What better metaphor for disorientation than an acid trip?
Viraf has been in America for two months, and the differences from his home in Bombay might best be described by how he feels about Ali, one of the two deadheads who’d given him his first hit of acid.
“She was America. Young like America, fair and pretty. Different. Unconsciously seductive.”
Ironically, the story’s deadheads, part of that hippie Orientalism that sees Indians (whether Indian Indians or American) as the apex of some pseudo-spirituality, worry their bona fide Indian friend might be having a bad trip.
“You’re too uptight, man,” Doug says, “Why don’t you just let it happen?”
It’s into this double disorientation that Sohrab Homi Fracis throws his readers in “New World, Old World,” an excerpt from his novel Go Home, published in the spring 2015 issue of Crossborder.
Two other excerpts, “The Summer of the Strike” and “Caught a Whale,” will appear in the spring issues of Fifth Wednesday and Jacksonville-based Bridge Eight.
The fact that Bridge Eight is sharing Jacksonville’s own Sohrab Homi Fracis, who won the prestigious Iowa Short Fiction Award for his collection Ticket to Minto: Stories of India and America in 2001, with some of the best-known fiction journals in North America says a lot about this town’s growing literary community.
I’m having coffee with Sohrab in Five Points, asking him about the back-and-forth between East and West in his writing. The stories in Ticket to Minto alternate between Sohrab’s origins in the Parsi minority in Bombay and the America he found as a graduate student studying civil engineering. “New World, Old World” moves back and forth, too, but less systematically.
I mention those lines by Rudyard Kipling, author of “The White Man’s Burden” and imperialist apologist, “East is East and West is West / And never the twain shall meet.”
“Of course they meet,” Sohrab says, “Here we are,” indicating our sitting across from each other. “You’re looking at a fusion right here.”
His new novel’s title, Go Home, other than quoting an insult hurled at its Indian protagonist in early-1980s-America, just after the Iran hostage crisis, raises the question of what “home” even means.
For Sohrab, it’s complicated not only by his being Indian American, but by growing up Parsi in India. “Parsi” means “Persian,” and marks Indian Parsis as a small minority who migrated more than a thousand years ago from present-day Iran, where they’re known as Zoroastrians.
So Pesi, in Sohrab’s story “Ancient Fire,” learns kinship with flames, since Bombay’s Parsi “fire temples” harbor fires that “had first been kindled more than three thousand years ago in ancient Iran,” though stories like “Flora Fountain” and “Holy Cow” explore with keen social perception and sharp wit the anxieties of the mandate to marry Parsi, since the ancient community has dwindled.
Sohrab recalls a former student telling him he was lucky that his life was “such complicated material.”
“In a way, I came into this world handed some huge ancestral perspectives, because my community, my tiny, tiny, tiny community, in India, and in the world, has never let go of its past, and that past is right at the core of their identity.”
That long tradition raises questions about identity in the contemporary world.
“Is that true? Are they right? Is that the core of my identity too by virtue of my having been born into that community?”
It’s a prime example of “the accident of birth.”
With a raised brow, Sohrab says that student was right. “It’s true. But you pay a price for your material.”
Still, he says, fiction offers “artistic license,” adding, “I can go where I need to go for the best of the story.”
Story dictates itself to the writer, and material works itself out in Sohrab’s head for years, without his necessarily knowing what it’s doing, until it presents itself as ready for him to write it.
“Rabbit’s Foot,” the early piece hardest to publish 20 years ago, has recently re-emerged as one of Sohrab’s most significant stories.
It ends with Veer cooking rabbit stew, having grown up vegetarian in India, trying unsuccessfully to tame down the curry for a white American friend.
But before he hunts, he’s hunted.
When a cop takes him down for hunting rabbits with an air pistol – a new American experience, as his family back home would be horrified – the cop says, “Count yourself lucky,” since he didn’t shoot the immigrant.
Tragically, the story now resonates with the recent police shootings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Walter Scott in Charleston, South Carolina.
Veer finds the cop’s logic “similar to that in the condescending, easy assumption of so many Americans (his acceptance of which was required) that he must thank his lucky stars nightly for the good fortune to be in America.”
Nevertheless, Sohrab Homi Fracis says he’s as much a Jacksonville writer as he is a Parsi or Indian-American writer.
“This is the town where I learned not just to write, but to write well, and to interrogate the idea of home through story.”