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No Way Home: Review of Deep Singh Blue

Suicide, depression and alienation feature in Deep Singh Blue, the story of an immigrant in a hostile country

books Updated: Dec 03, 2016 08:53 IST
Avantika Mehta
Sikhs march in the annual NYC Sikh Day Parade on April 25, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Sikhs march in the annual NYC Sikh Day Parade on April 25, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)(Mario Tama/Getty Images)

I’m an Indian Hindu, who can’t understand a word my grandmother says. I once visited my ancestral village; all I remember is the feeling that I was intruding. Who would blame me, really? A child of the 1980s, my world was dominated by Coca Cola and Kit Kat. But to not know your roots is a gnarling self-doubt.

The story of Deep Blue Singh has many themes: suicide, depression, the story of an immigrant in a hostile country… All of this boils down to loss. It is the pure sorrow pouring out of its pages that makes this otherwise painfully-written book a moving read.

The narrator, a frustrated Sikh boy growing up in small town America, is surprisingly reliable. His thoughts are strewn on paper without a hint of coyness or dishonesty. It’s as if the story flowed out of the author, Ranbir Singh. I know little about Singh beyond this book and his last, which won the prestigious Pushcart Award, but I’m certain there’s more than a hint of reality in Deep Blue Singh.

The story has several layers, one of which features Deep’s desire to get away from his dysfunctional family, his callous father and pill-popping mother. Then there’s his desire for Lily, a married Caucasian-Chinese woman who loathes her heritage as much as he does his. Some moments with Lily are clichéd, describing a puppy love, with none of the complications and subconscious self-hatred that presumably brings the two characters together. But those are easily forgotten after a surprising scene where Deep pleasures himself in full view of her through a bedroom window, even as her unsuspecting husband stands there. It’s an authentic and ridiculous moment, the kind that only makes sense in a frenzied teenager’s mind. But it provides comedic relief in a novel that offers much scripted, lack-lustre comedy.

What is interesting about Deep Blue Singh, though, is the sense of homelessness that pervades the book. The author has written about a Sikh immigrant family’s life in the United States, about the racism, alienation and disconnect from the larger family that comes, literally, from another continent. In the midst of the confusion, there are references to Khalistan, Operation Blue Star, and mentions of Sikhs funding the fight for their own country. It culminates with the loss of the “war for Khalistan”. These are old wounds for some in India, but the gashes still bleed.

It takes a while for Deep Singh Blue with its unnecessary lines and sentences that open doors to no passages to grab the reader but what eventually hooked me was the real connection between Deep’s loss of his Sikh identity and the situation in Indian Punjab today. Familial repression, religious confusion, self-hatred and drug abuse are all problems that plague Punjab. The Sikh community, especially, hasn’t had closure and memories live on with multiple causes and effects. Psychiatrists have deduced a somewhat straight line from dependencies to deeper trauma. Such as those that have not been addressed since Operation Blue Star and the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984, which feature prominently in this book written in 2016 by the son of a Sikh immigrant. The accused and many of those who survived continue to await trial, thus denying the living the relief of closure. This book’s most interesting feature is the straight line it draws between issues. What plagues those who escaped to a foreign land is also at the root of the demons that haunt those who stayed behind in their homeland.

Read more: Book Review | 1984: The Anti-Sikh Violence And After

Deep Singh Blue also looks at the Indian family’s stubborn refusal to deal with mental illness. “It’s in the family, OK,” says an uncle to the protagonist, who is trying to bring up his brother’s suicidal tendencies. This rings true because it is. Depression is widespread among Indians, but few seek help.

There are some beautiful portions but for all its deep-felt writing, this is a predictable novel. As a winner of the Pushcart Prize for Fiction, Ranbir Singh Sidhu stands with the likes of Kathy Acker and William H Gass. I suspect he’s a bigger fan of the latter than the former. Here’s the proof: a paragraph in which all that the characters do is walk to a car.

“Instead of walking down the stubborn ruins where the sun blasted down on what looked at times like a single pastel-coloured wall stretching all the way to Livemore, she led me to her car…”

Why, Sidhuji? Why?

Would I read this book again? Only for the scene where the protagonist masturbates against his married amour’s window, while her husband lifts dumbbells.

Avantika Mehta is an independent journalist.