From the beginning of Chaitali Sen’s short story collection, “A New Race of Men From Heaven” (Sarabande Books, 2023) simple pleasures ground characters in, what might otherwise be, the suffocating reality of everyday life. A lonely man takes pleasure in eating a well-executed puff pastry dish called chicken friand. A college department secretary, who can’t seem to retire, savors a cigarette amidst a deep conversation with her boss’s wife. A grieving widow enjoys a round of table tennis and a glass of whisky with her brother. A group of friends binge-watch a show they don’t really like.
Throughout the collection, numerous small, humble moments arise out of an atmosphere of discomfort and tension. Even amidst their own suffering, Sen’s characters notice things. As empathic people, who do the right thing when it would be easier not to, they are too kind for the world they find themselves in.
In a story titled “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” a never-married biology department secretary becomes enveloped in her supervisor Dr. Fernandes’s intimate life. She runs into his wife, Kitty, at a farmer’s market. From a distance, she observes how after a sneezing fit Kitty’s expression turns to panic and her hand moves protectively to her pregnant belly.
When the secretary learns that Kitty lost the baby — (a familiar experience for Kitty) — she sends a simple card, a gesture Kitty appreciates when others send her chocolates and stuffed toys. Befuddled and angry, Kitty asks, “What would I want with a stuffed toy?”
Matters are starker because the campus is seething with students, who are demanding that religion be taken as seriously as science. The secretary watches students interrogate Dr. Fernandes, asking him “to define reality and explain how all of creation could come to be without a creator.” The story tugs at the tension between science and religion. Kitty is caught in the crossfire, trying to make sense of why she’s denied her life’s wish to become a mother.
The theme of people trapped in circumstances they did not choose is a strong and compelling one. It’s easy to love Sen’s characters because, so often, they are denied the love they deserve.
In a story titled “Uma” a woman loses her husband to a brain aneurysm. Her brother urges her to move to America from Calcutta. When Uma arrives, she learns that her sister-in-law Supriya has high expectations for how Uma should care for her children and her home, while she’s at work. The power dynamic is tense, but Uma is a good aunt. When she learns that her nephew, Joy, still hasn’t spoken at age three – she takes him for a walk and names the objects of the world for him – car, bird. Joy picks up a red autumn leaf. When Uma runs late to meet her other nephew back at the house, Supriya is there hysterical that Uma has been so “reckless.” She doesn’t seem to register that Joy speaks for the first time, handing his mother the red leaf.
Joy loves his aunt. When he can’t sleep, he goes to her room.
[Joy] ran in and climbed into bed with her, grabbing the only available pillow and knocking his forehead against it in a steady rhythm. He always did this when he tried to get to sleep. It was a strange behavior that she feared would cause him brain damage. She even tried it herself, to understand the range of movements involved and assess the risks. She found that it didn’t hurt at all if the pillow was fluffy…
Moments like this have a tender beauty, a sweetness. Human connection is what makes sense in times of chaos.
In “The Catholics” a couple, Laurie and Sharmila try to figure out if their Catholic neighbors are Trump supporters. They invite their New York friends, Mario and Pete, to Ithaca to try to lift the mood post-election. Dinner and a little dance music turn into a mellow evening on the couch, watching tv, “[binge-watching] the Aziz Ansari show “Master of None.” They were each annoyed by something different yet no one was in favor of stopping it.” When the neighbor mom of eight homeschooled children shows up to ask for some pain relief for a headache, they all try in vain to figure out if she her political stance.
The title story is an absolute treasure, possessing one of the best opening sentences a reader could hope for. “A New Race of Men From Heaven” begins “I decided to seek counseling because I wanted to sleep with a man from my office, an engineer with hazel eyes and auburn hair cut close to his scalp, a slightly receding chin and a quite large nose, and one dimple, in his left cheek, when he smiled.”
The protagonist, Sasha, is a 28-year old virgin, from London, who has been grieving the loss of her father since she was sixteen. Intimacy is a mystery to her. With a white mother, who is dismissive of her heritage, and an Indian father, unable to fill in the details before his death, Sasha is adrift. She hopes that her therapist can fix her in time for her to lose her virginity to her coworker, Ned. It’s a perfect story filled with imperfect people, who try to move towards love and forgiveness despite the risk of rejection.
Sen’s stories mirror the expansive feel of a novel; there’s room to enjoy her skillful sentences, there’s room to travel from Calcutta to London to Austin to Ithaca, and here’s room to enjoy the way her characters interact with the world, as kind, self-sacrificing, sometimes fumbling, sometimes impulsive, good humans.