India Abroad
September 27, 2002
A Bridge Across Confusion

She's desi. American-born. And perhaps not so confused. Tanuja Desai Hidier, whose debut novel expertly tackles the identity crises of Indian American adolescence, has been hailed as the terrific new voice, says Monica Mehta

By Monica Mehta

Dimple Lala is 16, going on 17. She has a Gujarati father and a Marathi mother. But Dimple Lala is American. Throughout much of Tanuja Desai Hidier's debut tale, Born Confused, this Indian American youngster experiences an acute, nagging identity crisis.

It is a predicament uncomfortably familiar to second-generation Indian American teens.

Dimple's parents want to set her up with a boy who wears pleated pants and listens to Lata Mangeshkar. Her white, blonde best friend is confident, beautiful and popular. Her self-confidence is less than zero. Life inside her suburban New Jersey house is about spices and spirituality; outside, it's all social woes and sex.

Literature and now, movies, about the bicultural identity struggle are not new. But Born Confused -- taken from the cynical moniker "American Born Confused Desi" -- is the first to explore the inner life of Indian American teens so exhaustively. At the same time, the novel is accurate in its depiction of the mid-1990s New York desi bhangra scene. Publishers Scholastic Press, of Harry Potter fame, have marketed it as a book for young adults. Born Confused, due in bookstores in late September, is as complex, funny and nuanced as an adult novel.

Young desis will find themselves relating to a lot of Dimple's experiences and observations. At one point, Dimple considers how her cousins from India treat her. 'I was the American cousin, the princess, the plumped-up one... They both giggled even when I'd said nothing funny... They were always hungry to hear stories about America. Had I ever been on an escalator? Did girls talk to boys in my school? (Wide eyes when I said yes.)'

Desai Hidier, who writes in the voice of Dimple, is doing much more than documenting; she's waxing nostalgic! Indeed, much of the book is taken from her life. The young author serves up a heady brew of anecdotes about an American subculture that has never before received so much attention in fiction.

She has also taken great care in developing characters and scenes in the 400-page novel. Her writing style often toes the line between prose and poetry, at times taking on a decidedly lyrical tone: 'A woman was singing, after all the man vocals, with a scorchingly sweet voice that sounded like India herself, mingling with the prodigy of the deer-eyed mud-caked rapper, all atop an ever-weaving tapestry of sitar and snare and cachunking key... It was full of as many emotions as a bite of bhelpuri; it crunched and it spilled and it lingered and was gone in a heartbeat. It trundled down the throat, eddied in the belly and dawdled; it satiated and made you want more. It was danceable and it was lonely and it was full of fields and fruit and skyscrapers, and it was the sound of a star forming in a black hole.'

At other times the narrative is in nothing short of hilarious: 'My father's reverse parking job was followed by a stroll through Macy's complete with my mother aaraying and ahhing with equal enthusiasm at anything diamond or cubic zirconia, and graciously accepting every scent sample that fluttered her way from the perfectly eye-lined girls swaying around beachily on high heels; she would thank them with a girlish giggle, as if they spritzed for her alone. By the time we exited the cosmetics department she smelled of Obsession on her left wrist (even though she owned it, fittingly, she could never resist), Tresor on her right, and Samsara on her neck -- a discordant bouquet coming together to create something more along the lines of eau de nail polish remover than anything else.'

Desai Hidier's first novel is grand in scope, gamely taking on themes such as bicultural crises, teenage angst, friendship, first love, drugs, and sexuality, without ever being moralistic or trite. The author spends a lot of time exploring her character's inner thoughts, not unlike Dave Eggers or Nick Hornby. There are also long, loving descriptions of the New York desi arts scene. Among the characters in it are a transvestite dancer, a lesbian intellectual, and DJs with names like Tamasha and Gulab Jammin.'

Born in the United States, Desai Hidier, like Dimple, is half-Gujarati and half-Marathi. She was raised near Boston in the country surroundings of western Massachusetts. "I grew up in Wilbraham, Massachusetts -- home of Friendly's ice cream! It was a sanctuary of trees and fields and apple orchards and dogs on no leashes and safe trick-or-treating. And, of course, ice cream. We considered ourselves quite cosmopolitan next to the neighboring town because we had fewer cows in view. I had a magical childhood there..."

Born Confused reflects much of the flavors Desai Hidier experienced from childhood through to adolescence but not necessarily firsthand. She was one of three Indian and two African-American kids in her class. But she didn't find she related to the Indians "specifically for their Indianness."

In fact to her surprise she discovered an opposite reaction. "One was actually Indian-born and recently moved to the States and, I discovered later by the very short and seedy grapevine, he found me to be "not Indian enough." I had no idea what that meant.

"I didn't feel particularly set apart from the other kids because of my heritage. I did feel set apart -- but maybe everyone does, to some extent, at some point, have that sense that they don't fit so tidily in. Or perhaps it was also because there were a few things that were a little different about our situation: the closeness of my family, for example; I feel like my mother and I went through high school together, and much more since. I didn't have the usual rebellion against my parents; my crazy behavior was to be found primarily on the dance floor, or acting out Madonna videos in the basement. And I was also one of those strange beings that was actually into school."

Desai Hidier's doctor parents Shashikala and Dhiroo Desai, a general practitioner and cardiologist respectively, who migrated from India in 1963, by contrast, identify better with the ABCD emotions of today and feel life in a small town guaranteed their children had a more uncomplicated upbringing. They recall, "Bringing up children anywhere is no easy task. We had the added challenge of being Indian in America. Fortunately we did not have many of the prevailing problems because we lived a small town, where we were friends with the parents of our children's friends and vice versa."

The Desais have memories of being welcomed with cranberry bread into the Wilbraham community. The neighborly relationships were so close that during the years when Tanuja grew to adulthood, the Desais were as familiar with American ways as the neighbors were with their Indian customs and there was not much room for strangeness.

Desai Hidier confirms. "Growing up, I just didn't really think about my Indian-ness much -- when you live in a town this size, from the age of two to eighteen, with pretty much the same group of people around you, you stop seeing these things about each other. They are the whole world you know, and you are part of the only world they have ever known, and Ramona is Ramona and Jennifer is Jennifer and Brian is Brian, not black or brown or white or purple. If anything, the foreign exchange students stood out more than anyone else!

"It was really only when I got to -- the aptly named -- Brown University that I began to consider these issues in a more conscious fashion. And then after, in New York City, even more so."

In 1990, Desai Hildier graduated from Brown University and came straight to New York. While working day jobs editing and writing at magazines, she began writing and publishing a series of short stories about South Asians.

But then on a detour -- which is not surprising for this bubbly desi, who by her own definition cannot sit still and keeps a number of interests going -- she set out to gain filmmaking experience and studied at the New York Film Academy.

In 1996 and 1997, she made two short films called The Test and The Assimilation Alphabet, also about Indian Americans. The Test examined the glaring lack of communication on sex between different generations in the desi community. The Assimilation Alphabet was co-directed with Nisha Ganatra and focused on cultural assimilation.

While showing the films at festivals such as the Asian American International Film Festival and Desh Pardesh, Desai Hidier, 34, began meeting a group of South Asian Americans who were also involved in film, music and writing. She was quickly introduced to the New York desi 'arts crowd,' and started going to desi parties such as Basement Bhangra and Mutiny, and attending university panels on South Asian American identity.

"So many exciting things were happening in the New York desi scene with music and independent film. It really did feel like some revolution was going on, and a lot of the elements were ancient like bhangra which she pronounces with a very desi intonation, but taken in the context of New York and my generation," says Desai Hidier. "Those years fueled a lot of the ideas for this book." Her voice is warm and lively.

In 1997, the New Yorker and Granta India issues came out, and so began the new wave of Indian writing, which would later clear the way for Indian American writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri and Akhil Sharma.

"There was suddenly all this pressure when the New Yorker did that India issue," says Desai Hidier, "and a lot of people were telling me, 'you have to hurry up and finish your book because it's hot to be an Indian writer, this is the moment or you're gonna miss it.'

"I didn't even know what my topic was, and I started getting this really bizarre stress that I was going to miss the moment to be Indian if I didn't do anything in the next two months." But worries about "not being Indian enough" plagued her. It all clicked into place in a conversation with a friend. "She said, well that should be your topic: not being Indian enough," says Desai Hidier.

But while at that time she lacked the discipline and drive to write a book, she continued to edit magazines and write short stories. "The Border" scooped up the first prize in the London Writer/Waterstones Competition in October 2001. "Tiger, Tiger" made it to the Big City Lit anthology in New York City that toasted a decade of Asian-American writing.

In mid-2000, she married a Frenchman Bernard Hidier, 34, an agricultural commodities broker. The couple decided to move to London to pursue a business offer for Bernard. Tanuja and Bernard met at a Christmas tree lighting party in New York seven years after they had lived hardly half a block away from each other in Paris, they were tickled to discover they had used the same bakery, each seen the same sights daily. "It was quite possible that a sock of his came home in my laundry," explains Desai Hidier gleefully.

"We share a love of family, a love of humor, music (our combined CD collection is a little out of hand), travel, film, literature, dogs, meringues, elephants, red wine and Orangina (though not in the same glass yet). Neither of us practices a particular religion in any strict sense but I'd say we're both very spiritual. And the best: he loves to cook; I love to eat!"

When she and Bernard moved to London there was another surprise waiting. Just two or three days before her move to London, Desai Hidier scheduled a meeting with a Scholastic editor through a friend, hoping to set up an editing gig she could do from London.

But the friend had told the editor that Desai Hidier was there to discuss book ideas. "My mouth dropped open and I was like, yeah, that's why I'm here!" she says cheerfully. Thinking quickly, she told him of her previous film work and short stories about second generation Indian Americans. He said he'd never seen a book about an Indian American teenager, and asked her to send him something to look at.

Once in London, she sent him a detailed proposal, 40 sample pages, and her short stories. London afforded to her the peace to concentrate on her book. While in New York, she says, she was often "swept up by the energy" of the city keeping busy. "But it was more like the dancing on the furniture kind of busy." Soon she had a contract and an advance, and five months later, after extending her day to "strange proportions", she handed in her first draft, an 8oo-page tome that she eventually cut to 600.

The novel is already generating a buzz; Larry King has mentioned it in his web site's weekly column, and called her 'a terrific new voice in young adult fiction.'

'If the plot is a tad predictable, if the love interest is just about too good to be true who cares? The exuberant, almost psychedelic riffs will catch readers up in a breathtaking experience that is beyond virtually anything being published for teens today.' declared Kirkus Reviews in a starred review.

Desai Hidier is hard at work promoting Born Confused and will do book reading across the Eastern Seaboard at places like the World Bank, Brown and Asian book-clubs. But she spends evenings singing and songwriting for her London rock band, San Transisto. Desai Hidier has kept her music interests moving along parallel to her writing career. "I don't see the music and the writing as being in any opposition to each other; in fact they complement each other."

San Transisto calls itself a melodic rock band and Desai Hidier and crew have just cut a new album called Spark. The full-time vocalist and full-time author is working at other music efforts, like a virtual band project, for which musicians are participating from Los Angeles and London.

The upbeat, effervescent Desai Hidier believes in keeping busy. Projects reacted to music, films, writing are under contemplation. Says husband Bernard, "Tanuja has a very positive, open-minded and dynamic approach to life that enables her to catch and connect, to get glimpses and details of everyday life in a very observant way. More importantly, she has the privilege to have not lost the capacity for amazement for what surrounds her. I think that is where she sources her inspiration and, even more importantly from my point of view, why it is so great to share life with her."

Next up, she plans to go into a period of reading hibernation. She cites Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Michael Ondaatje, Cormack McCarthy and Enid Blyton among her literary influences, but says she wants to explore the new generation of Indian writers including Manil Suri, Meera Syal and Sanjay Nigam. She'll also return to the group of short stories she started, and try to work them into a publishable form. A future dream is to convert Born Confused into a movie.

And how do her parents react to her semi-autobiographical novel? Say the Desais: "Much of what Tanuja has written does not reflect our family -- even though we do see our sense of humor and our living room appearing in the book now and then. We never forced the concept of suitable mates for our children. They had the freedom to choose for themselves, but at the same time if we saw something very 'unsuitable' in someone we would make them aware of our feelings. Reading the book, it did not make us uncomfortable at all. On the contrary we thoroughly enjoyed the way Tanuja used her sense of humor and her insightfulness on the subject matter."

Perhaps the best reason to read Desai Hidier's novel is that the territory she traverses is completely new. Many have gone through the angst of bicultural suburban teen life -- with one identity inside the home, and another outside of it -- yet little has been written on the experience. After Born Confused, all that may be about to change.

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