Book Review: On the Outside Looking Indian

I love books – but I have a special, and perhaps curious, interest in books by and about Sikhs. Perhaps it’s the fascination to discover how similar or differentour experiencesare. I’m convinced i’m not alone in this. There has beenan establishedinterest in South Asian literature for quite some time, but now – with the growing number of authorscovering the British Sikh or North American Sikh experience – there is piquedenthusiasm in diasporic “Sikh Literature”.I think it’s important to support this type of work – not simply because the author is Sikh or writes about Sikhs – but because until we have enough of this representation in literature, we need to encourage it’s growth.This also means thatauthorswill befaced with higherexpectations from their readers who want authentic stories, sophisticated writing and dymanic story telling – just as we’d expect from any other piece of literature.

rupinder_bookb.jpgI recently read Rupinder Gill’s memoir, On the Outside Looking Indian. The premise and cover of the book attracted me, perhaps because it reminded me of Sathnam Sanghera’s, If You Don’t Know Me By Now – a bookIhighly recommend. Gill’s memoir, similarto Sanghera’s, deals with her personal experience growing up as the child of immigrants.Gill’s story is set in Canada and focuses onher year-long quest, at the age of about 30,to fulfill a list of her childhood dreams learning to swim, going to Disney World, and living in New York etc – activities she didn’t participate in as a child. I found Gill’sdescriptions of her childhood to be well-written, funny and often relatable.

Without a doubt, many of us can relate to childhoods of inactivity – unless activity consisted ofhousework – then no, we really didn’t participate in many activities, especially compared to how busy and structured the lives of children are today. There are obvious exceptions to this, however, this ismost likely a common experience for many. While Gill’s story is framed around a Panjabi Sikh household, it’s clear that her experiences could be those ofmany first-generation children whose parents have emigrated to new lands.

A notable aspect of Gill’s book was the notion of being brave enough to fulfill your dreams. Many of us have gone through times in our lives where we have reached crossroads and have had to decide which path to choose. Gill invites her readers into her vulnerability as she makes tough decisions, particularly as a young Punjabi Sikh woman – an experience that many of can relate to.

I was raised to be realistic. Indian girls aren’t dreamers. They are encouraged to pursue three lines of work: medicine, accounting and baby-making… Pursuing television production wasn’t realistic, and the possibility that I would even get around to pursuing it was also unrealistic… If the past six months had taught me anything, it was that I was the one who could make my life what I wanted it to be, and I was the one who would have to live with the consequences of its not being fulfilling. [p. 134]

As mentioned earlier, stories that describe the Panjabi or Sikh experience require authors to achieve a level of authenticity. There were a few inaccuracies in Gill’s work, such as this exchange:

Looking at my chart, he said, “Rupinder… is that Sikh?” When i nodded. he said, “Where is your little hat?” and patted his head the way monkeys do in old black-and-white films… “Do you mean a turban?” I asked. ”That is for men. And only really religious men.” What a notion – that I would wake up each morning, wash my gargantuan head of hair, blow-dry it, straighten it, and then… shove it under a turban.” [p.53]

Descriptions like this make me cringe because yes, there are plenty of men (and women) who do wake up each morning and put their “gargantuan” of hair under a turban! Can we blame Gill though, since it makes you wonder how many young children are actually able to explain the identity of Sikhs? Another element of this authenticity deals with Gill’s portrayal of her parents. I hope that non-Sikhs and readers not familiar with the immigrant experience do not take away from this book that Gill’s parents (or parents like hers) somehow failed their children. Perhaps Gill could have more sensitive to addressingthis in her book. For example, many reviews of the book take note of Gill’s “strict and old fashioned” parents, one commenter on SikhChiceven calls her parents”uneducated” and notes, “There is a pervasive cultural ignorance amongst many, especially those coming from the villages in Punjab … and there is simply no appreciation of proper parenting” (side note: it’s interesting how that comment got past thesite’s moderator!). I am pained by the notion thatour parents somehow didn’tdo their job, simply because we didn’t get to go to a sleepover orgo on holiday. As the child of immigrants, my childhood was rich inmany other ways – through language and food, through events and music – ways in which my non-Sikh friends often coveted.

So itbegs the question – what is the quintessential childhood – and can we really say if one exists?Our parents’ entire lives were focused onsurviving and succeeding innew lands -often not speaking the language fluentlyandbalancing a culture they knew with a culture they did not. Whatmany of themwere able toaccomplish within one generation is incredibly valuable to us today.It’s clear that Gill alsorecognized this and by the end of the book her descriptions of her parents were appreciative and endearing.

Like many immigrants, they gave up on careers in line with their education and instead took whatever jobs were available, and undesirable to natives of the country. In their case it was manual labor. They both worked in the auto industry – related factories. My mom would leave at six a.m. every day and my dad would rotate between day and night shifts in a tire plant. His clothes always smelled like rubber when he came home. [p. 201]

What this book did then, and perhaps unknowingly, was leave you with a sense of gratitude for what a generation of parents sacrificed to ensure their children were provided with the best opportunities.

But now I knew they had done what they could, and that it was time I did right by them, for they had had neither the childhoods nor the adulthoods they might have wanted for themselves. [p. 262]


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6 Responses to “Book Review: On the Outside Looking Indian”

  1. brooklynwala says:

    Looks promising, thanks for introducing me (us) to this book with a such an insightful review!

  2. Sukee says:

    “what is the quintessential childhood?”

    I’m glad you asked that question and did this review! Every time I come across one of these novels describing the immigrant child’s experience – I roll my eyes. I don’t think a quintessential childhood exists – and as immigrants, we shouldn’t yearn for this. Kids are more involved in activities now – ballet, soccer, piano but is it really benefitting them? How many of them go to Gurdwara and punjabi school like we did?

  3. kantay says:

    Two parts…..one is there is a familiar need to write for the audiences and north American audiences usually love them some stories of the second girl swimming against old fashioned parents stuck in the old ways so I would think a person who thinks of writing memoir about their second gen childhood would know what might sell to her readers. And second imaging going to…let’s say Brazil and both finding a job, navigating a marriage, learning and being accepted into a.culture and raising kids seems hard. That said it probably a good read and ill pick it up at at some point myself. On keeping kes more and more I think it should be done as a celebratory thing and is personal between the person, Akaal and their sadh sangat and that keeping kes is an intense way to connect with history.

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