High-Tech Braceros Make Their Mark on Silicon Hills

By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Austin American-Statesman

When Kaushal Kishore and a taxicab full of Austin techies crossed the border into Mexico this summer, they also crossed a border in time, into a frontier town where history seemed to be repeating itself.

Rewind about fifty-five years. Ciudad Juarez was a depot for “braceros” _ Mexican contract laborers _ as they waited for work permits that would take them to American farms left unmanned by World War II.

Kishore’s story is an Internet era remake of the tale of the braceros, whose two-decade stream into the United States left a permanent imprint on the culture and economy of Texas.

A quirk of immigration law took the 25-year-old engineer to Ciudad Juarez to get his passport stamped at the U.S. Consulate there. But the setting was appropriate. It linked the experience of this high-tech bracero from India _ who helps computer chip producers debug software _ with that of his old economy forebears, who thinned sugar beets with short-handle hoes and picked cucumbers, tomatoes and cotton in West Texas and the Panhandle.

Kishore holds one of the three-year work visas _ called H-1Bs _ used mainly by the tech industry to cope with a shortage of skilled domestic labor. The law of supply and demand brought him to the United States three years ago, as five decades ago it brought the Mexican agricultural workers.

About 420,000 workers on H-1B visas _ slightly below the peak number of braceros in 1956 _ live in the United States. By 2002, the population may grow to 710,000, according to a Georgetown University analysis of a recently enacted federal law that more than doubles the number of new H-1B visas available for the next three years.

Not only does the law allow more foreign workers into the country, it makes it easier for them to stay.

Already, H-1B holders are more than human stopgaps imported for a short period of time. About 25,000 H-1B holders become permanent residents every year, according to the Georgetown University study. Many are Americans-in- waiting _ and some are Central Texans-in-waiting.

Like the braceros, they will leave their mark on the Texas landscape.

On a lawn in North Austin’s Walnut Creek Park, a crew of cricketers measures almost every Saturday morning in “wickets,” the equivalent to baseball strike-outs.

“Wet sari” scenes, part of the subtitled antics of lovers in the latest musicals from Bombay, flicker onscreen at the Wells Branch Discount Cinema every weekend.

And at Swad, the most recent sprout of a crop of Indian fast-food joints, bachelors and young families huddle over plates of idlis, dosas, uttapam and bowls of sambhar _ all staples in the southern part of India.

The evidence is tucked away in unexpected places, behind cultural signposts. But the influx of workers touches Austin _ in its incarnation as Silicon Hills _ more than most metropolitan areas.

An Austin American-Statesman analysis of Department of Labor data shows that in the past six years, tech companies across the country received permission to hire 9,404 foreign workers for jobs based in Austin and Round Rock. Not all came, but because the visas for those already here can be _ and usually are _ renewed for another three years, there are probably about 9,000 high-tech braceros in the area.

Nationwide, about half of the workers with H-1B visas in all occupations come from India, particularly its big cities and Southern states. Among workers in the tech industry, the percentage is about 75 percent.

The United Kingdom sends the next largest contingent, with about 5 percent of all H-1B visas nationwide.

Courtesy of computers, the Austin area has become a mecca for a subset of migrants from middle-class India _ well-educated, young bachelors bearing a culture distinct from the American mainstream.

They come for a variety of reasons, including the spending power gained after dollars have been converted to rupees, the currency of India. But psychology also explains the exodus to the United States.

“It’s a place for self-starters and achievers. The sky’s the limit,” says Santhosh Anandan, a Web applications developer for Dell. He remembers when his plane touched down in Houston, almost like some remember the first glimpse of their life’s love: 2 p.m., August 3, 1998.

America had always been the distant and seemingly unattainable object of Anandan’s desire.

He knew he wanted to come to the United States since he was in high school in the early ’90s But it was against the wishes of his father, the country manager for General Motors in India.

“My dad said, ‘We have enough money. Why do you want to go?’ Even when I took the GRE, they didn’t take me seriously,” the 23-year old said.

But neither the comfort of his family’s three-bedroom flat in the South Indian city of Madras, in a building with luxuries like an elevator, nor their four cars could compete with the allure of the United States. It had a disquieting aura of magic that kept posing a question to Anandan: “What is it that makes this country tick? It’s controlling the whole world.”

It didn’t help dispel the witchcraft that he went four times to see the blockbuster film “Kaadalan” _ which features an MTV-like sequence set in the mythical American West. In it, the voluptuous Nagma, a darling of the South Indian cinema, dances in the middle of a high-noon hanging. Surrounded by Stetson-wearing cowboys, she gyrates to a song that drops the word “Texas” like a linguistic fish-out-of-water amid the rhythms of Tamil, Anandan’s mother tongue.

Of course, Anandan was also influenced by compatriots who had become Midases of the new tech economy in Silicon Valley. There was Sabeer Bhatia, founder of Hotmail. And Vinod Khosla, founder of Sun Microsystems. And Kanwal Rekhi, founder of Cirrus. They had become icons in India.

But the success story that sold Anandan was more obscure. He found it buried in the glossy pages of Femina, a Bombay-based national women’s magazine that he picked up in a restaurant while waiting for a take-out order. The heroine of this tale was a bored Bethesda, Md., housewife, an Indian immigrant who launched a computer company in her basement. As the article tells it, “Kavelle Bajaj, whose only academic qualification is a degree in home science, has set up a multimillion dollar worth Hi Tech company called I-Net in the US.”

“This thing was on my mind,” says Anandan, who still holds onto a brittle, yellowed copy of the story. “That was the moment I decided. I was stunned. She didn’t even know what a computer was.”

So, he came. Not because of a high-tech labor shortage. That simply made it possible. But because America _ the land of opportunity and self-made men (and women) _ was calling.
India’s riches in spices and tea had made it an English colony. Once free, the country made a fierce attempt to break with that past as a source of exports. Ironically, that struggle is why India has emerged as the leading foreign supplier of America’s programming corps.

Carrying out the vision of its first prime minister, Jawarharlal Nehru, independent India created and invested heavily in a network of schools to train engineers who could carry out the task of building the nation. The new country needed bridges, dams, power plants and nuclear readiness. Its colonial wounds _ and the unfolding insecurity of the Cold War _ required that the infrastructure be home-grown.

There was an “urgency to develop indigenous technological capabilities in electronics,” says Paula Chakravarty, a scholar at the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California at San Diego.

The urgency was so great, that respect for the sciences became a deeply ingrained cultural value.

Kishore, of Cadence Design Systems, comes from Vishakapatnam, an eastern port city the size of Austin that is almost an altar to industry. It’s a base for oil, asbestos, gas, shipbuilding and even a little bit of high-tech. Kishore’s memories of childhood include the glow of the blast furnace at the steel plant where his dad, a civil engineer, works.

“You may like it or not, but you do what a job demands,” says Kishore, who saw firsthand how central science was to the state and his own family. “I mean, it’s not like I kill my interest to (be an engineer), but you learn the hard way when you grow up … Study hard, get good grades.”

At heart, Kishore might have liked to be the next Sachin Tendulkar _ the Michael Jordan of cricket. But in India, science had been elevated to the level of duty to country. Little boys deferred other dreams for it. That was partly Nehru’s intent.

The Indian Institutes of Technology _ several copycat MITs created by the nationalist leader in the late 1940s _ and a second tier of recently mushrooming technical colleges have produced a large pool of scientists through the decades. Early on, this brain trust developed microcomputers and as as early as the late 1970s, a computer network.

But the talents of India’s electronic whiz kids were directed mainly to the public sector. Outside of the government, there never was much of a market for them, at least not at home. The socialist state threw out multinational companies like IBM and a centralized economy made it hard for local competitors to flourish. Plus, the vast majority of Indians needed electricity, food and water before computers.

Even with India’s grudging embrace of the free market, starting in 1991, the supply of high-tech labor today still outstrips the domestic demand.

“It is changing very much. Some people are staying back. Some people are even going back,” Kishore says. “But if you have a billion people trying to get the same jobs, it’s not easy.”

Indeed, the country’s new economic policy now promotes exports, including the human variety.

Foreign trade in software _ both the products and their producers _ is the fastest growing sector of the Indian economy and a key part of its development strategy.

Add to that the fact that most middle-class Indians speak English, the language of the New Economy and the tongue they inherited from their colonizers, and you have fertile ground for the crop of high-tech braceros in Austin and elsewhere in America and the world.

Whatever the cause of the influx of foreign workers, the effect has been to make Austin a more cosmopolitan place _ and a more eclectic marketplace. Aside from benefiting new economy giants like Motorola and Trilogy, the migration has given rise to a host of old-fashioned businesses that cater to the needs of displaced Indians.

At Paris Nails, near the Tejano nightclub called Desperado’s in North Austin, a woman named Shenila performs threading, an ancient form of hair removal and the preferred alternative to waxing in South Asia and the Middle East.

MGM Grocers _ the first Indian grocery in Austin _ has occupied every corner of its 2,900 square feet with imports from India, everything from Tata’s Perfumed Castor Hair Oil to DVDs of films from Bollywood (Bombay meets Hollywood). Since its opening in 1987, it has annexed more space twice, and owner Matthew Mathen is about to move to a larger location at Burnet and Anderson Lane.

“The sales have gone up,” he said. “Every day, I’m seeing new people.”

Mathen’s trade in frozen dinners _ a selection of “Curry Classics” entrees including Chicken Biryani, Chicken Moghlai or Lamb Curry _ has been particularly brisk, given the increasing number of young men who patronize his store.

“They don’t have time to cook,” he said. “They are the contract workers, and their workload is very high.”

In 1990, when the U.S. Census Bureau tabulated Austin’s Indian population at 2,883, Mathen had a corner on the market. Today, there are at least five grocery stores that serve the approximately 10,000 Indians that community leaders estimate live here.

If bachelor H-1B holders stock up on the expatriate’s version of Swanson’s, they also converge in the evenings and on weekends at one of the city’s nine Indian restaurants _ eight more than existed a decade ago.

They especially throng Swad and Little Bombay _ laid-back outposts of authenticity, where the chatter is in Tamil, Telegu and a half dozen other Indian languages and the soundtrack is hip-hop Hindi-pop rather than elevator- sitar.

And _ in the world’s best signal of a critical mass of Indians _ Bollywood has arrived in a meaningful way to Austin. A decade ago, the only outlet for the slick, surreal and sexy Indian movies were shows organized by students at the University of Texas, perhaps twice a year.

Today, the Wells Branch Discount Cinema devotes a screen every weekend to the mass-market musicals, full of lip-synching beautiful people, lush backdrops and sometimes a bizarre ubiquity of Tommy Hilfiger and Gap- emblazoned clothing. Another theater, Regal Lake Creek Cinemas, screens Indian films almost every day.

Even as the migrants have put chutney nearly on par with salsa in the Austin area, they too have been changed.

Vijay Sundaresan, a Web architect from Madras, arrived in Cleveland as a biomedical engineering graduate student in 1992. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to stay. As he put it, he just “wanted to study in the U.S. with 10 of my best friends” and then start his own company, either here or in India.

“I was very focused on my career. I wanted to be an entrepreneur and to make tons of money,” he says. “I told (my wife), ‘You’re not going to have children for five years.'”

But something _ God, Sundaresan would say _ intervened.

A Hindu by birth, Sundaresan became a born-again Christian after studying the Bible. His wife Ammu, a former journalist with All India Radio, was raised as an Indian Catholic, but also became a born-again Christian. They have three children, all born in the American Midwest, and another on the way.

At the directive of Chapter Six of the Old Testament’s Book of Deuteronomy, the Cedar Park couple home schools Jennifer, 6; Rachel, 4; and Joseph, 2. It is one of many ways that they have become alienated from their own relatives and middle-class life in Madras _ one in which women work and children are few, to preserve disposable income.

“Our views on life are so different from our own families,” Ammu Sundaresan says. “They can’t understand why I would stay home and ‘waste my life.’ They say, ‘Why don’t you take some computer classes?'”

Despite the disconnect, when Sundaresan’s H-1B visa expires in March, he and his family might have to carve out a niche in a motherland that has become foreign to them.

They tenant the same limbo as thousands of other visa holders whose applications for green cards are logjammed at the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

From 1992 to 1996, about 30,000 high-tech braceros and their spouses became permanent residents every year. Since then, there has been a precipitous drop in the number of H-1B holders who succeed in the green card process, and wait times for approval have ballooned to an average of 4.6 years.

“We cannot buy a house with the uncertainties ahead of us,” says Sundaresan, who has been in the green card queue for just a couple of months. “We are not just hanging out or anything. We’re establishing a family.”

But hope is not lost, thanks to the law passed by Congress in October. It includes a provision to extend H-1B workers’ stay in America by one-year increments, if their green card applications have been on file for a year. It also made other minor changes to make it easier for the foreign workers to stay.

That is perhaps where the comparison between braceros and their tech counterparts begins to break down.

The immigration concessions resulted from a season of organized clamor and lobbying _ including a $10,000 contribution to U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D- Austin, from local H-1B holders. The tech industry was filling campaign coffers. But its foreign workers also seized control of their own fates, in a way that the low-wage Mexican farm hands could not.

The financial muscle even wrested some cultural recognition from the White House. After attending a California fundraiser with Indian-born techies last month, Bill Clinton became the first president to extend an official greeting to American Hindus on Diwali, a religious holiday akin to Christmas in scale.

Still, the American Workforce Competitiveness Act creates more pressure on the green card system than it alleviates. The law hikes the number of new H- 1B visas each year to 195,000 until 2003 _ more than double the number that would have been available. And it exempts all foreign graduates of American universities _ about a fourth of all current H-1B holders _ from the cap. That swells the pool of potential green card aspirants, without truly clearing the backlog at I.N.S., scholars say.

However the law ultimately affects the Sundaresans, they are adaptable.

“Either we’re going to leave or we’re going to stay,” Vijay says.

“We won’t know until it actually happens,” his wife said. “We believe God is in control, and we’ll let it rest in His hands.”

© The Austin American-Statesman. All rights reserved.

Critics Say Patients of Regulatory Board Aren’t Top Priority

By Gaiutra Bahadur
Austin American-Statesman (Texas)

A surveillance camera recorded dentist Bradley D. Hagen fondling a female patient at the Del Valle correctional facility in 1997. The Travis County sheriff’s department arrested, then fired him. Criminal charges are pending, and five inmates have sued Hagen, alleging sexual assault.

Still, Hagen continues to practice in Manchaca. His profession’s oversight body, the Texas Board of Dental Examiners, did not temporarily suspend Hagen’s license — as state rules empower it to do and as other state agencies routinely do, even when criminal charges are pending.

Hagen, who did not return calls for comment, is contesting the criminal charges and has settled two of the lawsuits, involving three plaintiffs, said his lawyer, Scott Young.

Still, the treatment of Hagen fits a pattern: The state’s primary agency empowered with protecting consumers from bad dentists has a lower record of revoking licenses than kindred boards and has a big tent of critics including former and current employees, patients and their advocates, and state lawmakers.

The agency’s executive director, Jeff Hill, said state law prevents him from disclosing whether his agency has investigated Hagen.

“I’m sorry. I can’t talk about this, OK? Let’s just drop it,” Hill said. “I do not believe there is an indication that he is an individual who should have had his license revoked on an emergency basis, that is he posed an immediate threat to life, limb or property.”

Critics say this response to Hagen’s case illustrates that the board protects dentists, rather than consumers, and that those who rely on the board to check a dentist might not get the full picture.

Consider what the dental board’s online database shows about Charles Dyer, a pediatric dentist with a private practice in Beaumont: He received his dental license June 7, 1975. The board has never disciplined him. And he received his permit to sedate patients using nitrous oxide in July 1996.

Nothing in that sketch indicates, however, that Dyer performed the potentially dangerous procedure at least 291 times before becoming certified, according to federal and state records. In fact, he received — and later refunded — $20,425 from Medicaid for nitrous oxide sedations from 1990 to 1996.

Nor does his record contain any clues about what happened to Medicaid patient Quincy Guidry, 2 years old in December 1997, when he was admitted to the Columbia Beaumont Medical Center to have seven of his teeth capped by Dyer.

Just two weeks before, the asthmatic toddler had been put on antibiotics for wheezing, coughing and temperatures of up to 104 degrees — all documented red flags that made it risky to put him under general anesthesia, especially for elective surgery, court records say. But the hospital’s staff did so, and Quincy went into cardiac arrest. He emerged from the seizure with permanent brain damage.

“There’s no other child that should go through what mine did,” said Quincy’s father, Andrew Wariya.

He and the child’s mother, Charlotte Guidry, sued Dyer, the hospital, the anesthesiologist and the attending nurses for negligence and malpractice. A trial in Harris County Probate Court resulted in a financial settlement to help take care of Quincy, but Wariya said that’s not enough.

“It’s a tragedy that other people should know about,” he said.

The dental board knew about it, as it knew about Dyer’s nitrous oxide lapse. Dyer declined to comment, but Hill said the dentist reported the incident to the board, which conducted an investigation that led to a dismissal. But because the board doesn’t tell the public about complaints or investigations unless they lead to formal disciplining of a dentist, potential patients do not know.

Out of sunshine laws’ reach

That policy fails the public, said Lisa McGiffert, a health policy analyst in Austin with the national watchdog group Consumers Union . “You should be able to call up and find out that Dr. X had a number of complaints filed against him. That literally is the only record we have of how certain professions are doing out there,” she said.

Only a few health regulatory boards — such as the Board of Chiropractic Examiners, the Board of Occupational Therapy Examiners and the Optometry Board — make complaint histories available to the public.

But current and former employees of the dental board say the information eclipse cloaks more wrongdoing at the agency than it does at other agencies, because a greater share of valid complaints never make it to where the state’s sunshine laws reach — disciplinary action against a dentist.

The employees say the board lacks either the legal and financial muscle or the will to punish dentists who violate the standard of care, break the law or cause harm.

“Now, they’re letting dentists get away with everything,” said Jay Fackrell, 51, a retired police officer and the agency’s sole Dallas investigator for the past five years.

Agency in its second life

Lawmakers allowed the agency to die for six months in 1993, in part because of complaints of overzealousness by the agency at that time. One member of the board at that time, Austin dentist Glenda Smith, attributes the demise partly to concerns about more stringent standard-of-care measures that her board enacted.

Fackrell said the resurrected agency has been less aggressive in investigating and disciplining dentists than its predecessor.

But state Sen. Mike Moncrief, D-Fort Worth, a member of the Legislature’s Sunset Advisory Commission who sponsored the bill to restart the agency, said the opposite is true.

“There was a time when the dental board was less than aggressive,” he said. “I don’t find it to be the case now. I would be very disappointed if information was being withheld that allowed patients to be abused. I don’t feel that’s the case.”

The law that re-established the agency gave the board the authority to suspend a license temporarily and changed the board’s structure to allow more non-dentists to serve.

Texas revokes or negotiates the surrender of fewer dental licenses than states with like demographics that conduct a similar number of investigations. Last year in the Lone Star State, only 0.4 percent of investigations led to the loss of a license, compared with about 4 percent in both California and Florida. The Texas boards that regulate nurses, physicians and physician assistants also revoke or secure the surrender of licenses in a higher percentage of cases than the dental board does.

Last year, the board revoked only one license — that of a Georgia dentist found guilty of insurance fraud who then committed identity theft to become licensed in Texas. Of 27 dentists disciplined by the board, the majority received probation. They included a few who prescribed drugs to themselves, one who practiced with an expired or nonrenewable license, another convicted of insurance fraud and a crack cocaine addict.

In the past five years, the board has revoked five licenses. One dentist is appealing the revocation. The board has negotiated the surrender of six licenses.

Hill — who has been at the agency since 1995, as general counsel for most of that time — defends it against criticisms of lax enforcement and said it is as aggressive as it can be, with a $1.26 million annual budget, non competitive state employee salaries and merit pay raises capped at 1.7 percent by the Legislature.

“When it’s appropriate, this board revokes the licenses of dentists,” he said, adding that he does not think it is valid to compare the board with counterparts in other states. “It could be that we’ve just got better dentists in Texas.”

Also, there are fewer resources available to the Texas dental board.

The board in California has twice as many employees as the Texas board, one-third of whom are in the enforcement division. Its budget — $6.4 million, with about 75 percent for enforcement — is five times as much as the Texas dental board’s budget. Florida divides its enforcement among several agencies, making it difficult to pin down how much it spends on investigations.

Hill acknowledged that a staff turnover rate of 30.77 percent last year, twice the average for state agencies, created delays in investigating complaints, but he said that this, too, might stem from the budget crunch.

The agency operated for a year without a full staff of investigators. Until a month ago, three of the five positions were vacant. After the enforcement director resigned in May, the investigators had no boss.

Other than salary constraints, Hill said he doesn’t know why so many employees, eight in 1999 alone, have left.

Employees’ efforts thwarted?

Fackrell, the Dallas investigator, paints a picture of a workplace that has driven key people away by not allowing them to do their job: cracking down on errant dentists as aggressively as possible.

After the state auditor’s office criticized the dental board in a report last November for not heeding the recommendations of the board’s investigators, investigators were told to stop making recommendations, employees said.

They don’t attend bimonthly hearings in Austin, partly because of a limited $70,000 travel budget used mainly by appointed members of the board. And they’re never told the outcome of hearings or notified if cases are closed.

Hill acknowledged an “us-and-them feeling” and “a sense of separateness” between investigators and the agency’s upper management, but he said he hopes the hiring last month of a new enforcement director will banish that alienation.

Still, he said investigators should not recommend disciplinary actions and that the state auditor’s office should not have used that as a criterion for judging the agency’s enforcement efforts.

“Our investigators are not dentists,” Hill said. “When we are dealing with issues that have to do with the standard of care provided by a dentist . . . our investigators, who are not experts, may miss something. They may not ask the right question.”

But according to employees who have left the agency, the board disregards investigators’ findings for reasons that go beyond the investigators’ lack of dental knowledge.

A former employee, one of three sources who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, said, “When you do investigation after investigation after investigation and you see a high level of proof of serious violations, and time after time nothing happens, it’s frustrating. You don’t want to do it (anymore).”

A public safety matter

The last time Helen Dearman of Tomball took the painkiller that her dentist prescribed after a root canal in 1997, she stopped breathing, she said. That’s why she thinks the punishment meted out to the dentist, Mahnaz Messkoub, was not harsh enough.

“She was sent a warning letter, and that was that,” Dearman said.

Messkoub’s assistants had been told that Dearman was allergic to the drug, but that information somehow did not filter down to the right person at the right time, Dearman sa id. She sa id she thinks the investigation by the dental board, which took more than a year, should have resulted in a 120-day license suspension.

“That seems stiff,” she said. “But on the other hand, what if I had died?”

The fact that other patients would not know about her complaint also bothered her. It piqued other patients as well — constituents who pushed Moncrief to sponsor a bill that, last September, made warning letters formal disciplinary actions and, therefore, available to the public.

The confidentiality in the past, Hill said, was appropriate because warning letters amounted to complaint dismissals that delivered this message: “Doctor, there’s been a complaint about you. We don’t find there’s been a violation of the Dental Practice Act, but some of the information that becomes available causes the board to have some concerns about the way you do your business. You need to clean up your act.”

Despite this, the agency classified the letters as disciplinary actions in calculating its enforcement rates for the Legislature. The result: inflated rates that, in fiscal year 1999, amounted to more than twice the agency’s actual record of complaint enforcement.

The agency reported a 13.3 percent rate of disciplining dentists who received complaints to the Legislative Budget Board that year. But a review by the Austin American-Statesman shows a rate of 5.69 percent, discounting the 36 warning letters issued from October 1998 through September 1999.

Now that issuing a warning letter does legally count as disciplining a dentist — and now that such letters are public information — the board has not issued a single one.

When asked about this shift, Hill said: “Does it appear that the board is trying to hide the reasons it dismisses cases? I don’t think so. Does it appear that the board is trying to hide the reasons it has concerns about a case? No.”

Moncrief said he is not alarmed that the agency has stopped issuing warning letters since his bill became law, and he sa id he thinks the revived agency is stronger than it was in the past.

Others who have worked for the agency disagree.

Santos Serna, whose tenure at the dental board spanned years before and after the sunset commission, said that when the agency was revived, it came back with changes that weakened consumer protection.

For example, staff members’ reports to the board secretary recommending further investigation never disclosed the names of the dentists involved, he said. Now they do, and Serna said that has led to a greater number of complaints being dismissed and opens the board to accusations of playing favorites.

The policy, as well as the confidentiality of complaints, “should be looked at and rescinded,” he said. “The question to ask is: ‘Does this protect the public, or does this protect the dentist?’ The way you look at it now, it protects the dentist.”

Hill said the policy does not shield dentists, but he add ed, “Does it put a fair amount of faith in the board secretary? Yes, it does . . . just like the governor does.”

© Austin American-Statesman (Texas). All rights reserved.

Midnight’s Grandchildren

The Romantics by Pankaj Mishra and The Blue Bedspread by Raj Kamal Jha
Review by Gaiutra Bahadur
Austin American-Statesman

Critics have coupled Pankaj Mishra and Raj Kamal Jha in their encomiums. And why not? After all, both are men of letters in their 30s who made their novelistic debuts this year, at a time when there is more buzz about Indians writing in English than a Calcutta ceiling fan generates in the summertime.

Both publish in a market created in the West in 1981 by Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” — an epic evocation of India that won the Booker Prize, England’s Pulitzer, and spawned many imitators. But Mishra and Jha are not among them. Even if Rushdie’s success made theirs possible, they subvert his trademark style.

Theirs is not your father’s Great Indian Novel. Meet Midnight’s Grandchildren, as critics have dubbed a crop of young writers including Jha, the executive editor of India’s largest daily newspaper, and Mishra, a star editor at Harper Collins/India. They write with an elegant economy rooted in realism — a departure from Rushdie’s ballooning, fantastical, crowded narratives.

But that is perhaps where the symmetries end.

Reading Mishra’s “The Romantics,” a novel obsessed with the idea of religious retreat, is itself like a stay at an ashram — a sanctuary for ascetics, Hinduism’s version of a monastery for lay people.

Mishra’s book, set in the holy city of Benares along the Ganges, chronicles the inner life of an upper-caste intellectual named Samar, who wants to do nothing but read. His one flirtation with the messy realities of a life beyond text or spectatorship, a love affair with a Frenchwoman named Catherine, ends badly. Hurt, he runs away to teach at a school in the Himalayas for seven years. His rhythms there are orderly and alone, and he is the secular paraphrase of a holy man.

It could be a mark of Mishra’s subtlety, but “The Romantics” has the same disquietingly palpable sense of detachment as its narrator does. Its disinterest runs so deep, in fact, that it’s difficult to feel for any of the characters or their losses.

Jha’s “The Blue Bedspread,” in contrast, whispers like a father standing tenderly above a cradle in the middle of the night. It is intimate.

A narrator who withholds his name (“why waste time, it doesn’t matter in this city of twelve million names,” he says) sits down to write a family history for his dead sister’s baby, who sleeps in the next room, waiting to be claimed in the morning by adoptive parents.

So the story uncoils over one Calcutta night, as the clock ticks. It contains terrible secrets: incest, rape, domestic violence. But it also holds beauty, partly because of the way it is told. Jha weaves together a series of remembered snapshots through sections titled “Mother,” “Father,” “Sister” and “Brother.” Although the narrator is anonymous, and the characters also bear no names beyond their generic family roles, the book is rich in details foreshortened by memory: An albino cockroach hanging from a window. Baby footprints on red bathroom tiles. Streetlamps that gleam like Sister’s hair. Mother in a mothy Kashmiri shawl, watching from a balcony as snow falls like cotton sliding down the face of a mirror. Brother lying on a carpet with words growing and growing inside him until they fill his lungs.

These images recur throughout like visual refrains in a poem. Each carries emotion compactly in every cinematic flash, leading to the overpowering conclusion and lingering long after the last word of this haunting little book.