The Candid Life of Meena Dave, by Namrata Patel
As I've said elsewhere, I have re-read so many books this month that it feels like an accomplishment to have finished a new-to-me book. I came across this on the "new books" cart at the library, and the cover caught my attention.
The title character is a photojournalist with a career that takes her around the world. As the story opens, she is sitting in a lawyer's office in Boston, trying to understand how she has inherited an apartment in the city's Bay Bay neighborhood from a woman named Neha Patel, whom she has never heard of. She is also grappling with conditions on the bequest: she cannot sell the apartment for a year, and she can only sell to one of the four other owners in the condo. Meena has no interest in the apartment or in Boston.
What Meena finds in the building is history, both her own and her community, and mystery. She is the adopted child of white parents, and she knows nothing about Indian identity beyond what she has experienced in her travels. She knows nothing about her own heritage, or her own history. Her parents were killed in a explosion at their home when she was 16, and Meena (who was at school at the time) lost everything but her backpack. She has made her own way since, never putting down roots and never making connections with anyone besides her college friend Zoe. Renting a bedroom in Zoe's London flat is the closest thing Meena has to a home base.
In the building, she finds a community of Indian Americans, descended from students who came to study at MIT in the late 1940s, so that they could return to help India transition out of colonialism. Namrata Patel explains in an author's note that in writing this story she drew on the experiences of the real-life students. She notes that growing up, she did not know much about the history of Indian immigration to the United States, which dates back to the colonial era (via the East India Company). Like her, I thought Indian immigration dated from the 1960s, when restrictive laws that had blocked most immigration from Asian countries were repealed.
Meena quickly meets the three women who own the other apartments, which are entailed to descendants of the students, along with a lone male owner named Sam. The building is a warm community led by "the aunties." They try to welcome Meena into that community with food and chai and chat, but she resists, because she isn't staying. Sam, who works in film and has an adorable puppy named Wally, is harder to resist.
As Meena reluctantly spends time in the apartment, trying to figure out what to do, she finds notes that Neha has hidden all over the place. The notes are cryptic, but Neha clearly knows who Meena is, and more importantly, who her birth parents are. The notes disturb Meena, but they also demand her attention. At the same time, the aunties are giving her a crash course in culture, food, language, holidays, and even how to wear a sari.
There is so much going on in this story, almost too much at times. Meena carries a heavy burden of grief and anger at the loss of her parents, and the game that Neha is playing with her notes adds a lot of stress. She keeps trying to escape, from the apartment and from any relationship with Sam. She wants to know about her birth parents, and she doesn't want to know. The story felt a bit repetitive sometimes, as this cycle kept playing out. I found myself thinking that Meena could really use a therapist (she did have help after her parents' death). When the mystery is finally solved, she has to find a way to make peace with her past and figure out her future, starting with whether she will keep the apartment.
Meena also spends time exploring Boston. The author herself lives in Boston, and the story is very firmly rooted in the city. At times it reads a bit like a travelogue, but it did remind me of my years living in western Massachusetts, when a trip to Boston was a great treat. Meena's adoptive parents lived in Northampton in the western part of the state, and she finally takes a long-overdue trip back to her former home (or the site of it at least).