Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

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South Haven


Grief, violence, and history collide to offer a radical look at childhood and migration in suburban New England.

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Review: Times Literary Supplement

Trying to be normal
Review of South Haven for the Times Literary Supplement by Lucy Popescu

When his mother dies in a car accident, ten-year-old Siddharth Arora is wrenched from his easy childhood. His father, Mohan Lal, a college lecturer, sinks into depression and Siddharth struggles to make new friends. One of his school companions is Sharon Nagorski but she is considered “a loser” by many of the other boys. Siddharth berates himself for not having the courage to stick up for her. He becomes even more isolated when his older brother Arjun leaves for college and he is sent for counselling with the pragmatic school psychologist Rachel Farber.

Things are further complicated when his father begins an affair with Rachel, a divorcee. On the one hand, Siddharth gains a friend—Ms. Farber’s unruly son Marc, a talented and admirably self-sufficient sportsman—but this friend is also a bad influence. As Siddharth gains confidence and enters middle school he begins to smoke, drink, watch porn, and hang out with the pitiless school bullies.

In his debut novel, Hirsh Sawhney offers a vivid portrait of second-generation immigrants living in suburban New England. (The setting of South Haven is fictitious.) Particularly memorable are Siddharth’s concerted attempts to embrace the American way of life and fit in, to the extent of denying his own heritage. When he discovers Arjun reading “a fat paperback about India called Midnight’s Children,” he can’t understand “why his brother would want to waste his time on a book about such a dirty country.” He is appalled when he discovers a photograph of Arjun with his brown-skinned Indian girlfriend. Later, he cringes when his father’s cooking fills the kitchen with “the odor of Indian food.”

Siddharth’s preferred diet is American (Coke, Doritos, meatball subs), as are his clothes. Marc becomes his only role model and, with little guidance from his father, Siddharth harbours a growing sense of alienation, which translates into a rejection of everything Indian. Sawhney is pitch-perfect when describing the uneasy relationship between adolescents and their parents. Siddharth is frequently disgusted by his father’s uncouthness, his accent and manner of speech: “Normal people didn’t use words like bloody or serpent. He wished his father would try to be more normal.”

Grief makes both father and son harsh and unforgiving, and Sawhney vividly captures this bitter stage of bereavement. Mohan buries himself in his academic work, rather than spending time with his son, and descends into a destructive spiral of hatred. Sawhney carefully reveals Mohan’s increasingly aggressive stance towards Indian Muslims and his move towards Hindu nationalism. Mohan frequently refers to Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi as “crooks,” “traitors,” “British agents.” In one chilling scene Mohan watches his friend’s home video of Hindus destroying a mosque and comments: “Amazing . . . . The Hindus have finally grown a spine”. He looks on as his friend insults the Pakistani manager of his favourite South Haven restaurant: “Mustaf-ji, how many thumbs do your little girls have? How many toes? Because if you married your sister, you better count those toes.” Siddharth is confused by his father’s and Arjun’s conflicting politics. After Arjun draws attention to a newspaper article describing a Muslim shopkeeper being burnt to death by Hindu rioters, Mohan calmly tells his son: “What I’ve learned is that a Muslim can’t be trusted.”

The book . . . [is] a very poignant coming-of-age tale. In simple, accessible prose, Sawhney conveys the various stages of loss that Siddharth must conquer before being able to stand on his own two feet. There is much emotional truth in the author’s sensitive portrayal of the despair and rage that can simmer away throughout adolescence. In Siddharth’s case this is compounded by loneliness. But instead of reaching out to a fellow victim—Sharon, whom he is secretly attracted to—Siddharth turns his back on her. Hirsh Sawhney’s quietly devastating conclusion is both unexpected and deeply moving.