Diaspora novels often suffer from an exoticisation of the author’s native community and its habits, customs and flaws. Balli Kaur Jaswal’s second novel, Sugarbread , recently published in India, is refreshingly free from such nostalgia-soaked cultural clutter. Set in Singapore in the early 1990s, it tells the story of a Sikh family through the eyes of 10-year-old Parveen, or Pin, as she is called. As the novel progresses, Pin slowly comes to recognise multiple truths about her family, society and life in general. So, in a sense, Sugarbread is also a bildungsroman — a touching tale of a child who grows up a little and emerges stronger and wiser.
(Stay up to date on new book releases, reviews, and more with The Hindu On Books newsletter. Subscribe here. )
But even at the outset, Pin is wise beyond her years. She intuits minute changes in her elegant mother Jini’s moods, and likes to think that the food her mother cooks, the spices and sauces she uses, telegraph her state of mind. Lots of chilli powder and mustard seeds signal anger, roast chicken cooked in a light soy sauce means she is happy, and so on. Jini’s cuisines of choice also give a glimpse into her personality, which is liberal and inclusive. She prefers to cook flavourful local Chinese or Malay dishes rather than the dal-roti she grew up on. And both she and her happy-go-lucky husband have a relaxed view of religion.
Things change when Pin’s grandmother, Kulwant, comes to stay with them. Kulwant is devout and deeply traditional, and she insists that her daughter’s family should be equally rigorous in adhering to the dictates of Sikh religion and society. Soon it becomes clear that Kulwant and Jini harbour old grudges against each other. Harsh words are exchanged between mother and daughter, oppressive silences lengthen, and the food that Jini cooks, once so redolent of her changing moods, gives way to the unvarying drabness of dal-roti — because naniji will have nothing else. The atmosphere in their flat becomes increasingly fraught and Pin feels that she is being watched all the time by the god who looks on benignantly from the picture that Kulwant has hung on their living room wall.
Pin is intrigued by this god. She has been told that god is everywhere, that he watches over all things. Yet, she never sees him stepping in to help when there is trouble. Pin’s one-way conversations with god — not just her own, but also the ‘Christian god’ at her school — are a testament at once to her innocence and wisdom. In her own way, Pin questions the basis of faith, and begins to have glimmerings of an understanding of it by the time the book ends.
There are other transitions at play. Just as she learns about the awful trauma that Jini went through when she was a teenager, the trauma that has stood between her and Kulwant for years, curdling their relationship forever, Pin also absorbs some valuable life lessons at school and on the playground. She learns to treat racial slurs with the contempt they deserve, and though she initially gives in to peer pressure in her desire to impress a rich, snobby classmate, she soon realises that true friendships ride on things other than grand dresses or fat wallets.
Novel of affirmation
Similarly, one catastrophic day, it dawns on her that the game of football that she likes to play with the neighbourhood boys is really an occasion for them to treat her with contempt and cruelty. If she were grown up, she would have called it sexism. Pin doesn’t know that word yet, but she decides never to play with them again.
Jaswal doesn’t linger excessively on the mores of Singapore’s expat Sikh community, although, clearly, it’s a community she knows and understands well, since she has belonged to it herself. Her first novel, Inheritance (2013), also published in India for the first time recently, is based on it as well. In Sugarbread , Jaswal’s singular achievement is that she keeps the clash of cultures, a key ingredient of every diaspora novel, at a fairly low key. The conflict between the old and the new is filtered through the eyes of the novel’s 10-year-old narrator, and what emerges is a gentle, heart-warming story, told in fluid prose.
The only problem with the narrative is that it is almost too polished to be that of a 10-year-old. Pin is no Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird — nor does she need to be. But there are times when her observations are so mature, her assessment of characters and situations so much on point and non-childlike that it is hard to remember that she is only 10. That said, Sugarbread scores as a novel of affirmation. Reading it is as comforting as biting into sugar-dusted bread.
Sugarbread; Balli Kaur Jaswal, HarperCollins India, ₹499
The reviewer is a journalist and author.