At the recent Bay Area Book Festival, India Currents caught up with four authors of Indian origin—Devi Laskar, Vauhini Vara, Shanthi Sekaran and Shruti Swamy—to discuss their latest books, and to explore issues related to race, ethnicity, patriarchy and identity.
On a family trip to West Germany as a young girl, crime reporter turned author Devi Laskar discovered what Europeans in the ’70s imagined when they thought of American girls—white, with a hundred Barbie dolls in the closet, and drinking Coca Cola that came out of a tap.
“People could not think of an Asian person as an American in those days. The thought was just too alien,” she says. That alienation was felt at home too. Home in those days was Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where she was born and raised. Currently based in the Bay Area, Laskar still thinks of herself as an American “Southerner” with ancestral roots in Bengal, India. Yet those two identities did not merge easily.
Laskar’s latest book, Circa, takes its readers to Raleigh, North Carolina, of the 80s, and straight to the heart of this dichotomy. Her protagonist, American-born teenager Heera “Heee-haaw” Sanyal, dreams of being the “quintessential American,” of being accepted as one, and of letting go of the “multitude of prefixes and hyphens and expectations in the shape and weight of a shifting subcontinent a thousand miles away.”
Laskar’s prose is achingly poetic. “You live in your star-spangled desires like a dream,” the opening line of Circa, or, “you can see particles floating in the air where the amber light shines through the window.” It stands to reason. She was a poet before she turned to prose.
Until she lost her writer’s voice as a result of a horrific racial experience—an automatic weapon pointed at her by law enforcement officers who raided her home on the basis of a false, racially instigated complaint. Her writer’s voice came back slowly, first with poetry, and then with prose three years after that traumatic incident.
Technology journalist Vauhini Vara’s debut novel, The Immortal King Rao, is a juxtaposition of the twin worlds of her experience—the high-tech beat at the Washington Post, where, fresh out of Stanford, she chased tech bigwigs and zeroed in on Artificial Intelligence developments, and the ancestral family coconut grove in Andhra Pradesh, India, where her father grew up.
Childhood visits to the coconut grove, bathing in water tanks that fed the irrigation canals, chasing cousins, applying mehendi on palms with freshly ground mehendi leaves; these and a host of other memories seep into her book, keeping the story anchored to Vara’s roots.
Meanwhile, her protagonist, the indomitable King Rao “who entered this world possessing nothing” is fast propelled into a futuristic domain where the world is his corporation, and the citizens, its shareholders.
Vara throws in a variety of themes into the story—the Dalit consciousness her father grew up with, patriarchy and misogyny coupled with casteism and its impact on women, a futuristic world driven by AI, and ultimately, climate crisis.
Vara identifies as a Dalit through her father but “didn’t grow up with significant caste consciousness, unlike my father, who very strongly identifies as a Dalit and Ambedkarite. He reads a lot about caste and Dalit oppression,” she says. “He grew up in a place where there were opportunities for upward mobility, but if you were a Dalit growing up in India in that era, there was oppression and discrimination. His experience was very much the experience of the 20th century Dalit person, just like it would be for an African American in the US,” she says.
“Lucky Boy took a lot of my soul, and just the process of writing was so immersive for me that I forgot how to write a simple story, just characters who say things to each other and do simple things. I needed to find the building blocks and refresh my story-telling ability,” she says.
The Samosa Rebellion started out as a story about an Indian boy, Muki, and his grandmother, but there onwards spiraled into a dystopian tale. In spite of the dark and heavy themes of race and immigration faced by children, the book has its own share of fun and frolic. “And, of course, the grandma is someone kids always have an affinity with, and so a grandma character as the victim would tug at the heartstrings of many kids,” she says.
With a light-hearted, straightforward tone in the book, Sekaran engages her middle-grade readers in a very relevant discussion on race, immigration and the minority experience.
“My parents’ experience was very much about building security and giving us a life that is stable, that was the defining motivation in their life here,” Sekaran says. Her own experience, on the other hand, was partially of feeling “split between two worlds, or code switching between your American life outside of your home and your Indian life inside your home.”
“In California, back in the ’80s, growing up in Sacramento, everyone was pretty white, at least in my neighborhood. In my kids’ existence, everyone around here is mixed race or from a different race, and they seem to be pretty happy and secure in that,” she says.
Set in Mumbai, India, in the ’60s and ’70s, Shruti Swamy’s debut novel, The Archer, the story of a classically trained kathak dancer, is inspired by her mother’s story.
Growing up here in the Bay Area (in Palo Alto), Swamy connected with her Indian roots through the mythological stories she heard from her grandmother. “There were ways in which I understood how to make meaning of the world through Indian mythology and ideas.”
The stories, the cultural values, the ethos of Indian culture were, however, very different from the messages that she was getting from the world outside home, the world wherein she had to make meaning of the American culture.
The experience of growing up as a minority in this culture affected “absolutely every part of my growing up and my life, my identity. I don’t think you ever bridge those two parts,” she says. I think kids who are growing up now have vastly different experiences and different options of identifying with their roots and identity than I had growing up.”
Like Laskar, Swamy too refers to the sacrifices that immigration forces one to make. “Immigration is an unhealed wound; it changes you completely. There are so many things that you have to sacrifice.”
Her racial experiences as a brown girl definitely shaped her identity, her personal and professional experiences. “Yes, we do feel like an outsider in the US and at the same time when we go to India, we feel, are we Indian enough? But sometimes being an insider and an outsider at the same time gives us an advantage, an intimacy and a distance.” It’s in this distance that she finds a valuable place to work in as a writer.