A cursory Google search for Neel Patel reveals a couple of telling things about him: For instance, apart from writing short stories, he writes for the screen as well, and he lives in the US currently, and has for a while now. Telling, because of the way these things seem to shine through his work: The neat, episodic quality of the stories, driven by both plot and character, fitting so much, so well, into so little space.
If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi is a collection of short stories about human relationships: Love, attraction, and most importantly, dysfunction. It’s “don’t say hi”. The title itself refers to the two bitterly estranged brothers from the fifth story in the collection. Estranged brothers and bitterness, yes, but Patel uses such elements without allowing them to turn into clichés.
The two brothers, for instance, are highly unequal in a very familiar way: One is hardworking, clearly intelligent, and eventually successful professionally and financially; the other is lost, uninspired, and a failure in the eyes of his parents, one who makes nothing significant of his life.
However – and this one of Patel’s great strengths as a writer – his characters are so vivid, so lifelike, that the story is not another yarn about the disappointment child and overachiever brother, but the story of Deepak and Premal, specifically – the characters are more than the tropes, which only form one dimension of their personalities. Reading about Patel’s characters feels like reading about someone you could know in real life.
That is because Patel’s characters are people, and not cardboard cut-outs. This is in spite of the fact these are short stories, which, when not well done, leave far less room for character development. These are people written in a way that draws the reader to them in spite of, or because of, their ordinariness, leading you to sympathise with them, to understand them, sometimes even root for them – even as they do things one could never condone on real life.
Real life complexities
As a writer, Patel leads his readers down paths of moral ambiguity – sometimes not even ambiguity so much as straight-up wrongdoing – with a skill and subtlety that almost masks the awful things his characters are actually doing. One story watches a young man gradually growing suspicious of and possessive about his girlfriend, eventually going so far as to stalk her, follow her, and attack the man who serves her fantasy of cheating. A rather repugnant series of actions, all things considered. And yet, I had to actively remind myself of that. This is real life...he’s wrong, but unsettlingly, also understandable.
These complexities are exemplified in the cover art; the patches of different shades of brown are reminiscent of skin tones: each different. Patel writes about each Indian-American immigrant like someone who has that kind of life inside and out: as though he is writing from his own lived experience, which may well be the case.
And so these stories are not just about here versus there, or the overwhelming grandiosity of the “foreign”, or “cleanliness but no homeliness”, or “no traffic, but no colour” or such stereotypical themes that the fortnight traveller tries to put in a book. There is a reality to each story, and fullness to each character.
However, paradoxically, this same lived experience also seems to act as a sort of constraint on Patel’s writing. In contrast to the stunning diversity of his individual characters, Patel’s depiction of the Indian-American community as a whole seems fairly homogenous.
There are a number of ways the immigration experience looks: Some families overcorrect and become as Indian as they possibly can (my own experience); others go the assimilation route, becoming as Americanised as they can, for instance. And of course, others find some kind of balance in between – compromising between the two, attending Indian dinner parties and get-togethers over the weekend but answering to Americanised nicknames again come Monday morning. And so on.
The Indian families in the stories here, most of them, fall into the third category.This may or may not be Patel’s own experience as much as it is his choice to keep them that way. This is not all bad; his depictions of some of the conflicts that arise from the juxtaposition of the two cultures feel realistic. Except, because of the homogeneity, only a few of those conflicts are explored over eleven stories; and in a book as diverse and realistic as this one, lacks like this stand out particularly.
Thus, certain themes, not only the families, are quite repetitive; infidelity in particular is a plot point used in several of the stories, and not really explored in as many ways. Again, in stories with otherwise distinct plots, this regular repetition sticks out like a sore thumb. Still, the strength and quality of Patel’s writing makes his work, overall, an absolute pleasure to read.
A tagline about the book that you can see in a few places describes it as a collection of “sharp, surprising stories”. It holds up. Sharp, surprising, and, I would add, often heartbreaking stories.
If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi, Neel Patel, Penguin Books.
Sahana Hegde is a student of Psychology and Creative Writing at Ashoka University. When she’s not reading, she likes playing Ultimate Frisbee and practicing Carnatic music.
A version of this review was first published on Plot Number Two.