Debut novelist Ranbir Singh Sidhu has made an ordinary life extremely extraordinary in his tremendously engrossing book, Deep Singh Blue. He has crafted a story that is simple yet layered with many emotions. His characters are well- defined, and each has idiosyncrasies that make them even more compelling. Be it the mother in denial, the silent brother, the peculiar uncle, the married lover or the dominating father, the characters in the book and the situations created collectively help the protagonist, Deep, find himself.
Award-winning writer Ranbir has written for various magazines and is the author of the story collection, Good Indian Girls, which won many accolades. He is also a winner of the Pushcart Prize in Fiction and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship.
I got a chance to connect with him to learn more about the inspiration behind Deep’s journey and his dysfunctional family.
You have written stories, essays, and plays so when did you realise it was time for a novel? I’ve always written novels they just haven’t gotten published. In the US, with a name like mine, expectations are pretty damn narrow as to what people think you’re gonna write about, so when I write about a wild child found in the mountains of a nameless and imaginary Asian country or a staggeringly fat satellite TV magnate who gets swallowed by an even bigger fish, most publishers have no idea what to do with it and those books go nowhere. Getting Deep Singh Blue published was a painfully long process again, in the US, no publisher wanted to read about Indians who weren’t doctors or lawyers and whose days didn’t revolve around the delicate emotional crises or nostalgias of their upper middle class lives in New York or Massachusetts. It was only picked up in the US after VK Karthika, the true visionary publisher of HarperCollins India, bought it for the Indian market. Even then, no big US publisher wanted to touch it but the publisher we did get, the independent Unnamed Press out of Los Angeles, couldn’t have been more suited they’ve been an author’s dream to work with.
Can you give us a blurb on Deep Singh Blue?
At its heart, it’s about a 16-year-old in California in the 1980s trying to find a way in the world while the world around him really makes no sense at all.
What inspired your debut novel?
That’s a long story but I’ll give you the short version. I was working in Sri Lanka for the UN, and living in a friend’s sprawling house, where it turned out that when we were away, the maid was running a brothel out of it. The situation quickly became a much larger mess because at least a couple serious Sri Lankan VIPs were involved, and their reputations and marriages were at stake if their names became known. Anyhow, soon death threats started flying, along with a hunt across the country for the maid, who had disappeared. To distract myself in the middle of all this madness, I wrote a short comic story about a Sikh kid named Deep Singh who announces to his family one night that he’s decided to become a Jew. It was the first time I’d ever written a story that drew in some vague way on my life as a teenager, and I enjoyed what that felt like, plumbing those depths. That story never really went anywhere, but I couldn’t shake Deep as a character and kept thinking about him, and it was my interest in his character more than anything that pushed me to write the novel.
The book is about the ‘other’ Indian family ‘whose stories don’t don’t get written’. The situations you have created are unique. Are their parts in the novel taken from your own reality or experiences that people have shared?
A lot of it draws from my own adolescence but only in a limited way. I’m hesitant to call it an autobiographical novel I think all good fiction is autobiographical in that it draws deeply on the writer’s experiences, so for me that term is pretty meaningless. But fundamentally, the dynamics of the family are very much the dynamics of my own family and though I’m certainly not Deep, I see a lot of myself in him and his struggles. In India, especially, we’re incredibly hesitant to reveal anything about our personal lives not because we value our privacy but because it’s often a source of shame and writing about self and family in anything approaching unvarnished honesty is rare here. So if only to push up against that taboo, I would say there’s a lot of me here, and a lot of the people I knew but all quite radically transformed, so as to make it good fiction.
Your characters are very well-defined. What kind of research did you do to bring them to life?
I’m terrible at research. I get bored easily and my mind wanders and I wonder why I’m not doing something more interesting, like reading a good novel. What I am good at doing is watching and listening, and I have a great memory for conversations down to exactly what people said and how they said it. It makes me a pain in the ass in arguments, as I can repeat back what a person said, down to the slightest change in intonation, sometimes from a conversation years ago. So no, for this book I didn’t do any research I just drew on what I knew and did that other thing that is so often underappreciated when people think about writers I imagined, and pushed myself empathetically into the lives of imaginary people who aren’t me.
You have brought to light an American life of an Indian family that is rarely spoken of. What made you decide to focus on the not so obvious story?
But to me it is the obvious story it’s the story of most Indians I knew when I was growing up in the US, and I suspect it is still that way. Just because the media tells us that Indians in the US are successfully integrated, that they’re rich, that all their kids win the National Spelling Bee and everyone gets a PhD from Harvard by the time they’re fifteen well, it’s a lot of bullshit. I mean even the so called successful ones are hardly that. Every single Desi doctor I’ve known, and I’ve known a lot, is an addict of some sort. The same goes for lawyers. And when I talk to them, most say the same thing. They were pushed into their careers by overly controlling parents and it has left their lives pretty much empty and soulless which is a damning portrait of so-called achievement. No doubt that’s part of why there’s so much financial support from affluent Desis in the US for Hindutva and the RSS if your life is already empty, why not support a hollow ideology.
What was more challenging writing your short story collection Good Indian Girls or the novel Deep Singh Blue, and why?
They’re very different forms, and each poses its own challenges. In the story, you have to distill an enormous amount of experience and material into a very small space and for me this can literally take years. In a novel, of course, the opposite is required, and in some ways that makes the task easier. You can wander off for a few pages and come back to the main story later, but from a different angle, etc. There’s room to breathe in a novel, spread your elbows, etc. But in the end, both require you to sit down every day and stare at a blank page, which can be an insanely intimidating experience, but it’s certainly worth it.
What are you next working on?
I’m finishing this ridiculously long book. Again a book that anyone with a name like mine shouldn’t have any business writing at least not if I want to get it published. It’s called The Echoes and it’s about the end of the world, which in the book happens in 1991. Is that intriguing enough?
Text Shruti Kapur Malhotra