Uncle Sam and the philosopher’s stone: Review of Sanjena Sathian’s ‘Gold Diggers’

You hear several characters echo the same question: what does it mean to be both Indian and American?

June 05, 2021 04:00 pm | Updated June 07, 2021 10:04 am IST

Sanjena Sathian’s debut novel Gold Diggers is a melting pot that mixes alchemy, ambition, and the American dream. There’s a splash of magical realism and a pinch of the good old heist plot. The result is quite a well-researched tale that traverses several paths — from dusty old Bombay to a California shaped by the Gold Rush.

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Harvard-sized expectations

But at its core, Gold Diggers is a familiar story of belonging, about a generation of Indian-American children grappling with a feeling of otherness in a country they can’t call home just yet. It’s about how they juggle that with Harvard-sized expectations from their parents, who want the children to justify their choice to cross the oceans, leaving behind all they knew. You hear several characters echo the same question: what does it mean to be both Indian and American?

It’s the early 2000s and Neeraj ‘Neil’ Narayan is a teenager from an Atlanta suburb, living with his parents and elder sister. In a sea of high-achieving Indian immigrant kids, Neil is average. He mostly wants to do what his mother terms “nonsense” — party and get drunk. “I consisted of little but my parents’ ambitions for who I was to become,” Neil says.

Across the street is Anita Dayal, Neil’s childhood friend-turned-crush. “Our parents, the four brown adults in a largely white

subdivision, collaborated to create a simulacrum of India in a reliably red Georgia county,” Neil observes. But Anita, unlike Neil, is fiercely ambitious. Her eyes are set on catapulting herself into one of the Ivy Leagues, winning Miss Teen India USA en route, following a course charted by her parents.

Sathian meticulously documents how the two Indian families and several others nearby grow together in every toxic way, from comparing the looks and academic achievements of their children to gossiping about the marital status of other Indians. But her skill lies in how she infuses this seemingly normal tale of everyday life with something as extraordinary as alchemy.

The story is slingshot to the realm of magic realism when Neil finds out the secret behind Anita’s recent successes: her mother brews a magic concoction by melting gold jewellery pilfered from other, more successful Indian homes. Drinking it transfers the talent and ambition from the gold’s owner to the drinker, helping her win everything from maths quizzes to beauty pageants.

Ways of being brown

Neil joins the party, regularly downing the “lemonade”, and he soon finds himself triumphing in his pursuits too. All is well till he takes it a bit too far, resulting in a terrible tragedy.

Ten years later, Neil and Anita, now living in the Bay Area, California, are dealing with disappointments, even as everyone around them seems to be flourishing. Neil has gone from being an awkward teenager to a drug-addicted graduate student. Anita has dropped out of college. But the pursuit of gold continues, albeit in different ways.

Sathian’s characters are flawed humans. Neil is a floundering manchild with seemingly no redeeming quality. But your heart goes out to him. “I wished everyone would give up on me,” Neil says. “Their gazes were too forceful, their hopes for me too enormous.”

Sathian expertly intertwines historical fiction with the multiple narratives and time-jumps. The only peg that keeps Neil tethered, even as life around him unravels, is his pursuit of the story of the ‘Bombayan gold digger’ from the Californian Gold Rush. He believes this tale can offer him a much-needed connection to this country. “Maybe there were other ways of being brown on offer” if only he could prove that he had “roots in American soil, if our collective past was more textured than I’d been led to believe.”

The underlying pain buried in Gold Diggers might not resonate with those who do not know what it means to be perpetual outsiders in another country. But most would know the burden of ambition, both fulfilled and incomplete. Most would know the feeling of adolescent insecurity spilling over to adulthood. To them, Gold Diggers would be an immensely satisfying tale.

Gold Diggers; Sanjena Sathian, HarperCollins India, ₹599


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