There may come a time when Asian-American writing loses its hyphen and becomes “American”. Ranbir Singh Sidhu’s debut novel Deep Singh Blue provides some indication that this point may be approaching.
Deep Singh Blue is a coming-of-age novel, a deliberate bildungsroman, that just happens to be set in a Sikh immigrant family in California in the 1980s. Deep, the protagonist, is an entirely American teenager with a dysfunctional lower middle-class family. His father uproots the family every few years and drags them from one non-descript town to another. He thinks college a waste of time. The mother agreed to an arranged marriage on promises of American being a land of milk and honey that it turned out not to be. Deep’s elder brother, the parents’ avowed favorite, suffers from what seems be increasingly severe schizophrenia. Each family member treats Deep—and each other—with varying degrees of disdain and contempt.
Deep escapes, first to a local college, and thence into a relationship with a deeply-troubled married young woman in her late twenties. Deep’s is a family and community whom the American Dream has passed by, leaving the detritus of casual and not-so-casual racism, violence and drinking in its wake.
In a fusion that is perhaps archetypally American, the novel is both about the Indian immigrant experience—arranged marriages, an uncle obsessed with Sikh identity (the novel’s climax coincides with 1984 riots), a mother addicted to videos brought from India, rotis at supper—and a straightforward American story of teenage angst, sex, cars and whiskey. This fusion extends beyond Deep’s Punjabi background: Lily, the young woman he falls for, is half-Chinese while expressing contempt for other Chinese.
That isn’t to say that the novel won’t have particular resonance with readers of South Asian extraction, but ethnic identity isn’t key to it. This universality is, ironically, a potential hurdle, for coming-of-age novels are, if not quite a dime-a-dozen, nevertheless common. Fortunately, Deep Singh Blue stands out for the quality of its writing and storytelling.
I was already jealous of the air because it touched her and I didn’t.
Sidhu can pack entire paragraphs into a single metaphor. Deep frequents a used bookstore where there is shelf in the back labelled “Other” where books would sit “for a long time”. He would pull out a book
… a couple of times to page through and stare. If I didn’t, no one else would. I felt sorry for books on the Other shelf. If someone ever filed me, that’s exactly where I’d go.
But there’s also a hard edge to the writing: Sidhu’s hardscrabble California is a place where “cars murdered the air, tires scraped their rubber knuckles along the blacktop.” Ethnic epithets are tossed about, ironically and cynically, in a way that would be inconceivable today: Lily calls Deep “Paki” and refers to herself as a “chink”.
But the coming-of-age passages are handled without condescension. Lily, thinks Deep when he first meets her after class,
… wasn’t a girl, but a woman, with dramatic brown eyes and a body that sang of a kind of sex and sexuality I’d only ever read about… I was already jealous of the air because it touched her and I didn’t.
Lily, indeed, is the most affecting character in the novel: femme fatale and fallen woman, a completely messed-up combination of confidence and vulnerability, cruelty and tenderness. Their relationship, as would be any relationship between a 27-year-old woman and a boy a decade younger, is also completely messed up.
Although it can be hard to find much new to say in the story of a boy’s rebelling against his family and discovering sex, ambivalence permeates the pages and Sidhu populates his novel with flawed error-prone characters one comes to know and even care about.
Sidhu only occasionally perhaps tries too hard: he explicitly invokes Spinoza as a sort of philosophical signpost. While this serves to reinforce the extent of Deep’s alienation from his Punjabi roots, it seems slightly too intelligent for even this eminently intelligent novel.
Deep Singh Blue is short, just over 200 pages, and moves at a good clip. There is too much sex (i.e. more than none) for this really be a young adult novel, although thoughtful readers of that age and somewhat older are likely to find a great deal to relate to. It would make a good film. Sidhu has also, whether by accident or design, told the story in the voice of Deep’s somewhat wistful older self; as a result, the novel may also reawaken memories in readers rather further removed in age.
Although Deep Singh Blue is nominally a story about Sikhs in America, it is instead a reminder, as Deep himself notes at the end of the book, that “there are no countries, there are no nations, only people …”