By Namrata Patel
Photojournalist Meena Dave uses distance and deadlines to insulate herself from potentially painful connections.
Most of her friendships are quick, fleeting and shallow. She prizes her independence, reveals little and trusts even less.
That’s why it takes her six months — and flights from New Zealand, Tasmania, Tokyo, Nova Scotia, Portugal and New York — to finally discover that she has inherited a nearly $3 million condo in a historic building in Boston’s Back Bay from a woman she has never met, Neha Patel.
Named the Engineer’s House nearly 100 years ago by an original resident, a student from India who came to America to study at MIT, units in the building are heavily entailed to go to the oldest child of each owner when he or she turns 25.
While Meena had hoped for a quick sale of the condo so she could continue with her wandering life, she soon realizes things are more complicated than she thought. She can’t even think of selling until she has owned the unit a year — and then she can only sell if another owner agrees to buy.
The fact that Neha has bequeathed her the condo, makes Meena wonder about their relationship. Meena, who has brown skin, black hair and brown eyes, was adopted by Hannah and Jameson Dave. Her adoptive parents could tell her nothing about her birth parents. They died when Meena was 16 from an explosion due to an underground gas leak. She went into foster care.
The Engineer’s House and its residents thwart Meena’s every instinct to keep her distance.
Neha, a lexicographer and editor at Merriam-Webster, has left odd, random notes hidden throughout the house that only obliquely give Meena clues about how she fits in at Engineer’s House. While reaching for one tucked into a china hedgehog on a high shelf, Meena slips and breaks her wrist. That stops her from taking on more traveling assignments for a couple of months.
The pause also gives her a chance to think about what good parents raised her and how much she lost when they died. She has a chance to think about what she’s missed not knowing her cultural and ethnic heritage.
The three aunties — starchy Sabina, the building caretaker; artistic Tanvi; and gruff Uma, a professor at Boston University — often walk in unannounced with chai and snacks. Their questions are personal and relentless. They tell Meena she should leave her door unlocked as the outer door is always locked and has a security system attached.
Sameer “Sam” Jora, her across-the-hall-neighbor, is an MIT-trained special effects engineer with an adorable puppy named Wally. He’s “effortlessly friendly” with black hair that ruffles in the wind and dimples. Meena is attracted but knows he’s not “one-night stand material.” She makes friends with Wally but is alternately aloof and rude toward Sam.
No matter how distant Meena tries to be, her neighbors’ expansive inclusiveness keep drawing her in. Sam invites her to a panic room adventure with his friends. Tanvi puts up seasonal wreathes at Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and every special day on the American and the Hindu calendars. She’s invited to help with decorations, given assignments for managing Halloween trick-or-treaters. She has Thanksgiving dinner with her neighbors and day-after drinks with the aunties.
This is a wonderfully warm and comforting book. Author Namrata Patel has drawn distinctive characters that are interesting to follow. The dynamics between the three aunties, Meena and the late Neha are complex and unpredictable.
The mystery of Meena’s origins and how she fits in at Engineer’s House are as appealing and comforting as a cup of hot, freshly made chai.
The Author: Namrata Patel
Namrata Patel lives in Boston and writes about the Indian diaspora, dual-cultural identity among Indian-Americans and a person’s relationship between families of birth and families of choice.
She became interested in the stories of Indian immigrants who came generations before she did while she was in graduate school. She learned that there were Asian Indians in America as early as 1790, when captains working for the East India Company brought them to the eastern United States as servants. She also discovered an academic paper by Ross Bassett, cataloguing every Indian graduate from MIT from 1880 to 1947.
These stories helped inspire and inform her novel and its themes of building community in isolation.
THE CANDID LIFE OF MEENA DAVE (2022) is her first novel.
She has lived in India, Spokane, London and New York City.