How does childhood nostalgia become a launching pad for serious social issues in South Asian fiction?
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The theme of childhood nostalgia in South Asian fiction abounds with intensity and nuance. Childhood is never just a matter of happy days of yesteryear. Basically, childhood comes with its share of despair, disappointments and hiccups. As we age, we become more aware of problematic aspects of our childhood that our young minds might have overlooked. South Asian authors impeccably portray childhood in all its messy glory, highlighting all the serious social issues that deserve our attention.
Set in 1980s Kerala, Aruna Nambiar’s hilarious novel Mango cheeks, metal teeth is part coming-of-age story and part social satire. Geetha, an 11-year-old girl, is really excited about her annual family holiday in Kerala with her grandparents. Geetha absolutely loves joining her cousins on beach trips and visiting the local market to buy bracelets, kites and other trinkets associated with a typical Indian childhood. She looks forward to spending evenings with her grandfather who insists his ridiculous ghost stories are true. An entire summer spent participating in card game marathons and boy-vs-girl battles with coconut fiber broomsticks seems utopian. However, amid the trouble-free days of childhood, class consciousness, the dowry system, and social hierarchy rear their ugly heads.
Through the eyes of Gita, we see a faulty social structure where the rich always behave as if they possess the poor. We meet Koovait Kannan, a former domestic helper at Geetha’s grandparents, who has suddenly risen in rank thanks to the economic opportunities offered by the Gulf. The marriage of Bindu, the daughter of Kannan, was arranged with Venu, the son of Ration Raman. This arrangement was made in an effort to maintain the new-rich status of both parties involved. This is a child’s first interaction with how marriages are still considered transactions. Love does not come into play as in a capitalist society, material comfort reigns supreme. Ration Raman’s income comes from illegal sources, but the money can hide the law. The desire for social mobility often pushes the characters into moral ambiguity. The marriage of Bindu and Venu highlights the dowry system to which the bride is obliged to conform. The bride’s family must offer money or its equivalent to the groom’s family, reinforcing a system where women are objects to be exchanged in financial transactions. Women are commodified and children grow up in a structure that still views women as sub-human. The book also presents the division between masters and servants. The power of the rich over the poor and the sense of entitlement the first class feels over the second are palpable throughout this novel.
At Daribha Lyndem Name Place Animal Thing tells the story of a girl called D and her Khasi community of India, from childhood to adulthood. Through its shifting perspectives on identity, communal differences, and how the self relates to the other, readers gain insight into a politically and racially charged Shillong (a city in India). In this collection of interconnected short stories, each chapter deals with a specific character through which a certain aspect of Shillong is revealed.
Lyndem addresses the many manifestations of racism that exist within the Khasi socio-political ecosystem. His Nepalese neighbour, from a disadvantaged socio-economic background, is forced to leave the city. One of his sons is mutilated by a dog and D wonders why no one comes to his aid. There is a chapter dedicated to a Chinese restaurant owner named Tommy through which Lyndem spoke about the insurgency movement in the state in the 1980s and 1990s. Tommy’s ancestors moved to Kolkata more than two years ago centuries. Now Tommy has to pack up his things and return to Kolkata as the living situation in Shillong is no longer ideal for people like him.
D is a child when the insurgency movement hits the state, so her memories are associated with bandhs, having to miss school, and riding bikes on traffic-free roads. Lyndem peppered happy childhood anecdotes with instances of xenophobia, racism, sexual harassment and loss. Childhood is a minefield. So many things can decline around us without our being aware of it. Parents can’t do much to protect us, no matter what our childish brain thinks; they are not superheroes. In one well-executed scene, we learn that an elderly person pinches D’s “bathroom parts” without his consent. Through D, Lyndem describes how we as children witness violence on a daily basis. She underlines the extent to which childhood is as difficult and painful to live with as adulthood. Impressionable young minds adapt to the many outbursts of hate and it takes years to begin to unpack the trauma. The story slips seamlessly into the eyes and voice of a child, making the adult reader think about the many complexities of childhood.
The realm of everyday intimacy is where social change truly begins. Social change is not an advertising campaign, nor can we tweet our way to social change, contrary to what social media posts may have us believe. South Asian fiction, through the lens of childhood nostalgia, speaks of the daily indignities we suffer at the hands of our employers, neighbors, friends and communities. He exposes how sometimes our inflated sense of self prevents us from introspecting and thus prevents us from changing our ways to bring about active change. The theme of childhood nostalgia also helps navigate trickier territory, bringing to light all of the oppressive ideologies we internalize as children. We grow by normalizing these principles, because unlearning does not happen without a conscious effort on our part. Contemporary South Asian fiction urges us to reassess our childhood biases and take a more constructive approach to demystifying them.
For more books on South Asia and what it’s like to call this part of the world home, please check out these spectacular reads!