Stuck in a dead-end town on the fringe of the Bay Area, sixteen-year-old Deep Singh yearns for escape. His parents are driving him crazy. His brother—a formerly charismatic and brilliant boy—may actually be crazy. As Deep falls into an affair with a married woman, starts drinking, and generally acts out, a tragicomedy unfolds against a backdrop of strip malls, apartment complexes, and dusty roads in 1980s California.
Family novels and bildungsromans follow a familiar script. A large part of the pleasure in reading Deep Singh Blue is watching author Ranbir Singh Sidhu acknowledge, rewrite, and sometimes simply blow up this well-worn track.
Precocious, but also aimless, Deep takes classes at junior college, where he meets Lily, an older, married, Chinese-American woman—and promptly falls in love. It’s easy to see why. Lily is beautiful, foul-mouthed, and exciting. But Lily hasn’t figured out what to do with her own complicated self-loathing. She introduces Deep to sex and schnapps, but also to her way of confronting past hurts, which involves terrorizing other Chinese-American families by nearly running them off the road.
Expertly, Sidhu follows this unsettling scene with a flashback of comic torture: the time when Deep’s perfect Punjabi cousin Thakurjeet comes to visit. This insufferable rival is the son Deep will never be: devout, respectful, and fluent in the language of a homeland Deep has all but abjured. But just as Lily chases down specters of her heritage with her car, Deep chases away his cousin by summoning a violently racist incident.
Although the Singhs live within sight of the tolerant bubble of the Bay Area, racism is deeply engrained in their environment. Deep is forever confronted by the difference of his Indian-American family and his immigrant parents. This repeated confrontation, and the searching it provokes within Deep, forms the heart of Sidhu’s novel.
Throughout the book, Deep suffers the push-pull of family, wanting nothing to do with them, only to come close again, often in ways that take him by surprise. For most of the novel, however, his trajectory leads him away. As his situation becomes more unbearable, he takes to driving aimlessly. And at times he wants nothing more than to be free of all claims, all pasts, any culture that is not rooted in the individual.
“I drove for hours, unheedful of time or place or how I’d find my way home. A part of me thought I should stay out there, pitch the flag of my new nation inside my own car and keep going, a moveable land, unfixed in time or place, whose borders would never stand still for a single day.”
Although Deep ultimately negotiates a new, hard-won identity, escape is never truly possible. And maybe, the novel suggests, the mistake is looking for escape in the first place.
“Blame Spinoza,” the second chapter begins, with Ishmael-like assertion. Set like a frame around the novel’s action is a quote from the Enlightenment philosopher’s Ethics: “Reality and perfection I use as synonymous terms.”
First encountered in a used bookstore, Spinoza is set as a counterweight to Deep’s adolescent crises. Time and again, Deep returns to the meaning of Spinoza’s perfect world, concluding, “this world was perfect, because it could be nothing else except exactly as it was.” Over the course of the book we see Deep meet this sometimes confounding, sometimes comforting axiom and wrestle a truth from it.
How can such a messed-up world be perfect? That paradox animates Deep Singh Blue and provides its most painful ironies. The same night that Deep goes off the rails in his relationship with Lily, there is terrible ethnic fighting in India. There’s another, more wrenching pairing to come. Sidhu stages a darkly comic meeting between the proprietor of the local video store and Deep’s parents for the purpose of discussing an arranged marriage between their son and his daughter. But then he follows this with the novel’s most devastating scene, in which queasy laughter about marriage gives way to tragedy, and Deep’s mother must confront the extent of her failed hopes.
For all its scenes of comedy, failed hopes abound in Deep Singh Blue. A relative’s dream of a Sikh nation goes down in flames. More heartbreaking is the deterioration of Deep’s older brother, Jag. The adult Jag stops talking, shuts himself in his room, and at one point disappears. It is this troubling relationship steers the book toward its crisis, even though for most of the story it has provided a minor key.
In his previous book, the story collection Good Indian Girls, Sidhu presented an array of characters often surprising, many times unlikable, and pulled the rug out from under any readers coming to the title with unironic hopes.
With its coming-of-age family culture clash, Deep Singh Blue veers closer to the territory of “immigrant fiction” and its well-known tropes of middle-class assimilation. But, it becomes clear, the purpose in coming close has been to take a strafing pass at those conventions and to punch through to something altogether larger.
Deep Singh Blue
By Ranbir Singh Sidhu
The Unnamed Press