Indian, By Clichés

Boiled down to a crude and simplistic, 35-word theory about book writing, creative non-fiction pieces rely on true stories and meticulous research; and memorable works of fiction, rely, above all, on a fecund imagination.

A teaspoon of sequins on the dust jacket and you’ll have pure kitsch.

And some works, such as Amit Dasgupta’s “Indian by Choice,” fall neither here, not there, but occupy a distinct slot, all of their own.

More a comic book than a graphic novel, really, it tells a story only as unpredictable as a song-and-dance extravaganza in a Bollywood film.

The plot takes off at 37,000 feet in the air, on board an Air-India flight from Chicago’s O’Hare airport, bound for New Delhi.

Mandy, the hero, of whom we know nothing except that he was born and raised in Chicago and that he “is as American as they come—hot dogs, French fries, baseball, and the love of all things American, especially, blondes,” is begrudgingly traveling to India for the very first time, to attend a cousin’s wedding.

That sets the scene for the endless loop of jarring stereotypes about second generation Indian-Americans (whom he describes confusingly as “American-born desi” and “American-born desi Indian”) as well as tired clichés about India, which riddle the rest of the pages.

Mandy—the truncated, anglicized version of Mandeep—harbors a deep loathing for everything Indian, an attitude he wears on his sleeves. He garnishes nearly every utterance on India with it, with the relish of one sprinkling freshly-chopped cilantro on a Moroccan tagine.

Here’s a taste: “My current view is that India is for Indians and well, we are definitely not Indians.” He tells the Indian immigration officer, “The visa says six months. I plan to get out in four weeks.” Yet, for all his so-called “Americanisms,” he tosses out a word that’s almost never spoken by Americans: “air hostess.”

One can surmise that Dasgupta’s window into Indian-American youngsters and American lifestyle, at large, is a series of flashy Bollywood productions, whose archetypal foreign-born hero has been a whisky-guzzling, white-women chasing, good-for-nothing schmuck, with an incongruous name like Johnny or Peter, and who eats a chicken drumstick with a fork and a knife.

Mandy doesn’t cease to kvetch about India. But that’s not what paints his character as unauthentic. Like the star of the old Hindi cinema, Dasgupta’s lead character is jaw-droppingly ignorant, laughably infantile, and boorishly insensitive.

In his first letter home, he writes about the airplane’s slight “technical snag,” and hints that his family in America could’ve certainly considered suing the airlines for delay. This, one gathers, is Dasgupta’s riff on the U.S. being a litigious country.

His snapshot of the other side—Indian culture—draws guffaws as well. When the groom tells Mandy that he’s had an arranged match, befuddled, Mandy asks if he’s getting hitched to his childhood bride.

Most people can speak in a relatively informed manner about the place where they live. Somehow, Mandy doesn’t deliver on that front either.

Corny dialogues, with an exaggerated puerility of language, abound. The text is presented through callouts that are sometimes, misaligned, making it difficult for the reader to follow the conversational threads.

One hopes that in penning his next novel, the writer will spend some time educating himself about his subject matter.


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