September 11th and the wars that followed plunged not only Americans, but much of the world into a moribund existential crisis about the meaning, fictive and lived, of war, patriotism, and home. These themes found their way into much of our pop culture and it became commonplace to feel their effects in what we saw on the big and small screens, and on the page. While the post-9/11 period and its racialization and subsequent criminalization of brown bodies and identities marked one epoch of the South Asian experience, particularly in Diaspora, recent South Asian immigrant literature suggests the beginning of another frame: sexuality.
In three new works of fiction, South Asian British and American authors take up the mantle of sexuality in unique nodes of interpretation. In Marriage of a Thousand Lies, S.J. Sindu offers an original and deeply personal tale of sexuality and struggle amongst the Sri Lankan Tamil community of New England. Across the pond, Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Erotic Fiction for Punjabi Widows uses the guise of humor to offer a moving account of loss and love among British Sikhs. And back in America, Rakesh Satyal has written one of the funniest, yet deeply emotional tales, about Indian Americans that I have ever read in No One Can Pronounce My Name.
While sexuality is a constant reference point across all three novels, it is the guilt associated with sex and freedom of movement that forms the connective tissue of these novels and the South Asian communities represented in Cleveland, Boston, and Southhall. From that angle, these characters are not so different than those in much of past South Asian American and British fiction; they are all, essentially, struggling to balance their desires and wants with those of family, particularly parents. But I see something different in this new wave of Desi fiction: confrontation followed by a rugged insistence on individualism and the acknowledgment that sex is a deeply personal act that cannot fit what Tagore might have called “the dreary desert sands of dead habit”.
The Punjabi widows in Balli Kaur Jaswal’s novel may be deprived of active sexual partners, but they know pleasure. However, their wants are muted and forbidden to be public; a free writing class at the local gurudwara becomes the unlikely site of the widows’ literary engagement with their private lust. Yet, even in that space, their young and non-traditional teacher, Nikki, fails to recognize the validity of the older women’s sexual experiences. In a moment reminiscent of the silenced voices in Alifa Rifaat’s gorgeous Distant View of a Minaret (1983), Arvinder challenges Nikki: “We’d be invisible in India … I suppose it makes no difference that we’re in England. You must think it’s wrong for us to discuss these things because we shouldn’t be thinking of them.”
To be fair, Erotic Fiction for Punjabi Widows was much better than I expected. Part of the joy in reading this novel comes from the author’s insider perspective on Sikh life. It’s undoubtedly a very British tale, but one interspersed with a brand new cultural voice. Nikki, the teacher, is clearly a major character, but this is not just her story. It’s also about Kulwinder, the strict, fearful, and lifeless gurudwara volunteer who is also Nikki’s boss and whose married life resembles a desi version of the John Prine classic, “Angel from Montgomery”. It’s easy to dislike Kulwinder, but it’s also easy to see her as a person drowning in grief, whose relationship with her husband has also suffered due to that very human problem of not being able to truly share feelings with the person with whom there should be no barriers to sharing anything. Erotic Fiction for Punjabi Widows also unexpectedly delights with laugh-out-loud moments courtesy of the “widows”, whose short stories feel like they are inspired more by Peaches than the Punjab, with many more uses of ghee than I ever thought possible.
While sex is in part the subject matter of Erotic Fiction for Punjabi Widows, it’s also a plot device to set the stage for an unlikely literary, and gendered, liberation movement that sweeps the fictional Sikh community in London. Sex, in Marriage of a Thousand Lies, is in-your-face. This is not a book about making love, but like that famous line in Clerks (1994), more like “making fuck”. Lucky, the queer female protagonist of S.J. Sindu’s Marriage of a Thousand Lies, is married to Krishna, a man, but both partners are gay. Their marriage was a dull and submissive nod to the respective sets of parents, who never acknowledge their children’s non-heterosexuality, but feel equally helpless under the weight of Sri Lankan Hindu custom.
When I was an undergrad at Purdue, one of my professors commented that my writing was “full of rage”. Of the three new novels, Marriage of a Thousand Lies seethes with a striking amount of anger that author S.J. Sindu declares with her opening dedication to “all my families — blood, chosen, desi, queer”. Very quickly, Sindu lets us know that Lucky feels that the torment about her identity is part of her DNA, and cannot be overcome simply by repeating lie after lie:
“Let me tell you something about being brown like me: your story is already written for you. Your free will, your love, your failure, all of it scratched into the cosmos before you’re ever born … Everyone is watching you, all the time, praising you when you abide by your directives, waiting until you screw up. And you will screw up.”
Sindu uses Lucky to remind us that sex is beautiful, but it’s also ugly, especially when it’s done for tradition and without lust or wanting. In a particularly wretched scene, which made me squirm like the first time I saw “The Ceremony” in The Handmaid’s Tale, Lucky and Krishna have sex to try and get pregnant. The sex is consensual, but clearly disgusts Lucky who knows she should not be fucking a man, but feels that every action of independence is met with swift rejection by her family. Maybe a baby will solve things, but again, probably not.
If Marriage of a Thousand Lies and Erotic Fiction for Punjabi Widows represent two ends of a unidimensional scale on South Asian literary approaches to sexuality, than Rakesh Satyal’s No One Can Pronounce My Name falls somewhere in the middle. Hilarious and heartbreaking, Satyal’s second novel is every bit a deeply comical examination of inter-generational immigrant life, but with a layered approach to sex and sexuality. Satyal is an excellent interpreter of the American desi experience and this novel does the difficult work of providing commentary on those aspects of immigration that often go unseen.
Several characters populate No One Can Pronounce My Name, but chief among them are Ranjana, an aspiring novelist who seeks to create Indian-inspired vampire fiction; her unrelentingly-horny and college-age son, Prashant; Harit, a painfully shy and insecure department store worker; and his friend and co-worker, Teddy. While Teddy is not of Indian descent, his presence becomes vital as the novel progresses. At the very least, he’s responsible for bringing Ranjana and Harit together, and their friendship creates the courage that each needs to pursue their own journeys of courage.
Satyal loves to use food as a convenient metaphor (or substitute) for sex. Prashant attends a Holi celebration at a local community center, mainly to gorge on the free food (after he “rubs one out” in the bathroom because he is always horny). Mohan, Ranjana’s husband, is an overweight college professor who has allegedly lost his interest in sex, but never for eating or his favorite hobby: finding the cheapest gasoline in town. He loves rotis, but does not put the same effort into food or his wife. This also leads Ranjana to eat more.
“As her tongue sang with flavor, she realized that just last night, she had been lamenting the sour hub of Mohan’s body in her bed. She had been thinking about how little desire she felt for him, or, rather, how she felt none at all, and she had gotten up today with a craving for bondas and raita. She had replaced her husband with a feast … They were getting fatter in their sexual sadness.”
While it would be easy to focus on Ranjana as the star of this novel, I believe that this is Harit’s story, which is told with little humor (compared to the other characters). Like Lucky in S.J. Sindu’s Marriage of a Thousand Lies, Harit might actually be the voice of Rakesh Satyal but he could also just be the author’s excellent attempt at building a character who represents all the loneliness that immigrant life has to offer and who remarks that the Indians who do come into his life “were merely accessories”. Harit’s despondency is rooted in a number of issues, one being he doesn’t feel desired; “he had been in India just long enough to see his marriage prospects pale in comparison to other men’s, to see how undesirable he was.” While his sexuality and the introspection it brings is a vital part of the character development, Harit carries the sadness of his father’s unexpected death — too soon after the family’s emigration to the US — not unlike Casey Affleck’s voluminous grief in Manchester by the Sea (2016).
When another family member dies in a freak accident, for which Harit feels personally responsible, he’s left to care for his elderly mother (whose own story forms another astonishing and well-developed backstory). As he struggles to comprehend death and life and his place in a country for which he feels no loyalty, Satyal writes:
“It was only then that Harit understood that all of these Indians who had come to the States would end their stories here. For some reason, he had always envisioned their deaths as occurring on Indian soil, their bodies cremated amidst the rustic-commercial swirl of their upbringing. But there was no guarantee that they would make it back to their homeland before they died. Life wasn’t a circle but a line. The blurry opening of the film may have taken place on the subcontinent, but its counterpart, the fading into darkness, was decidedly American.”
My favorite scene in Emily Gordon and Kumal Nanjiani’s amazing 2017 film The Big Sick occurs towards the end when Nanjiani has a deeply emotional confrontation with his parents and asks them why the family moved to the US if they insisted on still living according to an obdurate Pakistani code. The fear of upsetting parents, which often ends in protagonists leading double lives, is hardly original to recent fictive retellings, but these new novels by Balli Kaur Jaswal, Rakesh Satyal, and S.J. Sindu, all play on the role that ethnic and religious communities and their extremism, manifest in often subtle, but ultimately deeply hurtful ways. In all three works, characters suffer from the Hawthorne Effect, i.e., they alter their behavior when they know they are being watched, or even think that someone might be observing them with suspicion.
In The English Teacher (1945), R.K. Narayan wrote, “This education has reduced us to a nation of morons; we were strangers of our own culture and camp followers of another culture, feeding on leavings and garbage … What about our own roots?” While Narayan was the quintessential Indian writer, whose work captured pre- and post-independent India, these three new works of fiction showcase South Asian writers who have transplanted those “roots” in new ways. This new wave of South Asian Diasporic authors have imbued their characters with a rich blend of the intersectional experiences across sex, continents, and religion. Or, as S.J. Sindu writes, “The real story lies in between the pigments.”