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No One Can Pronounce My Name: A Novel

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In a suburb outside Cleveland, a community of Indian Americans has settled into lives that straddle the divide between Eastern and Western cultures. For some, America is a bewildering and alienating place where coworkers can’t pronounce your name but will eagerly repeat the Sanskrit phrases from their yoga class. Harit, a lonely Indian immigrant in his mid forties, lives with his mother who can no longer function after the death of Harit’s sister, Swati. In a misguided attempt to keep both himself and his mother sane, Harit has taken to dressing up in a sari every night to pass himself off as his sister. Meanwhile, Ranjana, also an Indian immigrant in her mid forties, has just seen her only child, Prashant, off to college. Worried that her husband has begun an affair, she seeks solace by writing paranormal romances in secret. When Harit and Ranjana’s paths cross, they begin a strange yet necessary friendship that brings to light their own passions and fears.

Rakesh Satyal's No One Can Pronounce My Name is a distinctive, funny, and insightful look into the lives of people who must reconcile the strictures of their culture and traditions with their own dreams and desires.

ISBN-13: 9781250112125

Media Type: Paperback(Reprint)

Publisher: Picador

Publication Date: 05-08-2018

Pages: 400

Product Dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

RAKESH SATYAL is the author of the novel Blue Boy, which won the 2010 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Debut Fiction and the 2010 Prose/Poetry Award from the Association of Asian American Studies. Satyal was a recipient of a 2010 Fellowship in Fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts and two fellowships from the Norman Mailer Writers' Colony. His writing has appeared in New York magazine, Vulture, Out magazine, and The Awl. A graduate of Princeton University, he has taught in the publishing program at New York University and has been on the advisory committee for the annual PEN World Voices Festival. He lives in Brooklyn.

Read an Excerpt

No One Can Pronounce My Name

A Novel

By Rakesh Satyal


Copyright © 2017 Rakesh Satyal
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-11213-2


HARIT DESCENDED THE RUBBER-COATED STAIRS of the bus and tripped as he jumped to the sidewalk below. He turned around to see if anyone had noticed, but the bus was already pulling away, leaving a dispersing cloud of smoke and people. It was a short walk from the bus stop to his house, but within ten paces he began to sweat. The heat seemed so hot here because the surroundings didn't look as if they could stand it any more than the residents. The thick roofs (many-shingled and arched), the roads (bracketed in deep curbs), and the trees (branches bursting and then shivering in leaves) were all suited to a cold landscape. Harit had seen this theory proven during his first winter in Cleveland, when snow piled on top of those shingles, nestled into those curbs, and spackled the leaves in ice. But in the summer, the neighborhood seemed like a tired, old man who could not endure such exertion.

The house in which Harit lived stood opposite a large baseball field. The field was surrounded by a sextet of light posts so large that they could have constituted a new Seven Wonders of the World had another counterpart been shoved into the ground. It seemed that a different group of boys appeared on the field every night, clad in uniforms of red, yellow, and gray polyester, or — during practice games — an assortment of sweats and mesh. Their hollers would last until 9:00 P.M., when the lights would shut off with an ear-splitting pucker. The field's diamond was on the opposite side of where the bus stopped and Harit's house stood, so he didn't have to interact with the kids very often. But there were those afternoons when a ball would find its way to Harit's side of the field, and some fragile little kid would run over to get the ball and look terrified that Harit was going to do something awful to him. There was that quick shake of the head, a short No, and Harit, who should have learned to look in front of himself and not at others by now, would move away.

Today, thankfully, he had an uneventful walk home, and when he slid his key into the back door of his house, he had one second of peace. But as soon as he turned that key, it was time to get into costume.

He wasn't sure why he put on the rose oil anymore. It had seeped into his skin by now; Teddy had already sniffed him and asked why he had started to smell like someone named "The Dowager Countess," whom Harit didn't know but who, according to the tinny voice that Teddy used to say her name, sounded like a very small woman. Harit cursed himself when he remembered that he had run out of lipstick yesterday. Luckily, he had a bit of raspberry Chapstick left, and a few heavy circles around his mouth pretty much did the trick. The sari that he had been using for the past week was beautiful, a peacock blue, but he had started to smell in its folds a stale version of his own pungent body odor. He tipped the bottle of rose oil against his index finger and, trying not to stain the fabric, flicked small droplets onto it. He then whipped the sari into the air the way he did with his blanket when making up his bed in the morning. He sniffed the sari again. There was still the unmistakable sourness, but the rose oil now clouded it enough that his mother's old nostrils would not detect the smell.

She was in her armchair in the living room, and the stereo was going. Gital Didi had brought a new batch of cassettes for her, and the latest one was a Mohammad Rafi best-of collection. That voice, normally lively, was so muffled by the old stereo's speakers that it sounded as if poor Mohammad himself were trapped inside the machine. Harit — for all the sadness of the situation — had to stifle a laugh as he looked at his mother, this sentinel of a caged megastar singer. She had taken to wearing a pair of gigantic, purple-rimmed sunglasses — also a gift from Gital Didi — which made Harit's job both easier and harder. Easier because they filtered out such mistakes as his Chapsticked lips; harder because they made his mother even more inhuman and unapproachable. Her eyes, even under the gossamer of burgeoning cataracts, were a pair of darting, glimmering circles that were abnormally large for her face and that had often made people mistake her for a South Indian instead of a Punjabi. But now, with her new eyewear, she had become a wax figure of herself, an effigy upon which some child had played a prank. Still, something in her defied total weakness. The way that her mottled hands rested on the chair's armrests, the way that her white sari, though jaundiced with time and overuse, flowed like the raiment of Saraswati, the way that her hair, ghastly white, held its bun save for a few defiant wisps — it all emphasized her determination to mourn forever.

"Is that you?" his mother asked in Hindi. It was always the first thing that she said. She didn't speak English anymore, and she used the informal you in a childlike manner.

Harit gave his usual response: "Yes, Mother. It is Swati."

* * *

He wasn't exactly sure how the dress-up game had started. It had just seemed like the logical thing to do. He had found himself holding one of Swati's lipsticks to his mouth and knew that it would be a routine. He had never thought of putting on women's clothing before and had certainly never thought of putting on makeup, but in the midst of his suffering, or the catatonic nothing that turned out to be suffering, he had done both of those things so easily that he wondered if perhaps he had once dreamed about doing them, if they had been occupying the same part of his mind that a childhood phobia of snakes or an affinity for lassi had occupied. Perhaps it was because, at the beginning, it wasn't just his mother who needed Swati to be alive but Harit himself. That was it: he did not question his actions because part of him believed that Swati was the one performing them.

His mother's eyesight had turned blurry by then, and there had been times when she had confused Harit with Swati. The brother and sister could not have looked any different — Harit with his large eyeglasses, mustache, and messy, long hair sprouting from a receding hairline; Swati with her beautiful face, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, and that smile. Her teeth were not terribly white or straight, but her smile brightened up her entire appearance, and that was something that no amount of dissembling could give Harit, who hardly ever smiled and, maybe worse, did not understand why smiling was such a big deal. He practiced Swati's smile in his bathroom mirror before offering it to his mother. He looked as if he had indigestion. But it was a sign of just how far his mother's eyesight had dimmed that she took this horrible version as the real thing.

He first approached her three days after the funeral, after they took Swati's body to the entirely un-Indian local crematorium, after the people there burned her off with a lack of ceremony that stunned not just Harit but all of the families gathered. At the end of it, the owner handed Harit his sister's ashes in an urn that seemed too plain — What did an ideal urn look like, though? — and Harit was surprised at how light it was. Since Swati's passing, their mother had not spoken — or wept, for that matter — and generally stayed clear of Harit, so it wasn't very difficult to hide the urn from her. She was folded into the backseat of a car by three aunties who stood by like ladies-in-waiting, while Harit was driven home in a separate car by the pandit's wife. For the next three days, his mother sat in her armchair, not moving, not speaking, not even getting up to use the bathroom.

At the end of the third day, soon after the lights from the baseball field had gone out and left them in the gray dust of a nighttime house, Harit entered the room dressed in his costume. He was almost as dazed as his mother and, later, would remember the experience as if it were something he had seen years ago in a strange movie.

"Is that you?" his mother asked when she saw him, and it startled him to hear her voice, not just because she was speaking but because she said this sentence as matter-of-factly as if Swati had come in with a cup of chai. He had expected her first words after this long silence to be torn, exhausted, hollow.

"Yes, Mother. It is Swati."

He didn't have time to worry if she believed his impression because his mother broke down. Her outburst lasted only a few seconds, but Harit would never forget the way that his mother's body unfurled, as if she were a ball of paneer expanding after being freed from a cheesecloth.

"Arré, beti, you scared me so much. I was so scared! I was — Don't ever leave me like that again. I would — I don't know what I would do. My child is home. My child, my child ..." She was weeping horribly, hitting her eyes with her hands. Harit had seen her cry only once before, when he was seven and her cousin Jyoti had died of tetanus. Instantly upon hearing her cry now, he felt just as he had then, vulnerable and terrified, a weak child with a weak mother. He backed away from the living room and ran to his bed, rocking himself to sleep in his sister's sari and wishing that Swati were there to pat him to sleep, as she had done for so many years.

* * *

"You know, in French, the word sale means dirty," Teddy said. "So you can imagine what French people think when they come here."

Teddy was always dropping French into conversation. He once tried to teach Harit how to speak the language, but Harit's "merci" kept coming out like "mercy," and that is exactly what Teddy gave him after the fourth, and final, lesson. The funniest thing was that Teddy didn't seem to know that much French, either.

"Did you hear what I said?"

Harit heard the short sound of metal on glass — the tip of a hanger flopping onto the counter as Teddy looked at him in anticipation. Harit was fixing a round table of ties. Red was the color of choice that summer, so the assortment before him contained varying shades of it, each tie shooting its color outward, as if mimicking the tongue of Kali.

"Uh, yes, I heard," Harit said. He nudged one of the ties back into place and then looked up. Teddy was holding a blue blazer with gold corduroy lapels.

Teddy snorted. "Someone's in a mood today," he said, taking the blazer and walking it over to where its colorful clones were hanging. Harit watched him saunter, feeling, as he often did, that every interaction with Teddy, regardless of how brief, had to Mean Something.

Harriman's was a department store that had undergone several evolutions of decor since its birth forty years before. Harit often thought of what he must have been doing while the store was being built. He would have been four then. The faux-wood walls were hoisted against real-wood planks while he had his first taste of sweet halwa. The original tan carpet — tufts of which Harit could still see popping up between layers of the newer, navy blue carpet — was rolled into place while he sat in his open-air classroom, seeing the skeletal script of words he had, until then, known only by sound. The marble staircases were given a final polish as Harit's equally pristine soles bounded up the red stone steps of his temple. As Harriman's opening day came to a close, coiffed housewives shuttled out of the glass front doors, milk shakes from the second-floor parlor in their bellies; Harit sat on his house's front step, licking the cool dribble off a mango Popsicle.

He found the job through Gital Didi's friend Sameet, who had worked briefly in the storeroom. Sameet had been charged with the task of moving gigantic boxes of women's shoes from one end of that musty concrete bunker to the other. Harit, on the other hand, parlayed his interview into the more important position of working in the Men's Furnishings department. Not the Men's department, which included dress shirts and slacks and sweaters. The Men's Furnishings department, which involved "accoutrements" (another Teddyism): ties, cuff links, suspenders, wallets, clips, hats, pocket squares, scarves, and — partly because the space devoted to it was adjacent to the Men's Furnishings section, but more because it didn't fit into any of the store's other categories — luggage. The department was the also-ran of the store, but working in it still beat the storeroom, even if Harit came to realize that twiddling one's thumbs was only slightly better than sweating.

Although Harit's English was far from ideal, it was augmented by a certain attention to pronunciation and vocabulary that set it apart from that of most Indian people. This made him the best Indian presented to the people at Harriman's in quite some time. For his interview, he showed up dressed in his nicest outfit — a tailored herringbone jacket, brown corduroy slacks, cream dress shirt, and maroon silk tie. He waited for Mr. Harriman, the general manager, in a poorly lit office on the top floor. The office was very plain. Given the grand appearance of the store, Harit had envisioned a lavishly furnished room that resembled a professor's study — not this, which brought to mind a hospital without the cleanliness, a DMV without the people. Mr. Harriman's secretary, Stella, brunette with a pointy nose and small face, carried the unmistakable expression of someone who didn't have a damn clue as to how she had ended up in a job like this. Why was she assisting the general manger of a department store when working in the store, graceful behind a perfume counter, seemed so much more attractive? Harit could only assume that the pay was better in her current position.

"Mr. Harriman will see you now." She said every word as if it were new not only to him but also to her. Harit nodded politely and walked up to her desk. She flinched slightly, and he realized that she had not intended to walk him to Mr. Harriman's door. To put her at ease, he pointed in the direction of the office, indicating that he was headed that way.

Mr. Harriman — whose first name Harit never learned — was in his late sixties and was a smart dresser, contrary to the dour and unbecoming photograph of him that Harit would eventually see in the employee break room (E. H. HARRIMAN — no first name — engraved on a placard under it). Harit would soon learn that when Mr. Harriman got particularly stressed, his skin became red and he looked like a bell pepper. His voice was by turns mellifluous and grating, and he had an unexplained southern accent.

"So, Mr. Singha, what brings you to Harriman's today?" Harit's last name was Sinha, but Mr. Harriman added a g to it, as if it were a Thai beer.

Harit did not understand the question. Why else would he be here? "I have come to see if I might find employment."

Mr. Harriman threw his head back and laughed. His teeth sparkled. "Right to the point. I like that in a salesman."

"Oh, I did not come for a salesman position," Harit said. Mr. Harriman's mouth fell into a frown, and Harit panicked. "Uh, I would love to be considered for a salesman position, but I was informed that you need men for your storage room."

"Ah, yes, yes, we have had many helpful boys from India, but I like the look of you, Mr. Singha. Do you have any sales experience?"

Harit wished that Mr. Harriman had looked at his résumé. It clearly indicated that he had done his schooling in Commerce and that he had worked for several years back in India as the operator of the projector in a movie theater, before coming to the States and working as a janitor at a medical supplies company. None of this made him an ideal candidate for a salesman job.

"No, sir. No sales experience."

"Do you like Harriman's?"

"It is a nice store, sir." This was the first time that he had ever set foot in it.

"Well, Harriman's is the crown jewel of this community, Mr. Singha. I opened decades ago with an aim to make it the premier shopping experience in Greater Cleveland, and it is my belief that it has remained such since that time. We've survived the supermall, the cybermall, and about a million apps that turn your phone into a mall." Harit could tell that Mr. Harriman had given this speech several times. "Throughout the years, we have employed a wide variety of employees. A former assistant manager of ours was African American!" Mr. Harriman raised his eyebrows, as if Harit were supposed to be very impressed. Harit realized in this moment that Mr. Harriman was offering him a salesman job because of his ethnicity.

After the interview, Mr. Harriman walked Harit out of the office and said to Stella, "This is Mr. Singha. He is going to be working in Men's Furnishings. Can you get his paperwork started, sweetheart?"

Stella looked up at them as if Mr. Harriman had just said that Harit were making a trip to the moon.

* * *

On a Thursday afternoon, Teddy asked Harit if he wanted to go for a drink after work. "Fancy a drink?" was the way that Teddy phrased it, and it struck Harit's ear strangely, for the Anglo-bred English he had learned gave "fancy" a sexual connotation — a mundane question made illicit in Teddy's mouth.


Excerpted from No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal. Copyright © 2017 Rakesh Satyal. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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