Elevate Difference

Bijou Roy

Bijou Roy reminded me a bit of Sameer Parekh's Stealing the Ambassador. Both novels feature a young Indian American who visits India after his or her father's death in an attempt to understand the father better, especially his motivation for leaving his home country. Both are quintessential second-generation novels, I feel, because they attempt to recover the lost homeland through a kind of false nostalgia—a desire for a place that was never theirs, but rather of their parents and of the past.

Dhar's novel seemed to try to touch on a number of cultural issues, too, in the contrast between the United States and India in the Indian American's perspective. One example is that Bijou, the title character, is somewhat obsessed with Ketaki, her aunt's maidservant. Bijou sympathizes with this fifteen-year-old and wants to befriend her because the stark class difference of her aunt and uncle from this maid rubs against the ideal of class mobility that she is familiar with having grown up in the United States.

Bijou's name is French for jewel, a word her father picked up when he visited France. He also met Bijou's mother, Sheela, while in France, and this diversion from a more direct India-to-United States path for the parents is interesting for creating a more complex sense of diasporic movement. The France moment in the parents' lives also brings in Billie Holiday as a favorite singer of the father and Bijou (the father first heard Billie Holiday in France as well).

Bijou Roy also has a number of sections from the perspective of the father, Nitish Roy. (The narration is in the third person throughout, though the character's voices emerge in free indirect discourse.) As in Parekh's novel, there is a past (of the father, of the grandfather) haunted by revolutionary and Communist zeal. Nitish was involved with the Naxalites, a revolutionary group that refused Gandhi's nonviolent tactics for social change. I think it's fascinating how newer fiction by Indian Americans (and Indians in the diaspora) seem to be marking a post-independence moment of political contestation rather than the moment of independence from British colonial rule and the trauma of the India-Pakistan split. It definitely seems generational—that the memories of the authors' parents are what make the substance of the fiction.

There was a kind of interesting relationship between Bijou and her younger sister Pari, too. Dhar sketched out subtle differences in how they perceived this trip to India (due perhaps to age difference but also to the different relationships that they had to their parents).

Ultimately, I think Dhar's novel also aims to explore differences in gender norms in the United States versus in India. That exploration isn't fully fleshed out, though, and gets subsumed by the love triangle subplot, which somewhat predictably forces Bijou to puzzle through her relationship with a White American man and her attraction to an Indian man who is the son of a close friend of the father.

Cross-posted at Asian American Literature Fans

Written by: Stephen Hong Sohn, August 21st 2010

Thanks for the detailed review. The book sounds very interesting.

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