Book review

These essays reveal a writer who has turned her third world origin into a source of power

Sayantani Dasgupta’s ‘Fire Girl’ renegotiates the burdens of globalised Indian writers.

It’s not like I’ve ever met Sayantani Dasgupta in real life. But we’ve exchanged nerdy writing advice and whined about the amount of rejection and self-doubt the writing life ensures. It’s only when I read her book, Fire Girl: A Collection Of Essays On India, America, And The In Between, that I feel connected to her as a woman who navigated similar transglobal epiphanies and confusions.

Fire Girl lends itself to the rising voice of Indian authors writing for a global audience. At its heart it is a testament to the importance of small presses. It’s rare to find a collection of insightful essays coated in cheeky hilarity and global truths written by an Indian woman. What brings this collection to life are the pockets of wisdom that emerge from negotiating culture and memory.

One of the most potent things to take away from Dasgupta’s book is the burden of India’s “Third Worldness”, which weighs down heavily on our writerly backs. She’s an off-kilter Indian-American Dream. After acquiring a BA from St Stephen’s College, Delhi and an MA from Jawaharlal Nehru University, she was accepted into the MFA creative writing programme at the University of Idaho. Today, Dasgupta teaches South Asian literature and creative writing at the same university.

Third world benefits

Young and bursting with the intricacies of life in India, she landed in the mostly-White small town of Moscow, Idaho as a student. The pristine perfection of America hit hard: “Happy and carefree, they drank their drip coffees and biked everywhere, and an invisible shield cocooned them from wars, drones, and starvation elsewhere.”

It reminded me of my own itinerant childhood and early adulthood, oscillating between the US and India. No matter what country I was in, I felt the pressure to bust myths and contextualise stereotypes of “the other country”. Dasgupta captures the irony of feeling in possession of knowledge superior to that of the rest of her class because she came from chaotically rich India. As she sat in her first classes in grad school surrounded by Americans, she felt a rush of confidence.

“I had the most important story to tell. Since I was the person of colour from a third-world country, I had the most at stake. I felt deliciously burdened by my worldliness and epic travel, by my romantic story in terms of how I came to be in America. I already owned a master narrative.” 

You could say this is Jhumpa Lahiri turned on her head. The new globalised Indian is equipped with context and the everyday realities of India to puff up their sense of the world. In Dasgupta’s world, there is no embarrassment about her culture or her land. In fact, her knowledge of India, a world that is anything but skateboards and perfect sidewalks, ensures she has the most gritty and real narratives to share.

And then there’s the zesty honesty and self-realisation that the book stitches in. Here, Dasgupta’s third-world superiority is tamed by the realisation that sanitary surroundings and big American smiles hide tales of everyday hurt, struggle, and family secrets. As she gets to know her peers she realises that humanity and its bubbling aches are universal. Everybody has an equally important perspective to fit into our grand human puzzle.

World and the home

Dasgupta’s essays swing between different parts of her life: a semi-confused new student in America, an intern in her hometown New Delhi meekly submitting to snake-bearing godmen holding her ransom to a donation, a teenager dreading another summer at her grandparents’ home in Calcutta, a working professor learning of her grandfather’s death and scrambling to find last minute tickets to India in the midst of her rage-grief. Each period of time is strung with memories and factoids about her family, mythology, and socio-cultural realities.

These essays particularly shine when it comes to those moments of often untranslatable homesickness. It’s in the way she tries to tell her American-Indian boyfriend why she “misses” Ajay Devgn:

“The boys cheer and wave, and the girls– in shiny oversized skirts, typical of 1990s Indian fashion – blow him kisses. He jauntily acknowledges the love, then balances himself atop the motorbikes via a well-executed split, accentuating his badass-ness.”

On the flip side, there’s the unexpected hurt and betrayal she feels when her students ask her critical questions about the goddess Durga, even though she’s long rejected religion. The process of compromise sometimes comes in an acknowledgement from the students themselves.

“Dear Professor Dasgupta, before your class, I didn’t think Hinduism was even an actual religion. I believed it to be a cult, something to do with Buddha. I didn’t know Muhammad was to Islam what Christ was to Christianity. I thought Mohammad was just a dude, like maybe from the Bible, who hung out with Jesus. I wasn’t quite sure what an Arab was. I have recently made friends with a boy from Quwate (sic) and I feel I will learn a lot from him. Thank you for all that you have taught me”.

It would be an injustice to the reader to detail the very compelling personal stories Dasgupta tells in the book – about her great-grandmother’s marriage at age 10, her Bangladeshi roots, and her own trip back to Chittagong in that country as an adult. But it would be fair game to outline the snappy cultural critique and ethical dilemmas she battles with in her essay – from being especially annoyed with her peers in India celebrating Karva Chauth to talking about India’s ever stagnant obsession with fairness:

“Because whiteness automatically firms your posture and lengthens your legs so you can stride to interviews with aplomb, and from there, land your dream job, become a rock star, and get the date you have been eyeing since forever.”

Dasgupta enlightens with a powerful narrative tool: the willingness to be vulnerable and account for past opinions that shapeshifted over the years. Her book holds family, migration, globalisation, and memory as a public offering, allowing readers to obtain “perspective and context”, which just happen to be the constant theme of the book. It’s easy to say those words, but to let them breath on the pages is quite another feat.

It doesn’t matter if you have lived many different worlds or happen to be have existed in one little town all your life, Fire Girl expands and retracts to illustrate that every moment has added to our collective story. This is best captured in the essay that goes back to Dasgupta’s childhood as she listens to Draupadi’s story from her mother:

“My copy of the Mahabharata said that Draupadi’s skin was the colour of dark chocolate but tinted and flecked as if with gold. I understood it to mean that fire always left traces.”

Fire Girl: A Collection Of Essays On India, America, And The In Between, Sayantani Dasgupta, Two Sylvias Press.

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