There’s a scene in this story that could have been the entire story: in the new Indian restaurant where the owner is telling his patrons to pay what they think is fair but is worried about the Indian customers paying nothing. The tension between Nirmala and Gautama about if he’d pay or not and if he’d disappoint her could carry an entire story and have wound up exploring a lot more about these characters.
However, we have to consider the story we’re given and not the story we wish it to be.
As for what we have, I’m not sure what I think about it. On the one hand there is an awful lot of telling and very little showing. I know that sounds like something you’re taught in a first year creative-writing class, but good writing comes from including the reader and allowing the reader to contribute, not forcing the reader to just accept what we’re told. In this way the story is poorly crafted. Just saying Nirmala is a good person doesn’t make it true, it just means the author isn’t working hard enough to let us come to that conclusion ourselves.
Also, why do “… many foreign students who are living away from home for the first time” loiter on Craigslist and Backpage? This is never explained. We’re just told this and it’s dropped as if we who aren’t foreigners are intuitively going to know the reason why. Yes I get it that a lot of foreigners might be trying to meet people from their own country, but this is not a problem for our main character, so it doesn’t fit here.
Yet this is not necessarily a bad story, either. There are some interesting ideas floating around, but, unfortunately, we never get to explore them deeply. The most obvious theme is that of value and acceptance. We’re told about how the dowry is still a thing in India, how Gautama pays for sex (and haggles with the girls), how the restaurant owner leaves it up to his guests to figure out what the worth of his services are. Freedom is another theme explored, first with his being taken away when he’s arrested, and later when the prostitute at the end is both free and enslaved (her jumping up and down naked while he holds her breasts is both liberating and shameful somehow).
My biggest gripe is that we just never explore any one thing in great depth. The author wants to tell so much story that we’re actually given very little meal to eat. That’s why I wish the author had been more focused and narrowed the story down to just a scene at the restaurant. We still could have learned about his buying of prostitutes, about his epileptic sister, about his relationship with Nirmala, all while being much more immersed in Indian culture (a culture foreign to most people reading this story and whom I’m positive the author wants to educate us about).
All-in-all this is a good draft of a story, but it’s not clear what it really wants to tell us about these characters. We learn very little about Nirmala as a character other than she’s kind and normally self-conscious. And we learn even less about Gautama because even though we’re given a lot of information about him, we don’t really see him as a fully fleshed out character. Just because he likes sex and is having a hard time with his parents and girlfriend does not a unique character make – he’s like everyone else.
And in being like everyone else is where we do get this story’s only possible success. Change the race to a couple of white kids and this would literally be the most boring story on earth, but because the character’s are Indian we get to see them as being normal, as not being “Indian” but as being regular People (capital “P”) like everyone else. It shouldn’t be important that they’re Indian, it should only matter that they’re People, and in how boring these characters are the author succeeds in showing us any culture can be boring and have many of the same issues.
But that’s not enough to save this story because I never felt like the author was implicitly trying to make that point. In fact the ending could (and I say could because I just want to explore this possibility and not because I’m sure I fully believe it) be read as racist where the only happy prostitute is the black prostitute. She’s made to jump up and down like a National Geographic video with her breasts bouncing up and down as he touches them and she smiles. He’s literally bought a black person for sex and she likes it. So any ideas of racial equality are thrown right out the window. With so much of the story about the value we place on things, this could be read as a very loaded image.