Sujatha Hampton’s debut novel, As It Was Written, traces the journey of an Indian American family in the United States, a journey in which the older generation struggles to protect its cultural origins and values while the younger generation defies it.
Moving from Kerala to Maclean, Virginia, Raman Nair is a member of the model minority that has realized the Indian version of the American Dream: a good job, a house in upscale Maclean, and an adoring family that consists of his pretty wife Jaya, five beautiful daughters, a sister who is a professor at George Washington University, a nephew who is a medical resident, and an aging father. Completing this picture of the model family is their dog, Taj Mahal, a tall Great Dane.
The Nairs try to have the best of both worlds. They instill Hindu values in their children (like celebrating Onam and playing the suprabhatam on special days) while giving them the freedom to realize their potential in a country where this is possible. But the dream of the perfect cultural mix doesn’t quite work out the way Nair plans, as the children chafe at their boundaries. Sound familiar? In a biographical note, Hampton writes: “I was raised in a bell jar by scofflaws who left their homeland of Kerala, India to fulfill their destinies halfway around the Earth. They came in a wave of scofflaws, the great Brain Drain of the 1960s. All the scofflaws’ children were born here in the States and raised in bell jars of differing proportions depending on the number of offspring. Our parents felt the encasement would keep us safe and close to home. It didn’t really work…”
By the end of the novel the various members of the family have taken their lives in unexpected directions. There are many, many characters in this novel, and each follows an unconventional path in his or her search for happiness. One falls for a married American man and ends up destroying his marriage. Another has a complicated love story with a somewhat happy ending. A third ends up getting seduced by her professor. .
The refrain “How quickly things change” runs like a leitmotif throughout the novel, and sums up what life is all about.
As It Was Written contains a story within a story. The arc of the story extends back to the Nairs’ great-great-great grandmother, Omanakumari, whose story is being written by Raman Nair’s sister. Has Omanakumari been a trailblazer for her women descendants, empowering them to escape from the tyranny of tradition, or is the curse taking effect even after the Nair family is oceans away from its ancestral land?
Hampton’s debut novel, while similar to others in the genre that worry about conflict and collision between cultures, is also about a new equilibrium that immigrant cultures must work towards in American society.
The novel reverberates with a vivid portrayal of human emotions, family dynamics, and generational conflicts that immigrant families face. While the older generation is happy with the label Indian American, the younger generation, especially the one born and raised in America, is less and less conscious of the division. The author also juxtaposes small town bigotry with American generosity and friendliness. Nair, as the story unfolds, is in for a rude awakening from his belief that the best of each culture can be painlessly absorbed and transmitted. He ultimately realizes that children born and raised in the United States cannot be kept in a bell jar. Geography will eventually trump history.
Hampton has the gentle irony of Jane Austen with attention to minute details, and a Dickensian propensity for exaggeration. The author uses interior monologue to express what goes on in the minds of the characters. Pauses and unfinished sentences are more eloquent in articulating the gap between wishful thinking and reality than completed sentences. Hampton writes with great humor and As It Was Written is a great addition to the repertoire of Indian American imagination.
Lakshmi Mani taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology for 20 years. She writes on American and Indian-American literature, and is a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow.