21 Apr / Members Only by Sameer Pandya [in Shelf Awareness]
Members Only, the first novel by Sameer Pandya (author of the story collection The Blind Writer), is as provocative as it is comedic. In a horribly misguided attempt to bond with the first people of color since his own admission into a suburban Los Angeles tennis club, Raj’s well-intended but inexcusable use of a slur sets off what will clearly be the worst week of his life. As a Bombay-born Indian American, Raj was the lone member of color at the Tennis Club: “simple nouns elevated to proper status,” he glibly observes, shortened to TC for the anointed. His own welcome was indirect – because he’s his white wife’s brown spouse. Raj currently serves on the membership committee, vetting prospective new couples. He’s especially thrilled to meet Bill and Valerie Brown – an African American power couple sponsored by the (white) Blacks. Their appearance inspires “big, friendly grins,” until Bill’s modesty about his Stanford tennis days elicits Raj’s utterly inappropriate response.
Yet as dire as Raj’s faux pas is, none of his co-members are willing to acknowledge the ongoing racist incidents Raj regularly faces. Just minutes before the Browns’ entrance, for example, another prospective couple had repeatedly called Raj “Kumar.” When his corrections are twice disregarded, Raj silenced his “incensed” retorts, still “hoping that, given time, I could be part of this club without losing some vital part of myself and my dignity.” No member noticed the microaggression. At least, none came to his defense. But all are ready with condemnations when he slips.
From the courts to the classroom, Raj’s university teaching career next takes a downturn when a student films parts of Raj’s cultural anthropology lecture about the west and Christianity and the clip – misrepresented and out of context – lands on a conservative website. The consequences snowball quickly: students officially complain, demands are made, attacks happen, there’s even a hunger strike. Still, the challenges don’t stop: Raj’s minor foot procedure could turn fatal; his older son’s artistic experiments could get him expelled. And no, that’s not all.
Facing social, professional, personal implosion – all in one week – might seem impossibly overdramatic, but Members Only proves remarkably convincing. For people like Raj, a carefully constructed life – complete with an Ivy League PhD, a white wife and two children, elite memberships, connected friends – could all be reduced to virtually nothing with one small mistake. That said, don’t expect all doom-and-gloom here: without ever eliding the gravity of serious social issues like racism, privilege, and power, Pandya deftly manages to create a tragicomedy of errors driven by surprising wit, irreverent humor, and razor-sharp insight.
Shelf Talker: Sameer Pandya’s irreverent debut novel deftly exposes the dangerous absurd difficulty of being a brown immigrant even in elite, liberal California.