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The jingle of our mother’s gold bangles sprinkled gold stories into our ears with every rhythmic thump on our infant backs. Sanjena Sathian, a 2019 graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, in her book Gold Diggers taps into that part of the Indian American psyche. Being considered for a series to be produced by Mindy Kaling, the fiction has won many awards as the author’s first novel.
The story starts with an Indian American high schooler, Neil Neeraj Narayan, growing up in suburban Atlanta. Neil, his sister Prachi and their friends are pursuing dreams in a world their Indian-immigrant parents are “ad-justing in.”
The parents from the land where the gold-laden Sindhu river flowed, have crossed many oceans to raise their children in a country that Christopher Columbus mistakenly thought was India (sone ki chidiya). Now the gold spinners are chasing the American dream.
The parent’s and children’s ambitions, which like the gold deer that Lord Ram chased, are to be achieved with any magic potion they can drum up in the basements. A magic potion was brewed out of gold, not the turmeric latte kind but the real glint in the ear gold by the Dayal mother and daughter duo, Neil’s neighbors. This lemonade stirred up latent ambitions in the consumers. It helped them steal victories from the owners of the gold ornaments.
“Brewing the perfect lemonade was a matter of taking luck and specific talents from another person and drinking them down.”
Neil, Anita, and her mother are the alchemists of the brew.
“Anita wants to go to Harvard too,” I said. That briefly silenced Wendi Zhao….
“Wendi.,” I said. “What’s after Harvard?
“What do you mean?’”
“Just that. You get there. To Harvard. What happens next?”
She looked at me like she had something sour on her tongue.
“Whatever the fuck I want.”
The magic gold lemonade that stirs up ambitions and confidence to aim for Harvard seems to not help them adjust in their homeland, America. It deserts them in social situations. It doesn’t fight white girls “see, because white girls, they don’t even wear gold, white girls they prefer”-hiccup-”they prefer pearls,” says Anita who is attracted to a classmate Sam. “He’d never date me in public,” she says.
Fast forward a decade and, in the second half of the novel, as the highschoolers head to the next stage of their lives the author quotes H.W.Brands from “The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream, “Had the immigrant known what a task the gold hunting would be, their spirits might have failed.”
The protagonist Neil enters the Golden State. California is where the next phase of their lives plays out. Under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, Neil delves into the aftermath of the gold rush, studying history “in the land of utopian technofuturists”.
This next phase of their lives reveals the new ambition of their parents.
“They (parents) had accrued additional expectations, ones I did not discover until Prachi (Neil’s sister) fulfilled them. Shaadi-shaadi-shaadi!”
“There had been a few years, in college, when I’d believed in life’s ever-unfolding variety. But now, as my compatriots entered the promotion and canine-adoption and splitting-the-rent and wedding seasons of their lives, reality had narrowed again, with little warning,” says Neil.
Future-oriented South Asian professionals must now use any means necessary to fulfill this desire for marriage. “Believe it or not, they’re-we’re-willing to pay more in the marriage space than any other group,” says Keya, who has launched Dil Day, a matchmaking app for South Asian professionals but is herself “an analog spinster in the era of digital soul mates” Caught as she is in a conundrum of “she can’t be seen using her competitor’s app and can’t really use her own.”
The Santa Clara Convention Center hosts a bridal expo to help those who have succeeded in crossing this Lakshman rekha of marriage. Dazzling gold jewels and Manish lehenga skirts await them. Neil and Anita are hellbent on stealing some of the joy-laden gold jewels from the expo to distill some happiness into their lives when a chase ensues, shots are fired and the gold-laden lehengha skirt disappears into a Honda as the thief Neil absconds.
The novel has all the color of the Indian American immigrant experience and the quintessential wedding also makes an appearance. I can see Mindy Kaling having a lot of fun distilling the tale into a fun-filled movie or digital drama.
Chaitali Sen will be in conversation with Sanjena Sathian on September 23 at 8:30 pm PST. organized by Art Forum SF the event will be hosted by Virtually SALA. It can be seen on youtube.
Ritu Marwah was a 2020 California reporting and engagement fellow at USC Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism.