Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala

Wave details Sonali Deraniyagala’s experience of losing her family in a single instant, and her tug of war between remembering and forgetting in order to make sense of her world.  In 2004, Deraniyagala (an economist at the University of London), her husband Stephen Lissenburgh, and their two young sons aged seven and five visited her parents in Sri Lanka for their Christmas holidays. On Boxing Day, as they were preparing to leave their beachside hotel, the Indian Ocean tsunami struck, separating Deraniyagala from her family. She never saw them again.

(Sonali Deraniyagala’s husband Stephen and her sons Vikram and Malli. Picture from http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar/09/tsunami-terrible-toll)

In the immediate aftermath of her loss, Deraniyagala plotted her strategy, deciding to wait till the bodies were found and then kill herself. Her relatives and friends watched over her, hiding all the kitchen knives, tapping on the bathroom door if she took a long time. She turned to alcohol and sleeping pills, getting drunk every evening, Googling ways to kill herself. She was wary of remembering, fearing she would slip up and think they were alive, but even the most fragmentary details—a flower, a dimple in a child’s cheek—brought them
back.  She stayed on in Sri Lanka for nearly two years; only in 2008, did she step into the family’s home in London.

Memoirs which channel pain into a teachable moment often make readers uneasy, but nothing is held up for the audience’s benefit in Wave, which is an intensely private chronicle of the author’s attempt to deal with her loss. This book is in essence a distillation of the truths and memories (voluntary and involuntary) that matter to Deraniyagala, and much of it is unbearably moving. “When I had them, they were my pride, and now that I’ve lost them, I am full of shame,” she says. There is no solution or end to her grief—the absences expand, and there’s a fresh sadness imagining her family in the now. If there’s any “lesson”, it’s the one learned by the author, who understands that she can never be true to herself if she distances herself from them, for it is the remembrance of things past that keeps her whole. This memoir-not-a-memoir is a record of her remembering, one that we’re privileged to read.

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And here’s an interview with Deraniyagala over at Hazlitt.

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.

Seven Wheelchairs by Gary Presley

Seven Wheelchairs: A Life beyond Polio   by Gary Presley. University of Iowa Press; October 2008)

Buy now from Amazon!Even held to the most rigorous of definitions, Gary Presley’s life has been filled with suffering. A faulty Polio inoculation received in 1959, when he was seventeen, resulted in three months in an iron lung (a machine that enables those with loss of muscle control to breathe). Presley left the iron lung for life in a wheelchair. Every day since then, he has experienced physical pain—and sometimes indignity, when the world proves unaccommodating to the disabled.

Somerset Maugham once said that suffering does not ennoble the character—happiness, he claimed, sometimes does that, but suffering only made men petty and vindictive. The first part of Presley’s memoir  would seem to prove Maugham right. Succumbing to self-pity, Presley fought a “strange silent war” with the reality of his disability, challenging his parents with his intransigence and resentment. Unable to look beyond the unreason of his condition, an embittered Presley asked his father, “Do you think God wants me in this wheelchair?” The response was an honest if unhelpful “How should I know?” The tension between religion and reality, an omnipotent God and hapless subject, is one of the central conflicts in this work, and carried through till the surprising resolution near the book’s conclusion.

Over fifty years, Presley gradually travels the arc from rage to acceptance—a journey that I have come to understand (from reading this book) is by no means inevitable for the disabled. He describes his voyage with a salty humor that leavens an often-harrowing story. The danger in this sort of book, at least for me, is that the weighty (and worthy) subject matter might overwhelm the writing, but Presley the prose stylist has as much to offer as Presley the memoirist. Consider:

I had yet to learn that I had been drafted into an army that throughout most of human history had sustained itself by begging…[] I understood then, and still believe it now, that it takes a certain grace to accept charity, a grace I could not find within me during that period…

Presley states that the aim of his book is to “show that a life disabled is a life worth living.” But this work calls to my mind Socrates’ words—that the unexamined life is not worth living. Presley meticulously analyzes every instance where his actions and attitudes fell short of his own (very high) standards. At times, Seven Wheelchairs almost seems like an act of catharsis:

I found comfort in contriving a fantasy that my simple existence proved I had mined a heroic quality from within; I fancied I had survived through an act of will, and act of bravery. That contradictory delusion—heroic, even though dependent—overlooked the fact that I would wither and die in bed […] if I did not have someone to watch over me.

Stop beating yourself up! I sometimes want to tell Presley. You’ve been through a lot, and you deserve some compassion. Not pity though; no reader would dare pity him, not when his life is filled with such spirit and wry self-awareness. Presley himself shuns the term noble, and I agree with his reasoning: he does not want to be extolled for spending his life in a wheelchair. Rather, all he demands is equal opportunities for the disabled. But in his capacity to find meaning in love and faith and work so his disability is but one facet of his life, in his view of the wheelchair not as constraint but an enabler of independence, in his insistence on his ordinariness, Presley to me is close to noble. Maugham should have remembered that the alchemy of suffering is selective; it takes a certain metal to make gold.

(This review appears in the current edition of Eclectica magazine.)