IT’S A novel that wants to look into the heart of America and into the lives of “the other Indians—the ones who don’t get talked about and whose stories don’t get written”. Well, Ranbir Singh Sidhu’s debut novel gives us one such story and it’s not a pretty tale. We meet the protagonist Deep Singh in 1984 in California at age 16. He is the son of immigrants “who weren’t doctors or engineers, neither had much of an education; they were the other Indians…” They knew very little about America and in that terrifying world Singh was born, growing up to be a “regular messed up kid… another American, just one of the people, doing things”.
In the first few pages, we meander along with Singh through dusty, small, ugly, hot towns, as he gets himself “into some kind of fix”. We read along with him, as he flips through Spinoza’s Ethics and gets drawn to one line: “Reality and perfection I use as synonymous terms”. We watch his imperfect world breaking down, even as he tries to give it a semblance of normalcy. He falls in love with Lily, an older and married woman born to a Chinese immigrant mother from whom she is estranged. One of the more harrowing parts of the book is when Lily tailgates a Chinese family on a highway, scaring them terribly.
But scarier things are waiting to happen at Singh’s home. His elder brother Jag stops talking one day and soon a year passes by without him uttering a word. His parents yell at each other over a blaring TV, as the family’s American dream hangs by a thread. The parents want both brothers to marry Punjabi girls. They want them to behave like the visiting cousin from India, who knows his prayers and is a good Sikh. Singh and his brother are far from being the Sikhs his parents want them to be, even as they struggle to make a life in America, where they are treated as some “rare and threatening species of brown”. But things soon spiral out of control.
If life in America is hard, events in India hold out some hope for Singh’s whiskey-drinking Uncle Gur who dreams of bee-keeping bliss in Khalistan. But Operation Blue Star spoils his party. Singh is 17 years old then—and realises he is lucky to be alive.
Rite-of-passage tales aren’t rare in literature and there are some stunning examples like JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Stories about the dispossessed and marginalised, people in the fringes, aren’t rare either. Think JM Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K, which won him the Booker Prize. Sidhu’s debut novel doesn’t quite stand up to the best, yet the strange, eccentric, odd life of Deep Singh isn’t so easily forgotten. In this fiercely competitive world where only successful lives are celebrated, it’s wonderful that Sidhu has written about those who get left behind in the race.
Sudipta Datta is a freelancer