Monday, June 14, 2010

Jennifer Kumar on Shiva's Arms

I admit, reading novels has been challenging for me over the years. However, when the novel straddles real life to the point of complete belief, leaving me thinking, "Yeah, this really can happen in real life," I am sucked in!

Being sucked in, not once, but thrice, was easy with Cheryl Snell's recount of the struggles and joys of living in a cross-cultural, interfaith and bicultural family in the novel, Shiva's Arms.

It doesn't hurt that I can personally relate to many of the joys and struggles faced by the characters:

- Being ''coached" by friends, family, and even my spouse in how to behave 'more Indian': what to say, not say, what to wear, what and how to cook particular foods, what to do or not do for particular festivals or occasions, etc. There are two examples I would like to share from the book:

(1) Alice sets a Shiva statue in the kitchen. Ram pulls it out, offended and disgusted, telling Alice 'it doesn't belong in the kitchen where it's impure.' Of course, Ram has no reason as to why this is so. These kinds of situations are a 'dime a dozen' in India; people being told to do this or not do that because 'it's our culture,' but not having any reason behind it or offering alternative solutions. This is a frustrating part for many foreigners (including Indians born and raised outside India) to Indian culture to 'get used to', if in fact, there is any 'getting used to it.' This increases the push-pull, clear like and confusing disdain at time for a foreign culture. (More below!)

(2) Another aspect of this cross-cultural coaching that is even more challenging, in my opinion is being coached on how to tell jokes to "Indians" or appreciating the humor in Indian's jokes. There are a few instances in the book where Alice tries to tell jokes, that turn out to be inappropriate for Indian crowds and Ram pulls her away very quickly. I can completely relate to these situations and I guess without them no cross-cultural narrative would be complete or completely believable!

- Feeling I am putting my spouse or his family 'between two worlds' when trying to bring friends together from the "American" side or the "Indian" side. I was moved and memories of similar episodes from my life flashed in my head when I read the recount of 'Alice's first home-cooked Indian dinner party for friends' starting on page 29.

- The wonder, excitement and overwhelming chaos that ensues at an Indian wedding (any wedding for that matter can be equally chaotic, but when an American is a bride or bridegroom at an Indian wedding, and it's a new experience, it's more overwhelming, confusing and exciting, especially if done abroad). What a better opening to the story and novel than this scene! It will immediately draw anyone in. I could feel for Alice when her mood shifted, especially because rather than being 'coached' through the episode, she was basically picked up and moved through the scene like a small girl retelling a story with her dolls. Alice was at the complete mercy of her new in-laws.

- The on-going acceptance or repulsion of being intertwined in another 'culture'. I have read, written and reflected on the idea of 'culture shock.' In many of the writings, the reader is led to believe that culture shock is a linear process, and once 'certain things' are learnt and adapted by the newcomer, the culture shock is overcome. I don't believe this is accurate. Even if we live in the same country our whole life, if we assume that, we would not change and grow. In different times of our lives we experience different things which compel us to like or be repelled by the same things. This is clearly shown in the book- Alice's push-pull love with Indian culture, always having a love for it, but sometimes being clearly repulsed. The two clear examples would be:

(1) When Amma comes to U.S. the first time, talks only in Tamil in the home (she doesn't know much, if any English) and turns the home into a 'tiny India', making it, I think a bit foreign to Alice, and Alice exclaims, "All right, fair's fair. I wanna show you guys some American culture now. There's a play I wanna take you to. Come on, now. Let's go." This scene reminds me vividly of some of my frustrations living in India, being over stimulated by the Indian culture and at times over-emphasizing some of my "American-ness" as I felt it was not really 'allowed' to do so. Or, it reminds me of how in America it is very possible and realistic that even in one's own home, it's possible to live a different culture inside the four walls of a home that is completely different from the outside world. I am sure immigrants from all backgrounds can relate to this. In such situations, stepping outside the house is like living in a foreign land! Of course, in the novel, we find out Alice gives birth soon after her almost 'psychotic break' at the play. It may seem over dramatic because it is a fast-paced novel after-all, but in some ways, to me such a scene seems completely possible.

(2) Near the end of the book, Alice comes to terms with her mother-in-law through nursing her back to health in this time; she has in-law staying in the home helping her. One of the 'tasks' given to the in-laws by Alice is to have Amma tell them stories, and they translate them from Tamil to English so she (Alice) can draw narrations to refresh Amma about her life's memories. In this exchange, Amma opens up and tells personal stories about her life she has not told anyone.

There are many, many more points I can highlight in the wonders of 'Shiva's Arms' and why I recommend anyone interested in cross-cultural family life, Indian culture, American culture, Hindu culture or any of the other subjects in the book to pick up this book devour it. I say 'devour' because reading this book is so engrossing, even at my third read I am engrossed as my first. It is also possible to read this book in less than a day because it is indeed so engrossing. So, unlike other novels that you may find it impossible to pass the first few pages or chapters, I really don't believe it would happen with this one! Looking for some really great summer-time reading? Pick up this book, go sit under a tree in the summer shade or by the lake or ocean and while soaking up the summer breezes, soak up the wonderful narratives in Shiva's Arms. I guarantee you won't be disappointed.

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