Jai Chakrabarti’s debut story collection, A Small Sacrifice for an Enormous Happiness, centers on families both lost and found. The best stories in the collection are intricately crafted, nuanced explorations of child-rearing through the lenses of class, race, and privilege. In the title story, Nikhil wishes to raise a child with his closeted lover, but such a thing is impossible in India in the 1980s. In “The Import,” Raj and his wife, Bethany, hire Rupa, a young woman from India, to take care of their son, only to discover that she has left her own young daughter behind. In “The Prodigal Son,” Jonah, a New Yorker, visits his musical mentor in India for the last time and makes a promise he can’t keep. And in “The Fortune of Others,” Kabuliwallah, an Afghan refugee, becomes a father figure to a young boy and then is forced to make a difficult decision when a wealthy American offers to adopt the child.
Particularly notable is the story “Searching for Elijah,” which follows Malini, an Indian widow and single mother who falls in love with a Jewish man, Stephen. Stephen’s mother wants Malini to convert to Judaism and for her son to have a bar mitzvah. The story navigates the tensions between Malini and her fiancé’s family with delicacy and grace. Another story,“Mendel’s Wall,” follows a feud between a husband and wife. It begins with the husband building a boundary of “gypsum and sheetrock” to divide the apartment in two, one half for himself and the other for his wife. Despite its wonderful premise, this story falls short because of its schmaltzy language (Shabbos, cholent, chachkis).
Overall, the stories are incredibly moving and memorable. The prose is lush and immersive, and the pacing, masterful. Chakrabarti is especially adept at conjuring distinct places with vivid detail: there’s a street in Kolkata where “hyacinth braiders tied floral knots” and “rum sellers hauled bags of rice,” where an orphanage with peeling paint sees “sheets hanging off cribs” and “the discord of broken toy parts.” The endings of many of the stories avoid neat resolution, allowing space for the reader’s imagination. For example, in “Lilavati’s Fire,” Aparna builds an airplane in her garage using diagrams made by the daughter of a twelfth-century Indian mathematician. The airplane is described in meticulous detail: it boasts “a Lorenza twin-speed engine, a vintage wood propeller, an aluminum frame” and four-foot wings. The reader is waiting for the airplane to take off, but it never does. Still, it is clear that Aparna has undergone a profound transformation on her journey to independence.
This is a marvelous story collection that I’ll be thinking about for a long time.
Omer Friedlander was born in Jerusalem in 1994 and grew up in Tel Aviv. He is the author of the short story collection The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land, winner of the Association of Jewish Libraries Fiction Award and a finalist for the Wingate Prize. The book was chosen as an American Library Association Sophie Brody Medal Honor Book for outstanding achievement in Jewish Literature and longlisted for the Story Prize. Omer has a BA in English Literature from the University of Cambridge and an MFA from Boston University, where he was supported by the Saul Bellow Fellowship. He was a Starworks Fellow in Fiction at New York University. His collection has been translated into several languages, including Turkish, Dutch, and Italian. His writing has been supported by the Bread Loaf Fellowship and Vermont Studio Center Fellowship. He currently lives in New York City and teaches creative writing at Columbia University.