Is this the novel that will break the Indian-immigrant-in-America mould?

Hirsh Sawhney's book is not the coming-of-age story of an America-born-confused-desi.

The first time he saw Ms Farber was at the beginning of fifth grade. Mohan Lal hadn’t told anybody at Deer Run Elementary about Siddharth’s mother, but his teacher, Miss Kleinberg, sensed there was some sort of problem. She thought he was too quiet, so she referred him to Ms Farber.

Ms Farber had called him and Mohan Lal into her office, and she asked them if Siddharth’s mother was a fluent English speaker. She said, ‘I know you’re a professional, Dr Arora. But what about your wife? When one parent doesn’t speak the language, it can have a serious impact on the child’s vocalisation.’

Despite that dreadful initial encounter, over the past year Siddharth had actually enjoyed some of his visits to Ms Farber’s office. Since their initial meeting, he had been to her office eleven times. Sometimes they talked about simple things, like his favourite television shows or what he was reading at school. Ms Farber asked him whether he missed his family in India, about the differences between his two schools.

He told her that his old school was better, but that all schools sucked.

India was dirty and poor, though his father’s older brother was rich. This brother had two drivers and had just gotten cable television. When Ms Farber asked him how his father was doing, he usually lied. He told her that Mohan Lal was going on three-mile walks every day, that he cooked a three-course dinner every night.

Ms Farber sometimes asked him to draw pictures. She usually let him draw whatever he wanted, so he made mountains with ponds and evergreen trees, just like his mother had taught him, or he sketched cubes and bowls and then painstakingly shaded them in. One time, she asked him if he would be willing to draw a picture of his family, so he’d made a quick sketch featuring him, Mohan Lal, and Arjun. He thought that their bodies and clothes had come out realistically. Their facial features, however, were the work of a child.

Ms Farber held up his sketch and smiled. She told him he was very talented, and that she also liked to draw. ‘Honey, do you mind if I ask you something?’ He shrugged. She said, ‘Is someone missing from your picture? You don’t have to talk about it, but I think someone might be missing.’ He had wanted to say, duh, what the hell do you think? – but he just looked down and bit a piece of skin from the inside of his mouth.

He took his time walking down the hallway to her office. He paused outside her door, hypothesising about what they would talk about. Had she heard about his fight with Sharon? Had she found out about the illustrations he had made for her stories? If she’d been told about them, she would think he was some sort of pervert. When he peeked in through the glass pane above her doorknob, it felt as if someone had kicked him in the groin.

His father was right there in Ms Farber’s office.

Mohan Lal was sitting on a tiny student chair at the reading table; his knees jutted upward, almost to the level of his thick black bifocals. Siddharth prayed that he was either dreaming or hallucinating. He bit down hard on his tongue but didn’t wake up. This was real. And the fact that his father was at school could only mean bad things. Either they’d found out he was a pervert or something was wrong with Arjun.

As he stared into Ms Farber’s offce, he was astonished by what was happening. Ms Farber was leaning her head back and laughing. He had been imagining the worst, but Mohan Lal was grinning. He was grinning and talking and gesturing with his hands, the way he used to tell jokes at dinner parties – the way he used to discuss politics with Barry Uncle when they were drinking. Saliva flooded Siddharth’s mouth. Bitter saliva. It tasted like battery acid.

He pushed open the door. Mohan Lal turned toward him and waved.

‘Good morning, Siddharth,’ said Ms Farber, flashing her toothy smile. He liked her, but he didn’t like that fake smile. She was wearing a white jacket with puffy shoulders. It looked weird, or maybe Oriental, and the shiny scarf around her neck seemed foreign too. Mohan Lal was wearing a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows, and a yellow tie that Siddharth and Arjun had given him on Father’s Day three years earlier.

Mohan Lal patted the empty chair beside him, and Siddharth took a seat. He scrunched up his face and gave his father a look that was supposed to convey several questions. What the hell is going on? How could you do this to me again? Is everything okay with Arjun? Mohan Lal winked at him, then turned to Ms Farber.

‘You really said that, Dr Arora? And they really believed you? I tell you, you need to write that one down and send it to the New Yorker.’

Mohan Lal grinned at her. ‘If I did, people would think it was a fiction.’

Ms Farber shook her head and smiled. ‘Well, thankfully, not everyone in this country is quite so ignorant.’

‘Of that I am certain,’ said Mohan Lal, pointing his right hand toward Ms Farber. ‘And you can’t blame the people. They only know what they are taught by media.’

‘Oh, you’re being too nice,’ she replied. ‘I mean, tree houses? Come on. How could they think that about such a well-spoken man?’

Siddharth breathed deeply to calm himself down. Why couldn’t his father talk right? Why couldn’t he remember to put the word the before media?

Ms Farber said she would love to travel to India at some point.

She had always wanted to see the Taj Mahal and Jaipur. Mohan Lal said she could visit anytime, that she would be his family’s honoured guest.

‘That would be lovely. As long as I don’t have to stay in one of their tree houses.’ She let out a laugh, then placed a hand over her mouth. Siddharth hadn’t seen her laugh like this before, a dimple appearing on her left cheek.

Mohan Lal smiled for a moment, then grew serious. ‘Actually, my brother is quite a wealthy man. He has a retinue of servants that would wait on you hand and foot.’

Siddharth examined a black-and-white photograph on Ms Farber’s perfectly ordered desk. It showed a lady holding a baby. The photo was ancient, at least from the sixties.

‘Oh, yes,’ said Ms Farber, ‘Siddharth has mentioned him.’ She leaned back in her chair, flicking her auburn curls behind her shoulder. ‘Don’t tell me – is he some sort of maharaja or something?’

Siddharth folded his arms and tried to shoot his father a look. All this India talk was making him sweaty.

Mohan Lal wouldn’t meet his eyes though. He said, ‘Actually, he’s in the gun business. But my great-great-grandfather, he was what you could call nobility – the equivalent of your dukes and earls. They hung him on the banks of a river – a wide and beautiful river that is now a cesspool.’ He paused to rub his chin. ‘They stripped him of everything – his land, his title. His dignity.’

Siddharth didn’t actually mind these stories, but his mother had called them exaggerations.

Ms Farber leaned forward and her chair let out a little whine. ‘Was it the British?’

‘Yes, you’re very astute,’ said Mohan Lal. ‘Mrs Farber, my ancestors wouldn’t conform to the English tax codes, so they were eliminated.’

Siddharth noticed that something green was stuck in the gap between Ms Farber’s yellowed front teeth. Underneath the reading table, her left shoe was off, and her white stockings had a hole near the big toe.

She turned to Siddharth and smiled. ‘Well, honey, I guess that means you have some royal blood in your veins. Prince Siddharth. It has a nice ring to it.’

Mohan Lal patted him on the shoulder.

Excerpted with permission from South Haven, Hirsh Sawhney, HarperCollins India.

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