Fathers, Sons and Motherlands

Book Review: South Haven ♦
By Hirsh Sawhney
HarperCollins Publishers India, 2016

When the Babri Masjid was demolished, I was about the same age as Siddharth Arora, the preteen protagonist of Hirsh Sawhney’s debut novel. Like him, I was a first generation Indian American, growing up in an east coast suburb; like him, the news reached me through the filter of family. To me, India—specifically Delhi, with its syncretic architecture and living ruins—was a romanticised alternative to the homogenous blandness of strip malls and public schools. The destruction in Ayodhya was incomprehensible.

In South Haven, when a friend of his father’s shows Siddharth a video of the demolition, he too recalls the ruins in the “nice park with the parrots near his uncle’s Delhi home.” Instead of repulsing him, however, the violence is seductive. “The video was the first decent one Siddharth had seen about India. Something actually happened in it. He placed his pellet of gum into the slingshot’s leather holster, then aimed at the screen. He knew his father would get upset, but he needed to test out his weapon.”

For Siddharth, the violence is a tonic, a balm to sooth the double emasculation he feels—as a child and as an immigrant—with the added stigma of his family’s particular tragedy. The story opens with the sudden death of Siddharth’s mother, and the rest of the novel explores how this loss feeds another one: the withering away of a secular idea of the motherland.

“He wanted to own more than one mansion, like Donald Trump.”

Deftly narrating the events of several months through Siddharth’s experience of them, Sawhney keeps the family history—Partition, migration—hazy, glimpsed only in Siddharth’s peripheral vision. Sawhney captures the vulnerability and affected confidence of his protagonist’s age pitch perfectly, and Siddharth has greater concerns than his family’s repressed traumas (that diasporic confused Desi-ness belongs to his older brother Arjun, who swaps his practical goal of becoming a radiologist for studying South Asian history).

Siddharth, by contrast, is a wholesale believer in the American Dream, early 1990s edition. Grateful for his fair skin, he pronounces his name with “the d’s incorrectly to make it sound more American.” His greatest ambition is “to be rich. He wanted to own a DeLorean, Marty McFly’s car in Back to the Future. He wanted to own more than one mansion, like Donald Trump.”

In Siddharth’s America, grunge still seems like a potential challenge to neo-liberal yuppiedom, and a lingering recession has not diluted the still-robust myth that “This was a country where everyone was equal, where everyone could be happy if they wanted—where everyone could get rich.” A man who was once a poor boy from Arkansas is about to be elected president, and American ambition reflects in everything, from politics to pop culture. “The boys rode by Siddharth’s favorite home, which was separated from the street by a stone wall and remote-controlled gate. Its three stories had five large columns that made it look awesome—like the White House, or the mansion from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

Several authors have begun mining the now nostalgic terrain of the 1990s for coming-of-age stories.

Television defines the times, with the start of a golden era of programming that would end in its becoming obsolete, replaced by streaming content. For Siddharth, television and video provide the most American of escapes: “He threw on The Karate Kid, one of his favourite movies. He had seen it almost twenty times but still liked anticipating what would happen.”

Novelists often set their work in the recent past, and several authors have begun mining the now nostalgic terrain of the 1990s for coming-of-age stories: Elif Batumen’s The Idiot comes to mind, as do books that straddle literary and thriller genres, like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, and Robin Wasserman’s Girls on Fire. Stylistically, South Haven draws as much, or more, from the young adult novels of the 1990s, than it does from the Indian diasporic fiction of that time. Sawhney doesn’t linger poetically over descriptions of food or suburban solitude, nor does he indulge in flights of magical realist fantasy. His writing is crisp, direct and peppered with allusions to television and junk food.

This isn’t the story of an Indian family steeped in its own foreignness; the Arora men may be different, but they are not ghettoised. Their favourite restaurant is an Italian joint, managed by Mustafa, a Pakistani immigrant with “a perfect guido accent.” Before Siddharth’s emotional isolation, his neighbourhood friends include two boys adopted from Laos. And soon his father, Mohan Lal, is dating his Jewish guidance counselor, the divorced Ms Farber. Despite the waspy ideals of Siddharth’s imagined America, the reality of his surroundings provide a different picture, one peopled by immigrants, whether Indian and Pakistani, or Jewish, Italian and Polish.

Masculine strength leans on cheerleading women, just as much as it requires the foil of feminine weakness.

For Siddharth, who dreams about dating “a real blonde”, red blooded Americanness is inextricable from red blooded masculinity, and his greatest fears revolve around his sexuality. One of South Haven’s strongest points is its illustration of how often masculine strength leans on cheerleading women, just as much as it requires the foil of feminine weakness.

Despite being dominated by its central father-son relationship and peripheral fraternal ones, South Haven does justice to its female characters. These characters—Ms Farber; Siddarth’s freaks-and-geeks friend Sharon Nagorski—form a supporting cast in Siddharth’s own life narrative, and Sawhney, appropriately, does not develop them as fully as he does his protagonist. But although their interior lives are to some extent a mystery to Siddharth, Sawhney does hint at complicated motivations, and feelings independent from the tasks of bolstering or managing the often hapless men around them.

Too insecure to truly “man up” and defend his friend Sharon from the school bullies, Siddharth instead takes refuge in the precarious comradeship of these boys, retreating with them into the masculine trappings of porn, alcohol, cigarettes and vandalism. With Arjun, the respected voice of reason, away at college, Siddharth’s malleable perspective gradually hardens. Watching his father transform from someone who refused to hire a pandit for his wife’s funeral to a regular attendee of BJP meetings, Siddharth imbibes Mohan Lal’s oppositional attitude, while mutinying against his specific beliefs. Like the motherless son of The Goldfinch, Siddharth too turns to petty crime, smoking, drinking, and denigrating women. These small rebellions numb the pain of losing both adult protection and childish idealism, and of becoming just like everyone else. They become markers on the road to growing up.

At a BJP meeting, he is disgusted by the men’s hairy ears.

When Siddharth does feels twinges of guilt, they are more often motivated by fear than ethical duty. During a public altercation between Barry “Uncle”, who shot the Babri Masjid video, and Mustafa, Mohan Lal reflexively sides with his boorish compatriot, Barry. Siddharth raises an ineffectual protest, but is more embarrassed than angry on the Pakistani man’s behalf. Siddharth understands only that real Americans know better than to cause scenes. At a BJP meeting, he is disgusted by the men’s hairy ears. Hearing them recite the Gayatri Mantra, taught to him by his mother, makes him want to puke, but he is never quite self-aware enough to articulate why.

Siddharth’s culminating induction into manhood—a trial by mailbox fire—leads into a second tragedy at the end of South Haven. The inconvenient embers of Siddharth’s guilt burst into flame, but before he can fully process his emotions, they are doused. After the death of a second female character, Siddharth is comforted by a third; it is her placating justifications that allow him to disengage himself from any blame: the American art of instant healing.

This art places the nuclear family on its alter, and, despite Arjun’s estrangement, the Aroras soon knit themselves a new one with Ms Farber and her son. “Thanks to her, they went to the mall the movies. One time, they had even gone to an art museum in downtown New Haven. At dinner, Ms Farber asked him about his day, about the books he was reading. At dinner, they had conversations about the cruelty of the death penalty or why it was important that abortion was legal. When the four of them had dinner together, he sometimes felt as if he had a real family again.”

In the early 1990s, Salman Rushdie wrote that his Satanic Verses was a “love song to our mongrel selves”. On a more intimate scale, South Haven too looks at how new types of people and belief systems come into being.

United, as Uncle Barry points out, by “‘the same problem with the Mohammedans’”, Mohan Lal and Ms Farber nevertheless create a different kind of American ideal, despite Mohan Lal’s assertion to his son that “‘you don’t get new beginnings at my age. Only endings.’ Recalling that evening, Siddharth felt grateful for all the new things he had—karate and Marc. Even Ms. Farber.”

In the early 1990s, Salman Rushdie wrote that his Satanic Verses was a “love song to our mongrel selves”. On a more intimate scale, South Haven too looks at how new types of people and belief systems come into being. In the darker shadows of Sawhney’s picture of 1990s liberal America, the recession and the bogeyman of the Soviet Union still linger. And while the American mainstream worries about aging veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars, and slowly begin to accept AIDS as a national problem, germinating in American soil too are the seeds of neo-Zionism and Hindutva politics.

During the 1990s, America still thought of itself as the political center of the world, and the world by and large agreed. India in particular opened its borders to the McDonalds and the MTVs of American consumerism. With a light touch, Sawhney links this brash dominance, disseminated across the flat world through the television and fast food that Siddharth loves, with the political currents that sweep Mohal Lal up in their global embrace, bearing him towards our divisive current moment.

Originally published in the April-June 2017 issue of Biblio.

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