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).
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.