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Mirrors, Windows, or Prisms?: Fiction Reflecting the Indian Diaspora

Uma Krishnaswami

Stories are tools for us to pass on the essence of ourselves to the next generation—the things we care about, our hopes and dreams, our histories. In the last couple of decades, the presence of people of Indian origin in diasporic communities around the world is leading to the emergence of books reflecting the stories of those communities, and in particular books intended for young readers. This article will focus on selected books with a diversity of settings and characters, reflecting various aspects of the Indian diaspora, and published by mainstream publishing houses in the UK and USA.   Among the stories we expatriates seem compelled to write are retellings of traditional lore. Such books can be seen as mirrors, reflecting the complex cultures of our place of origin back to our children and others. My collection, The Broken Tusk: Stories of the Hindu God Ganesha (August House, 2006) falls into this category. So does Jamila Gavin’s Three Indian Princesses (Egmont, 2001) in which Gavin uses dramatic prose and child-centered language to tell the well-known tales of Damayanti, Savitri, and Sita. Madhur Jaffrey’s Seasons of Splendour (Atheneum, 1989) blends autobiography, storytelling, and information about festivals and ceremonies.   But there’s a world of story that lies beyond retelling and traditions, in the realm of contemporary fiction. Such books for young readers can be seen in two ways: they may serve as mirrors to the children of Indian immigrants overseas, but they are also windows to India and her diasporic communities for those outside them. One of the earliest among such books was The Sunita Experiment (Little, Brown, 1993) by Mitali Perkins. Now republished as The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen (Henry Holt, 2005), it is the story of eighth grader Sunita Sen whose social life is in jeopardy as a result of her grandparents’ extended visit from India. As the story plays out, Sunita comes to a place of understanding and creates an identity for herself that is both Indian and American.   In Anjali Banerjee’s novel, Maya Running (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House, 2005) thirteen year old Maya wishes her glamorous cousin Pinky could come for a visit. When that wish comes true, it turns out to have repercussions that Maya has not anticipated. Gripped by jealousy, she begs the elephant-headed god Ganesh to remove all obstacles from her life—isn’t that what his role is? As Maya crosses the threshold from ...

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