Book Review

South Haven: Hirsh Sawhney

---Sheila Kumar

Publisher: HarperCollins

Genre: Fiction

Extent: 295pp

Price: Rs 399

Hirsh Sawhney`s debut novel South Haven is a quiet piece of work. You could call it a coming- of- age novel, a slice- of- life story; it tries to stay just below the radar quite like its protagonist,  Siddharth  Arora. But this is polished writing and will not stay hidden. Not surprising since Sawhney is someone who has already carved a niche for himself. 

South Haven is of course, a suburb in Connecticut, but here it represents all that simultaneously threatens and mollifies young Siddharth. It’s his particular patch of home, where he knows all his neighbours and spends time with some of them. It is also where he goes to school and there, leads a lonely life, unable to make friends and forced to hang out with a `fellow loser’ Sharon Nagorski. It is where he suffers jolt after jolt to his idea of an orderly existence but manages to survive it all.

We meet Siddharth as he stands on the cusp of a personal tragedy, losing his mother in a sudden accident. Thereafter, this quiet, sensitive ten- year-old struggles to take a firm hold of the strings that hold his small family together. His academic father Mohan Lal and his bright elder brother Arjun love Siddharth to bits but don’t really see eye to eye with each other. Inevitably, Arjun moves away for further studies, and in an unexpected twist,  Ms Farber the counsellor Siddharth  sees at school, enters their lives as his father’s girlfriend, bringing along her son Marc who becomes the only friend Siddharth has in the course of the three years the reader shares with him.

Throughout, one is reminded of Joseph Heller`s Something Happened, another story that has a measured pace, a tale which just will not be hurried, a tale that had a totally unexpected twist in its ending.  However, South Haven does not close on any unexpected, sudden and tragic denouement.  It doesn’t need to. The story is infused with a thin thread of sadness all through.

The style is contained. While we get up close to the Aroras, there is no attempt on the author’s part to involve us too deeply in their lives. However, the reader is interested enough to stay with them in their piece of New England suburbia , mainly wanting to know just what will happen to Siddharth.

Siddharth has been beautifully, painfully, sketched out as a character. This often tongue-tied worrier of a boy,  struggling to come to terms with the loss of a dearly loved mother even as he goes to a new school where he finds it impossible to make new friends, is someone most of us have known or even been, at some point in our lives. He will do anything to keep the peace at home, and the mix of intelligence and adolescent fears is an endearing one. Yet there is all the brash judgemental nature of a second-generation immigrant, with the stereotyped understanding of his country of origin as dirty, hot and filled with beggars.

Sometimes the prose tends to drag and takes on a heavy quality, but the reader is well aware that any humour here can only tread softly, without stealing too much attention from the seriousness. The prose leans heavily in favour of descriptive passages rather than dialogue. There are small sentences that push open the door to something more troublesome beyond. Like this one:

Ms Farber was gripping Marc’s wrist, and her other hand was clasping Mohan Lal’s elbow. They looked right together, almost natural. With these people by his side, Mohan Lal could have been a Jew, even Italian. This of course, is Siddharth looking at the three people who now form his `new’ family.

But of course Mohan Lal isn’t Jewish or Italian. He’s an Indian who most often dresses in a scruffy way, forgets his table manners, tends to lecture on politics, both Indian and American. The squirming Siddharth is torn between embarrassment at the way his father behaves and an innate love and admiration for his somewhat blustery parent.

Alongside the account of this boy’s life, we see the happenings in far-off India, where a right-wing party has come to power, slowly assert their influence on Mohan Lal’s Indian friend Barry, then on Mohan Lal himself. Arjun who is fast developing a liberal outlook, moves out of his father’s shadow, thus making his little brother even more anxious. There is an argument with Mustafa, the owner of an Italian eatery the Aroras have been frequenting for years, where `uncle Barry’ is  first insolent, then offensive about Mustafa’s Muslim antecedents, and the reader realizes the Aroras have crossed one more politico-cultural milestone from where they cannot turn back.

We watch as Siddharth gets first-hand lessons all the time, of middle America’s indifference to India and Indians, even Indians living alongside them. `My dad says Hindus and Jews have only got two things in common: they are both really bad tippers and they hate the Arabs, and the Arabs hate them too,’ Marc tells Siddharth. A classic case of one-dimensional slotting, but if Siddharth has to survive in America, then he has to accept that superfluous compartmentalization, and what’s more, stay inside that compartment too.

Siddharth sees it all in black and white and it is easier for him to do so; this way, he cannot be torn by any ambivalent loyalties.  And willy-nilly, the reader starts to worry about the boy who bows to peer pressure and refuses to accept the kindness of Sharon Nagorski,  the only person at school who is civil to him and who he is actually becoming fond of; the boy who is forever biting the insides of his mouth in anxiety; who worries about their future, whether they will have enough money to carry on, whether Ms Farber is with  his father for the admittedly modest amount of money Mohan Lal has, and whether he himself will always be an outsider.

Much political thought informs this accomplished piece of work, making it a most satisfactory read.