Mirrors, Windows, Or Prisms? Fiction Reflecting the Indian Diaspora



Mirrors, Windows, Or Prisms? Fiction Reflecting the Indian Diaspora

By : Uma Krishnaswami  /  Nov 2008

Stories are tools for us to pass on the essence of ourselves to the next generation—the things we care about, our hopes and dreams, our histories. In the last couple of decades, the presence of people of Indian origin in diasporic communities around the world is leading to the emergence of books reflecting the stories of those communities, and in particular books intended for young readers. This article will focus on selected books with a diversity of settings and characters, reflecting various aspects of the Indian diaspora, and published by mainstream publishing houses in the UK and USA.

Among the stories we expatriates seem compelled to write are retellings of traditional lore. Such books can be seen as mirrors, reflecting the complex cultures of our place of origin back to our children and others. My collection, The Broken Tusk: Stories Of the Hindu God Ganesha (August House, 2006) falls into this category. So does Jamila Gavin’s Three Indian Princesses (Egmont, 2001) in which Gavin uses dramatic prose and child-centered language to tell the well-known tales of Damayanti, Savitri, and Sita. Madhur Jaffrey’s Seasons Of Splendour (Atheneum, 1989) blends autobiography, storytelling, and information about festivals and ceremonies.

But there’s a world of story that lies beyond retelling and traditions, in the realm of contemporary fiction. Such books for young readers can be seen in two ways: they may serve as mirrors to the children of Indian immigrants overseas, but they are also windows to India and her diasporic communities for those outside them. One of the earliest among such books was The Sunita Experiment (Little, Brown, 1993) by Mitali Perkins. Now republished as The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life Of Sunita Sen (Henry Holt, 2005), it is the story of eighth grader Sunita Sen whose social life is in jeopardy as a result of her grandparents’ extended visit from India. As the story plays out, Sunita comes to a place of understanding and creates an identity for herself that is both Indian and American.

In Anjali Banerjee’s novel, Maya Running (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House, 2005) thirteen year old Maya wishes her glamorous cousin Pinky could come for a visit. When that wish comes true, it turns out to have repercussions that Maya has not anticipated. Gripped by jealousy, she begs the elephant-headed god Ganesh to remove all obstacles from her life—isn’t that what his role is? As Maya crosses the threshold from the real to the magical world, it seems that the rules have changed in her favour. It soon becomes apparent that there are no rules and she’s caught up in the runaway consequences of her thoughtless wishes. Banerjee’s novel effectively combines the cultural ins and outs of being Canadian of Indian origin, with the universality of teenage longings. The time period of the story is sketched in with a light hand—the Parti Quebecois has just asserted itself, and the Bee Gees are featured on tee-shirts.

My novel Naming Maya (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004) features an Indian-American pre-teen girl who goes to India with her mother to sell her grandfather’s old house. During this visit, she uncovers family secrets, especially those pertaining to her parents’ divorce. This character remains a rarity, children of divorced parents being conspicuously absent in diasporic novels for young readers. A curious ally to Maya in the story is an elderly woman fast slipping into dementia, who used to be the family’s cook and housekeeper. The setting is Chennai in a contemporary time, seen through the eyes of the Indian-American protagonist.

The events of 9/11 sparked Anjali Banerjee’s Looking For Bapu (Wendy Lamb/Random House, 2005) published in India under the title Finding Grandfather, is about a young boy coming to terms with his grief over his grandfather’s sudden death of a stroke in a cool rainforest setting in Washington State. The geographies of India and this particular part of America meld in young Anu’s mind with myth, memory, and the friendships that see him through. 

Some books by diasporic writers still hark back to Indian settings, but those settings are changing now—they may be far away to young readers in England and America, but they are no longer exotic and peopled with villains. When I wrote my picture book, Monsoon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), I placed the coming of the rains in a city where the children play on pavements, and Papa goes to work on a scooter. Nani may be nostalgic for the old days: ‘When the monsoon was wetter, fuller, longer,’ but she nonetheless inhabits an urban lands-cape in an unnamed Indian city. In Ruth Jeyaveeran’s charming picture book, The Road To Mumbai (Houghton Mifflin, 2004) the setting is fantastic rather than real, and gently lampoons stereotypes of India. Young Shoba takes her stuffed toy, Fuzzy Patel, on a trip to Mumbai to attend a very fancy wedding. The pages burst with whimsy and the whole journey is a funny romp that concludes with the obligatory feast.

One facet of the diasporic experience is the reclaiming and expression of histories that have typically remained untold or are at most, told as footnotes to a larger Eurocentric story. Among historical novels for young adult audiences Jamila Gavin’s Surya Trilogy is remarkable for the scope of its narrative. The Wheel Of Surya (Mammoth, 2001), begins in the time of the freedom struggle, when the vicissitudes of history alter relationships between English and Indian people in India. Marvinder and her brother Jaspal flee in the panic that follows Independence, in search of a father in England whom they can barely remember. The Eye Of the Horse (Mammoth, 2001) finds the children’s father jailed in England. Marvinder comes of age in an alien country where a passion for playing the violin, and first love, cannot erase the voice of the mother she left behind in India. Verses from Hindu scriptures serve as epigrams in the trilogy, of which the final volume is The Track Of the Wind (Egmont, 2001). The Singh family is reunited in India, but Jaspal feels drawn to a struggle for Sikh independence. At times the two cultures seem sharply divided, without the option to build bridges. Yet in Beryl, Marvinder and Jaspal’s step-sister, we find a character imbued with the capacity to forge connections.

Two recent historical novels for young adults are Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman, which spans a year in the life of a fifteen-year-old girl in pre-Independence India, and the evocative Child Of Dandelions by Shenaaz Nanji, set against the backdrop of Idi Amin’s expulsion of Indians from Uganda in 1972. A novel I am currently working on, to be published by Lee & Low Books, is set in the little-known Punjabi-Mexican community of 1930’s California.

Unlike books that reflect realities or open windows, humorous books are like prisms, catching those unique cultural lights and fracturing them deliberately to provoke both laughter and thought. Children are of course the most eccentric of readers, and British writer Narinder Dhami’s books tap the innate eccentricity of the 10-13 year old with great zest and flair. In Bindi Babes (Delacorte, 2004), the contemporary story of a British family of Indian origin, issues of culture and context constitute backdrop rather than plot. Amber, Jazz, and Geena Dhillon are dealing with the secret sorrow of having lost their mum, although no one would know from the face they put on. Then their dad’s sister arrives from India to live with them, and the delicate balance they’ve achieved between family and the external world is suddenly upset. Little touches of neighbourhood and community, like the school getting ready for inspection, the madcap paperboy, and a neighbour engaging in deadly reminiscence of the old days in India, are both whimsical and deft. Dhami reels out the comic stuff with joyful and unerring timing. In the sequels, Bollywood Babes (Delacorte, 2004), and Bhangra Babes (Delacorte, 2005), the sisters’ escapades involve a down-at-heel movie star, and that most enthralling, bewildering, and challenging of social events, a desi wedding.

Also in the quirky wish-fulfillment department is First Daughter: Extreme American Makeover (Dutton/Penguin, 2007) and its sequel, First Daughter: White House Rules (Dutton/Penguin, 2008) by Mitali Perkins. In these books a fictional president of the United States has an adopted teenaged daughter, Sameera, nicknamed ‘Sparrow’ who is of Pakistani origin. Perkins has blurred the boundaries between fiction and reality in characteristically postmodern fashion by creating an Internet blog for Sameera, (http://www.sparrowblog.com) on which political realities and fictions both find space.

In the decade that I have been writing for publication in the United States, it has been a pure delight to read the growing range of voices from the diaspora that speak to young readers while carrying echoes of the Indian subcontinent. We’ve only just begun. Genre fiction still awaits the desi touch. Filmmaker Keshni Kashyap is working on a graphic novel with an Indian-American protagonist, to be published by Houghton Mifflin. Science fiction seems another exciting frontier. A mystery series with a (Police Inspector) PI character of Indian origin could be fantastic.

Fiction holds the power to shed light on truth in a myriad ways. Alisha Grama, a subscriber to the exciting and energetic Boston-based children’s magazine, Kahani, and an enthusiastic reader of its regular book review feature writes, ‘I like the Indian-American books because I feel like that could be me. I feel connected to the [character] in the story.’ Such connections validate the work of writers of Indian origin whose books speak to young readers.

Uma Krishnaswami writes books for children and young adults. She was born in Delhi and presently lives in New Mexico, US.