When she wasn’t on call, my mom drove us to Carnatic and Bharatanatyam classes, to learn the Indian classical arts. She glared if we giggled at dirty-sounding Sanskrit words during pujas, and coaxed family to fly in from India at Thanksgiving, so there’d be no gulf between us. “Women hold the culture,” an aunt, a busy bank executive who nonetheless fit in weekly visits to the temple, once told me. That day we’d set off to the one nearest her Bombay flat, where, she predicted, we’d see mostly women.
Maybe their linking of past to present is why mothers are so often killed off in fiction. Their deaths unmoor those who lose them, from Oliver Twist to Apu, the hero of Satyajit Ray’s famous film trilogy. And so it goes for the antiheroes of Hirsh Sawhney’s debut novel, South Haven, which unfurls in the early Nineties and centers on the Aroras, a middle-class Indian-American family making do in a fictional New England town. By the end of the first chapter, its matriarch is dead, felled on the street by a car. A raw portrait of a motherless family emerges, focused on ten-year-old protagonist Siddharth; his absentee elder brother, Arjun; and their morose, bullheaded dad, Mohan Lal. The riddle they face scared me when my own mom died, also before her time. An immigrant family is, in a sense, already at sea. What happens when it loses its anchor?
Sawhney began the book in his late twenties, after his father died. A tumultuous relationship with his dad led him to craft Mohan Lal with poetic flaws: A professor of marketing, he is at once cocksure and impotent. He presses his right-wing political beliefs on anyone who’ll listen, with a boorishness that loses him the respect he thinks he deserves. South Haven casts emasculation and bravado as twin plagues; as Sawhney tells me via phone from his office at Wesleyan University, a story that begins with a woman’s death thus ultimately becomes “an exploration of maleness.” He sees the book as a fictional “exposé” — of “a world of men” who “can’t hold it together without the strong matriarch.”
At times this concept is stronger than the execution. Sawhney studied engineering, and his prose can feel a tad machine-made. The rare bit of lyricism doesn’t always hit, as when an upright string instrument is likened near the book’s end to a “dance partner or a high-rise building.” But his characters are distinctive: They open up differently, more ominously, than American fiction’s best-known South Asians of the Northeast — Jhumpa Lahiri’s, whose Bengali-American world, mapped through several of her works, holds a more genteel ennui, laden with Ivy League degrees and wealthy white friends. The Aroras, instead, exhibit an outsider-ness without glamour, and seem headed nowhere. Shopping is confined to the “dingier” strip malls of West Haven, where Mohan Lal’s paltry academic pay stretches further. Arjun heads to the University of Michigan, and promptly loses his interest in grades. Siddharth, too, learns to master, not books, but social warfare. Early on, he swaps his first friend — a female misfit who threatens to consign him to nerddom — for a crowd of mediocre students and mild bullies. He worries mostly about sex: whether he’ll ever be able to do it, and if, after his mom’s passing, his dad is doing it already.
The sole woman in Sid’s life — his school therapist, Rachel Farber — yields more anxiety. For one, Mohan Lal, it turns out, is sleeping with her. “Your mom’s dead and your dad’s fucking a crazy Jewish lady,” Farber’s son, Mark, jokes to Sid at one point. “I can tell you feel great about that.” Beyond the betrayal of his mom, Sid is disturbed by the twisting of expectation. His dad, so pitiable in some ways, is apparently a viable sexual being, able to bed a white woman, no less.
Confusion about his dad’s virility — and that of all South Asian men — shapes Sid’s psyche. Taking his place in an America before Harold and Kumar, before Aziz Ansari, Sid sees difference as deficit. He hates his father’s hairy arms and prides himself for having light skin, but struggles to masturbate, or see himself as a worthy object of desire. Apart from real men who might relate, there are a few fictional ones: Philip Roth’s Portnoy, or Hanif Kureishi’s sexually clumsy heroes.
Such anxieties aren’t resolved by the novel’s end. Sid winds up in the arms of Rachel Farber after another tragedy has struck. That event has a woman at its center, too; something terrible has befallen the friend he once rejected. “Maybe Ms. Farber’s not that bad,” he thinks as she hugs him. There’s a suggestion of more than just maternal comfort. Also, of inevitability. His life is still messed up, women are still complications, and we’re left to wonder if that’s just how it’ll always be.
Hirsh Sawhney will appear at the Brooklyn Book Festival on September 18.
By Hirsh Sawhney
296 pp., Akashic Books