Ranbir Singh Sidhu’s debut short story collection, Good Indian Girls, is full of dark and disturbing tales that wander through the depths of the human psyche.
Although most of the stories focus on the experiences of Indian immigrants in America, these are not the typical “adjust to American life” or clash-of-culture tales. Instead, Sidhu writes stories that take place at the convergence of the darkest aspects of the two cultures.
These are modern gothic stories wherein each sentence is like a surgeon’s exacting scalpel cutting away ideas we hold dear. I didn’t notice a single line that sounded awkward or that didn’t ring true.
The titular story reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” I am not among O’Connor’s legion of fans, but Sidhu’s story assumes the best parts of O’Connor’s tale. Suspense builds as the unwitting main character blunders into disaster. You see it coming, but it still takes your breath away when it happens.
A comment from the main character’s de-cluttering instructor encapsulates the building tension: “‘We’re after bigger things, aren’t we, you and I,’ she whispered. Lovedeep didn’t know what she was talking about. The instructor continued, ‘We want to overturn our lives, start from scratch, tear open our bodies’” (45).
Sidhu uses violence to burn away the sugar coating on accepted social normalities like romantic courtship, innocent children’s play, noble poetry. He doesn’t stick to physical violence, either.
“Children’s Games,” the last story in the collection, has a group of orphans dealing emotional blows to each other and their teachers, reminding us that children can be even more cruel than adults.
“Neanderthal Tongues” uses violence to explore death on both literal and metaphoric levels, as well as our reactions to it. “I am dead,” the narrator proclaims on the first page, “and below me water shuffles into darkness.” He sees “the dead on the parade route, or at least pieces of them, their limbs, their eyes. I am better at knowing the bones, the small fragments of zygomatic arch, the lumbar vertebrae shattered” (116-117).
In addition to exploring death, the above story takes a slight leap out of reality to examine how language affects the way we relate to each other and ourselves by showing the narrator reconstructing neanderthal language from bone structures.
Other stories continue the discussion on language and cultural fluency. “Sanskrit” features an Indian woman who doesn’t know how to wear a sari and so staples it together, and an American businessman who wants his Indian coworker to talk to him in Sanskrit, assuming an Indian will by default know how to speak it.
As a whole, this collection felt well-balanced and well-ordered. The stories are not linked except by themes, but they still feel as if they belong together. Each story hovers on the edge of fantasy, sometimes putting a foot over the line, but never diving in wholeheartedly. This effect left me with a feeling of alienation—of being in a world that is somewhat familiar but strange at the same time—that mirrored what the characters felt.
“I wasn’t home, I never would be,” the narrator of the collection’s first story, “The Good Poet of Africa” states, “but for a moment, I was sure, Baggie would help me pretend” (23).
Sidhu allows us to pretend.