Thoughts from 'Asylum, USA'
Boman Desai seems to have no pretensions of being a very great intellectual, a philosopher and a classic novelist. ‘Asylum, USA’ is a common novel in many senses and yet it is unique in its own way. This novel is about a young student, Noshir Daruwala who goes to America from India for studying engineering as many students are going to America for higher studies these days. Many books, fiction, or non-fiction are being written on an immigrant's experience in the land of liberty and immense possibilities.
The purpose of the present discussion is not to criticize or unnecessarily glorify America. It is the pattern of life there that we shall study. The incidents are thought provoking both for the novelist as well as the reader. These ideas are, we can say, the earning of a reader from reading the novel. They give an insight into life. The novel generates ideas regarding America. It is a land full of opportunities. The author says that this is a land where people of different shades of pigmentation of skin meet. These diverse ingredients make the American stew. "America provides more possibilities for such a stew than any other country in the world." (88) The process is on but the end has not been achieved. People still discriminate on the basis of race even in America.
Desai correctly adds, "The eradication of racism will not mean the eradication of strife; racism has less to do with color than with class, status, inequality, insecurity, less to do with anything than with-a lack of love" (88). Bonnie is Noshir's friend. He is black. He is a rebel in his own way. He is taking his revenge against the humiliating treatment of society. He may be a thief but he is not a cheat. He is a product of the illogical system.
Desai says, "Bonnie was no flimflam man. He might have cheated the law, but not people. He engaged in, as he put it, victimless strategies, which is more than could often be said about the law or the government" (101). Another rebel in the novel is a friend of Noshir's girl friend, Helen. Helen is an MBA and is working in a good company in a good position. She is also a thief. She has her own reasons for stealing. She comments on her stealing, "It serves those damn chauvinists right. You wouldn't believe the incompetence of some of the men working there, but they won't give any of the top jobs to women, no matter how competent they are [...]. Capitalists rip off the people, only they do it legally. They call it free enterprise, but it's the law of the jungle. It's the same thing." (l08) Racism seems to be a part of American life. Noshir has his most emotionally exhausting affair with Lisa. He is sincere to her till the end but she ditches him brutally. When Noshir visits her house, her father warns her about a foreigner. "They are not like us." Noshir thinks, "But what about me. No one had warned me about her, that she would seize my heart as lethally as a martial artist, hand thrust into my solar plexus like a trowel, scooped upward behind the breastbone, yanked out again leaving behind a sack of bones." (206) This is exactly what she does to him eventually. But Noshir does not find her father later on or does not find it important enough to tell him who was of the inferior race.
America is a land of freedom. Everything is possible. Noshir marries a lesbian to become a citizen of America and get his green card. He pays her for helping him in getting the green card. When he decides on this plan, he gets a rush of excitement in his veins. "Everything was permitted because I had given myself permission. What a world!" (37) Everything and everyone is liberated. Liberalization of the mind progresses with generations. Noshir's parents could not have even dreamt of what their son did. But then it is difficult at times to swallow the magnitude of liberation. Just after marriage Noshir's bride, Barb, tells him, "You know husband, you can bring girls home if you want to. I know, wife, I said" (41).
The extent of Lisa's liberation is flabbergasting. When everything is over between her and Noshir, one thing keeps Noshir nagging, "I couldn't believe she could stop loving me so suddenly, so irrevocably, I couldn't believe she could love someone else as intensely, at least not concurrently, I couldn't believe anyone could." (22I) Of the many affairs or short time infatuation strokes that Noshir has the multiplicity and plurality of the lovers of his beloveds have been simply staggering. He is always one of the many lovers.
This brings us to a very major question of love and marriage. Easily living with a number of relationships only shows spiritual and emotional vacuum to my mind. It seems that a relationship does not' entail any responsibility. Living together without marriage or open marriage system in which any partner could come in or move out according to her or his wish may look fascinating for a while but finally dries the individual of all that is humanly in her or him. "It was part of the Great love experiment begun in the sixties and I was eager to join, eager to be as cool as everyone else, proud of Blythe's ex lovers, proud of the number of her ex lovers as of the greater the number, the greater her desirability and the prouder I now living with her." (91)
One gentleman is called a salesman of love. At one point Noshir is managing both Barb and Blithe because he wants to keep his options open. One evening he takes out Barb; the other evening Blythe. "Every thing I did with Barb I did again with Blythe." The institution of marriage loses all its sanctity in this scenario. One cannot be possessive about one's partner. One has no right and no authority over one's mate. Noshir does not want Blythe to go with Lex but he fails to stop her. And what is the result-a plastic smile, devoid of the richness of attachment.
Why do people marry? The answer given by Desai is detailed and true,-"Duty, money, security, pregnancy, excitement, one up man ship, to have a baby, to getaway from home, to have sex without guilt, he was the first to ask her, she was the first to say yes, they were not getting any younger, they had done every thing else, all their friends were getting married, wanting what they were supposed to want without asking what they wanted for- themselves-and, of course, love." (85) Desai writes just like this without space in between the words.
As a result of this openness and unlimited-ness of flexibility regarding relationships we have amazing structures and patterns of mating-one man and one woman, one man and more than one woman, one woman and more than one man, one man with one man, one woman with one woman and so on and on. As for patterns, Noshir says, "Months after I married I slept with my first woman, not my wife, years after I married I slept with my wife." (166)
Another lady Carrie with whom Noshir shares accommodation is living away from her husband to save her marriage. She saves her marriage in this manner for six years and finally when she moves in with her husband her marriage breaks within six months. A deep sorrow seems to be part of the American way of life. There seems to be a widespread 'no one cares for me' syndrome. Everyone seems to be crying for a soul mate, desperate for someone to understand them. Every now and then everyone seems to come up with a sudden realization that his or her partner loves no more and still worse, never loved. Hysterical or frantic behavior seems to have been accepted so easily. Breaking and smashing of crockery, shouting, screaming, pulling hairs, sleeping in the car or bathtub-all this keeps on happening. Everyone seems to be an extremist in one's own way-nudism, lesbianism, feminism etc. mar the fabric of harmony. One is reminded of John Updike when he says that freedom cannot be achieved when we are concerned with our own freedom. One must also be concerned with the freedom of those around us. But here everybody is bothered about her or his own urges. Even love goes to the brink of fear. Noshir says of Blithe, "She'd been my first woman, I was afraid that if I lost her I'd never find another, and I'd engulfed her in my fear." (113)
Individuals are reluctant to commit themselves for life. Again and again we are confronted with sentences like, "he is never going to leave me I fear." Ordinarily this could be a source of immense peace of mind that your partner is never going to leave you. But here Blithe fears that Noshir is never going to leave her and Lisa is scared that Jim may always cling to her. Barb calls America 'Disneyland,' implying thereby the artificiality and shallowness of American life. If one accepted the social fraud, hypocrisies of law, religion and socialization one was welcomed to the system. But if someone had her or his own vision and originality, one would pay heavily for it. The infrastructure of Disneyland was too powerful, it allowed no differences and it instilled shame, sorrow loneliness among those who differed.
Noshir appears to be quite vulnerable in emotional matters. He learns his lessons of worldly wisdom the hard way. He comes to know of his position, assets and weaknesses only when he has been badly hurt. After getting his green card, getting divorced from his lesbian wife and above everything is after getting free of Blythe, he intends to guard himself'
"I had only casual affairs since I'd emerged from the tunnel of my previous life, with women who wanted no more casual affairs, my guard as impregnable as the Berlin Wall." (185)
He does not want an intense and involving relationship as he actually develops with Lisa against his own wishes. He says, "It (previous affairs) hurt too much before [...] like barbed wires around your heart." (195) There follows a very fervent and stormy relationship between Lisa and Noshir. They are in the seventh heaven if there is any. Slowly but surely the truth dawns on Noshir that Lisa wants to leave him. She prefers Jim who is making more money than Noshir and is better established. When he hinted at the possibility of their parting, he expected her to, "spring from her chair. No! That would be impossible! I love you, my darling! It's YOU that I want! Instead she said quickly, Yes! and I understood from her quickness that she'd been waiting to say it from the moment we'd met at the station, what I'd said had made no difference, she'd already sorted it out." (217)
The aftermath of this disastrous affair is so immense that it transforms the whole of part two of this novel into some kind of tragic tale. The novelist says, "This is really book two, almost a different story altogether." The novelist has been successful in conveying his pain' "I must have looked, losing color, losing dimension, losing contours, losing significance, flat and white like paper, worse, invisible, as if I meant nothing." (218)
Due to the fact that Lisa deserts Noshir the very theme of the novel centers around suffering, pain and torture. It is a sad realization for Noshir that he had been a beggar and Lisa the giver. She always had Jim to support her. But Noshir was alone in a foreign land.
He nurtures the hope of her returning for some time but when her final letter arrives deciding matters in favor of Jim, Noshir is broken. "He did the usual things, beat the wall, picked the furniture, pulled his hair. Finally, he stuffed his mouth with a washcloth, lay face down on the bed, covered his head with pillows, and screamed repeatedly into his mattress." (223)
The descriptions are endlessly pathetic, particularly the scene where Lisa and Noshir meet again. She inquires as to how things are with him. He tries to look away when his throat begins to fill, "I still think too much, mostly about you […] always about you." (226)
The lessons come to Noshir decisively. The Darwinian law rules the world, survival of the fittest. It was the preservation of the fittest; that he was not of the fittest.
Lisa knows that she has to go with someone who can secure her future. Noshir lost the battle simply because he was not yet an engineer and not earning a handsome amount. One has to betray and cheat the world before it cheats one. One has got to be practical. Noshir also analyses his pain and cause of it from different angles. One should not use one's children for one's own ambitions. Noshir's parents sent him to America because it was a status symbol for them. Children howsoever old they might have grown need unconditional love. But young and over enthusiastic parents learn these lessons quite late in life, almost as late as when they become grandparents. Without this kind of support we prepare incomplete personalities who are vulnerable and not strong enough to cope with life. But then life is always incomplete. "Paradoxically it is perfect because it needs improvement; if it needed no improvement it would be dead (...) It is subtlety, not certainty, that makes the truth beautiful. When it's focus is just off centre, when it catches you by surprise, when it refuses to be taken for granted, when it refuses to be defined, when it demands an element of faith, then is the truth most beautiful." (249)
After all this painful thinking, as Hamlet says, “parching tongue and burning heart" summarizing his experiences, defining truth, Noshir's process of Americanization is complete. He is an American in the true sense. When his parents visit him in Chicago, he feels, "I have a great affection for Bombay, but Chicago is the city where I found myself. It is my city.
It was a revelation for me as much as for them. They loved Chicago, and I loved showing it to them, but I hadn’t realized until I showed it that it was my city. I was home, they were visiting." (266)
Even his name is changed from Noshir to Riff, somewhere in between the novel because he plays guitar riffs. This change of name may be symbolical of his changed personality from an Indian to an American. This novel is a realistic journey of an immigrant. Here’s a relish-able tale of a ‘desi’ Indian in crazy America.
Note: All the references are from Boman Desai's ‘Asylum, USA’, Harper Collins Publishers, India, 2000