I’ve been reading long enough to be extremely wary of books whose back covers proclaim this one is just like that other massive bestseller that everyone has read and/or been raving about. You know the kind – “The Man in the Nun’s Costume”, which is just like The Da Vinci Code or “Wizard Boy Takes Manhattan”, which is just like Harry Potter. And then you pick it up and find out that it’s apparently publicists’ code for “this close to plagiarism” or “bookstores will stock in the same section as”. Either way, it generally does not end well for the reader.
So I was a little wary of Monica Pradhan’s alleged desi answer to Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, which is a book that every emotional teenager should read. Seriously. I’ve re-read it since I reached adulthood and it’s good but it wasn’t the lifechanging book it was throughout my teens. I even loved the movie is how much I loved the book!
But every once in a while, you’re handed an exception to the rule. The Hindi Bindi Club is that book.
If, like me, you’re one of those people who’ve close family members who migrated to the United States in the 1960s, then perhaps you’ve heard many of the same stories that I have about racism, loneliness, culture shock, food, religion, independence, pay, opportunity, bringing up children in an alien environment, the American Dream, the Indian longing… They were the ones that Went Before and the tales they sent back of America continues to color our perception of that country in India today. But as far as I know – and do suggest a few names and titles if you know different – Jhumpa Lahiri’s work was the first time I really heard the voice of that generation.
But since then, we’ve seen other Indian American voices emerge and Monica Pradhan’s effort is a welcome addition to that number. The Hindi Bindi Club is about six Indian American women who lead successful, productive, seemingly perfect lives in one way or the other, in one culture or the other, but things are – to fall back on cliche – rarely as they seem.
Meenal Deshpande, Saroj Chawla and Uma McGuinness have been best friends for decades; their daughters Kiran, Preity and Rani are less so. Each family wears its many successes on its sleeve and buries its secrets deep. At some level they’re all tropes of one kind or the other – Meenal is the perfect lady of the house but she’s just received a wake up call, daughter Kiran is a physician making her own way in the world but struggling with her needs and identity; Saroj is a Partition-survivor who needs to make peace with her past and deal with her prejudices, while daughter Preity struggles to keep up appearances in spite of being, as Kiran disparagingly remarks, a prototype “Indian Barbie”; Uma has the perfect husband and the perfect rocket scientist-turned-artist daughter (!) but she and Rani both have to make their peace with the circle of life and the horrid secrets of Uma’s past.
At times the answers come too pat, situations resolve too easily, things fall into place and there’s always a knight in shining armor somewhere around the corner with a sitar in one hand and a dead Korean-American wife to smooth things over. But you forgive this book its lapses because you recognize and care about these women.
At its heart, this is a story about the immigrant experience and how it changes people and families. Sujatha over at Blogpourri was writing about this issue just the other day and it’s interesting to read the many voices that have responded both to her and the article in question (Shobha Narayanan’s Return to India) and to contrast it to this book. The newbies and oldies, it’s the process of actually putting down roots in another land – something that becomes inevitable once you have kids – that remains at the center of the immigrant debate.
But if you don’t know a single person who’s ever so much as moved out of his or her neighborhood, The Hindi Bindi Club is a great read as a mother-daughter, female bonding novel. That sounds like male readers are not welcome but I’d say it’s the opposite. If you want to know why your significant other has such a complex relationship with her mother, then this is a good place to start. Things in this book have a tendency to end happily in the teeth of much opposition but that’s hardly a drawback for most people, especially if it’s just the opposite in your real life.
And if none of the above appeals to you, buy the darn thing for its recipes. They sound yummy and somebody ought to cook me something for this review. 😛
I’ve never been an angel like her Perfect Preity. Just ask my parents, who live to compare me with such exemplary role models. “Why can’t you be more like so-and-so?” So-and-so was most often Preity Chawla. The only reason I wouldn’t call her a Mama’s Girl is the fact she ’s a Daddy’s Girl, too.
Rani, on the other hand, was just as close to her parents without the nauseating perfection. She was my saving grace, a foil to Miss Goody Two-Shoes, especially during her goth stage. WiBBy, I called her. Weirdo in Black. I could always counter Preity’s shining example with Rani’s, though this seldom appeased my mother, who attributed all of Rani’s transgressions, as she saw them, to having an American father.
“This is what happens when we compromise our values,” she would say, though never directly to Uma Auntie, the one who committed the alleged compromising in marrying Patrick Uncle. Theirs was a “love match.” Gasp!
I remember when Rani first brought her then-boyfriend home from college for the holidays, something none of us ever dared: introducing a boyfriend/girlfriend to the Indian friends circle. The aunties and uncles still hadn’t recovered from her turning down Stanford for Berkeley (blamed on the American-heathen influence of Patrick Uncle, naturally) when she announced to a kitchen full of bug-eyed aunties, “He’s a computer geek, but he ’s my geek, and I’m crazy about him.” Judging from their reactions, you would have thought she said, “That’s right! He ’s great in the sack!”
Never have I seen a group of women more in need of an economy-sized bottle of Valium. (Note: I wasn’t around to see my mom tell the aunties about Anthony and me.)