Ranbir Singh Sidhu’s debut book is a rite-of-passage tale of a Sikh migrant who defies all labels of religion, cultural and identity.
Admiration. That is the word that spontaneously came to me after I finished reading Ranbir Singh Sidhu’s Deep Singh Blue. It is a book about a migrant, but it does not invoke nostalgia about the home country. The protagonist, who is born and brought up outside India, knows the country and the Sikh culture only through video cassettes and through the stories told to him by his parents. He does not find himself in those stories and thus stands with his back turned towards the abyss of memory. His only pursuit is of what lies ahead and his path is mixed up.
Deep Singh Blue is a dark bildungsroman – a coming of age novel – about different types of unbelonging: in cultures, in the community, in the family, in relationships, in place and in time. The protagonist is lonely, immensely lonely, but the novel is not about loneliness or about an emotional or cultural pain. Instead, Deep Singh Blue explores the deep angst of being and a human’s relationship with the world.
The core of the book comes from the examination of a quote by 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza – “Reality and perfection I use as synonymous terms”. The true power of the book lies in how well Sidhu is able to translate this highly intellectual question into a rich sensory experience.
To test the quote, the writer needs a laboratory where reality is truly chaotic. Sidhu creates that in first person by letting us peek into a dysfunctional Sikh family in the vast ocean of American consciousness. The year is 1984 – a watershed year in Sikh history.
In this book of extreme distances in intimate spaces, the narrator is a 16-year-old younger sibling in a family that includes his elder brother, mother, father, an uncle and his love interest Lily – a woman of Chinese origin who is married and is a decade older than him. Yet – and here is where the admiration comes in – not even once does the narrator lean on any of the codes of culture, religious beliefs, labels of identity or tropes of language to evoke extreme emotions, which he could have done to manipulate the readers.
He achieves this in two ways. Firstly, in how he portrays the family and his love life by being most critical of his own self and his role in the events.
“I would have given anything to touch her, to have her look at me with a sudden smile. But each time I returned to the half-life of my home, where my brother haunted the rooms like the mirror of my own ghostly self.”
Secondly, there is the dispassionate voice which states, but does not mock any of the belief systems or codes of culture, but rather shows him distant from them. For example, in the opening scene, the young man is stood up at a cafeteria. As soon as you think that the reason behind it might be his race, the story reveals that it is because the waiters think he is someone who hasn’t respected their co-worker, his love interest. The conflict is human, not race.
Also, the author establishes that the protagonist is interested in books, reading, knowledge and in the examination of a truism proposed by a philosopher before introducing a Sikh cousin who is visiting the protagonist from India. When the cousin examines the protagonist’s room and notices his books, he snorts, “All this is rubbish, there is only one book.” He produces a small blue Sikh prayer book and says, “You read that every morning and every night and you will be happy.” This kind of a blanket statement should end all debate, all discussion and all pursuits, except through the holy book.
For me, as someone who was born into a Sikh family, this is a major achievement. From personal experiences, I know the sway of the Guru Granth Sahib on the Sikh community. For Sidhu to so easily distance himself from that sway by putting the conflict out there for all his readers to take sides on evokes my admiration.
A central tenet of the Sikh religion is rising against injustice. The protagonist is in severely unjust situations – in his family relations, in his mother’s blind defiance of his elder brother’s mental health, in his father’s boorish behaviour, in his uncle’s interference in the family and in his relationship with Lily – whom he covets, but who in turn manipulates him. Yet, he does not bank on Sikhism to salvage himself, nor does he fall prey to the rhetoric of the Sikh thought and deny the chaos and pretend all is well.
The protagonist meets the world as an open soul without the encumbrance of religious or cultural baggage. In the process, he shows how early migrant families – who are on the verge of poverty – coped with finding themselves in this new land that is touted as one of opportunity and equality. They simply do not adapt. They stay ghettoised in their minds and isolated in their glass bubble, sneakily trying to benefit from the new system and inventing heroism for themselves. And yet, as a reader, you find it hard to blame them, given the abuse they often face. They are hardly welcomed with open arms.
“In the days that my family lived in the faraway valley towns, this exact thing had happened to us. Mom and Dad in front, Jag and myself in back, while way-too-drunk shitheads in their trucks roared past and screamed obscenities and racist garbage. Dad had gripped the wheel tighter and tighter until I thought it would crack under the pressure. He never once looked to his side or over his shoulder to acknowledge the pursuers. Such nights had terrified me, a terror that after all these years had stayed, buried deep in my muscles. I felt it again that night, an ancient wound opening up, and when I looked into the kids’ eyes in the back of the car, I had seen myself.”
Deep Singh Blue is an excellent portrayal of the walls migrants build to secure their own lives and of how those very walls prey upon them. It also reveals how small Sikh families in 1980s in the US took a huge interest in the affairs of Punjab. They were monetarily contributing to the struggle for Khalistan but stayed away from the battles. The disrupted separatist movement psychologically displaced them even further.
The novel’s weakness, however, is its plot structure. It is loose, but that is a part of the memoir genre of writing. I do wish the narrative voice was stronger and more overpowering. It is dispassionate and that shows us the un-rootedness of the narrator. The voice grows on to the reader. An easy comparison would be to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thomson for its drug-fuelled trips or with A Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, although that was more about cynicism and a dismissal of meaning. Deep Singh Blue, however, is about angst and about the search for meaning.
Sidhu has trained with Edward Albee and it shows in how he reveals the elder brother’s mind: what starts as a simple love for magazines and obsession with creativity, turns out to be a scary mental health issue. Some of his dialogues remind one of Vonnegut’s brilliance.
This novel of unbelonging evades the common matrix of labels and analysis. The writer uniquely inhabits a space that he himself creates. Is it a new Sikh voice? No, I don’t think Sidhu would agree to that and that is the real compliment.
Amandeep Sandhu is a writer.