Book review

Are you a young Indian woman born in the USA? These are your stories

An anthology of tales by women about their own lives as second generation American Indians.

The story of South Asian immigration to the United States is just over a century old; yet its history is rich and varied. The historian Karen Leonard has written of the early wave of Punjabi immigrants in California and the West Coast. Hardy and enterprising, they brought up land for farming and then married Mexican women immigrants. There was a kind of apt historical irony in this: two alien communities united in matrimony, to begin life anew in the New World.

The restrictions imposed by the US’s numerous exclusion acts (for instance, the case of US vs Bhagat Singh Thind, 1924, that denied citizenship to Asians, for they were of different racial stock) would be lifted from the 1940s onward. The Luce Celler Act of 1946, and, more important, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, brought in a new wave of immigrants from South Asia: educated, employable and literate. They provided a getaway for some, as it did for my uncles caught in the midst of civil strife in what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

Generational longings

These new immigrants, and perhaps Jhumpa Lahiri’s Ashoke Ganguli (from The Namesake) belonged here too, made a new life for themselves – a life of sacrifices, ambition, hard work, in the hope that their children, the next generation, would have a better life, would succeed in ways just as they had done. All of this, of course, within set boundary lines – as we are told in Piyali Bhattacharya’s edited anthology, Good Girls Marry Doctors. The stories in this anthology are about the daughters of the first generation immigrants, those who were born in the US or moved to the US (and Canada too) very early on.

These are stories of freedoms given and denied, of choice and its limitations and, most importantly – for the narrators in this anthology are all women – of religious, cultural and sexual taboos that must be respected and never breached. Indeed, the anthology is subtitled South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion.

Some of the pieces here touch on the angst and the conflict that follow from breaking out of stereotypes – whether to choose a new career, or a different kind of partner, for instance. A conflict that sometimes sees some resolution – necessary, it would appear, in a country where immigrants also see the advantages and the inevitability of accommodation and acceptance.

The themes in this book and why it had to be put together appear early on, in the poet Tarfia Faizullah’s eloquent and lyrical foreword and then Piyali Bhattacharya’s Introduction. These introductory pieces not only tell us what one might expect from the 26 pieces that make up this anthology, but also detail the difficult, courageous and even heartrending task of putting words on paper, giving shape to truths and thoughts that for long had been deliberately silenced, or, at best, remained inchoate.

Of choice and conflict

These are stories born out of the complexities, contradictions and ambiguities of an immigrant life; where even for a second generation South Asian, home is deigned to be “somewhere else”: but this is a truth bitterly contested and rebelled against by all the narrators of this book. Moreover, home within set norms is also something different from the world the narrators encounter outside, the rules and conditions of the former sphere being separate and even misaligned from the outer world of random and wild freedoms.

In most cultural traditions of the world, it falls to the women to be the bearers. They constitute the inheritors, those who pass on these traditions in turn, and it is no different for several narrators in this anthology. Surya Kundu suggests in her story that the “modern mythologies” simply continue and persist in various ways, else they are remade.

In her own story, Bhattacharya states that her parents’ generation made the hard choices, wanting to conform, and in turn, they wanted to make things “easier” for their children, which meant an orderly, neat life, complete in its set routines and safe choices. It is supposed to be a life never veering into controversy, something Bhattacharya’s mother cautions her about, especially on the latter’s politically outspoken posts on social media.

Jyothi Natarajan in Patti Smith in the Dark tells the story of her sister and herself, who, in contrast to the careful arranged lives of their parents, veer away to make different romantic choices, even experimenting with love and living arrangements. It takes time, indeed several years, for such choices to manifest themselves and be acted on, bringing in simultaneous disappointment and guilt. But in a gesture, as “reckless in its love” and equally symbolic of an acceptance, her mother gifts them both a heavy duty blender as they settle into their own lives, formally unmarried.

Parents versus us

Harsh fathers demanding behavioural conformity and almost acquiescent mothers appear in Tanzila Ahmed’s The Cost of Grief and Natasha Singh’s Cut: fathers who will resort to violence when taboos – such as having a boyfriend and wearing clothes of a different kind – are infringed on. Even not following a chosen career path can set off brooding disappointment, as Sayantani Das Gupta writes in Good Girls Become Doctors.

Sometimes this disappointment, when it is the older generation that does not comply with traditions in the New World, can have a comical effect: such as the stoic silence and steely resolution in which Mathangi Subramanian’s family tackles cranberry sauce in the midst of a very Indian dinner on Thanksgiving. Sometimes parents too can break out of expected rules, leaving their children, the narrators, in confusion that lingers and lasts – as Neelanjana Banerjee writes in The Photograph of My Parents.

Breaking taboos can lead to mockery, it can secure for one the label of a “bad girl”. But, worse, it can shame the entire family. On her coming out, Fawzia Mirza’s mother calls her daughter a “witch”. Hema Sarang-Sieminski’s parents had a controversial marriage in Chennai before moving to the US, but when it came to her daughter’s choice, her mother responded with an anger, stubbornness and manipulation that hurt.

Pressures of community

Nayomi Munaweera’s family was horrified when an uncle outed the fact of her dating someone who was Tamil-speaking. This was unthinkable for the close-knit Sri Lankan community in Los Angeles, when, on the other side of the world, the savage Tamil-Sinhala conflict raged on in Sri Lanka. But greater consternation is to follow in this piece, that is in turn comical and compassionate, and yet embraces, in every aspect, the choices and contradictions that life has to offer in a different world where numerous other traditions exist, meld into and adopt from each other.

This community-enforced conformity can be stifling, especially for women. Madiha Bhatti’s Fair Game is about the rigours of maintaining a fair complexion. The unsolicited advice and freely doled out comments on the part of “community aunts” finally make her see things with some humour, and Madiha draws up a list of things that will make one look lighter (Only take photos with a blindingly bright flash; Stay under an umbrella, etc.) and things that will make one look darker (direct sunlight; swimming; shaving your legs, etc.).

The demands to conform also exert pressure on motherhood – on what makes for a good mother or otherwise, and the necessity of getting into motherhood only when it’s right (i.e., being married to the right kind of guy). Meghna Chandra is terrified of a visit to a radiologist in Daughter of Mine and Roksana Badruddoja, troubled and resenting a hard pregnancy, is written off as “narcissistic” and “immature” by her caregivers.

Fiction from Jhumpa Lahiri and Akhil Sharma has in recent times focussed on a certain kind of South Asian American life. Popular impressions revolve around set images: IT workers or hedge fund billionaires, expat spouses, Spelling Bee winners, for instance.

Many lives, many stories

Good Girls Marry Doctors – like Her Name is Kaur: Sikh American Women Write About Love, Courage and Faith (its pieces offered a glimpse into the many diverse worlds of Sikh American Women), edited by Meeta Kaur in 2014 – is an amazingly detailed book, no one piece similar to another, which gives us a glimpse into how lives are made, how choices are a necessity, and how conflicts and the acceptance of these inevitably accompany the process of finding one’s feet in the world.

Emotions are always hard to write about, more so when any situation brings in emotions that often appear contradictory (anger vis-a-vis concern, for instance). And so the very act of writing takes a particular kind of courage and generosity of spirit. As Hema Sarang-Sieminski writes toward the end of her piece: “I am continuing to walk a path of learning what our hearts look like and feel like when they’re open. The kind of open when you try not to have secrets from yourself”.

Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion, Edited by Piyali Bhattacharya, Aunt Lute Books.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.