependent on context, that is, dependent on the two stories leading into it. This is the third in a series that could be called “The Waldekar Family Tragedy.” Or, perhaps, the “Waldekar Family Wakes Up.”

Krithika Waldekar has been a silent, baleful presence in the lives of her husband, Vivek, and her daughter, Pramila. She stands, and frowns. She cooks. I really didn’t understand her either, except as an unfulfilled, wronged wife. But literature is full of such characters (most flagrantly, Emma Bovary). I’ve felt, however, that the characters in this book were largely outside my control; they were actors milling off-stage waiting for their cues. The moment their names were called and the opening sentence laid down, they took over, their back-stories seemed to rise spontaneously. Their urgency became my cue. Give me something to do. Surprise me, they seemed to say. One of the chief motivations behind the writing of this book was to address the demeaning of Indian characters (like all previous immigrant groups and racial minorities) in American pop-culture. All those ineffectual Indian males who would jump on a chair and shriek at the sight of a mouse; all those icy, unapproachable Indian women who stand around like background furniture, or, in the iconic words of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross: “Seen their women? They look like they’ve just been fucked by a dead cat.”

I know those men, and the women, to be the precise opposites of the stereotype. Krithika surprised me when she did what she did (I won’t give it away). It’s a perfect example of the author not controlling his characters, and it lifted me; perhaps that’s why I’m fond of her, and proud of the story although I’m willing to admit it’s a little flawed as a story. If you hadn’t read the first two in the series, you would wonder what the hell this “Paula” was doing at the end. Or, for that matter, why Krithika did what she did with the local Palestinian grocer. Sweet mysteries, all.

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