Review: Good Indian Daughter by Ruhi Lee

Ruhi Lee begins her memoir with a childhood anecdote. Lee (a nom de plume) has been learning genitalia at school and her parents, particularly her father, are horrified when they find out. But to no avail. “The penis got to me in the end,” she writes, describing her marriage and pregnancy to her husband Jake. When she learns that their child is to be a girl, she is initially anxious, and begins to reflect on where this anxiety comes from. She recounts her Christian family moving from Karnataka when she was one, growing up in Melbourne with regular trips back to India, and her attempts to find independence through love, work and education. But throughout she battles the will of her parents, who have their own ideas about what her life should look like. These they enforce through a combination of psychological control and violence that is not difficult to describe as abusive. Guilt is one their weapons: Lee is tormented by fears of what they will do to themselves if she steps out of line; “death-talk” – threats of driving them to illness or suicide – is one of their favoured strategies. Lee begins to unpick and understand this trauma through therapy.

This is a book about parents and parenting. At its core is the push-and-pull of power between parents and children that so often goes unquestioned. “The widespread assumption that parents loved their children unconditionally was problematic to me,” Lee writes, “Especially when parents assumed it of themselves when, in reality, they’d put little effort into connecting with their children on a deeper level”. Even though Lee does love her parents, deeply, and vice versa, it doesn’t automatically follow that their love is always healthy.

For Lee her experience of parenthood is shaped by the concept of the Good Indian Daughter. The Good Indian Daughter, Lee explains by way of Hindi films:

existed for her family. She bade her lover farewell because her obstinate parents didn’t approve of their relationship. She continued to cohabitate with her nasty-in-laws until she or her husband stood up for her, or his parents had a change of heart – or else the Good Indian Daughter died at the altar of self-sacrifice. She was expected to hold everything together on the home front. Her own identity faded into the background while she sang and danced for everyone else. Her vibrant sarees and exquisite jewellery were louder than her voice. Her raison d’etre was her role as wife, sister, mouther, daughter or daughter-in-law.

Faced with the disappointment of her parents, Lee vows to make the Good Indian Daughter “the hill I was going to die on”. The costs to herself are profound. When she is sexually assaulted as a child, her mother is quick to cover it up to preserve the male family member’s honour in some of the book’s most appalling scenes. Lee is frank about the impact of this submission to patriarchy more broadly: 40 per cent of global suicides are Indian women, despite making up only 17 per cent of the world’s population; there are more than 450,000 “missing” female births each year in India, what journalist Barkha Dutt describes as a “euphemism for gender-driven genocide”. Above all the effect is one of silence, both of those missing girls, and the literal silencing of Lee’s voice. She’s writing, she says, “to raise someone who would scream”.

Good Indian Daughter flows loosely from the outset, circling its bleak core tentatively until it seems Lee is ready to confront it head on. Sometimes the combination of humour and trauma make for odd bedfellows, even if humour is the oldest coping mechanism in the book. Lee writes in an author’s note that she doesn’t want her memoir to be seen as a “trauma testament”, particularly by white readers eager to pontificate. But the book resists such banal readings: it is as sad, light, funny and above all complicated as a memoir of parents and parenting should be.

Gay rating: not gay.

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