Gulab Jammin'

By Marie Myung-Ok Lee '86 / November / December 2002
June 28th, 2007
Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier '90 (Scholastic Press, 413 pages, $16.95).

Dimple Lala is confused. not just ordinary high-school-junior confused, but, to use the South Asian slang, ABCD, American Born Confused Desi (desi being Hindi for country). Dimple, the protagonist of Tanuja Desai Hidier's debut young-adult novel, Born Confused, is the daughter of Indian parents, yet she doesn't feel Indian or know how she fits into a culture that is rapidly intertwining with American mores. Dimple is so confused that while she ponders these questions, her blond, blue-eyed best friend, Gwyn, starts swiping Dimple's flowing Indian clothes, her forehead-adorning bindis, and, in essence, her culture.

Dimple's troubles begin when her parents arrange a meeting with a "suitable boy" - the son of her mother's best friend. A stiff encounter with the pressed-khaki-clad Karsh, a student at NYU, leaves Dimple cold. Things change, however, when she encounters him in New York's South Asian club scene, where he is anything but starched and pressed. Karsh, it turns out, is a hot DJ and the object of much female admiration, including - to complicate things - that of Dimple's friend Gwyn.

Desai Hidier adds complexity to this conventional plot by creating a world both familiar and strange: part suburban high school and part New York City, where Dimple meets South Asian lesbians (one of whom is her cousin), potheads (including Karsh), drag queens - and angry budding academics at an NYU conference where she learns that the preferred adjective for Indians is now South Asian.

Born Confused touchingly portrays the abyss that can grow between an American-born child and her immigrant parents. Desai Hidier deftly limns the world of the modern adolescent, caught between childhood and adulthood, weighing loyalties to parents versus bonds to friends, sifting through the attractions of Indian and American culture. She captures those ambiguities in snapshot-fresh prose, describing sheets of stick-on bindis as "penny candy for royalty." Even Karsh takes his DJ name, Gulab Jammin', from the traditional Indian rosewater-flavored dessert, gulab jamun. With its ambitious scope and generous heart, Born Confused shows that adolescent growing pains are cultural as well generational.

Marie Myung-Ok Lee is the author of Finding My Voice (HarperCollins, 2001) and other fiction for young adults.
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November / December 2002