- Paperback: 272 pages
- Publisher: You Write On (8 Dec 2008)
- Language English
Oft late, there has been a surge of books that claim to strike at the heart of the Indian immigrant experience and many of them do, like Jhumpa Lahiri's "Unaccustomed Earth", Manju Kapur's "The Immigrant", Bharati Mukherjee's "Desirable Daughters" etc. But most of these novels are set either in the US or in England, so when I heard about Indo-Scot writer Leela Soma's novel set both in Glasgow and Chennai (Madras), I knew it was going to be unusual and different because I don't think I've ever read the experiences of an Indian immigrant in Glasgow before!
The central characters, Ram and Sita, are brought together by their families in what is commonly known as an "arranged marriage" in India. Although Sita is a well educated, independent young woman who longs to fall in love, she allows herself to be talked into marriage with Ram a young medic based in Glasgow because she knows that is what is expected of her.
I thought Soma captured very well the painful familial expectations that all of us growing up in India have experienced. Unfortunately for the couple they have nothing in common. Ram is a fastidious and earnest young man who has a hard time showing his emotions. Sita is a vivacious, intelligent, chatty and emotional young lady who simply cannot understand why Ram cannot be more demonstrative, caring or expressive.
Unlike some of the other books with immigration as a theme, Sita doesn't have major problems adjusting to her new life in Glasgow. After all, she is a convent-educated young girl steeped in an English education that was primed and prepared for Cambridge"...an Indian in every outward way, but with the thoughts and aspirations of a liberally-educated middle class westerner." What she cannot come to terms with is having a marriage devoid of romance. Sita and Ram soon get caught up in their separate lives but continue to be bound together by duty, familial and societal expectations, their daughter Uma and other cultural trappings.
Soma carefully unravels the story of this stifling, but moving marriage. She does so without melodrama and with careful attention to the couple’s mundane moments of tenderness. Both characters are extremely likable but both have their flaws and I found it impossible to take sides. The two are ably supported by a chorus of other great characters like BB, the resident old gossip; Lata, Sita's best friend and confidante; Eileen, a wee Scottish lass who marries a Muslim doctor only to regret it and Neil, Sita's paramour.
Beyond the marriage and family, this novel deals with the momentous themes of love and belonging, it is also an examination of immigration, identity, walking the tightrope between two distinct cultures and so on. Most immigrants inhabit an in-between space that is a little difficult to describe, but Leela, being an immigrant herself has ably captured and given life to that space when she says (and I paraphrase), An immigrant's affection for his or her adopted country and its people ranges from highs to lows. On days when homesickness prevails nothing seems right with the city...on the other hand, the sheer freedom of being able to live life away from the watchful eyes of society and family back home can be exhilarating!
I thought Soma very ably introduces her readers to Glasgow, a city many of us are not so familiar with and I thought her idea of introducing colloquial Scottish phrases through the book helped steep the narrative in local flavour. The history and anthropological buffs amongst us will be quite impressed at how the Scots and the people of Madras influenced each other. Much of the story is set against the political landscape of Sccotland from the 1970's to the present day and that makes for interesting reading too.
This is a story of immigration in the late '70's (1979) to be precise and having emigrated from India to Canada in 2001 I found it very interesting to compare Sita's immigration experience with mine. I think it's so much easier today...for one thing, staying in touch with the home country is a cinch because of the internet, also, one never has to crave for home food or cooking supplies as almost every neighborhood has its own ethnic stores, not to mention cable television companies that beam programmes from India right into your living room. Sita had to wait weeks to make a "trunk-call" when she wanted to speak to her parents...however, I think it made for a more determined assimilation into one's adopted culture. Today, many immigrants continue to live exactly as they did at home. They don't feel the need to assimilate and many are not encouraged to. Good thing? Bad thing? I guess only time will tell.
Do pick up a copy (available from Amazon and Book Depository) and treat yourself to this delightful read!
To read an interview with Leela Soma, please go here