The coming-of-age story is a timeless and enduring literary genre, the “bildungsroman”, which is, according to Webster, a novel about the moral and psychological growth of the main character within the context of a defined social order. Often told in the first-person, whether it be Tom Jones or David Copperfield, Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird or Amir in The Kite Runner, it can be fascinating to watch a human being change and develop. It is both universal and unique.
Every coming-of-age story has its similarities in which the reader can recognize their own story, and each story is different as each life is different. The success or failure of the work is in the story told, the language employed in the telling, and if our interest in the storyteller and the other characters sustains the reader for the length of the novel. When it all is said and done, do we care? Author Gurjinder Basran’s Everything Was Good-bye is a success on all these counts.
Early in the book Meena, the teenage heroine, is embarrassed when her best friend Liam— whom she is ditching school with — discovers a piece of paper announcing that she has won second place in the “Young Writers of Canada” contest and inviting her to Toronto to accept her scholarship. “This is amazing,” he says, “why aren’t you happy about it?”
“It’s complicated,” says Meena.
It is complicated, as is most everything in Meena’s life. She has the normal searching for identity problems that any girl growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia — or Los Angeles, California for that matter — in the 1990’s would have. But hers are compounded by her family circumstances, a Canadian-born daughter of Punjabi Indian immigrants, she is the youngest of six daughters now being raised by a widowed mother who barely speaks English and is “illiterate in two languages”.
At home she is “Meninder”, ordered by her mother to dress in traditional Indian clothes, speak Punjabi, and behave in a traditional manner to the extended Punjabi community who visits the house. At school she is “Meena” who self-identifies with “The Smart Ethnics” — preferable to the FOB’s (fresh off the boats) and DIP (dumb Indian Punjabs) who think that taking advanced algebra will help land them their dream jobs. She may listen to the same music her peers do and dress in mini-skirts that resemble those that Debbie Harry wears, but she will always look ethnic and be treated differently, whether it be benign as when her English teacher doesn’t sign her yearbook in the same flirtatious way he does with the rest of the girls in her class, or offensive, as when Liam’s father tells his son to stick to his own kind as he catches sight of Meena leaving their home.
Liam is Anglo, and complicated. An only child being raised by a single father, Liam is a rebel. He’s smart, artistic, bored by school — which he cuts regularly — and is an autodidact. Meena finds him irresistible and knows her friendship with a white boy is forbidden, it could ruin her reputation. Meena’s mother has two desires for her daughter: higher education to pursue a meaningful career — lawyer or doctor, but not a writer, because to be a woman author is not anything that a traditional Sikh woman would aspire to — and to be married to a suitable Punjabi man, because a woman must have a husband in their society. And Meena has the examples of her older sisters and cousins to show her the pitfalls ahead.
Three of her sisters agree to arranged marriages with various results which range from pragmatic indifference to physical abuse. A fourth sister, Harj, is followed home from high school daily by a car full of young men, and enters the house each time in tears until finally, one day, she is forced into the car and taken to an empty lot by them. The watchful neighborhood “aunties” who keep an eye on everyone in the Indo-Canadian neighborhood report this to her mother. The victim is blamed for her rape and her mother hits her; Harj leaves home vowing never to return or speak to her mother.
But her mother is not a monster who betrays her daughters, she is a loving woman bound by the traditions of a culture in a foreign land. She is not Canadian; she is Indian, a woman who supplements the monthly survivor stipend the Canadian government pays for the death of her husband, who died in an accident on a construction project, by cleaning hotels and farm labor. She truly loves and wants the best for all her daughters, but her conception of “best” is often at odds with the contemporary western world her children live in.
Meena remains torn between her identities, unable to choose. Is she the “new wave, post punk, alternative girl” that Liam asks to run away with him, or is she the dutiful daughter who craves the love and acceptance of her mother and extended community? Not making a decision becomes the decision: when Meena is ready to take the plunge, Liam is already gone.
Seven years later the now 24-year-old Meena is the only daughter left at home. She has traded dreams of becoming a novelist for an entry level job at a PR firm. She has defiantly held out against an arranged marriage but is not defiant enough to leave home and live independently, date a white co-worker, or even hang-out with co-workers. She does have one male friend Kal whom she first met as a young child when their mothers cleaned office buildings together. They are good friends and sometime lovers, unable to commit to each other, perhaps unable to truly love each other, and yet surprised to find themselves feeling jealous when they each end up with another.
For Kal it is the left-wing, politically argumentative and organic-consuming Irmila, an Indian immigrant from Hong Kong. For Meena, it is Sunny Gill, the rich only child of a wealthy Indo-Canadian family,
Sunny despises the mill that his hard-working immigrant father grew rich from; Sunny is a lawyer because his family expected it, but he plans on becoming rich off real estate speculation. His family promises him the money he needs for his investment if he does not marry the unsuitable Jasmine, whom he loves, if he will marry a suitable girl, such as Meena.
Meena is seduced by the wealth; by the importance she feels by being “Sunny’s girl” who doesn’t have to wait in line at clubs. She becomes his fiancée, then wife. It is an identity that she is willing to lose herself in, to the point that she agrees to change her first name to Surinder (which sounds like “surrender” to these western ears) because her superstitious mother-in-law’s astrologer deems it more favorable.
Life with Sunny is not terrible, nor is it good. It is just life, to be endured, much as her sisters’ and mother’s life is. There are some victories, as when Meena persuades Sunny that they should move out of his parents’ home so they can have a place of their own, and some defeats. Meena is relieved not to have to accompany Sunny and his parents on their annual trip to India; the previous year’s trip had been a disaster with Meena ill the whole time. With them gone she has independence and decides to attend a photography opening at an art gallery Irmila invites her to. The photographer turns out to be Liam.
It may be eleven years since they have seen each other, but the love and attraction are still there, and they become lovers. Liam wants Meena to leave Sunny and be with him; she is still unable to make an active choice as to whom she wants to be, how she wants to live. As Liam puts it “You still can’t make a decision to save your own life. Everything is about everyone else.”
But again, even no decision is a decision, life is about choice. And ultimately Meena has to make some difficult ones. This bildungsroman does not have a neat end, it leaves Meena with a choice to make sometime in the future. But it does end with her having a clear idea of who she is.
Basran uses language beautifully. There are vivid images painted: Meena putting her journals afloat on a raft and setting them on fire before her wedding, a funeral pyre for the girl she was and the dreams she had; forcing herself to eat a rare steak “the bloody mess” Sunny has ordered for her; standing in the cold trying to scrub traditional henna designs off her palms.
Meena describes her relationship with Sunny: “when I was with him . . . I was someone even if at times I was unrecognizable to myself. I hated those moments when we were alone and there was nothing to say, the silence a reminder that I might have condensed myself to make room for him.”
When Sunny leaves for India she says “His absence made room for me.”
Meena means that both literally and figuratively. There are rich descriptions of food, smells, saris, weddings, nightclubs, fights and love making. This is a protagonist I grew to care about. My only quibble: I could have used a glossary for all the Indian words; sometimes I did stop to look them up, often I was too engrossed in the story and pressed on. This is Basran’s debut novel, I look forward to reading what comes next.