Operation Monsoon, by Shona Ramaya, was my selection for the Spotlight Series Graywolf Press tour. (For all participating books and blogs, see the schedule here.)
Operation Monsoon is a collection of five short stories, all of which revolve around upper-class life in India (and more specifically, Bengal. I think) in the early 21st century. Many of the stories have very interesting premises. The first story, Gopal's Kitchen, is about live organ trafficking. Another is about a polio-stricken woman who runs a highly successful match-making service. The title story is about the impact a Naxalite terrorist had on a woman. Another story is told entirely through email exchanges. The fifth is about a woman doing her dissertation on the concept of belief.
Unfortunately, I didn't particularly enjoy this collection. This will seem like an odd statement to make to people who aren't familiar with Indian literature, but once I realized these stories were mostly set in Calcutta (a city in the Indian state of Bengal), I had to steel myself.
[Start horrible stereotyping] In my experience, Bengali authors (Jhumpa Lahiri, I'm looking at you) nearly only ever write about being Bengali. They do not write about an "Indian" experience. They write about a Bengali experience. They think they're very different than the rest of India, and in my opinion, are often just a little superior, and it shows in their writing. I suppose it's to be expected, as the state has a long and storied past full of writers, but I find it really annoying. [End horrible stereotyping]
So. I had a feeling from the start that I wasn't going to like this collection of stories. To be fair, they weren't all about being Bengali. But most of them were about pretty wealthy people in India and their difficulties. It's not that I don't think rich Indians have problems, but it's hard for me to sympathize with people in stories who specifically mention the fact that they are wealthy. Is it necessary to bring this up? Can't I get the hint from context clues? When someone in conversation mentions to me how rich she is, I tend to get a bad impression of that person. The same is true for characters in stories.
But really, I think the main problem I struggled with in reading this book was that I couldn't connect to the stories. I didn't feel an affinity for the characters- I didn't like any of them (except for the match-maker), and so I didn't have any desire to spend time with them.
And that is a deal-breaker for me with short stories- they aren't about plot, but characters. Not much can happen in the space of 50 pages, and so the character telling the story needs a strong and compelling voice. That was missing here, and left me unengaged.