“Tears of Mehndi
” is Raminder Sidhu’s first debut novel that explores an aspect of the Sikh culture in Vancouver, Canada.
Raminder opens up the dialogue around the social issues that some South Asian’s encounter when caught between two cultures and struggling to follow Indian traditions while embracing the values of the Western culture. This novel is written in a unique way, where the reader is introduced to characters that are searching for their dreams and happiness in Canadian society. The painful stories of the eight fictional women are shared as the author intertwines their lives by weaving one story into another which is not an easy task. The eight women each have unique names where the meaning is provided for the reader to follow their personal story, for instance, Satinder – Truth, Gian – Wisdom, Asha – Hope, Roop – Beauty and so forth.
Nonetheless, Raminder connects the stories of the eight women and others to further highlight how women outside of the circle seem to have some sort of input on their lives. Thus, there are multiple perspectives to what happens in the women’s lives especially with the challenges each one endures. Raminder also weaves in numerous diary entries where each woman writes reflections on their life experiences. The diary entries signify how the women are silently suffering with the unwritten rules of the culture which are to not share their “dukh sukh” (dukh – suffering, sorrows, grief or pain, sukh – happiness, peace and well-being). Thus, the women in the novel hide their emotions from those around them.
As each story is revealed, the characters come to life as the narratives are ones that almost every reader has heard of or can relate to on a personal level. I commend Raminder for acknowledging how women from some South Asian communities are often the perpetrators or another woman’s worst enemy when their lives are leaked into the community. Some South Asian women Raminder introduces us to feel the need to disrespect other women, are more likely to point fingers at other women and in turn they seem to think highly of themselves. However, the gossiping nature of the women depicts how they are secretly living miserable lives where they feel at ease chattering about others. This habit also allows the women to hide their own problems under the carpet.
Furthermore, I appreciate how Raminder has included sections in the novel where the women attend the Gurdwara (Temple) on Sundays, a place of worship, but when not praying for sons they are found gossiping amongst each other.
“No Gossiping Zone, Prayer Only. P.S. No praying for sons!” (p. 117).
It is interesting to hear Raminder’s view on what happens in the Gurdwara especially the “langar hall” (communal kitchen) where the women are preparing and serving “langar” (vegetarian meal). The women seemed involved in doing “seva” (selfless service) even though they appear so distant from the values and beliefs of the Sikh religion.
Raminder also briefly mentions how the Gurdwara committee is organized of Sikh men. “Since Prakash Kaur’s husband has become the president of the gurdwara committee, she’s become so bossy. What an attitude! She thinks she’s the maharani of the gurdwara!” (p. 44). I was hoping the author would elaborate on this passage. Mainly to highlight how women are at a disadvantage and not serving on the Gurdwara committee’s which are usually comprised of Sikh men. The core principles or foundation of Sikhism is based around equality of humanity regardless of one’s caste, color, class, culture and gender. However, in spite of this suggestion, Raminder does touch on caste and gender discrimination which I highlight below.
Raminder attempts to separate the cultural practices from the religious beliefs to some extent. Throughout the novel she focuses on the discussions the women are having amongst each other around suitable marriages and the value of sons. Particularly the cultural celebrations that surround the birth of sons (e.g. giving out of sweets such as Ladoos. And engaging in celebrations like Lohri) in comparison to the shame that surrounds having daughters. The author shows how women are devalued as wives/daughter-in-laws due to the external pressures to give birth to only males which allow them to gain status in the family. Having a girl is considered “unlucky” and having a boy means the family’s name is carried on. Raminder also mentions how some South Asians are determining the sex of their children ahead of time to make arrangements to abort the fetus.
This is also done to avoid the idea of shame and the possibility of being disowned by the family, but also the community. However, this practice of disclosing the gender of the baby is unacceptable, but unfortunately some South Asians will go to the extent of crossing the Canadian-American border to visit private clinics to find out. Raminder also makes a point to show how women are blamed for the birth of daughters through the character Dharam – Faith who says that “people are so ridiculous. They don’t understand it’s the male who determines the gender of the fetus, not the female” (p. 212). It is common in some South Asian cultures to hear of women being blamed by other women, especially mother-in-laws who expect grandsons.
Other characters in the novel, such as Preet – Love, are used to blatantly question gender differences by making bold statements like “…what’s so bad about girls, Aunty? You’re a female” (p. 54). The fictional stories in the novel are used to challenge the cultural attitudes around the birth of daughters. What if a girl is born, why is the birth of a girl to be a sad mourning event without announcements rather than the elaborate celebrations that occur for a boy? Aside from the inequalities of a girl versus a boy, Raminder also challenges the differences between a man and woman doing wrong and how the punishment is usually not the same. It tends to be quite severe for women.
Furthermore, in the novel the reader is reminded of the importance or value placed on an arranged marriage (as love marriages seem to be unacceptable), but also the traditional ceremony customs (brothers or male cousins circling around the Guru Granth Sahib (Holy Scripture)/practices (dowry exchanges which can lead to abuse) that are unnecessarily being followed.
In addition to this the idea of marriage, the concept of caste system is represented by so-called acceptable marriage proposals, where the person is to be from the same background or class. This is best shown through the character Jasveer – Courage who is crying when she thinks of the “rules to a love marriage.” “According to [her] parents, one was allowed to find a suitable partner as long as the potential mate was a Jat Sikh. Not only did Jessy (Jasveer) have to marry into our religion but the boy also had to be from the farming community in Punjab. For some reason, these practices still held relevance for some Indo-Canadians.”
However, based on what Jasveer was taught in Punjabi school her views were contradictory to the culture. Sikhism“Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, considered all people to be equal, regardless of caste or gender. And as firm believers of the faith [she was] to adhere by these principles.” Despite what the religion says, her parents were concerned with the community’s reaction and losing their face if they were to marry her to a lower caste boy. In their own words, they state “[p]eople are going to think there is something wrong with you and no one else would marry you, so we had to reduce ourselves to their level.” Jasveer’s father was so concerned with status, above all his own reputation in the community and he did not “want anyone to think [he] didn’t do all [he] could for [his] daughters.” He would be the one “ashamed” if Jasveer were to marry outside of caste (p. 101).
It is also through the remarks of another character Dharam – Faith, that the reader hears how stuck people are on caste as she says, “[e]veryone thinks they’re Jat. No one cares about that stuff anymore! Even people in India are far more advanced in their thinking now” (p. 201-202).
Thus, Dharam – Faith, similar to Jasveer – Courage rebels against the idea of having to marry within the same caste and does not believe in the rank classification (division of higher and lower castes). In my opinion, caste system should be discarded as it has no place in society.
We should follow what our Guru’s preached a casteless society and to not think that you are more superior or inferior to another. A person’s occupation seems to be used to refer to “caste” in the some South Asian cultures and if this is the case then does an individual’s profession not have the potential to change over the life course? Furthermore, I would argue that if a family can be content with their child wanting to marry someone he or she has selected, despite the caste issues that are manmade, then they are less likely to fall victim to the community’s negative reaction.
Other characters are troubled by marital affairs; want to avoid forced marriages and hope for acceptance of cross-cultural/inter-racial marriages. Some women escape unacceptable marriages where verbal and physical abuse from their husbands or in-laws was present. However, women are denied the opportunity to file for a divorce since it is forbidden in some South Asian cultures.
As Preet – Love, writes in her diary entry, her mother-in-law insisted that she stay with her husband regardless of his weaknesses as that is what other women in the culture would do. “She told me to make the best of the situation. She knows very well I will not leave. Where will I go? We Indian girls never return home once we are married since there is no greater shame for a parent than to have a divorced daughter move back in with them. A husband who has no respect for his wife is far better than no husband at all” (p. 65). Women like Preet – Love, are coping by trying to find happiness in their marriage.
At the same time the stories illustrate how the women are protecting themselves, their family and children from harm. Raminder analyzes the violence and murders that have been happening in some South Asian communities. She also brings forward the negative influence of alcohol and drugs on some South Asian communities, but also the threats of suicide that are uttered by characters who feel hopeless. The issues presented are ones witnessed today in some South Asian communities and they range from the stigma attached to seeking formal help for alcohol/drug habits and mental health/depression.
Through Balbir – Strength, we understand that there is a lack of awareness or education around mental health and receiving care especially if the person or family denies an illness such as depression. Other topics discussed in the novel are marriage fraud (protecting yourself from being someone else’s one way ticket to Canada) or domestic violence (with the potential extreme case of an honour killing when for example, a daughter is in love with someone from a different faith), and abolishing caste remarks (having to marry someone of the same caste) and racism/discrimination (allowing turbaned Sikhs to be accepted in professions like the RCMP).
I appreciated Raminder’s braveness to touch on these sensitive issues. Raminder also mixes some of these social issues together to show how complex it can be for some South Asian families encountering more than one issue.
“Tears of Mehndi” is written in a different manner compared to other fictional stories especially by South Asian authors. Raminder captures the disturbing reality some South Asian’s are living in and how they either accept the reality or step outside of the cultural rules/norms. The choice each woman makes in the novel depends on her own desire to push for change in the society she lives in.
Raminder’s courage to tell these stories remains astonishing as the expectations placed on some South Asian families especially women is far too common in reality. The stories also capture the growth of the women from the 1970’s to present day. Interestingly the elderly women, whose stories are woven through with the other eight women, show progression. The women were continuously worshiping for sons in the beginning and in the end are taken care of by daughters/daughter-in-laws. This foreshadows how elders in some South Asian communities are beginning to wish they had daughters who seem to be respecting them more than sons.
The women’s perspectives become challenged by tradition, rituals, culture and most of all the reputation or image each of them felt had to be maintained in the tight knit community. The women struggled to protect their families by keeping some things behind closed doors mainly to prevent shame and honour from being tarnished.
Women from this particular culture fear being disowned by the larger community for their actions or in other words, risk becoming the talk of the town. This also demonstrates how women from some South Asian communities are oppressed and I would say are being told “kar di gal bar nahee dusidee” (to not share anything to the public and to keep what happens in the family within the home). No one is supposed to hear what is happening until it of course gets into the hands of the professional gossip queens hosting “kitty parties” (where women meet at each other’s homes or restaurants to socialize).
This is a compelling novel and one that is impossible to put down as it has many lessons worth retelling, and Raminder deserves praise for bringing them to the reader’s attention. There seems to be no ending to each of the stories and it is up to the reader to imagine what happens. I am waiting for another part of the “ghup shup” (a casual chit chat of gossip) to follow. I truly believe these stories have made a valuable contribution in changing attitudes, opening up conversations, but most of all empowering women in the South Asian community to speak up against injustices (the expectation to give birth to male offspring).
South Asian women in many households across Canada are struggling as women when dealing with common issues portrayed in this novel. South Asians need to break away from social norms that do more harm than good, such as gossip, the praising of sons and building their lives around what is happening to their neighbour. Some South Asian’s should be more mindful and respectful of others by keeping their views to themselves. Without a doubt this novel is written for a certain portion of the South Asian demographic and it can be used as an educating piece for those who take pleasure in knowing other people’s business. At the same time it can be a healing tool for those who are a part of this community and suffering in silence which is also symbolic of the women we meet in the novel.