By Piyali C.
Dia stretches her arm over her head and forms a mudra with her fingers as she answers phones at a call center, Voizone, in Mumbai. Her customer is irritable and rude. However, if she can resolve the call within seventeen seconds, she has a chance at a promotion in Manali. Thus begins the story of a young woman, Dia Mittal, a passionate dancer who is financing her education by working at a call center in Mumbai and taking care of her family. Dia, however, is representative of modern Indian youth who refuses to stay contained within borders, be it geographic or societal. So instead of listening to her mother’s remonstrations about getting married, Dia dreams of a life that has a higher purpose than matrimony. Although dancing is Dia’s passion, she is realistic enough to know she will not make a name by dancing as a junior artist in Bollywood movies.
Dia wants more from life. Her desire to create her own destiny takes her far from home to the United States where she discovers the dichotomy of belonging to more than one country. After many years of living afar, Dia cannot fully belong to India or relate to her family including her widowed mother. While in United States, Dia is unable to assimilate to the culture and people, even her own people – the desis. She exists in a strange limbo. Namrata Poddar proves her expertise as a storyteller by dividing Dia’s journey in two parts – Roots and Routes. We meet young Dia in Roots. She is still vulnerable, slightly unsure of how her journey in life will unfold, but despite the uncertainty we discover her steely determination to embark on that journey. In Routes, we travel with Dia as she meets new people, finds love and a successful career that transcends borders. Through her eyes we read about the experiences and perspectives of the South Asian diaspora in United States. Through her we discover that although many Indian men and women left their country for better opportunities, they brought with them the patriarchy and prejudices that were, perhaps, a part of their lives when they emigrated.
Poddar intersperses certain chapters within her story with perspectives of narrators other than Dia without really telling us whose voice we are hearing. Each voice is unique and gives us a glimpse of a slice of life, be it on a passenger train in Mumbai or the struggles of an immigrant who came to the US in the 1960s and built a successful life from scratch. As I read those chapters, I felt a little lost but Poddar guides her readers back to Dia’s life, and it all makes sense at the end. Dia Mittal’s life is by no means smooth or untroubled, however, through it all, her fierce determination to fight boundaries remains constant and just when we think she is going to lose her love and her family, she manages to steer her life back into the path that she has created without losing herself. Not once does she give in to the established patriarchy that threatens to engulf her.
Although Dia Mittal’s journey is the common thread in this lyrical, superbly told story, many layers interweave to explore themes of belonging, otherness, assimilation, gender, identity, expectation, and as the book jacket says, “a negotiation of power struggles, mediated by race, class, caste, gender, religion, place or migration.” The title Border Less itself, I am sure, will evoke many thoughts among those who like to read and discuss books. I hope book clubs choose this title not only to enjoy Namrata Poddar’s beautiful storytelling but also, perhaps, to understand what it means to cross borders to forge a new path, both physically and metaphorically.
Border Less is available in print.
Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction and keeps the hope alive that someday she will reach the bottom of her to-read list.