Earlier this week in Boston, I ducked into Raven Used Books on Newbury Street and found a stack of pamphlets, emblazoned with the logo “One City One Story,” in a loose pile by the front door. They were free, a giveaway sponsored by the Boston Book Festival, which takes place in October in Copley Square.
The idea, inspired by the literary journal One Story, is to distribute 30,000 copies of a short story in the weeks leading up to the book festival, where a “Town Hall-style” discussion with the author will take place.
This year’s selection is Rishi Reddi’s “Karma” — originally published as part of the author’s 2007 collection “Karma and Other Stories” — which revolves around a dispute between two Indian brothers who share a house in suburban Boston, until the more prosperous kicks his poorer sibling out.
“Karma” is a good, if not a great, story; in places, it can be a bit on the nose. Still, I enjoyed reading it as I took the T back to where I was staying, after a day visiting with my son. Partly, I suppose, that’s because of “Karma’s” theme of family, and partly because so much of the narrative unfolds on the same streets where I’d spent my afternoon: around the Common and the Public Garden, on the narrow sidewalks of Beacon Hill.
What Reddi gives us is the visitor’s Boston, the Boston of the Freedom Trail and the State House. And yet, through the eyes of the displaced brother, Shankar, it becomes something more, something different: a metaphor for the divisions between not just him and his brother, but in a certain sense all of us.
“The world was a sad, unjust place,” she writes. “… It sometimes felt like an illusion; what was real existed under the surface of the blue sky and the green grass and the happy or tearful faces of children. He often did not understand why certain things happened to him, but he had always been able to rely on his family. Now he could not even do that.”
I won’t be back in Boston for the Book Festival, but One City One Story got me thinking: Why can’t Los Angeles do something such as this? Wouldn’t it be great if the Department of Cultural Affairs got behind a citywide reading project, showcasing a local writer and teaming up with corporate sponsors (Boston partners with Zipcar and Dunkin’ Donuts) to get the word out?
In a city as uncentered as this one, it could be a way to reaffirm community, to see how narrative can help to bind us. That was the effect of reading “Karma,” even for me, who hasn’t lived in Boston for 30 years; for a few minutes, anyway, I felt as if I were a part of something — of a story, of a city — that was bigger than myself.