In the short story “The Math of Living” by Nishanth Injam, originally published in the Virginia Quarterly Review in 2020, a young coder from southern India working at the Chicago Tribune, is planning the long trip home. It’s part meditation and part lamentation, as going home will present certain stresses—among them having to pretend that all is well in the promised land, when it is not. He does not feel at home in either place.
This moving read appears in “The Best Possible Experience,” a new collection of short stories by Injam with themes on the notion of home, identity, and the lives of immigrants. In 2021, Nishan won The PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers for this story, which he submitted while attending the MFA writing program at the University of Michigan.
Injam was working as a software engineer at the Tribune maintaining and writing code that would help the website load faster. He studied computer science in India, then went to Philadelphia for graduate school. As a newly minted software engineer, he was offered a job in Chicago in 2011.
“I think I would have really loved being a part of the journalistic process,” says Injam. His department was on another floor and in a different world.
“I did enjoy reading articles and reading the book section and I always was curious about how things worked with journalists,” he says. “I found the human aspect of writing a story more intriguing than anything I was doing in my work.”
Injam kept those thoughts to himself, but he started writing. It began as a way to maintain his equilibrium. “I wasn’t prepared for how lonely I would feel, how difficult it would be to leave my home, my people, and come here and start all over where I didn’t know anybody,” he says.
“The book began from a place of despair, from the impulse to reassemble home and keep my country next to me.”
Injam also turned to photography, at first taking pictures on his phone, then bought a camera and focused on landscapes and sunsets, but not, he emphasizes, cliché sunsets. “I was looking to capture something artistic,” he says. Injam would have a shot in mind, then wait for the exact moment for the light to hit an object. He was instinctively seeking that Cartier-Bresson-style decisive moment, and not quite capturing it, when he realized that “life is not in the camera but what I see in my head.” On a whim, he signed up for an online creative writing class via Stanford Continuing Studies and it changed his life. He credits his first teacher, Suzanne Rivecca, for giving him encouragement. “I knew immediately,” says Injam, describing his discovery that he found the work of writing deeply satisfying as an amazing flash.
Injam knew nothing about the lit world or MFA programs. He was just trying to preserve his memories. “Immigration, in many ways, is also a loss,” he says. “In this country we glorify immigrants—we don’t see them as real people.”
“I was never a writer and not much of a reader either. I was an immigrant and unhappy with my life. I had loans to pay,” he says. Most importantly, he had come to the United States with the same purpose as so many young people in India who study computer science—to make money and send it back to the family. Several of Injam’s stories concern a tech worker in the United States who is making the twenty-six-hour journey home to India for a visit.
Injam signed up for more creative writing classes and read literary magazines voraciously. He knew he was unsatisfied with what he was doing, but he was stuck in a number of ways. His work visa was tied to the particular job, so switching would not be possible nor would it likely make a difference.
“At some point. I figured I needed to get better at the craft of writing. The content was there, the heart was there, but I didn’t know how to construct stories,” he says. He applied for and was granted a Zell Fellowship at the University of Michigan. Then he quit his job.
Injam is working on a novel and continues to work as a software engineer. He is back in Chicago where his wife’s family is from, and is the father of an eighteen-month old. It would be trite and inaccurate to say that he is lonely no more, he points out, although clearly, he is not as lonely. “He is the joy of my life,” he says of his son. “I wouldn’t change anything.”
“The Best Possible Experience”
By Nishanth Injam
Pantheon Books, 224 pages