Brown is a tricky hue for skin, the colour possessing neither the pugnacious confidence of white, the enigmatic elegance of yellow nor the genteel dignity of black. And being a brown girl in a predominantly white world could come with additional advantages and disadvantages as vividly described by Scaachi Koul in her debut book, One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter.
Koul straightaway begins by introducing herself as the globetrotting daughter of Indian immigrants in this slim collection of autobiographical essays. She is as fair as a Kashmiri pundit girl could be, but still unable to officially qualify as “white”. So “brown” it is as the chief label to her identity, in the growing up years in Calgary, Canada.
Koul begins by skimming through her family history touching fleetingly on the small-town romance of her parents before they married and migrated to southern Ontario. She pens a moving passage while describing her mother “Mom cried all the time, happy or sad, her tears running a moat around a mole just under her eye, her face like a Shiva Lingam for feelings”, and follows up with many a memorable line.
The death of her grandparents (maternal and paternal) and its effect on her parents are swiftly etched but what emerges from these tragedies is her parents’ and every other Indian’s fear of death and every kind of potential calamity, the habit of making impassioned pleas to a phalanx of deities to protect one’s kith and kin, and subsequently, the habit of living life in a state of chronic fear. The side effect of these is the transmission of their nameless fears to their daughter, the author, who grows up palpitating with terror while snorkeling and quivering with apprehension during air travel, while battling other phobias.
Growing up in places where brown skin invariably invites racist comments and a patronising attitude, Koul is no wilting violet. Militant and oozing forced bravado, she gives back as good as she gets, often in double doses. Contradictions abound in our heroine and if at one point in time she rejects gold in an effort to fit in with her contemporaries, at another she loads her wrists and fingers with flashy jewellery, choosing to go desi with a vengeance. Sometimes she aches to fit in with the Caucasian girl gangs in school while at other times she openly celebrates her brownness. Sartorial desires generate their own set of problems in a girl growing up to possess a busty wide-hipped and a very Indian body.
There’s a massive identity crisis happening here, it is evident, the protagonist torn between her Indian roots (and genes) and the pressures and requirements of a global lifestyle. Added to that is the love-hate equation with fellow immigrants that seems to afflict Koul from time to time and erupts in the form of snarky tweets.
The non-resident Indian’s dichotomy of existence — a position of privilege with relatives back home and diffidence with members of the Western world — is very well brought out. Koul’s boyfriend Hamhock, a beefy white giant, stomps through the book genially, without making any kind of major impact; it is Kouls’ parents who come across as wildly riveting. Her feisty mother and inscrutable father, with a penchant for dropping wry witty observations, endear themselves instantly to the reader.
A visit to her homeland Jammu to attend a big fat Indian wedding evokes astute observations as Koul makes a note of the arrogant treatment meted out to domestic servants, gender inequalities during the wedding ceremony and the acute physical discomfort that a bride has to endure.
The ordeal of being party to an elaborate wedding lasting five whole days has the protagonist wilting but Koul describes the rituals with warmth and wit, robbing the comments of their sting.
Although angry, irritated and uncomfortable with the chaotic goings on of a traditional wedding, Koul, nevertheless, gets misty-eyed watching her cousin’s bidaai to the accompaniment to much weeping and melodrama.
She even surreptitiously finds herself longing of doing the same someday. On returning home, she calmly goes back to her live-in relationship with Hamhock in the face of stiff parental disapproval.
An entire chapter is about Koul’s introduction to alcohol coupled with some serious out-of-control repercussions. The escapades of the gang of three — Koul, Jordan and Braga — enthusiastic tipplers all, is vividly described though one feels palpable relief when the protagonist outgrows her addiction. If steadily gaining a voluptuous body in a land full of pencil slim women wasn’t distressing enough, the protagonist starts sprouting thick black hair all over and an entire chapter abounds with despair and the frantic measures revolving around depilation.
Her partners in crime in attempting to make her silky and hairless are her mother, armed with depilatory creams, wax and what-have-you, and her cousin Neeta. Neeta also stealthily sets up Koul’s webcam, Hotmail and MSN Messenger facilities thereby introducing her to the heady freedom of the Internet.
One thing leads to another and soon Koul is a Twitter sensation tweeting bold and brazen thoughts and unleashing a war of words with trolls that, by its sheer magnitude, is featured in the media.
Koul as the party hearty who periodically gets sloshed and narrowly escapes rape makes for another interesting chapter. Her adored little niece Raisin, of the lily-white skin, wafts in and out the book, evoking some serious social and cultural soul searching on the part of the author.
Diaspora angst has been done to death in literature and there is very little left to say that could be new. And yet, Koul with her sheer exuberance of prose and her wicked streak of humour gives the book its unique spin.
The topics are predictable: family history, death and mortality, the big fat Indian wedding, addiction, social media (its thrills and perils) and hirsutism; an entire section on Brazilian waxing makes for howlarious reading.
It is what the author does while weaving around these mundane topics that lifts the book above the ordinary. Observations made are insightful and delightful similes pepper the text, “Like farts and the incorrect retelling of classic literature, racism is a lot cuter when it comes out of a little girl”; and there is a heart-warming internality to the ruminations.
The book is as much about ennui, loneliness of the misfit, desperation to blend in with an alien culture (and yet cling to tradition) as it is about the author’s hilarious escapades. Never has the slang term for children of Indian immigrants, ABCDs (American Born Confused Desis) been as applicable as here! The author and her father’s cryptic exchange of mails (before every chapter) is absolutely the highlight of this book and is her father’s little note at the end of the book. Perennially stranded in a no-man’s land between one’s homeland and a foreign country, and constantly dodging crossfire between Indian tradition and Western emancipation, Koul represents an entire generation. Entertaining, thought-provoking and loaded with laugh-aloud humour, One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter makes for a rambunctious read.