The Way Things Were

A powerful debut novel that explores dimensions of immigrant struggle and the many ways in which lives can unravel

Written by UMA MAHADEVAN DASGUPTA | Published:May 13, 2017 1:25 am
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Name: South Haven
Author: Hirsh Sawhney
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pages: 295
Price: Rs 399

Siddharth Arora is 10 years old when his mother dies in an accident. The boy feels not only an acute sense of loss, but also the disappearance of something else from their little family environment, something vital: an element of sensitivity and warmth.

For, it is the emotional work done by women that often provides the glue of adjustment, communication and understanding that helps to hold families together. This is especially true for immigrant families who must leave behind the familiar culture and adjust to the new one. In the New England town where they live, the father and sons each feel the mother’s absence differently. It was his mother who used to urge Siddharth to express himself through art; she would urge his brother Arjun to work less hard at his studies and take time to relax; she thought her husband Mohan Lal should be more compassionate.

After his wife’s death, Mohan Lal retreats into bitter isolation, while Arjun reacts with anger and rebellion. Bewildered and helpless, young Siddharth watches his father’s gradual decline.

A professor of marketing in a small college, Mohan Lal is now beset by self-doubt. He alienates himself from his best friend. He struggles with the textbook he is writing. His growing sense of insecurity takes him towards extreme right-wing views and Islamophobia. Meanwhile, Arjun goes off to college in Michigan, from where he questions his father’s ideas even more.

Siddharth, missing his mother and his absent brother, tries to stay afloat at school. He desperately wants to fit in at school but in the unforgiving manner of pre-teenagers, he is now labelled as the kid whose mother died. When he moves to a new school — one with an afterschool programme since they are now a single-parent family — it doesn’t help that his father tries to involve himself more in the boy’s school life.

Siddharth finds his father peculiarly embarrassing, especially his accent and manner of speaking. “Why couldn’t his father talk right? Why couldn’t he remember to put the word the before media?” But he also loves him and, with childlike anxiety, tries to protect him. While crossing a slushy road, he clutches his father’s overcoat, imagining that if Mohan Lal were to slip, he could break the fall. He is also aware of his father’s growing loneliness. In one of the most moving details in the novel, before going out with a friend, Siddharth goes through the TV listings and draws little stars next to the TV programmes that his father might like to watch.

At school, drifting on the margins, Siddharth becomes friendly with a bright girl who encourages him to continue his drawing — but he lets her down when the class bullies pick on her. Finally, it is the school counsellor, Rachel Farber, who looks for a solution to Siddharth’s social awkwardness and finds an activity for him. She also encourages his friendship with her son who has been grounded for getting into trouble. As the two families begin spending time together, Mohan Lal embarks on a relationship with Rachel. This is startling to Siddharth, who has never seen his father in these terms. And yet, even though Rachel is Jewish and she talks about her family experiencing persecution in Europe, Mohan Lal feels no sense of dissonance about his own stridently Islamophobic views.

A coming of age narrative, Hirsh Sawhney’s first novel South Haven also goes behind the image of the model minority to explore the dimensions of immigrant struggle, and the many ways in which lives can unravel. Like Akhil Sharma’s Family Life, it begins with a deep personal loss; but, unlike that luminous narrative, South Haven dwells on the awkwardness of the preteen and adolescent years, and the search for a sense of identity. The other writer of the immigrant experience is Jhumpa Lahiri, whose descriptions of immigrant life come to us through the prism of well-educated, upper-middle class families on university campuses. In contrast, Sawhney’s prose is plain and unadorned, and his characters live in middle-class non-descript suburbia. They eat at food courts, watch a lot of TV, and worry about how to fit in.

They have back pains and stomach cramps, and, sometimes, indulge in acts of vandalism. This gritty texture is the strength of Sawhney’s novel, which explores themes hitherto less explored in Indian-American immigrant fiction: the visceral painfulness of social marginalisation; the experience of bullying, adolescent aggression and violence while growing up in suburban America; and the growing distance between two generations, one trying to find its way in present-day reality and the other lost in memories of what they left behind.

Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta is in the IAS, currently based in Bengaluru

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