Attention South Asian writers: listen up and follow Tanuja Desai Hidier’s lead; there is so much material to mine in the lives of South Asian adolescents and teenagers who feel the push and pull of the traditional upbringing of their parents and the often tempestuous American lifestyle. This is a population that may see themselves as “born confused.” While there have been a few South Asian writers who have focused on the conflicted emotions and lives of teens (Rachna Gilmore, Anita Desai), none have yet to do so with a voice so thoroughly modern and focused on the society in which kids of every stripe struggle to survive.
American-born and raised and presumably “born confused” herself, Tanuja Hidier’s first book raises important questions of identity and one’s place in society. In the voice of Dimple Rohitbhai Lala, Hidier explores a young woman on the precipice of adulthood, attempting to sort out thoughts and feelings of who and what she is. Not American enough for Americans and not Indian enough for Indians seems to be the root of the problem, and an issue that anyone from almost any immigrant background would be able to relate to on a personal level. Questions of loyalty arise: do I please my parents or myself? Are the two mutually exclusive? As well, issues of resentment towards those who appear to want to totally abdicate their culture at all costs just to fit in and those who are unabashedly and therefore, embarrassingly, all Indian. Here is how Dimple attempts to describe her life thus far:
“I guess the whole mess started around my birthday. Amendment: my first birthday. I was born turned around, and apparently was holding my head in my hand in such a way that resulted in twelve treacherous hours of painful labor for my mother to eject me. My mom said she imagined I was trying to sort out some great philosophical quandary, like Rodin’s Thinker sculpture that she had seen on a trip to Paris in another lifetime. But I think that was just a polite way of saying I looked like I didn’t get it. Born backwards and clueless. In other words, born confused. So I came out the wrong way. And have been getting it all wrong ever since. I wished there was a way to go back and start over. But as my mother says, you can’t step in the same river twice.”
The portrayal of Dimple’s summer before her senior year in high school is a wild ride without a doubt. Dimple’s best friend, Gwyn, has the obligatory (for this type of narrative) blue eyes and blonde hair, forging the point of opposites and setting up one of the main obstacles in Dimples life. Gwyn is the original wild child, old and wise before her time and basically fending for herself, with a mom who appears and disappears when convenient in her life. Dimple, on the other hand, comes from a fortress of stability. The only child of parents from India, Dimple is nurtured and guided along by two loving parents who attempt to give her the best of what traditional Indian and modern American life have to offer. However there are some emotions and coming-of-age rituals and ordeals that even the most attentive and protective parents cannot prevent no matter how hard they try.
Hidier portrays Dimple’s parents as sensitive and intelligent individuals who want the best for their child, and this very portrayal is a departure from other novels in which, in order to explicate the Indian culture of duty to one’s familial expectations, Indian parents are often depicted as controlling, unyielding, and ignorant of an individual’s right to make not only their own mistakes in life but their own decisions. Hidier gives a kinder view, as Dimple’s parents are involved and loving, but clearly see her need for a certain amount of autonomy. They are supportive of Dimple’s obsession with photography, one of the ways in which she interprets the world around her. Through her lens she makes sense of the world she lives in and is often able to contemplate on the finished product and see, in retrospect, aspects of a person or thing that previously escaped her attention. The view from the lens becomes the metaphor for the focus that Dimple tries desperately to gain in her life.
In addition to Hidier’s success in capturing truly challenging situations in Dimple’s life, she does so with clever and witty humor, often exemplified in Dimple’s reactions to things, rendered in the inimitable patois of an American “desi” teenager. Admittedly it is often fast paced, forcing, I am sure, more than one reader to go back and read over certain passages and then painstakingly attempt to figure out what it all may have meant. And while the book does contain moments that have become de riguer for Indian novels such as the attempt to “introduce” Dimple to a “suitable boy,” Hidier bravely and with innovation covers issues not often seen in South Asian literature of this genre: a failed romance, the homosexuality of a family member, the befriending of a transsexual, mild drug use, depression, and sex, and to the author’s credit, not one scene gratuitous or exploitative. Instead, Dimple’s wars are hard fought and realistic with no easy answers or solutions even to the end, but rather, just like real life compromises, concessions, and finally the courage to deal with whatever comes your way. With the culmination of Dimple’s summer comes great understanding of herself and those around her and finally the courage to be the self that she really was all along:
I had never felt in my whole life like I did then: Zen. Suddenly the Miss America wish for world peace seemed brilliant. Maybe if enough people made that wish we could do huge things, make things happen just from our thoughts and good intentions and all be shiny happy people. And this much was clear now: It was no passive homogeneous creature, identity, but rather diversity, a thrashing, grinding, and all-out dirty dancing together. It moved and it grooved and it might even sleep with you before marriage. You were the dancer and the dance, and you could shape yourself … and harmony, that was not static thing either, but many different parts coming together to sing the same song.