Under the Lemon Trees

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“A young woman scarcely had time to weave the fragile fabric of her dreams in our town.”

This is one of the opening lines of Bhira Backhaus’debut novel, Under the Lemon Trees. The novel – published this month – isset in a small town in Northern California, and tells the story of two generations of a Sikh family facing difficult decisions about love, cultural traditions, and familial ties. The story focuses upon the life of 15-year-old Jeeto who stuggles between embracing her heritage and fitting in as an American and journeys through her reconciliation ofthe possibilities of freedom and love (I’m sure many of us can relate to one or all of these!). The publisher describes the novel as part Bend it Like Beckham, part Monsoon Wedding.

Thebook is based on the author’s own experiences growing up in a small-town Sikh community in California’s Sacramento Valley.

“It’s a story that I’ve [always] known I wanted to tell,” she said.

Dealing with cultural disconnect is one of the story’s driving forces, Backhaus said, but many of the novel’s themes, such as the search for love, identity and dignity, are cultural universals she hopes appeal to people of all backgrounds. Although she said she hopes “Under the Lemon Trees” will have similar success to the string of popular tales of the Indian experience, such as “Slumdog Millionaire” and the novels of Jhumpa Lahiri, Backhaus said her work is different. “Under the Lemon Trees” tells the story of Sikh Indians immigrating to California from lower-class villages in India, she said – a story that has not been told by other successful media depictions of Indian life. [link]

I’d be interested indoing a full review of this novel once I’ve finished reading it. In the meantime, here’s an excerpt from the first chapter.

The chance to love comes to all of us.We listen for its sound beneath our footsteps, seek it down the improbable paths that we roam. Sometimes we choose to turn away from it, or must. Or we fail to see it at all and it vanishes like a feather on air, leaving only the flicker of a shadow as it passes. By the time she married, my sister, Neelam, had surrendered herself to a fate dictated not by desire or foolish dreams but by the positions of the stars and planets. She was engaged to a man whom she had never met, whom she knew merely by the fuzzy image in a photograph, but whose destiny was clearly aligned with hers. Over cups of scalding tea, my mother watched Charan Kaur as she pored over the creased pages of her astrological charts, settling on the twenty-first of February that year, 1976, as an auspicious day for her daughter’s wedding. Thus were Neelam’s shame and misfortune to be swept away, forgotten altogether if memory were charitable.

The same Charan Kaur had arranged the match. My mother had developed an unfaltering faith in the woman to whom she had turned to ensure her third child would be a boy. This action troubled me when I learned of it: Had Charan Kaur merely consulted her charts, or was she present in some magical way the fated night my mother and father had, no doubt, so joyously made love, believing a son would soon bless our family? The cherished birth of my younger brother, Prem, nearly a year later only affirmed my mother’s instincts. Charan Kaur had become in the interim a much-sought-after matchmaker. Those who took interest in such matters could tell you of her successes: She managed to join the feuding Gill and Thiara families, joining Oak Grove’s most eligible Indian bachelor with the starchy, morose eldest daughter of the Thiaras, thereby doubling the land holdings of each. Convinced of the woman’s unique and supple talents, my mother eagerly enlisted her to find a suitable boy for her troubled daughter…

…We lived on Fremont Road in a three-bedroom house on the outskirts of the small northern California town of Oak Grove. Surrounding the town in every direction, orchards had supplanted a fertile landscape once lush with grasses and dotted with sprawling oaks. The broad domes of Sikh temples competed in the skyline with the lean spires of Christian churches. Since the immigration laws had changed, the town pulsed to the exotic beat of tablas and the sound tracks of the most recent Indian films to hit American shores. The all-white city council members learned to publish their campaign literature in Punjabi, as though each tumultuous decision made at City Hall had some great bearing on our tight little universe. My uncle Avtar, my father’s older brother and the first in my family to settle in America, had taken advantage of cheap land prices following World War II to begin securing his holdings. He’d offered my father, Mohinder Singh Rai, a small share of it when he emigrated from India in 1957, seeing that my mother was already expecting her first child. [link]

You can buy the novel here and here.


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10 Responses to “Under the Lemon Trees”

  1. Dalsher Singh says:

    This novel looks to be epic, to say the least. I was born in Yuba City, which is not too far from the setting of this book, and even though I've since moved on to the east coast, I've always been fascinated by Sikh migration patterns throughout California and the west coast in general. When I was in high school, I remember when reading Of Mice and Men, I always felt there was a need for a Sikh character in that novel. That aside, I really am excited to read about this book.

  2. Dalsher Singh says:

    This novel looks to be epic, to say the least. I was born in Yuba City, which is not too far from the setting of this book, and even though I’ve since moved on to the east coast, I’ve always been fascinated by Sikh migration patterns throughout California and the west coast in general. When I was in high school, I remember when reading Of Mice and Men, I always felt there was a need for a Sikh character in that novel. That aside, I really am excited to read about this book.

  3. NK says:

    Not another paisley covered book cover! Regardless of that thanks for the info. I look forward to reading this book.

  4. NK says:

    Not another paisley covered book cover! Regardless of that thanks for the info. I look forward to reading this book.

  5. Sundari says:

    Dalsher, I agree – the book should be a valuable addition to understanding the Sikh migration experience. However, I am intrigued by how this book is being publicized as exploring the Sikh experience. The Sikh experience is as diverse and dynamic as any other community's experience and i doubt any one book can adaquetely describe the "Sikh experience." Nevertheless, i'm sure we'll be able to relate to several elements.

    NK, good point about the cover – it's very much in line with the covers of other indian novels

  6. Sundari says:

    Dalsher, I agree – the book should be a valuable addition to understanding the Sikh migration experience. However, I am intrigued by how this book is being publicized as exploring the Sikh experience. The Sikh experience is as diverse and dynamic as any other community’s experience and i doubt any one book can adaquetely describe the “Sikh experience.” Nevertheless, i’m sure we’ll be able to relate to several elements.

    NK, good point about the cover – it’s very much in line with the covers of other indian novels

  7. Roop Dhillon says:

    The problem with covers of english novels is that colonial images of the ethnic are stereotypes the goray prefer

  8. Roop Dhillon says:

    The problem with covers of english novels is that colonial images of the ethnic are stereotypes the goray prefer

  9. iSingh says:

    Does anyone know if "Ocean of Pearls" is scheduled for a wider release ?
    http://www.oceanofpearls.com/

  10. iSingh says:

    Does anyone know if "Ocean of Pearls" is scheduled for a wider release ?
    http://www.oceanofpearls.com/