Winner, American Book Fest 2019 Best Book Awards
(Fiction – Short Story)
Finalist, American Book Fest 2019 Best Book Awards
(Fiction – Multicultural)
Finalist, 2019 International Book Awards
(Fiction – Short Story)
Finalist, 2019 International Book Awards
(Fiction – Multicultural)
Winner, 2018 IPPY Gold Medal for Multicultural Fiction
A Haitian woman survives the ravages of an earthquake only to find her sister, an émigré in Montreal, the subject of a grisly crime. A chambermaid in a Mexican tourist resort frequented by Canadian tourists wonders why all the men in her life seem to leave her for distant lands. A Jamaican migrant worker at an Ontario chicken farm comes to the aid of his Peruvian co-worker on the eve of a fatal car accident. And a young Pakistani-Canadian woman finds herself in the midst of a protest march defending Muslim women’s rights on the same day she has agreed to meet her Moroccan lover. The diverse cast of characters that energize Mariam Pirbhai’s Outside People and Other Stories not only reflects a multicultural Canada but also the ease with which this striking debut collection inhabits the voices and perspectives of nation, hemisphere, and world.
“With clear-eyed compassion, generosity and literary brilliance, Mariam Pirbhai has deftly illuminated characters whose lives in literature are usually relegated to the shadows of the mainstream. In doing so she has given much needed, long-overdue breath to a cast of characters who create the landscape even as they have been, until now, invisible in it. As Diane Arbus is to photography, so is Mariam Pirbhai to literature—bringing forth the margins, but nobly, with understanding and an unusual generosity in her handling of contemporary society’s machinations.”
— Shani Mootoo, author of Cereus Blooms at Night and Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab?
“What a stunning debut this collection, Outside People and Other Stories, is for Mariam Pirbhai. These stories transport us into the lives mainly of newcomers to the Canadian landscape. The broad range of characters includes first-and second-generation Canadians, new citizens, temporary workers and even a worker in a resort in Mexico that caters to numerous Canadian clients. The power of the stories lies in the author’s success at capturing the worlds of the marginalized and racialized so vividly, with such understanding and compassion, that we cannot ignore or dismiss their humanity. Indeed, we are enriched by it. This book deserves a wide readership.”
— Mary Lou Dickinson, author of Would I Lie to You? and The White Ribbon Man
“With intelligence and command of her craft, Pirbhai invites us into the lives . . . of the émigré and following generation(s): from Pakistan, India, Morocco, Jamaica, Mexico, Japan, Philippines, Haiti. As a result of the portability of technological skills, rapid global communication, and mobility across continents, “outside people” find themselves in a state of displacement and . . . sense their “otherness” as perceived through the eyes of others. Outside People and Other Stories views the world and humanity through a wide-angled lens. Give it a read. It will both entertain and enlighten.”
—Rhoda Rabinowitz Green, author of Aspects of Nature
From “Toronto’s Dominions”
Sure, Arjun’s parents had tried to sweeten the deal like condensed milk drizzled on a saltine cracker. They had generously offered to waive her dowry, a custom that her uptight cousin in Vancouver referred to as the reason why millions of female fetuses ended up in Indian landfills, but which Lata thought of as an unimpeachable tradition designed precisely to protect a woman’s worth. Her father refused the offer, but begrudgingly made a show of accepting the Malhotras’ contribution to other matrimonial expenses. Still, by Lata’s calculations, a Toronto wedding paid for in dollars (while Canadian and American currency were on par, to boot!) versus a Delhi reception paid for in rupees hardly made for a fair rate of exchange. At least her gifts, which included a mini Fort Knox of gold coins (the new alternative to the conventional bangle set), was some compensation for the gross depreciation of what her father fondly referred to as his “best loved investment portfolio.” But then again, her father could not have foreseen, nor would he be able to compute, the extent of his recent miscalculations. Only Lata could project future contractual demise without the cushion of enough hurricane bonds to ride her through this emotional tempest. Only Lata could see bullion and bangles resold (though admittedly the gold market had never been hotter), and dreams of prime real estate holdings in Credit Mills forfeited, in the dissolution of a marriage that would bear little yield in terms of present family interests or future family gain.
For once she had seen the value in home-grown and home-spun and this is what she had to show for it! He played a good game but Made in India he certainly was not! He had said the requisite amount of pleases, thank yous and namastes to her parents. He had appeared adequately enthusiastic without being inappropriately desperate at the prospect of his Canadian bride-to-be. And his web-profile photos, which Lata had found particularly appealing, weren’t airbrushed or doctored in any way (she knew this because she hired a fashion photographer to scrutinize them). And for all that, something had gone terribly wrong in the voyage across. Arjun was like one of those disappointing shipments of grown-for-export mangoes: touted as nothing less than the Alfonso, the king of the mango, when in reality he was as green and sour as the inferior kind used for pickles and chutneys.
Giving up on the unrelenting gear shift, Lata sat in her car and replayed their “talk” over and over in her throbbing but perfectly butterscotch-highlighted head of hair. And to think that all she’d said was that it was time to start a family.
“An heir! You want an heir! You can’t have an heir without an inheritance!” he jeered, and stormed out of the house to catch the eight a.m. bus, which he insisted on taking because it allowed him to connect with the people. Lata may not have understood her husband’s desire to connect with the people, or who exactly “these people” were, but it didn’t take an expert to figure out that she had been struck out by a curve ball aimed and fired, with barbaric accuracy, at her total net worth.
Lata’s first instinct was to scold her parents for not having done a thorough background check on the Malhotra family. Weren’t they supposed to come from a long line of well-placed Delhi stock? Wasn’t Arjun’s great-grandfather supposed to be related to that Nehru guy? Or one of those people her abbu-ji droned on about, lapsing into languorous bouts of nostalgia for what he called the “days of york” or “yoda” … or whatever the hell those days were. At any rate, those kinds of connections didn’t interest her. In her fragmented and scant conception of Indian history, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Indira Gandhi were some famously unfashionable married couple, and “Partition” was a bad word whose mere mention launched her parents into frenzied exchanges of Hindi or a complicit silence that only a long distance call or news of relatives could break.
At any rate, the real injustice was not the suspect nature of Arjun’s lineage. She had wanted to say as much when she called her parents earlier that day. Not in the mood to endure a lecture, Lata only managed to mumble something about their needing to be prepared to take some responsibility for this Hungama before she, herself, hung up. Apparently her mother didn’t dwell on the cryptic or frantic nature of the call, otherwise Lata would have been bombarded by ariatic voice messages all day long: “What is all this nonsense, beti?” or “How dare you hang up on your mother!” or the classic, “What will your father say?”
In retrospect, even her mother’s tirades would be a welcome intrusion if it meant being able to confide in someone. She wasn’t able to concentrate on much else anyway. She was desperate to confide in one of her co-workers but Lata had vowed, from what seemed to be her kindergarten days, to keep her Indianness, and everything that was remotely connected to it, where it belonged: in the haldi-infused walls of her mother’s kitchen. In this she was sorely out of step with the times because, in fact, there was nothing hotter or cooler than being Indian, at least when it came to food and fashion. If she were a silk scarf, a beaded “tunic” or a foodies’ secret ingredient in one of those Top Chef cook-offs, being Indian wouldn’t feel so lame. But even in the category of consumable India, she felt like an outmoded spice-mix packet for some generic dish (Vindaloo or Chana Masala) upstaged by the fusion-inspired Naan pizzas or just-add-water exotic Tamil soups.
In spite of this, or maybe because of this, everything about Lata’s life, except her arranged marriage, was a testament to her judicious adherence to North Ameri-khana (a bilingual pun that Arjun had invented in his mimicry of her decidedly un-ethnic eating habits, which generally consisted of boxed greens accompanied with broiled chicken breast or baked salmon). All her daily lifestyle choices were motivated by her desire to emulate the signs and symbols of a thoroughly Canadian existence that did not require the numerous accommodations of multiculturalism or political correctness. For this reason, the only person outside community circles who was privy to what Lata cryptically referred to as “the details” was her best friend Vanessa. And Vanessa had only found out because her mother once saw fit to entertain her with stories of the various “duds” they had rejected from the matrimonial websites. “I’m sorry?” Vanessa had interjected, always a little discomfited by Lakshmi Menon’s accent. “Duds, beti, duds!” her mother persisted.
“You mean dudes, Mrs. Menon?” Vanessa looked perplexed.
“No, duds, Vanessa dear! It’s an Eng-u-lish word for … loos-ah.” her mother clarified, pleased with her efforts at crossing this idiomatic and generational hurdle.
Vanessa took a few minutes to decipher her mother’s explanation: “Ooooh, you mean a loserrr?” Lata almost died having to sit through those excruciating eleven minutes till her mother shuffled off to tend to some household chore.
For everyone else, Lata had spun, with minimal gesticulatory verve (she was very conscious of the fact that Desis spoke with their hands), a mundanely credible fairy tale about meeting Arjun at a trendy nightclub in Delhi during a summer vacation. “First it was a summer fling. Nothing more,” she’d breathlessly explained to Jennifer and Becky, the bank tellers she usually had lunch with. “But even with an ocean between us, we couldn’t stop thinking about each other.… ” Everything but the wedding details was sheer fabrication, of course, details which, in this case, Lata described with gusto, throwing in, for added visual effect, a few gratuitous comparisons to her ever-growing list of wedding-themed chick flicks: My Best Friend’s Wedding, Wedding Planner, 27 Dresses, Something Borrowed. Not that Jennifer or Becky needed any cinematic assistance in imagining the scope, scale, and expenditure of a respectable wedding. Working at the bank was exposure enough. So many young couples were in debt because of their “big fat weddings” that one of the rotating managers had designated it a new type of “unsecured loan.”
As for the divorce Lata was now bracing herself for: well, now there was a fine North American tradition she could participate in without any need for creative dishonesty. Maybe it would even help her bond with Jennifer, who was a twenty-something divorcée and single mother of two. Maybe divorce would give her the kind of edginess that twenty-somethings were supposed to emulate. She didn’t know what classified as edgy, but she was convinced that making a mess of one’s life was a sure step to gaining “street cred,” a term she had picked up watching some reality cop show with her younger brother Sanjay.
Still hesitant to confide in Jennifer or Becky because of the million and one questions it might generate, Lata thought of Priya, the bank receptionist. In normal circumstances, Lata avoided Priya like the plague, but desperate times called for desperate measures. For one, Priya was the only one of her co-workers to have met Arjun. Lata recoiled from the memory. She had almost dropped the iPhone she was browsing with one hand, her custom-monogrammed water thermos in the other, when she saw Arjun and Priya chatting up a storm in the parking lot. To make matters worse, the two of them were speaking in Punjabi. Lata had no idea Arjun spoke Punjabi! She remembered being impressed by the fact that he had checked off the “fluent in multiple languages” category on his marital profile, which she assumed meant French and German, or French and Spanish, but as it turned out merely consisted of Hindi, Punjabi, and English. Another act of false advertising, Lata thought resentfully.