When I spoke with Sameer Pandya by phone in March, the UCSB professor was home, working remotely and becoming acclimated to our new reality of isolation and social distancing. The publication of Members Only, Pandya’s second work of fiction and first novel, had been delayed to July due to the pandemic.
The protagonist of Members Only is Raj Bhatt, a decent, well-intentioned middle-aged man, happily married with two sons and a mortgage. With the exception of his academic career, which has seen ups and downs, Bhatt has a good life and he knows it. He’s living a classic immigrant success story of hard work and assimilation, and yet, despite having earned outward signs of success and inclusion, like his membership at a private tennis club and his job as a lecturer at a California university, still wonders if he really belongs.
The narrative ability Pandya showed with his short story collection, The Blind Writer, long-listed for the PEN/Open Book Award, is on display in Members Only. Pandya skillfully uses elements of the immigrant experience, mid-life crisis, and university life to weave a fictional spell. While the novel confronts serious themes such as racism, academic serfdom and the dark side of viral social media, Pandya balances that weight with humor and irony. Raj Bhatt is, make no mistake, the architect of his own difficulties and over the course of a single week manages to flip his settled life on its head, imperiling his reputation at the tennis club and jeopardizing his teaching job. Not only is this Indian immigrant accused of racism, he also finds himself the target of a campus controversy that becomes so overwrought that Bhatt, in a moment of blind panic, buys a rifle to protect himself and his family.
Good fiction is seductive. If the writer can seduce the reader to empathize with a character, to feel what the character feels, to care about the character, he or she has succeeded. Raj Bhatt is easy to like and I became caught up in his story, experiencing his doubts and fears as well as his joy.
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