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Under The Lemon Trees: A Book Review

by MANJYOT KAUR

 

'Under The Lemon Trees' is the sikhchic.com Book of the Month selection for January 2010.

 

 

UNDER THE LEMON TREES, by Bhira Backhaus. St. Martin's Press, New York, 2009. ISBN 978-0-312-37953-7. 342 pages. Price: $24.95.



THE REVIEW

Bhira Backhaus was born and raised in California's Central Valley, where her parents immigrated to from India. This is her first novel.

Under the Lemon Trees is a multigenerational saga which shifts smoothly between the lives and times of its two main protagonists. One moment, it is 1976 and 15-year-old Jeeto, growing up in the suburban Northern California enclave of Oak Grove - "a gas station- and burger joint-infested town overrun with Indians" - struggles to reconcile her girlish aspirations with the traditional Punjabi cultural expectations held by her elders. The next, the reader is transported back to 1947, as Avtar Singh, the man who will eventually become Jeeto's uncle, attempts to reinvent himself as a recent immigrant to America's western shore.

Jeeto is, in many ways, a typical first-generation American teenager of foreign-born parents, desperate to squeeze herself out from under what she perceives as the smothering thumb of her tradition-mired family, and take the first steps towards what she hopes will become an independent future lived on her own terms. She dreams that attending college away from home will be her ticket to freedom, all the while knowing that her family has other plans for her: an arranged marriage to an aspiring doctor from India.

Avtar Singh is also somewhat of a stock character: the new arrival who, forsaking his former existence, must skillfully navigate his way through a maze of unfamiliar American mores (while confronting anti-Asian prejudice), as well as the hierarchical pecking order of the transplanted Indian community established by Sikhs who settled in the area during earlier decades.

Both Jeeto and Avtar Singh are, in their own ways, not only searching to carve out their own places in their complicated and confusing worlds, but also, unsurprisingly, craving love's emotional warmth and physical pleasures. Usually, however, as the hackneyed song goes, the love they are looking for is found "in all the wrong places."

Jeeto's family is desperate that she not succumb to the temptations through which her older sister, Neelam, has disastrously disgraced herself.

As the book opens, Neelam is being hurriedly pushed into a marriage arranged according to the astrological pronouncements of the much sought-after matchmaker Charan Kaur, in a frantic attempt to sweep away the shame and misfortune that we later learn has resulted from a forced abortion after becoming pregnant during a clandestine romance with Hari, the heart-breaker grandson of the town's richest and most powerful personage, Mohta Singh. However, her sibling's painful experiences do not deter Jeeto from surrendering to the irresistible lures of Charan Kaur's bad-boy offspring, the rebellious and seductive Pritam.

As Jeeto's adventures unfold, we are also privy to those of Avtar Singh, who, like many of his starved-for-female-affection peers, falls hard for the beguiling charms of a Mexican woman, in his case, the pretty waitress Olivia. His earnest and touching wooing of her ends badly for him, as does his brief marriage to the half-Mexican daughter of Mohta Singh, contracted to legitimize her advancing pregnancy (as a result of an illicit affair with another man), as well as for a less altruistic reason - to acquire a share of Mohta Singh's extensive agricultural landholdings.

Further into the core of the novel, the plot veers perilously into soap-opera territory. The reader has been shown that Jeeto is an intelligent and capable student who is definitely "college material," although she feels compelled to forge her mother's signature on her application to Berkeley, as her parents think a year or two at a local community college would be plenty in terms of higher education for a girl.

For the most part, however, her life seems to revolve around her attempts at attracting Pritam and the ups and downs of her relationship with her girlfriend Surinder (which vacillates between adolescent friendship and not-so-amicable competition over Pritam's attentions).

As for Surinder, in addition to her heated flirtations with Pritam - which become embarrassingly public after the two disappear together during a senior class excursion - she is carrying on an affair with an older married man, the attorney Ajit Singh (better known as "Scottie"). Besides fairly explicit descriptions of Jeeto and Pritam's dalliances, there are also some flashbacks that describe Neelam and Hari's lustful escapades in considerable detail.

We are also afforded fleeting glimpses into the tumultuous life of Aunt Manjit, who, apart from being almost continually pregnant, must do her utmost to cope with her almost continually drunken husband, Uncle Girpal.

This is also true for the sections which deal with Avtar Singh, albeit to a much lesser degree. Most of his life is taken up with his dogged efforts to find steady employment and establish a suitable place for himself in the community. The carnal exploits in these chapters are almost completely confined to those of Leandro, Avtar Singh's Filipino roommate, with Avtar preferring to spend what little leisure time he has, apart from his pursuit of Olivia, in sporadic bouts of drinking and gambling in the Chinese part of town.

In Jeeto's world, Backhaus depicts Sikhi in a truly sad state. Gurdwara is attended more through long-engrained habit than heartfelt belief, simply as a convenient place to socialize with other Indians and exchange the latest gossip. The ostensible religious fervor of Jeeto's mother seems to have more to do with praying for success on her upcoming American citizenship test than genuine spiritual devotion.

The not-so-happily married Neelam does derive a sense of comfort from her brief daily stop-off at the gurdwara to prostrate herself before the scriptures, especially after suffering a miscarriage. But one could easily (if cynically) conclude that she becomes a Sunday-school instructor just as much, if not more, to provide her with an excuse to run into Hari as to teach a children's Punjabi class. (Hari seldom attends gurdwara, however, as he "resisted that kind of convenient faith, a crutch for the weak and old" and Sikh beliefs strike him as "simplistic, unsatisfactory as a measure against his own life.")

The granthi never bothers to look up at the congregation during services, haughtily preferring to "languish in his purified state ... purged of normal, everyday concerns." A sewadar encountered while planning an Akhand Path ceremony on the occasion of the death of Mohta Singh (whose "failing health brought him reluctantly back into the fold") who dares to decry the sangat's abandonment of Gurmat principles, comes across as an out-of-touch zealot who literally foams at the mouth.

The few other Sikhs mentioned as being turban-wearing are also summarily dispensed with, such as the obnoxious, know-it-all valedictorian of Jeeto's high school (whose dastaar is referred to as "a tyrannical bit of salmon pink") and an elderly man impotent to control his hooligan grandson.

In general, the image of Sikhi portrayed in the chapters dealing with Avtar Singh's immigrant experience is similarly devoid of relevance and vibrancy. "He'd shorn his hair and shaved his beard before boarding the boat from India. What difference did it make now?" the reader is told of Avtar. Mohta Singh, as he "scratched at his face, where a full beard had once grown," confides to the young man: "I came to this country wearing a bhag and daari. (...) But one has to be practical in this country."

[It should be noted that, besides the above "Girpal" and "bhag," there are many other disconcerting transliterations in this book.]

Although separate chapters are reserved for the 1947 and 1976 time periods throughout the span of the book, the lives of Jeeto and Avtar Singh inevitably converge, with the now middle-aged man (remarried for many years to Aunt Teji, whom he brought over from India) assuming, among his numerous other responsibilities, that of a caring and involved uncle to whom Jeeto often turns for understanding and support.

The book's climax is certainly not without its unexpected twists and turns. As Jeeto teeters on the cusp of adulthood, the reader is left hoping that she will one day find the place where she fits best - and, without relinquishing her chosen dreams, discover the sensations of freedom and love she so avidly craves.

It is evident that Backhaus is an extremely talented writer who excels in describing the intimate minutia that constitute the lives of her characters. Also remarkable among these pages are captivating depictions of the sights, sounds and smells of agricultural California (both 1976- and 1947-era) and how these evolve under the influences of the burgeoning Indian-American community.

The rather bleak portrayal of Sikh spirituality and practice and the not terribly meaningful or relevant role allotted to Sikhi in terms of the everyday world of the book's personages - regardless of their age and duration of American residence -- was, admittedly, an unpleasant surprise. It would have been gratifying to have encountered at least one character who was postively portrayed as both a committed Sikh and a likeable, multi-faceted human being. One cannot help but wonder what kinds of impressions these unflattering images might make on unsuspecting non-Sikhs who get their first glimpses of the Sikh faith through this work!

These unfortunate aspects aside, Under the Lemon Trees is a colorful, fast-paced novel, definitely a step above standard "exotic chick-lit" fare, that a wide adult audience (especially female readers) will find appealing as an entertaining alternative to more serious, scholarly assessments of the Indian-American immigrant experience.

 

December 30, 2009

Conversation about this article

1: Pavan (California, U.S.A.), December 31, 2009, 8:38 PM.

Manjyot Kaur: Thank you for this review. While I agree with many of your points regarding positive portrayal of Sikhs in literature, I am not sure the author's intention was to create a Sikh novel or a novel about Sikhs. Just because someone has been raised in a Punjabi Sikh family or practices Sikhi - I don't think that needs to mean that everything they do or write has to be about Sikhs.

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