It's hard to believe the stories in Good Indian Girls come from the mind of soft-spoken Ranbir Singh Sidhu—stories that are wildly imaginative and remarkably sordid, disturbing at their best, eccentric at their tamest and deeply intriguing all throughout.
In one, an Indian diplomat’s wife, while brooding over her husband’s plan to return to India, discovers that her pet python is dead and decides to cook him for her dinner party. In another, a young woman dreams of “a naked old man in a cowboy hat hopping cross-legged from one feathery cloud to another while his knees streamed blood and his limp penis flopped menacingly between his hairy thighs” the day she meets, and starts falling for, a stranger at a de-cluttering class, a man who eventually turns out to be far more sinister. In a third, a family suffers from the curse of “uncontrollable bodily emissions”—the narrator herself a vomiter, her father a pisser, her grandfather a sweater. There’s even someone in her ancestry whose “menstrual fluids filled oil drums every month.”
“I simply never know where a story is going to go when I start writing it,” says Sidhu. Most of the stories in this collection started with just a sentence or a feeling and grew into full-bodied tales with deeply flawed characters and circuitous narratives, sometimes over years. He wrote the first half of “Solzhenitsyn in Vermont,” a story of a man so attached to his books that he hires a professional reader, within weeks and then couldn’t figure out what to do with it for the next seven years. “I would beg friends to finish it for me,” he jokes.
Good Indian Girls is a book put together by picking and choosing from stories that came into existence independent of each other, all with different origins, without any inkling that there would come a time when they would sit within the pages of the same book. The earliest story dates back to the mid-‘90s, when Sidhu started writing while working as an archeologist in California and Nevada. “I didn't think it was going to be possible to put out a collection of all the stories I had written,” recalls Sidhu, “because it's hard getting a collection of stories published.” It was only when he sold a novel to HarperCollins Publishers India that he mentioned his stories to the publisher. “She read them and decided that we should put the stories out first, before the novel, to get my name known in India.”
Given his own background, it makes sense that all his stories are about the Indian diaspora. Born to Indian immigrant parents, he grew up in ‘70s racist London and visited India for the first time only when he was seven years old (“I was blown away by it”), and then, not again till he was in his thirties. When he was 14, his family moved to California to be closer to his uncles and he went on to study archeology at UC Berkeley before becoming besotted with New York in the late ‘90s and shifting base. His accented English hints at his London origins but gives no clue that he’s also taught in Israel, worked in Sri Lanka and lived in Egypt. His reticent demeanor says little about the many roles he’s played—an archeologist, a PR man, a communications trainer, a playwright and now a published author. And nothing in his manner, his genial giggle-like laugh, his peppery mop of thick hair or his intense eyes, suggests a penchant for the dark. In fact, he says, “I don't see the weirdness of them.”
The one place where the shadow of his life looms large over his stories is when it comes to the 1947 partition when, as he writes, “India and Pakistan, born as twins, began their sibling rivalry,” something his family saw first-hand as refugees long before he was born. Many of his stories are about people grappling with the senseless violence of that time. In “Neanderthal Tongues,” a boy witnesses a partition massacre of “bodies all around him, beaten, knifed, shot” and becomes obsessed later in life with erasing the divide of language by learning Esperanto, “the language of the future.” “Border Song” is about a woman who sings her way out of the memories of partition; “The Discovery” hints at the madness of partition, as its narrator descends into an insanity where his world splinters into “notcountries” and “notwords.”
For a book about the Indian diaspora, his characters aren’t typically Indian in either their traits or behavior. “How we imagine Indians within fiction these days is somewhat narrow,” he explains. “And the people I read about in the Indian narrative are not really the Indians I see around me.” The people he sees are like Anu and Hari in “Sanskrit,” a couple who refuse to live by the middle-class sensibilities of their Indian parents. They roll joints on glass framed family photos, don’t shy away from handcuffs and life-like rubber penises. Anu fails at draping a sari (she staples it into place) and Hari is a workaholic who seems to have it all, “a modern couple…drugs, parties, electrical devices…adultery?”
For that matter, this isn’t even really a book about Indian girls, good or otherwise—though there are several Indian female characters in the stories, just as there are male and even non-Indian ones. (The title is borrowed from the third, and most recently written, story in the collection.) “It’s a very American book,” observes Sidhu, trying to explain why Good Indian Girls didn’t make many impressions in India, where it was released in December of 2012. In his words, “it died, fell off a cliff, went into a hole, got eaten by rats and disappeared.” For a Pushcart Prize winner, a New York Foundation for the Arts fellow, a playwright of some repute, a widely published storyteller and a writer who is undoubtedly talented, he is acutely honest and embarrassingly modest. “I'll be lucky if I sell 1,000 copies,” he says with a half giggle.
Nidhi Chaudhry is a freelance writer based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.