In the early years of this century, a new genre defined a new generation of Indian-Americans coming of age. In 2001, there was the cult classic film, American Desi, Kal Penn’s ticket from New Jersey to Hollywood.
A year later, there was the novel, Born Confused, that turned its author, Tanuja Desai Hidier, into a chronicler of the chronic identity chaos that affects the desi diaspora. Perhaps it’s fitting that taken together, these two pop cultural milestones make for American Born Confused Desi, the much-caricatured ABCD.
Getting the NRI voice: Tanuja Desai Hidier and her two novels. The dozen-year gap ("the gestation period," she calls it) betweeen the two happened because of motherhood.
A dozen years later, Hidier returns with a sequel, Bombay Blues, journeying into India, with a soundtrack of its own. Bombay Spleen has been produced by Dave Sharma, once a dhol-thumping fixture when the musical Bombay Dreams played on Broadway.
Among the many reasons for the sequel’s delay were two: Hidier’s daughters, now aged nine and five. "I see it more as a gestation period," she says, "an even more apt phrase as during this time I became a mother of two." America to Bombay
The original ABCDness was outlined in Born Confused, as its protagonist, Jersey girl Dimple Lala, on the cusp of turning 17, muses: "Sometimes I was too Indian in America, yes, but in India, I was definitely not Indian enough."
The book jacket from Born Confused was kind of in-your-face in its symbolism: A young girl sporting a bindi styled as a question mark. But there was no question that book made a mark: USA Today said it "gives voice to a new generation of Americans".
A couple of years later, Hidier, who’s been in multiple bands, released what Wired magazine deemed the first-ever "booktrack". The album called When We Were Twins traversed the sonic landscape of Dimple’s adventures.
Bombay – not Mumbai, as she makes clear – is in Hidier’s blood. She was born in Boston and raised in small-town Massachusetts, studied at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, lived in New York and Paris, and moved to her current location, London, with her husband, before Born Confused was published.
But Bombay was where her mother and brother were born, and her parents courted there. As she said in an interview, "I longed to write my way towards this metropolis of myth and memory – and, hopefully, into it." So, Dimple, now 19-and-a-half, gets uprooted from New Jersey and transplanted to that city of roots.
Dimple makes some new connections and some links go missing, as she reaches Bombay for a family wedding. Somewhat like Hidier’s own romance: When she was in Paris, she and her husband-to-be were neighbours but they never met until they encountered each other at a Manhattan party.
Born Confused is a careening ride that sometimes gets wild as Dimple roller-coasters her way to a wide-eyed look at herself. Now, she hasn’t quite lost her innocence, but, as Hidier put it, there’s a “blurring and blueing around the edges.” That makes it, in many ways, a more mature novel, as Dimple herself has chronologically evolved into adulthood.
As Hidier mused, “Bombay Blues is certainly a much more bittersweet book than Born Confused, much more an exploration of ambiguity.” The young lady on the cover now exhibits a bindi formed in the symbol for infinity.
The sequel retains the verve of the first; still teeming with energy and music. If once in the past, NRIs were – or thought of themselves as – the “cool ones”, Bombay has its own buzz, with “antiparties”, “Kingfishers at Janata, dubstep at NoSoBoHo, a KFC landmark on Linking Road”.
On arrival, Dimple, though being brown in a brown land, feels “white. Beige, at least.” She later figures: “It’s getting harder to tell them apart. Us apart.” This isn’t the average NRI trawling for an exotic tale, but a discovery that there’s plenty of hipness happening in the Old Country; a chronicle of Bombay cool.
Hidier plays with language and each paragraph is crowded with wordplay that can be described with a word that was especially invented for the Bombay local train experience – superdensecrushload.
Dimple may still be somewhat confused, but she no longer lets that confound her. That probably mirrors the arc of younger Indian-Americans, who may just have discovered the talent to bridge both worlds. Reason enough for Hidier to hang on to an early email address, with a handle that puts a twist on ABCD – ABCreativeDesi.
Bombay, not Mumbai & UnBombay
Bombay is the city where my mother, brother were born, and parents met. Where Dadaji waved the flies from my face so I could sleep undisturbed, and Marathi was my first (now lost) tongue. It was the address on the pale blue airmail letters coming, going like a tide in our USA mailbox.
UnBombay is a space more than place. A zone of possibility and flux. It appears when Dimple drops the map, loses her way: Like an unexpected station, it’s the in-between: a swimming city.
If Bombay resonates with the past and Mumbai, perhaps, speaks of a future, UnBombay is the present — a moment that requires your presence… then is gone.
-Tanuja Desai Hidier
From HT Brunch, January 18, 2015
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