Sunday, January 10, 2010

Twice Born by Leela Soma

  • 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


nss86 said...

This is a very thorough review which addresses one of the novel's key themes, that being the experience of an Indian immigrant coming to Glasgow. I thought that this review nicely highlighted that each immigrant's experience is different, and emphasized some of the main differences between immigration in the late 1970s and the twenty first century. It also raises some very thought provoking issues, such as whether immigrants ought to adhere to the integrationist or isolationist approach; and the mutual love that immigrants have for their adopted and native lands. With regard to the former, I feel that as the reviewer rightly only time will tell which approach is prefereable.
However, I did feel that the review placed undue emphasis upon the expectations of the Indian family, and in my view, this was not the point of the story. By placing an undue emphasis upon Indian familial expectations, I fear will lead people to the misguided idea that Indian families pressurize young Indian women into arranged marriages, which is untrue. This is a view predominantly by the British, who are often either unable, or unwilling to comprehend that arranged marriage does not equal forced marriage. It is therefore important to prevent this mindset from filtering through to North America and to educate Western audiences about this difference.Unfortunately, there are of course a tiny percentage of forced marriages but these are different from arranged marriages. My understanding is that this story speaks to the idea of how a marriage can still be void and empty, due to a lack of love, which is the fault of neither partner. This is a universal theme, which can and does occur across all races and cultures, not just among Indians.
Overall, this a good review of Twice Born and it addresses most of the key points of the story.

WallyR said...

Hi Lotus;
Although you touched upon some of the same points, I noted in my Amazon Review for Leela's novel, your review is very comprehensive, especially of some of the finer details such as having to wait for the "trunk call." I recall those days only too well.

I am looking forward to reading more of your reviews.
Waheed Rabbani

Sanjay said...

Hi Lotus, you have been on quite a tear lately in terms of book reviews, and I am so happy to see that.
Another wonderful book review, and as always loved your take on it.
The protagonists were indeed Ram and Seeta?
I did not know that were connections between the people of Madras and Glasgow. That is interesting. Is there or was there a large proportion of people from Madras in Glasgow.
Loved how you brought out the differences between immigration in the 70s and now. And a great Q of how the need to assimilate is no longer as strong given the internet and the ability to make a life akin to your mini "native land" abroad.
While time may well answer that, I am more in favor of assimilation, and that can be done while keeping one's own identity.
You also make a good point about familial expectations, and I disagree with nss86 here, familial expectations continue to play a big part. I don't think you put an undue emphasis on that and while the pressure may not be as blatant, there is still an expectation there along those lines.
I do have one question, what stood out for you in this story, as being different than other immigrant narratives, outside of the Madras, Glasgow angle.
Thank you for sharing this with us.

Meena said...

So much proclaimed theories been made and justified about human behaviour but if we got to reach to the masses and put forth things in right way then novels like these works always for knowing deep thoughts of many immigrants all over places.of being into an different phase of life with second birth.Although me yet to read the book but review as such prompts to have it in hands soon....I am proud of having Leela as my FB pal too :)

Mystica said...

Have you read Minal Hajratwala's Leaving India. It was also an "immigrant" story with a different slant as well. I found it very absorbing and different.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Nss86 ~ It's always wonderful when someone who has read the book writes in! I am glad for your perspective and that you think I did a good job on the review overall. About the arranged marriage issue, I am sure different readers will have different takes on my way of seeing it, Sita would have much preferred to have fallen in love with her suitor, but to please her parents she agreed to an arranged marriage and agreed to wait for love to step in which, ofcourse, it did in its own way but perhaps not in the way she would have liked. I think many of us Indians, the diaspora and otherwise, still make familial obligations a priority...also, you have to remember the book was set in the late '70's where arranged marriage was likely still a much-followed practice.

@WallyR ~ Thank you very much for writing in and I look forward to reading your review at Amazon. Sorry for the late response!

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Sanj, thank you for your comment both here and on FB! Yup, those were the names! :) When you read the book you'll see how it all comes together! I wasn't aware of the connection between Scotland and Madras either, but if you've heard of Madras'll see the similarity between them and Scottish tartan! :)

For me, I like that Leela doesn't just focus on the immigrant angle, it is also the story of a very educated, bright, independent-minded young lady trying to adjust to an arranged marriage, a new country, as well as carve out a career for herself and how she does it find out if she is successful or not, you'll have to read the book! :)

I'm glad you agree with me about familial expectations for I do believe it is alive and well in our Indian communities.

Thanks very much for writing in...I always appreciate your notes.

Lotus Reads said...

@Meena ~ Yes, I know what you mean. Please get yourself a copy of Leela's book, you will enjoy it! Maybe we can talk more after you've read it?

@Mystica ~ Hi! Long time! I have read Hajratwalla's book but I think hers is more of a family history and how they branched out from Fiji to other parts of the world. It's a great non-fiction study in immigration of a particular branch of the Indian diaspora. "Twice Born" is the fictional account of a young lady as she makes her life in Glasgow after having spent her formative years in Madras, or Chennai as it is now known.

Mark David said...

Very nice :) Do you think that writers sometimes find it more interesting to purposely adjust the setting such that a few of the modern conveniences we have today would be inaccessible to their characters? Like what you mentioned about Internet communications or localized Foreign cuisine. Sometimes I can't help bbut think that it's simply more romantic that way, to be somehow stuck in the past.

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Angela in Europe said...

I love immigrant stories because I think as an American, I will never really know that experience first-hand. It's interesting to try to imagine what my great-grandparents went through when they moved to the U.S. and these stories always give me a fresh idea to consider.

Anil P said...

While I enjoyed reading Lahiri's offerings, I suppose it helps to be an immigrant to actually relate to experiences on the ground so to speak.

Your last para is very relevant. Even then it must differ much for the physical landscape will be different from the home country.

david mcmahon said...

I've never been to Glasgow, but I know Chennai really well. I must check out this book. Thanks for the review!