by Bapsi Sidhwa
As the taxi drove out of Kennedy Airport, speaking in Gujrati, Manek said, “You’re the same old uloo. That was a damn silly way to behave. What if those chaps had packed us back to Lahore? You’re in America now; you have to learn to control your temper. There are no grannies and mummy-daddies here to bail you out!”
‘An American Brat’ by ‘Bapsi Sidhwa’ is an insightful account of the experience of a young immigrant from Pakistan to the United States in the 70s. The novel also touches upon the reservations and anxiety experienced by different sects in Pakistan due the change from Bhutto’s liberal era to Zia’s conservative one.
The title of the novel, ‘An American Brat’ is very clever. It makes us think that it’s going to be the tale of a bratty immigrant girl . . . but we’re in for a pleasant surprise. The title also in an uncanny way makes one realize that what ‘brat’ is for a First world citizen is not what ‘brat’ encompasses for a third world person.
The plot of the story is easy to follow. Set in 1970s, it revolves around the protagonist, Feroza. Feroza is a 16-year-old Parsi girl whose changing personality is alarming for her liberal, confident Parsi parents. Due to country’s increasing intolerance for minorities with misuse of Hadood Ordinance against them, there is a feeling of suffocation in the drawing rooms of the upper-middle class liberals.
Desperate due to the increasing sense of insecurity and Feroza’s disabling shyness and self-doubt, Feroza is packed away to her uncle in US hoping that
“Travel will broaden her outlook, get this puritanical rubbish out of her mind.”
Thus, begins the story of Feroza’s experiences in another world quite different from the one she had come from, and for a long time into the novel, one keeps on wondering if the theme of the novel was anything other than the obvious one.
It feels more like narration of the life of a young girl with nothing extraordinary happening. The whole theme of the novel revolves around the exhilarating freedom and profound sense of loss as to which an immigrant can surely relate to. The cross cultural clash is well captured, in detail. Political reference, though outdated, succeeds to elicit the drastic change in the lives and minds of people during Zia’s conservative rule. Given Feroza’s involvement in the politics, so much so, that she keeps Bhutto’s poster at her bedside, one expects to read about her interest in US politics of the time as well.
The pace of the story is on average fast, so it does not bore the reader to the extent to give up. Some portions are entertaining, witty and clever. The cross cultural problems faced by immigrants and family pressure, are portrayed vividly. The tone of the novel is mostly apathetic and one fails to relate to the feelings of various characters save a few instances. The reader is however kept engaged by various events, big and small, though as a reader you are unable to enjoy their full intensity.
The novel, however, has its moments; when Feroza is interrogated by the immigration, her horrendous experience down the fire stairs, and her funny bantering with Manek all render the novel enjoyable in spurts.
It would have been more interesting to read Feroza’s mind other than the clichéd chain of events; dazed by the splendor of the New World, learns to live independently, meets a boy, cultural tiff, gets heartbreak, goes on with life. We read the word freedom many times across the book, but what that actual experience of freedom was for Feroza? It seems the extent of her freedom was embodied into one person David, which was unexpected of the standards of Sidhwa.
The main theme of the novel appears to be the identity and loyalty problems faced by young immigrants, torn between their family, traditions and self identity.
Feroza’s mother, Zareen also momentarily gets sucked into the feeling of unselfconsciousness to which Feroza had fully carved into. She had shed “the thousand constraints that governed her life” back in Pakistan and with her own money and career, she was discovering her identity, i.e. transforming into an American Brat by Pakistani standards of the 70s.
This identity struggle, cultural tiff, and sexism in Parsi culture (though not unique to it) is shown from three different angles; from an elder who seems to question the old age customs in her hearts of heart but can’t bring herself to revolt, Manek who being a male has certain liberties that simplify life for him, but Feroza being a girl cannot ignore the contradictions nor is her revolt allowed to be successful.
From the traditional Parsi houses, the lavish way of upper-middle class, the close knit Parsi community to the skyscrapers and shopping giants of America, the splendor at the Madison or the Bloomingdale’s to the reeking poverty at the terminal of the 8th Avenue, it was all painted brilliantly for the reader; by far the strongest feature of this book. It gives an enlightening and detailed account of the Parsi and Zoroastrian religion. The cultural fears and situations occurring in the book must have struck a chord with the second generation Parsi living abroad.
The characters in the story are very much relatable on many levels. Feroza and Manek represent the young Parsi generation but may easily represent any young girl and boy; their experiences, their struggle for existence in the First world and their amazement at everything foreign.
Bapsi Sidhwa is an eminent Pakistani writer and has a first-hand experience of both Pakistani and American culture that shows itself strongly in An American Brat. However, one expects more from her. For those who are just starting to read Sidhwa should better start with The Crow Eaters.
Sidhwa is widely recognized as one of the most prominent Pakistani-Anglophone novelists writing today. She was raised in the Parsi community, a religious and ethnic minority in Pakistan. Critics regard Sidhwa as a feminist postcolonial Asian author whose novels—including The Crow Eaters (1978), The Bride (1981), and Ice-Candy-Man(1988); republished as Cracking India (1991)—provide a unique perspective on Indian and Pakistani history, politics, and culture. Her characters, often women, are caught up in the historical events surrounding the geographical and social division—or “Partition”—of India and Pakistan in 1947.
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