Today marks the sixty-seventh anniversary of India’s declaration of freedom from British colonial rule. It’s a time to remember the remarkable achievements of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, each of whom fought for independence using different tactics. It’s also the anniversary of the partitioning of India into two countries (later three) — areas in eastern and western India were appropriated to create Muslim-dominated Pakistan. Nevertheless, these recent developments in India’s history, however significant, are but the thinnest layer of India’s history, which stretches back to the Stone Age.
There is an apt fable [.doc] that we can use to illustrate how difficult it is to fully grasp the essence of India. Six blind men hear that an elephant has come to their town. Since none of them have any knowledge of elephants, they rush to discover what it is like. Using their hands, they each touched a different part of the elephant, thus:
“Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” said the first man who touched his leg.
“Oh,no! it is like a rope,” said the second man who touched the tail.
“Oh,no! it is like a thick branch of a tree,” said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.
“It is like a big hand fan” said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.
“It is like a huge wall,” said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.
“It is like a solid pipe,” Said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.
When they begin to argue, a wise man stopped to explain how they had all been partially right. The elephant is much like India. Some find it sprawling and messy, some find it highly spiritual, some see economic opportunity, some see disgraceful abuse of women. All of those things are true, but none of them are the whole truth.
Children of Indian Immigrants
Most of today’s YA books featuring East Indian teens focus on those children whose parents immigrated to the United States or Canada. Indian culture continues to play a role in the lives of the parents, which is reflected in their home life to varying degrees. The teens metaphorically live between two continents: the traditions of Mother India and the free-wheeling predominance of Western culture grapple to influence virtually all aspects of their lives.
While many children of immigrants experience a dissonance between old world expectations and new world reality, Indian teens have an especially awkward adjustment. In India, arranged marriages are still common. The girl is expected not only to remain chaste but to marry well, preferably to someone of her own social group or higher. In the same way, boys are taught to marry a respectable girl. Non-Indians, or Indians of a different religious background or a different status in society, can bring disgrace to a family steeped in traditional Indian values.
It’s no surprise, then, that many of the YA books with Indian characters address the issue of romance. This often includes the search for identity and inclusion, played out against a comic background of cultural misunderstanding. The books listed below fall roughly into that category.
Tanuja Desai Hidier captured the in-between sensation in her 2002 novel, Born Confused. At seventeen, Dimple Lala has reached the age when her parents decide she should be paired with a “suitable” boy. Dimple, raised in New Jersey, has little interest in this project. Hidier explores Dimple’s conflict between her willingness to embrace Indian culture and the American concept of romantic love is one of the key issues in East Indian immigrant families.
Keshni Kashyap’s graphic novel, Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary, is indeed laugh-aloud funny, but it also focuses on the real questions facing fifteen-year-old Tina. The existential diary is an assignment for her Honors English class. Tina addresses her thoughts to Jean-Paul Sartre as if he is a well-wishing uncle. Mari Araki’s illustrations capture more than one eye-roll from this indulgent version of Sartre. During the course of the school year, Tina loses her best friend, struggles to understand the mixed messages from her crush, skater boy Neil, and gets a very memorable first kiss.
What I Meant… by Marie Lamba is the humorous account of fifteen year-old Sangeet. Her totally unreasonable aunt has moved in with Sangeet’s family, making life a torment. Not only that, but Sangeet’s crush, Jason, seems interested. But Sangeet is forbidden to date until she is sixteen, which is nine months away. And her best friend is sick of hearing Sangeet’s problems. It all adds up to nonstop drama and an opportunity for Sangeet to speak for herself.
Of special note is a short story by Terry Davis entitled “Mouths of the Ganges,” which is included in a collection of stories, Girl Meets Boy: Because There Are Two Sides to Every Story, edited by Kelly Milner Halls. Rafi is having a tough time with the Muslim injunction against pre-marital sex. In fact, when he’s with his beautiful American girlfriend, Kerry, sexual desire obliterates the teachings of his faith. Rafi is well aware this makes him a hypocrite, as he says: “After two years I’m still telling them that Kerry and I go to the library to study. Can they possibly believe me?”
“Mouths of the Ganges” is set just after 9/11, when dark-skinned Middle Eastern-looking men were seen as possible terrorists. While Davis includes this in his short story, it is the focal point of Neesha Meminger’s novel, Shine, Coconut Moon. Seventeen year-old Samar is astonished when her estranged Uncle Sandeep shows up at her doorstep. Uncle Sandeep is a Sikh and wears a traditional turban. In the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy, Uncle Sandeep is now seen as a potential terrorist. With his dark skin and turban, he’s heard it said that he resembles Osama Bin Laden. Although Samar considers herself thoroughly American, she realizes that she nonetheless has a strong connection to Mother India.
Young Adult Books in India
Publishing houses in India have been producing “young adult” books with great success over the past decade. However, they tend to classify young adults as 13-21 years, sometimes extending as far as 30 years old. One way to interpret this is that true teenagers are still very much controlled by their families. Indeed, many of these Indian YA stories are closer to in tone to our “new adult” category.
Therefore, it seems fair to include novels written in English that focus on the conflicts of assimilation. These books are marketed for adults, but are excellent studies of families forced to meld old and new cultures.
Miss New India by Bharati Mukherjee is a tongue-in-cheek chronicle of ambitious Anjali Bose’s rise to national prominence. Set in India, Anjali is born into a family with few resources. However, she has always known that she was special. So Anjali goes after her dream, moving to Bangalore and securing a coveted job at a call center. Then, well, things really take off.
Bestselling novelist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s most recent book, Oleander Girl, was released earlier this year. Since the early deaths of her parents, eighteen-year-old Korobi has grown up in Kolkata, raised by her grandparents. She attends college and is engaged to be married to Rajat, whom she loves very much. Things change, however, when she learns that everything she has been told about her father is a lie. In class-conscious India, Korobi fears that Rajat will not marry her if her bloodline is tainted. So she sets off on a journey to the United States to discover the truth.
For a taste of India’s young adult novels, check out the Best Young Adults Fiction in India list on Goodreads.
— Diane Colson, currently reading Oleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni