Literary Review

Review: Piyali Bhattacharya’s Good Girls Marry Doctors is about South Asian women, politics over their bodies and identities

Good Girls Marry Doctors; ed Piyali Bhattacharya, Aunt Lute Books, price not mentioned.  

Reading the 27 essays in Piyali Bhattacharya’s anthology, Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion, you might be led to believe that there was no greater weapon in the world than a desi woman’s body. The efforts taken by families and entire communities to contain their daughters’ bodies is impressive. Here’s a partial list: out and out violence; incandescent rage against boys, proms and tank tops; emotional blackmail (“I learned real young that my mother wouldn’t just die for me, but that she could die because of me” — Hema Sarang-Sieminski); joke-style threats (“The only dates in this house will be the ones you eat” — Nayomi Munaweera).

In essay after essay, no matter where the origins of migration — Calcutta, Islamabad, Colombo, Dhaka — there’s a pressure to keep these bodies in the new world free from contamination. Whether the women in this anthology deal directly with issues of sexuality (queerness, bisexuality, “exploring non-monogamy”), or whether the path to autonomy is more indirect, vis-à-vis finding a political voice (“vocal is not a word one associates with a Good Girl”), there’s an understanding, as Roksana Badruddoja puts it, that the South Asian woman’s body is “sexed, gendered, raced, and classed in particular ways that fulfil the myth of the Model Minority.”

Piyali Bhattacharya, the editor who brought together these diverse women and their stories, tells me that the themes of obedience and rebellion kept coming up like a boomerang in conversations with South Asian women all over the world. “It’s not easy to tell these stories. We’re brought up to believe that to speak publicly of the family flies in the face of everything we’ve been raised with. The idea is, we keep our family stories within the family — good, bad or indifferent. These are not all stories of trauma, but even telling the stories that weren’t traumatic, seemed transgressive.”

Much of the territory covered in Good Girls can be found in any respectable anthology of women’s writing — motherhood, marriage, a room of one’s own, the idea of self-worth tied to pigment, notions of beauty. But there’s a particular slant to the South Asian American experience, in that it’s a relatively new story of migration. Most of the women featured here grew up in the “Christie Brinkley era of beauty,” some were the only brown girl in their school. At home, communication was often stilted.

As Jyothi Natarajan writes, “Sometimes the easiest or only way to express love and support in families is to keep secrets from each other, to withhold or avoid moments of vulnerability.” Language is coded rather than direct. “In our culture, ‘did you eat?’ means ‘I love you,’” writes Tanzila Ahmed. Add to this the usual ruptures of migration — the divide between home (food, manners, customs, gods, culture, language) and life outside. As Bhattacharya points out in her introduction, the onus of upholding these cultural values always falls on the shoulders of Good Girls.

Reading these essays, two interesting trajectories emerge. The feminist awakening, which happens either at home or in college, where late night talks cover “the construction of gender, reproductive justice, hairy legs, Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde.” Encountering feminist texts allows these writers a platform from which they can make their own creation stories and discover their voice. The other is a return to the homeland, the journey back. Bhattacharya tells me that she always knew she wanted an independent and adult relationship to India, one that wasn’t mediated by her family. “Just the power of finding a racial unity in the visual landscape around me was incredible. It removed one layer of the silencing.”

What I loved most about this book was its impressive range of women. There are grandmothers who used to be revolutionaries in India — who rode bicycles, and even (gasp) got divorced. Heroic mothers, who are activists and feminists. One mother, barely five feet tall, remains unfazed when a KKK clan member calls her a wetback, and counters with, “What the hell is a wetback?” But even if there are those South Asian mothers who enrol their daughters in Karate courses and can have “non-skittish conversations about sex,” there’s always the ever-present circle of aunties who have the “bully’s eye for physical flaws”; who have no qualms coming up to you and saying, “Your tummy scratches are showing.” Madiha Bhatti writes, “Aunty critique comes in four flavours: direct, indirect, retroactive, and comparative” (an example of indirect, being, “Is your hair naturally that thin?”). But let us not isolate wickedness solely to aunties. Let us not forget the circle of uncles who are going chi chi chi and taking stabs at your moral character.”

The consensus is that for an earlier generation of South Asian American immigrants, individuality of bodily expression, whether it had to do with what you wore, or your sexuality, was taboo. The eye was turned firmly out, towards the community. What’s evident with the current generation is that there can be no division between public and private shame. “I want to be real and perfectly flawed,” writes Tara Dorabji. They aren’t interested in marriage as performance, and while they’d like to satisfy their parents, they won’t settle for half-truths in order to present a perfect picture to society.

This idea of community is almost impossible to separate from the South Asian American experience, and in a sense, it forms the core of these essays. Because while it may appear that many of the writers are making a desperate bid for individualism (how could they not in the Land of the Free?), the real fight is the freedom to form their own communities — a sisterhood, a tribe.

As South Asian American women, Bhattacharya tells me, their existence is often belied, they experience a kind of invisibility. “We feel like we’re standing on chairs, waving our arms, yelling and trying to be noticed, and it’s as if we’re screaming from the inside of a steel box and nobody can hear us.” The power of reading the accumulation of voices in Good Girls is to be reminded of how stories can reinforce one another, open doorways, expose a previously hidden part of the sky.

Good Girls Marry Doctors; ed Piyali Bhattacharya, Aunt Lute Books, price not mentioned.

Tishani Doshi is a writer and dancer. Her most recent book is The Adulterous Citizen: Poems, Stories, Essays .


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