Book Review: On the Outside Looking Indian

The genre of “Migrant Literature” has evolved over the decades to include socio-cultural issues faced by second and third-generations of immigrants. And, beyond fiction, migrant literature encompasses memoir, (auto)biographies, essays, etc. as well.

Consider that this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist has the most novels with immigration-related themes than ever before, highlighting how these themes continue to dominate our cultural mindset.

Recently, Jhumpa Lahiri rightly said, in a New York Times interview, how she thinks all American literature is really “immigrant literature”:

From the beginnings of literature, poets and writers have based their narratives on crossing borders, on wandering, on exile, on encounters beyond the familiar. The stranger is an archetype in epic poetry, in novels. The tension between alienation and assimilation has always been a basic theme.

One such memoir is Rupinder Gill’s On the Outside Looking Indian, which was published in 2012. The author is a second-generation Canadian-Indian. The book is a humorous account of taking a year out – a sabbatical, if you will – at age thirty to live a “second childhood”. Along the way, as she undertook various activities that she missed out on during her original childhood for various reasons, there was a sort of coming-of-age and growth of self-confidence. And, critically, an evolution and acceptance of her own hybrid and assimilated migrant identity.

I missed this book when it first came out and discovered it quite accidentally through some online mention somewhere. The title caught me first. It references one of the major themes of migrant literature – displacement, which is about feeling or being socially / culturally out of place. Then, there is the clever play of words – replacing “in” with “Indian” in a commonplace expression. And, finally, the fact that this was a funny book by a woman of Indian origin reeled me in. If you’re wondering about that last reason, it’s simply that a funny woman of Indian origin is a rarity. In the West, for example, only a handful of them have achieved any kind of renown  – e.g. Meera Syal over in the UK, Mindy Kaling, the US actress or Lilly Singh, the Youtube comedian and another Canadian.

In the book, Gill shortlisted 5 specific activities to master or complete during her “Ramsingha” (a pun on the Amish tradition of Rumspringa, where adolescents are allowed to take a break from their segregated communities for a year and indulge in all kinds on non-Amish activities in modern society). These were as follows:

1) Learn to Swim – While this may seem a bit odd, conservative Indian parents, even in the West, see this as non-essential skill, particularly for daughters. Partly, this is due to the deep sense of modesty that would be violated by scanty swim-costumes. But, mostly, this is due to the lack of water-related leisure activities in a typical Indian upbringing.

2) Take Lessons – This one might be more easily understood. The emphasis that first-generation Indian migrants often place on academic achievements and career prospects does not allow any time for extra-curricular activities (unless such activities will boost school grades or improve chances of getting into a better university).

3) Visit Disneyworld – While this is not exactly a universal childhood activity, for Rupinder, this was one of those childhood obsessions that had never gone away.

4) Go to Camp – This is related to #2. Another extra-curricular and leisure activity that most conservative Indian parents see no need for.

5) Own a Pet – Another childhood obsession like #3.

Gill recounted each of the above ventures with humor that was perhaps a bit too self-deprecating. There were a lot of 80s TV / movie references (which reminded me of a favorite show, Gilmore Girls). For example, every chapter title was a clever take on a popular TV show or movie title. Another example was some of her dry takes on Desi (the term that diasporic Indians use to refer to to themselves) humor.

I told my parents that I had taken a leave of absence because Indians cannot leave paying work unless they have been dead at least a week and even that can be considered a flimsy excuse. I knew I was doing the best thing for myself, but thirty years of experience told me that my parents weren’t the type of people who would chuck responsibility for adventure and personal growth. Had they been students in Robin Williams’ class in Dead Poets Society, the second the kids jumped onto their desks to “Seize the Day!”, my parents would have sprinted out of the room to get the headmaster.

Of her particular adventures, whether taking lessons in swimming, tap-dancing, tennis or driving, camp volunteering for kids with cancer, friend sleepovers, moving to New York City for a few months, blogging for a teen site, etc., Gill painted vivid pictures so that we were there, right beside her and rooting for her to do well. There weren’t any sensationalized disasters – this wasn’t that kind of book. And, as she grew in self-confidence, we almost wanted her to announce some bold, unpredictable and out-of-character new plan. But, this wasn’t that kind of book either. Towards the end, she did, however, get clearer on a lifelong goal to move to Los Angeles and try her hand at TV scriptwriting – something that she would not have considered before this particular year. And, of all her epiphanies, I found this one to be the most telling and summing-up of how far she had come:

In being honest with myself, I had to admit that part of my motivation for this year of adventures was not just to do all of the things I hadn’t done when I was a kid. It was because I hadn’t done any of the things I thought I would do as an adult…….. And, on the off chance that those things weren’t going to happen for me, I had to feel as if I had some semblance of control over my own life. And, in ways, I thought that correcting the past would somehow alter my DNA to make me the adult I wanted to be.

The best aspect of the book, perhaps, was how, with each new experience, Gill included many vignettes of her original Canadian childhood with her four siblings, parents, grandmother, extended family and other characters (including, of course, those from TV and movies). For example, the grandmother, Bibi, who could not speak English, but watched The Benny Hill Show with verbal expressions of disgust just because she knew it entertained her grand-daughters. Or, when their father earnestly tried to teach the girls to read and write in Punjabi and they couldn’t stop giggling at his enunciations. These backward glances were not only well-sketched and funny but they also gave more context and background to Gill’s challenges with her “thirty going on thirteen” adventures, showing them to be more than just whimsical and self-indulgent.

Also, the stories of how the five Gill siblings dealt with their mixed-identity childhoods by filling the gaps between their Indian and Canadian cultures with hybrid experiences (which were enriching in their own ways eventually) showed how kids adapt to their circumstances, no matter what. And, this last is an important point. Some readers on various book-related sites have taken the view that Gill described the lack or void between the two cultures rather negatively. And, some readers have observed how, page after page, she carefully showed the many attempts to turn the cultural gaps into cultural overlaps with their own unique richness. Gill was very aware and pointed out, several times, in her narrative, how, looking back, she was thankful for her relatively peaceful and happy existence and understood how it had shaped her. Still, no childhood is perfect and, regardless of one’s cultural upbringing, everyone has some obsession, some desires that linger on in adulthood.

In the end, this is an easy read with a genuinely honest and funny voice. Yet, there is a realism and acceptance that it takes a blind courage to create and follow your vision and find your own bliss – and, thankfully, this is not delivered in a heavy-handed way. On the last couple of pages, as Gill described how her Christmas gift to herself was a ticket to Los Angeles to try her hand in the TV industry and confided “… I hope this is just the beginning.”, you might find it hard to resist sighing happily, as at the end of a feel-good movie, and responding out loud, “You go, girl!”

More Links:
– Here’s a Storyacious interview with the author.
– And, enjoy this short video of the author talking about her “second childhood”.