Book review

How to be a young woman of Indian origin in North America and fail to fit in

Scaachi Koul’s story is our story too, even if it’s not exactly our story.

Whenever I read a memoir about fear, which isn’t often because it’s a rare breed, I am almost always relieved to find out that other people also experience inexplicable terror in their daily lives. In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert retells the story of how as a little girl she was petrified of everything. In Furiously Happy, Jenny Lawson needs her husband and child to fly across the country and spend the day in bed with her whenever her fear of public speaking becomes too overwhelming on her book tour. These women are afraid of things most people aren’t afraid of or won’t admit to.

And Scaachi Koul brings that story, of being scared without being able to rationally explain to another person why, closer home to India in her book of personal essays, One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter. Fear is Koul’s heavy inheritance from her very, very scared middle-class parents who were afraid of death, of kidnappers, of men who might prey on Koul were she allowed on a sleepover, of fire. What is scarier than one’s parents being scared? Koul writes about how she manages despite her fears to travel to far-flung places, to love a man her parents don’t approve of, to work in a world rife with misogyny and racism, and to survive.

Papa don’t preach

Born in Canada to immigrant parents who grew up in Kashmir, Koul is a third culture child whose father believes her holiday in Ecuador is her campaign to personally torture him. After not speaking to her for over a week, he says “What’s in Ecuador? Some volcanoes and people who don’t speak English. THAT’S ALL.” In some ways, her parents are so quintessentially Indian that they may as well still live in India.

One can’t help but laugh at Koul’s narration of her tiffs with her father and at the emails from him included in the book. It’s a relieved, comfortable kind of humour one finds in her essays. To a reader from another culture, Koul’s father, addressed always as Papa, may seem problematic and flawed. But to an Indian audience, those very specific ways that Indian fathers infuriate their daughters will be very familiar. One of the reasons this book was a cherished reading experience to me was that it embraces the ways in which South Asians may grow up furious at their parents but may still love them fiercely as adults.

The essays are held together by the narrative of Koul’s family. Her relationship with her mother is incredibly touching, almost idyllic. Her mother is attentive, patient, involved and intuitive to her children’s needs. Her father doesn’t know their birthdays. Her mother takes on the burden of what Koul calls an “ungrateful, dissonant family.”

Koul says that her fears aren’t as extreme around her mother because, “Nothing bad happens when you’re with your mom.” In a societal system where mothers take on more of the parenting than fathers do, Koul does a good job of giving her mother the credit she’s due. But it’s almost as if she is so protective of her mother she won’t lend to her the same complex portrait she offers up of her father. This is a pity because it’s difficult to connect with her in the way we do with Koul’s father.

Being the other

These essays also touch on other aspects of her bi-cultural identity. She acknowledges that she occupies a different place on the ladder of privilege depending on whether she’s in India or in Canada. In India, her skin is fair and coveted. She realises that her status in India might show her what it’s like to be white in Canada. As she says, “People who look like me in India are assumed to be higher class, in better socio-economic standing, more educated.” Her aunt rubs her cheeks in the hope the lighter colour will rub off on her. But in Canada, her skin isn’t white enough. She is called “brown” and shunned by various cliques through her life.

Koul shot into the limelight when, in her role as an editor at Buzzfeed Canada, she put out a call for submissions from non-male, non-white writers. This unleashed a storm of hate, rape threats and trolls on Twitter. An entire chapter of her book, “Mute”, is dedicated to her Twitter controversy and it was my least favourite chapter for it’s uneven writing. It swung between personal reflection and larger realities without sufficient threading between the two.

But almost all of the rest of the book is well-woven. When she has to be cut out of a garment she tries on in a store, we feel for her. Most of us know what it’s like to feel publicly embarrassed by your body. When she explains how many times in a week (and sometimes a day), she has to shave, we relate to that.

I did a lot of things while reading this book. I nodded, I teared up, I laughed. Is she a voice only millennials can relate to? Maybe. But she’s a voice a South Asian, female millennial can see themselves in. And that’s something. We don’t often have a brown, (kind of) Indian writer candidly writing about sex, desire, and body hair, and the awkwardness of those in the context of their own life. So much of Koul’s life, particularly with her parents, feels like our lives here in India.

By the end of the book, her reconciliation with her love and admiration for her father had me in tears. If you like honest books about difficult parents (think Roz Chast’s autobiographical graphic novel Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?), then you must read this one.

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, Scaachi Koul, Penguin Books.

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