Before I moved to California, I thought of the state in binaries–NorCal and SoCal. NorCal was wine, technology, Berkeley, redwoods, and the irresistible melancholic appeal of Haight-Ashbury. SoCal was Hollywood and the Grammy Awards, surfer beaches, Disney, fitness, and kidney-shaped pools–all about mainstream glamor, and hey, I opted out of (i.e. was ejected from) that game long ago. And I was peripherally aware (from having read Steinbeck eons ago) that there was farmland towards the east. And wasn’t there a desert too, near the border with Nevada?
When I did move to NorCal, to the Bay Area, hive to H1-Bees, it was pretty much as I’d heard–I was in the land of the dosa delivery, unfathomable home prices, kindergarten coders and #technology. And then I learned more about California, and realized that the NorCal/SoCal binary was false–as most binaries are. Sure, you can divide California into a geographic north and south, but half an hour east of my city I’m in the Central Valley, home to an agriculture-based economy which produces over half the fruits, vegetables and nuts consumed in the United States. The region is sole supplier of all the almonds, olives and pomegranates in the country. Towards the southern part of the Valley, on the SF-LA route, lies Kern County, where not very long ago, KKK activities were comparable to those in the deep South. Today, the population in Central Valley is mostly white and Hispanic, but there’s also a sizeable Hmong community. And there’s a goodly number of Punjabi Sikhs, some of whom settled the area over a century ago; the first wave arrived in the 1860s, and but the largest number arrived during the 1970s. This is an area and (more importantly) a subculture that receives little to no coverage in mainstream media, art, and literature, not when there’s so much #glitter elsewhere. So when Ranbir Singh Sidhu asked if I’d review his novel Deep Singh Blue, set in the Central Valley of the 1980s, I agreed at once. I don’t know Sidhu, but I’d read his fearless, candid piece in Salon last year, and I knew I was in for an unsettling ride.
The protagonist Deep Singh is born in a “no-name Central Valley town” to parents who’d immigrated from an Indian village. “They weren’t doctors or engineers, neither had much of an education; they were the other Indians, the ones who don’t get talked about and whose stories don’t get written–the children of farmers, not even farmers themselves when they left. […] Dad came to look for work, Mom came to marry him. They had no handholds to keep them secure, and the world they encountered was as mystifying as it was terrifying.” Deep’s parents, unable to settle, move from town to town, “each one held fast in its own [Central] Valley noose.” They finally end up literally and metaphorically at the very edge of the Central Valley, overlooking the Bay Area but unable to cross over, in a town with a missile base, high levels of KKK membership, and a used bookstore full of romances and Bibles.
Sixteen-year-old Deep, refusing to be dwarfed by his universe, tries to understand his place and his community, but is doomed to eternal displacement thanks to his family’s frequent moves. Full of teenage hormones, rage and sheer dumb bravado, he drops out of high school to attend community college, where he meets twenty-seven year old Lily, a half-Chinese woman with an “all-American” “biceps and blue sky and engine oil” husband. Lily gives him his first cigarette and first taste of gin, and soon they’re in a messy, destructive relationship. Meanwhile, Deep’s older brother Jag is withdrawn and sullen, walking on the edge of violence, with a messy inner life that causes him to shut off from the world. The parents live in a sort of joyless denial of their isolation, mindlessly watching television and refusing to acknowledge their older son’s mental issues or Deep’s frustration.
Deep, for the most part, engages with the world in a blackly comedic way, walking into the girl’s locker rooms on a dare “to see what would happen”, running away from home (but in the wrong direction, d’oh!). He is compassionate one moment and massively cruel the next; in a sense, the lack in Deep’s environment is reflected in his own behaviour–he is complicit in Lily’s deranged, desperate acts of racism, and oblivious to the consequences of his stupider actions. You want to clout him on the head, yes, but you also want to rescue this kid from his brutal surroundings, whisk him to a city abloom with museums and libraries, where he can talk to random strangers about Spinoza and Camus (The Stranger is one of the central motifs of this novel). The only paths open to Deep seem to be futile resistance or passive acceptance, until life lessons, delivered through experience and through tragedy, bring Deep to a recognition of what he truly needs–and values–in his world.
Sidhu pulls no punches when discussing the themes of alienation, voluntary exile, and the search for meaning in an absurd world rendered even more surreal through cultural difference. Deep is constantly othered, and his statelessness stands in sharp contrast to the (white) locals’ deep affiliation with the nation-state, and to his uncle’s vision for the Sikh people carving a separate country (Khalistan) for themselves out of India. Sidhu’s vivid prose sharply illuminates Deep’s inner life as well as his California surroundings; altogether, the novel is deeply and rightfully unsettling in its exploration of topics such as masculinity, dislocation and white nationalism.
Lest all this sounds too earnest and theory-heavy, I want to mention (again!) how very funny I found this book. Here’s Deep’s dad, telling a prospective daughter-in-law (who looks like “the unhappiest girl who ever lived”) that his son works in oil. Jag was formerly employed in a warehouse in a refinery, see? Here’s Deep getting ready for his future–by practising to be a drunk “like Dylan Thomas”. Here’s the uncle, persuading Deep to fly to India and join the fight for Khalistan. “I’ll buy your ticket. No worries. Lots of fun for a young man. You’ll be a freedom fighter, like George Washington? They’ll give you fresh rotis every day, like home.” Oooh, yes. The next time someone asks me to recommend a California novel, I’ll point to Deep singing the blues.