* Sathian was raised in Georgia, like her protagonist Neel, by Indian immigrant parents
* Her narrator Neel is set against the archetype of high achieving Indian Americans. His dreams are not tailored around Harvard
* New writers such as Sathian, a generation younger than Jhumpa Lahiri, have often wrestled with the latter’s early legacy in the US
It’s an unusual evening at the Narayan household in Hammond Creek, Georgia. Prachi, the Narayan daughter, intelligent, driven, attractive, and importantly, deferential to Indian cultural traditions, has lost her grandmother’s gold chain at a high school party. The mood around the dinner table is decidedly sombre, her brother Neel is poking at bisibelebath and reheated aloo sabzi. Prachi, though, has to perform a more unpleasant task to redress her folly — profuse apologies and an exhibition of remorse, not to her parents at home, but to the hard-of-hearing grandmother in India. “In our house, it took only one gesture in the direction of India to compound an already grave situation.” Neel Narayan, Sanjena Sathian’s narrator in her debut novel Gold Diggers , draws out in one fell swoop the nature of ties for the millennial Indian Americans to their country of origin. The entity at a distance distils into their lives almost every day, and outlines the friendships they forge, families they bond with and ambitions they chase.
Prachi hasn’t just lost a piece of gold jewellery. “She had imperilled the very nature of the sacrifice of crossing oceans.” Neel points out how his parents “relished the phrase ‘crossing oceans’, as though, they had arrived in steerage class aboard a steamship instead of by 747”. Sathian’s Gold Diggers is a definitive piece of literary fiction; it marks a shift in the way the Indian American immigrant experience is recorded.
Sathian was raised in Georgia, like her protagonist Neel, by Indian immigrant parents. A journalist and creative writing instructor, Sathian is also the founder of the Bombay Writers’ Workshop. Her expansive novel spans generations and continents, the middle-class apartments in Dadar and the neighbourhoods of Hammond Creek where it is impossible to “shun, renounce, extract, or untangle yourself from any other desi”. It culminates in California, the gold country, where the history of cavernous ambition merges and dissolves with intensely personal ones, a coming together of narratives on migration across centuries, bound by gold, and the avenues it opened and shut. Sathian assuredly dips into a genre that has shrunk in favour among new writers — magical realism. It is an effective tool in Gold Diggers where ambition is realised through alchemy, stolen dreams and distilled potions.
Sathian’s narrator Neel is set against the archetype of high achieving Indian Americans. His dreams are not tailored around Harvard, the kind that will vindicate his parents’ decision to ‘cross oceans’. “When I was younger, I consisted of little but my parents’ ambitions for who I was to become,” says Neel. He sleepwalks through much of high school, unlike his sister Prachi who has her future carved out, beginning with being the Miss Teen India Georgia, and going the whole hog with Miss Teen India USA before landing at Duke University. Ambition drives Prachi, but is sorely in short supply for Neel. His stint as a high school debater is encouraged as it might just fuel his ambition. “Debate gave children ambition, the Indian parties concluded. Ambition: the substance to settle the nerves of immigrant parents. Ambition: the point of that summer, for me, was to acquire one.” Neel acquires one when he discovers that the energy driving his friend and neighbour Anita Dayal isn’t just unadulterated focus, but a concoction brewed by her mother.
Gold Diggers is broadly a coming-of-age novel that focuses on a generation dismissively branded ABCD [American Born Confused Desi]. “We’d grown out of it as we grew up; our generation had perhaps not resolved, but at least begun to get over that Miss Teen India riddle: What does it mean to be both Indian and American? ” By doing so, Sathian curates, rather masterfully, fiction that sidesteps the prevalent framework of the American immigrant novel.
In her essay, Jhumpa Lahiri and the Aesthetics of Respectability published in The Drift , Sathian reflects on a different path the immigrant novel could take, one which veers away from what she calls the “Lahiri universe” of Indian American experiences. New writers such as Sathian, a generation younger than Lahiri, have often wrestled with the latter’s early legacy in the US; the Pulitzer winner, she says, still occupies the “singular throne set aside for Indian Americans” in the mainstream. Sathian represents a generational shift, for her preoccupation is not so much the first generation Indian immigrants and their struggles to belong, but the younger desis. The gaze is inward, into the anatomy of a still homogenous, minority group. And that gaze is irreverent, sharp, brutal, and, also, comical. The burden of departures and belonging hangs lighter, instead the greater burden is a community’s collective quest to realise the American dream. It is hardly surprising that actor producer Mindy Kaling, co-creator of Never Have I Ever on Netflix, has signed up with Sathian to adapt Gold Diggers for television.
Sathian’s Gold Diggers is a potent, multi-faceted work — as much an immigrant novel as it is a coming-of-age tale. Sathian is brave enough to show the ugly and not-so-respectable facet of the Indian American community. In her Drift essay, she underscores the need to put out real and truer versions of a minority group. “If we give ourselves to them, I hope we insist on representing not our most respectable selves but our truest ones.” Gold Diggers is an unembellished reflection of that truth.