Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Beyond nostalgia

So I've been reading this book called The Hindi-Bindi club ( yes, it is chick-lit and I have no scruples admitting that I enjoy the genre thoroughly. It doesn't deem me less intellectual in any way) on the lives of three young women born to Indian parents and brought up in America. And as expected, shadowy images from Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake and Unaccustomed Earth were creeping into my subconscious, urging me to make comparisons. So what the heck, I indulged myself and here's the verdict, in points.
This is the first time, in the books I have come across, that the protagonists have a heritage that isn't solely Bengali. There is a Marathi family, a Punjabi family and yes, a Bengali one too in the group, so it doesn't appear as though only the Bengalis have a yearning to get back to where they grew up ( I refuse to use the word 'motherland' coz i don't essentially believe in the land and mother correlation that Indians tend to draw). For all those fans of Jhumpa Lahiri who jump at me when I say this, trust me, I'm one of your ilk too and I understand that she probably writes about the community that she knows best. All I'm saying is that you need to occasionally acknowledge that nostalgia isn't only an all-Bong feeling and there are quite a few Indian communities which were represented early enough in the US. As for the aspect of cultural inclusion in the current book, I've heard that the author Monica Pradhan's parents migrated from Mumbai , which by all means has been a cosmopolitan melting pot, while being Marathi heartland and will continue to be so, despite the Sena's efforts.
The second observation is that there is in the book an acceptance of the fact that the second generation is American-Indian and not Indian-American. No doubt, all the mothers in the book at some stage or the other acknowledge that their daughters would be way different if brought up in America, but there is a definite shift towards acknowledging that they are products of the American way of living. In fact, this is validated in the marital choices of all the three daughters Kiran, Rani and Preity. The author actually explores different permutations and combinations vis-a-vis marriage. There is Kiran, whose marriage and subsequent divorce, to and from respectively, a rock musician, draws the ire of her parents not because of his ethnicity but largely because of his profession. Then there is Rani, whose wedding to a foreigner could be explained away, thanks to the fact that Rani is only part Indian anyway (Her mother Uma is Bengali though and teaches English at the University but married a firang in the early days when it was unthinkable). But even the so-called ideal daughter in the book, Preity is also wed to a firang. And when Kiran remarries at the end of the book, despite all the matchmaking that she has submitted herself too via the matrimonial sites online, she marries a foreigner, something that even her father ultimately comes to accept. And mind you , the book clearly delineates that this was something that was not acceptable a generation ago and Uma's act is occasinally brought up as an aberration. And here's another interesting change, unlike the usual novels, where the mother is the repository of culture in a alien land, the mothers in this novel seem to be much more open to being adaptable than the fathers, but I also think that is largely because the book is about mother-daughter relationships. And the fathers still largely subscribe to the code of the highly intellectual fathers who got to the States based on their exceptional performance in studies or work.( You don't need to read much of this genre to figure out that the fathers are always at MIT, or Stanford or have at least studied there) Rani's firang father being the only exception to the norm.
The third and final aspect deals with an element of comparison between those who emigrated to America in the early stages and those who came later, which I haven't seen before in any other book. And while Monica Pradhan doesn't elaborate on it too much, there is a scene where Kiran, Rani and Preity look at the young girls dancing in saris at the New Year's party and comment that "They must be the new immigrants". And while it isn't exactly evident what the feeling are between these groups, this scene firmly establishes them in the role of the pioneers, the early migrant, who were there when too many Indians weren't around.
However, I tend to think that Monica Pradhan had tried to weave in one-too many threads in the narrative when she goes through the long passages on the description of the Indo-Pak partition through the eyes of Saroj ( Preity's mother). These sections seems a bit disjointed and appear to me as the result of research, though I may be wrong here.
There is one more thing that I like the book for, which is its limited mention of clinical depression. You feel the pain when you hear Uma's ( Rani's mother) mention of her mothers' early suicide that probably resulted from a sickness that wasn't identified as depression. You can understand her fear that Rani, has inherited it genetically and may be prone as much to suicidal attacks. I also vividly recollect a scene where Uma's husband takes her to a punching bag and asks her to take her frustrations out..( I've seen this before but there is something different that i can't exactly seem to identify, probably it's to do with an element of guilt that resides somewhere in Uma's mind particularly with regard to marrying a foreigner and being disowned by her father). There are also the funny but poignant passages about Meenal (Kiran's mother) who is dealing with living without her breasts (after breast cancer) and even after years of having lived in the States, is still uncomfortable about lingerie shopping in the open.
I do say that the end is predictable, but yeah if you want a fresh idea of what happens in Indian minds across the Atlantic, this is fun. Though I don't think it would be exactly true of the third generation ( they are almost all American and very little Indian.)