I was looking for this book at Barnes and Nobel, a perfect gift for a friend’s graduating daughter. “Born Confused,” I enquired politely at the information desk. A woman standing next to me piped up “Aren’t we all?” If this title was intriguing enough to inspire an unsolicited comment from a stranger, the book matched up to its promise. The latest trend in Indian English literature seems to be the writings of second generation Indian diaspora. We had Jhumpa Lahiri and now it is Tanuja Desai Hidier, even younger, even more in touch with the younger generation and the teen scene in particular. As a parent of a teen who never fails to point out instances of my “ethnocentrism”, this was a book that rang a chord with me.
“Born Confused” is a coming of age story about (as Dave Barry would say) an “Indian Indian girl from America”, Dimple Lala, who lends a refreshing new meaning to the acronym ABCD (American Born Confused Desi). This is not a book with stereotypes and corny jokes about Indian idiosyncrasies. This is an insightful perspective of the tortuous path to self-discovery of a sensitive girl knocked around by the vicissitudes of straddling two different cultures. It taps into the pulse of teenage America – the lingo and the angst, and steps into the mind of a girl with a biting sense of humor and razor sharp powers of observation.
Photography is her hobby and she feels most comfortable looking at the world through her camera lens. For parents of Indian American teenagers this is an eerily accurate picture of an adolescent’s perspective of Indian parents and the world they live in. The description of the dynamics of their interaction in a crisis is hysterically funny and rings a little too true for comfort. Youngsters with strong aversions to science fairs and dance recitals could probably relate to Dimple. Like many an American teenager, her primary goal in life appears to be to invent ingenuous new ways to subvert parental ego-trips.
The story presents the dichotomy of the protagonist’s support system, cousins from her conservative extended family in India and her peers at high school from backgrounds of varying levels of dysfunctional behavior. Dimple’s best friend (and mentor) Gwyn, has a deadbeat dad who has abandoned her and an alcoholic mother competing with her in seeking male liaisons. Unlike Dimple, Gwyn is completely free to graduate to adulthood with none of the restraints of concerned parents.
Dimple takes fashion advice from Gwyn who favors clothes that are several sizes too small for her. This naturally causes all too familiar shopping mall battles between Dimple and her mother. While Dimple longs for Gwyn’s freewheeling lifestyle, Gwyn secretly envies the security and comforts that Dimple takes for granted, pinching her microscopic choli from a lavish sequined silk outfit that Dimple’s mother has obtained for her from India. Of course in her own inimitable way, Gwyn plans to wear this with pants. Cultures rock, collide, and blend culminating in an Indian pop music extravaganza where Gwyn’s embrace of Indian culture (Bhangra and Indian men) makes Dimple strangely resentful.
Of course an adolescent girl’s story has to have heart break and this has lots of it. First the concept of an arranged marriage with the son of a family friend sends Dimple into a panic. She is pining over failed relationships with other boys and a relationship with an Indian boy who listens to Hindi movie songs with her dad seems unthinkable. However, when the suitable boy is found to be not so suitable and appears to be heating it up with her best friend her heart does a quick double take and suddenly the young man is the object of her desire. This is where the story degenerates a bit into a predictable romance.
There are other sentimental digressions, Dimple’s mother’s buried career as a Bharatha natyam dancer, the connection between Dimple’s love for her grandfather and her photography hobby. The Deus ex Machina is Dimple’s photo scoop that brings her romantic relationship with the Indian boy, her Indian roots and American identity all into a tidy dénouement. However, since the target audience is supposed to be “Young Adult” (this is a Scholastic book), happy endings and contrived, neat little tie-ups can be condoned in this book, a witty and entertaining must-read for Indian American teenagers and their parents.
Did they slip a pill in your drink? My mother whispered, scooting her chair closer to mine. I hope at least you didn’t leave your drink unattended. I have been reading how these sick people use this special pill to take the advantage. It puts girls in an amorous state.
Comatose state, said my father. I think he was correcting her, but my mother now pounced on him.
I have been telling you and telling. Now do you believe me? Does it have to happen to your own daughter before you will listen? Oh, my beta…
All of a sudden my father was the enemy and mother had thrown her arms around me in a suffocating hug.
But mainly all my memories of India were memories of Dadaji. When he died the entire country seemed to come unhitched, floated off my mental map of the world and fell off the edge, to mean nothing anymore, just a gaping hole fast filling with water.
Finally, I tore open the package they made me save for last. Inside, padded carefully between layers of tissue, was an unbelievably resounding salvar khamees … The deep crimson fabric screamed sanguinely open. The salvar was ornately embroidered with gold and silver and garnet beads and little bells that made a racket even as I lifted it out of the box. All in all it was, in fact, so loud I could hear it…
-It’s even more expensive than Sangita’s said my mother as if she heard me.
You were with boyfriends? Was it this Bobby Shmobby hanky-panky character? How dare you go out with him!
He broke up with me ages ago, Ma.
My god! She cried. How dare he breakup with you? What, he is too good for you? What is wrong with you? You are a homely, lovely, multilingual honors student coming from a good family. No crimes, no history of schizophrenia….