Monday, August 01, 2022

The Taste of Ginger by Mansi Shah

Preeti Desai is a successful corporate lawyer who has, in her estimation, finally achieved the assimilation into American culture that she had striven all of her life to achieve. But then a horrible accident involving her brother and sister-in-law, call her back to India, and she realizes how much she still walks like and elephant. Her mother has told her this so often. “I was around nine years old when I realized she wasn’t calling me fat. She meant that I wasn’t demure and obedient—qualities ever good Indian daughter  should have.”

And so begins this fascinating, sometimes heartbreaking story of an Indian family that has immigrated to the U.S. and parents who desperately want their two children to assimilate and succeed as Americans, but also want them to retain Indian values and culture. Mansi Shah, with her incisive and lovely prose lays out this story in her 2022 novel, A Taste of Ginger.

Preeti has not talked to her mother for months:

Not since she found out that my boyfriend—now ex-boyfriend—and I had been living together in Los Angelas. Cohabitating with a dhoriya was, in her opinion, the most shameful thing her daughter could have done. Living with a white boy was right up there with marrying someone from a lower caste or talking back to your elders.

Preeti and her brother, Neel, have been striving since childhood to sluff off Indian clothes and habits in order to succeed in this new home in Chicago.

Despite living in America for over twenty years, my parents didn’t have any friends who weren’t Gujarati. Much to my chagrin as a teenager trying to fit into this new country. Devon Avenue gave my parents the option of living in the West without giving up the East, and expecting their children to do the same.

When her brother and pregnant sister-in-law are seriously injured in a rickshaw truck accident in India, Preeti must fly ‘home’ although she risks losing her job at the law firm where she works 60+ hour a week. And there she finds as an NRI (non-resident Indian) that she is as singled out and foreign as she has been in the states. Unlike in Los Angela, in India she looks the same as those around her, but is immediately set apart.

Having been born in a higher caste, her family had lived a relatively wealthy life in India with servants to care for their daily needs; in America her engineer father is not recognized for the educated man he is and must take on what for him is menial labor. It is not until she returns to India that she really realizes how much her parents had given up to come to America. Neither had she really understood the Indian caste system, which she is forced to recognize when she has the audacity to associate with an Indian photographer who is of a lower caste. And finally, she did not realize that her mother had been unhappy in this country, yearning for her old life in India, but unwilling to go back.

As an immigrant child of immigrant parents, I grew up knowing my future had to be their future. That meant getting the best grades , going to the best college, and getting the best job to ensure the sacrifices they had made for us were validated.

While her brother Neel has also had to work hard to assimilate, he has been able to retain some core Indian values. He marries a very traditional Indian girl who seems to easily balance the two cultures. Preeti admires but also resents her apparent ease as she reverts to Indian values.  “You guys are among the lucky few that have a love marriage that fell within the biodata matches of the arranged system, and you have to protect it...You have to give me hope that someday, somewhere, i will be able to find that kind of happiness too.”

Although her sister-in-law survives the accident, the baby does not, and it turns out that Preeti must stay in India much longer than intended to help her loved brother re-unite with his grief-stricken wife.

Shah develops her story and her charters slowly with a keen eye and forgiving heart. Over the  time there, she finally manages to reconnect with her mother, and to realize how she has struggled in her American life. She also comes to understand how limited her knowledge of the caste system is.

During my Indian childhood and infrequent trips back, I had never had occasion to be around anyone from another caste outside of servants and vendors, and I wasn’t familiar with the differences in lifestyle between them. It hadn’t occurred to me that there were public schools here because I’d only known people who went to private ones. What I knew of India applied only to the upper caste, and I realized I knew nothing of how most of the country lived.

No comments:

Post a Comment