Tears of Mehndi by Raminder Sidhu

Raminder Sidhu’s ambitious debut novel Tears of Mehndi (Caitlin Press, 2012) seeks to capture the story of the Indian Sikh community in Vancouver’s Little India over the past thirty-five years. The story begins in 1976, with a shocking racial incident—a small Sikh-owned grocery store is vandalized, with chocolate milk splashed everywhere; the graffiti reads “Hindu brest [sic] milk for free.” Now, this is a very cleverly crafted anecdote, doubly conveying the depth of ignorance faced by the Sikh community. But if there is racism without, there is oppression within. Although the Sikh religion regards the sexes as equal,
traditional gender roles dominate in a largely patriarchal community known to prize izzat (honor/reputation) very deeply. As ever, it is women (and their bodies) who bear the brunt of such fervor–there’s an over-riding imperative to produce male children, strictures to keep girls chaste and unworldly, and inevitably, so-called “honor” killings. The issue is compounded by the hostility of the outside world; for instance, believing that Canadian education is only for
those willing to integrate entirely and erase their cultural differences, some Sikh parents withdraw their daughters from high school.

There’s some first novel-itis going on, with Sidhu attempting to say *everything* about this community in 237 pages, and the unwieldy cast of characters (eight different first-person narrators!) meant I gave up keeping track of whose daughter was clandestinely meeting whom about halfway through the story. But Sidhu has considerable authorial strengths, notably including her unflinching gaze and her deep insider knowledge of Indian Sikhs, as revealed in anecdotes thrumming with life and honesty.

When oppression is seemingly bound to tradition, in a minority community already under siege from the outside world, dissent can seem perilously close to betrayal. In such an environment, community is everything; the universe is divided into Apnay Lok (our people) and the goray (white) outsiders. And within the community, battle lines are drawn not just around gender, but skin color, religion, degree of Westernization, and even old regional loyalties (for instance, a character remarks that she doesn’t like another woman who is from the other side of the river in Punjab, where women are said to be very cunning). Sidhu seems to say that our definitions of community define us; we progress as humans when we adopt affiliations beyond the ones we were born with.

(This review appears in the current issue of Herizons magazine.)

On the Outside Looking Indian by Rupinder Gill

Rupinder Gill’s memoir On the Outside Looking Indian  (McClelland & Stewart, 2011) deals with her experience  of growing up with strict Indian parents in mainstream white eighties Canada–and her subsequent attempt to re-invent that horror story. Gill’s immigrant parents, who lived in Kitchener, Ontario, refused to let their daughter(s) get a dog, participate in  sleepovers or summer camp, or take tennis and swimming lessons, due to a knotty combination of sexism, financial constraints, and the alienness of such activities with respect to their own cultural constructions of girlhood. “Indian girls don’t swim, because only a fool would think that learning a lifesaving skill is more important than keeping your body hidden forever,” says Gill wryly.

(A note: Gill’s working class parents moved from a farming community in rural Punjab to Canada and were hence unfamiliar with such childhood activities; affluent urban Indians might not have held such rigid attitudes. Gill’s book is very specifically set in the former context, and hence, while her memoir is indeed a universal story of outsiders trying to fit in, it is equally a very particular story of one family’s attempts to negotiate Canadian society while trying to validate their own (rural Punjabi Sikh) cultural norms.)

Gill’s childhood was thus filled with academic achievement, chores, and television, even as her peers were OUT HAVING FUN. On turning thirty, Gill decides that it’s not too late to live a second (ideal) childhood, and embarks upon a journey that includes not just swimming and tennis lessons, but sleepovers with other thirty-something friends (no, not like that), and even a trip to Disney World.

On the Outside… is an affectionate, mordant look at Gill’s parent’s prejudices as well as Gill’s own hang-ups, written in an endearingly self-deprecating voice. (The prose is adequate, though Gill favors the full forms of words in her dialogue. “I will really miss all of you so much.”  “I am happy to finally be here!”  It sounded rather awkward to my ear.)  Gill considers getting a dog, goes for tap-dancing lessons, and debates moving to New York. There’s not much about dating though; readers looking for romance are requested to glue the book into Eat, Pray, Love.  Yes, Gill writes with a welcome degree of self-awareness–and an even more welcome refusal to take all of this too seriously.

As a child, Gill understandably projects her issues with her parents to India itself, holding the country responsible for her deprivation. My chief gripe with this book is that Gill hasn’t quite shed that attitude in her adulthood; she seems to assume (often for the sake of humor, and not always successfully) that her parents’ attitudes were/are typical of all Indians, and her consequent stereotyping of India begins to grate.  In a later chapter,  she does mention that Indian cities operate differently, and that things have changed despite her parents’ desire “to still believe  that India is perpetually suspended in the culture of 1971”, but that acknowledgement was too weak and came too late for my satisfaction. I also felt that the last chapter didn’t live up to the bite and verve of the rest of the book, dissolving instead into a soppy happy vision for Gill’s future children. But these misgivings apart, On the Outside… is a fresh,  intelligent and  (oh, thank you, goddess) funny contemporary take on territory that has been strip-mined by generations of immigrant writers.

I think The Walrus review by Emily Landau  that has been the subject of some debate got it mostly wrong.  Landau faults Gill for thinking “there is some Platonic ideal of a normal childhood, and is outraged that her parents — who, although stern and traditional, were loving and engaged — deprived her of this Elysian adolescence.”  Um, when you are an outsider trying to fit in, there indeed seems to exist a miraculously unremarkable “normal” ideal, and you would sacrifice your favorite family member or your favorite kidney to not stand out. Being penalized by society for being different means that you gaze at people who aren’t singled out with envy and longing for their happy lives. And: since when has the knowledge that your parents love you and are engaged with you ever consoled a teenager denied the opportunity to be popular and have fun? Of course parents will tell you it’s for your good and that you’ll thank them for it later while imposing a seven o’clock curfew…

And this brings me to my bigger point: I felt that Landau implied that Gill must be held to a different standard of behavior because of her ethnicity. Consider this:

“Always present, however, are notes of self-indulgent petulance and alarming disrespect toward both her culture and her parents.”

I found this quite infuriating.  If a “normal” Canadian dissed her cultural experiences as a teen, I bet a review wouldn’t call her “alarmingly disrespectful” for it. A reviewer wouldn’t wonder why a “normal” Canadian didn’t react with moderation, if, say, her mom didn’t allow her to attend a Hannah Montana concert when all her friends were going.  And anyway, how did Landau miss the obvious affection Gill has for her parents? Towards the end, Gill says, “When I was growing up, I had always wished they were more supportive, more understanding, that they might have said “I love you” just once. But now I knew that they had done what they could, and that it was time I did right by them, for they had had neither the childhoods nor the adulthood they might have wanted for themselves.” Not exactly disrespectful, that.

Landau adds: “The experience of a traditional Indian upbringing in a North American context offers rich territory for reflection, and certain moments, like Gill’s visit to India, or the jarring differences between the ironclad rule under which she was raised and her younger brother’s more lenient upbringing, beg for deeper insight. Instead, the cultural analysis is limited to broad strokes and crass generalizations. “Indian parents have a deathly fear of sexuality,” she gripes, in between calling her Punjabi “gibberish” and rolling her eyes at her mother’s traditional cooking. Her parents, meanwhile, are reduced to stock sitcom villains who have the gall to clothe her in non–brand name jeans. In attempting to illustrate the restraints imposed by her culture, Gill’s memoir only manages to expose her own narrow-mindedness.”

Hey, I like this book because it dares not to take the immigrant baggage seriously. It isn’t about Venerable Traditions or Preserving Your Culture or Respecting Indian Values. The Walrus review seems to view the deviation from such stereotypes as a shortcoming of this book; I think it’s one of its chief strengths. Immigrant writing isn’t just about subalterns reflecting on being the Other; we also chat about the fallout of non-brand name jeans on our teen selves.  Mainstream novels have been written about less.