Stories with India as common thread amaze and delight

“Aerogrammes and Other Stories” by Tania James (Alfred A. Knopf, 180 pages, $24)

Sometime in the recent past, I overheard someone remark, “I’ll read anything by Tania James.” And at the time — shame on me — I’d not heard that name before.

Somehow I’d missed James’ debut novel, “Atlas of Unknowns,” a saga of two sisters from Kerala, India, which received brilliant praise. That novel waits on my bedside shelf now that I’ve read “Aerogrammes and Other Stories,” James’ first-rate new collection.

James’ prose is clean, deep, limpid; the stories she builds throw strange, beautiful light on completely unexpected places.

The astonishing opening story, “Lion and Panther in London,” (the collection’s strongest) follows two Indian brothers, expert wrestlers Gama and Imam, who arrive in grimy London at the turn of the past century to challenge competitors for prize money and (they hope) glory for their homeland. After Gama wins a match, men “mob the mat like sparrows to a piece of bread.”

Utterly poignant as characters — peaceful, dignified, earnest, naive — they’re soon entangled in game-fixing politics and menaced by imperialist superiority. But the brothers’ mutual love, against sad circumstance, prevails.

This phenomenon — of loyal love as a deep, interconnecting current that alternately sustains, embattles and burdens us — binds these tales.

“What to Do With Henry,” the collection’s second offering, chronicles the fate of a sensitive, adopted chimpanzee with no speck of sentiment; one of the most moving stories I can remember.

James, who lives in Washington, D.C., inhabits eras, places and minds with seemingly effortless skill. Often, like Jhumpa Lahiri (to whose work comparisons will seem inevitable), “Aerogrammes” depicts predicaments of Indian natives transplanted to America from their homeland. Always, her descriptions delight. (Cobbled street stones “shining like fish scales.” Freckles across a nose “like a handful of birdseed.”)

If subsequent stories, while lavishly and affectingly imagined, don’t quite dazzle as much as the opening two, their cumulative grip is real, fresh and worthy.