It's a difficult space to wade into—diasporic literature—as comparisons are bound to be drawn with the best of them, from Jhumpa Lahiri, Rohinton Mistry, Kiran Desai to Karan Mahajan. Debutant novelist Hirsh Sawhney’s South Haven may come up well short, but that doesn’t mean he has not given us a glimpse of another side of the immigrant experience.
He places a middle-class Indian family in a fictional suburb of New England, perhaps not too different from one Sawhney had been born and bred, and watches as the Aroras unravel.
Crisis erupts when the mother, who is a nurse—and anchor of the family—dies in an accident. She was the one who firmly held on to the roots, and the family is at sea, after her dramatic and untimely death. The elder one Arjun leaves for Michigan to study. The father Mohan Lal, a professor, now has sole responsibility of the younger son Siddharth who is entering his teens. The novel meanders through Siddharth’s school life and Mohan Lal attempts to write a book while slowly sinking into depression.
Mohan Lal starts car pooling with Ms Farber, a single mother to Marc. As Siddharth and Marc become friends, over mild drugs and pornography, so do their parents. Initially Siddharth, haunted by his mother’s memory, opposes the idea, but gradually he accepts the relationship. This close encounter with an alien culture exposes Prof. Mohan Lal’s biases. He has known the bitter experience of Partition and suffers from Islamophobia. Even his book is a veiled propaganda against the secular and liberal ethos of India. Ms Farber, whose family has gone through churning in a divided Europe of the previous century, loves India for its diversity and multi-culturalism. Mohan Lal’s fundamentalist, right-wing and bigoted ideas surprise her.
The novel depicts the hypocritical underside of an Indian migrant family in the U.S. who has benefited from its liberal ideas, but cannot abandon its own regressive thoughts. Matters come to a head when Arjun, a liberal next generation scholar with a Pakistani girl friend, objects to his father’s views and is ordered to leave home. The novel shows us how this clash of generations owing to past baggage is also a reality of middle class Indias in America. As the Aroras approach the brink we find out thatMohan Lal’s tenure is not renewed, and he is forced to survive on the money he got as compensation after his wife’s death plus a small inheritance.
South Haven examines the socio-cultural atmosphere of American teen culture: the obsession with sex, drugs, and violence. I wondered about the scary and rootless generation middle class Indian Americans are raising while the parents open old wounds to keep the world divided.
Amandeep Sandhu is working on a book on Punjab.
South Haven, Hirsh Sawhney, HarperCollins ₹399