Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier

By Ekta R. Garg

April 30, 2014

Rated: Bypass it

A teenager begins her summer with plenty of drama. Her best friend has set her up with her dream guy for a special birthday date. Her parents have hinted, none too subtly, that they want her to meet a boy they’ve picked out. And somehow she’s starting to get the idea that identity has as much to do with culture as it does with her personality. Author Tanuja Desai Hidier brings readers this plot in the somewhat convoluted and stretched-out novel Born Confused.

Dimple Lala adores her best friend Gwyn, and the feeling is mutual. So when Gwyn arranges a date for Dimple with Julian, the boy Dimple has adored for what feels like eons, Dimple feels like her birthday become a harbinger of good things during summer vacation. When Gwyn throws in a fake ID, Dimple knows that nothing can go wrong.

Unfortunately, go wrong it does and how. Dimple comes home in the middle of the night, and her parents catch her. They surprise her by not punishing her until the end of time, but Dimple still feels embarrassed. Her guilt leads her to agree to a meeting with the son of an old friend of her parents, but Dimple doesn’t think it’s a good idea.

In the meantime her cousin at NYU comes home for a visit on a night off, and Dimple feels a renewed connection with her. Kavita doesn’t dress or behave anywhere close to what Dimple remembers from her childhood visits to India, but they share memories of their deceased grandfather and Dimple receives a special birthday present from Kavita. The present, along with the impending visit by the “chosen boy,” give Dimple reason enough to start thinking about something she’s never considered before: her culture and how it fits into identity.

Things start to get complicated when she dismisses Karsh Kapoor, the boy her parents like, and Gwyn expresses an interest in him. On the rebound from a cheating boyfriend, Gwyn decides she needs a completely different type of guy in her life. As Dimple spends more time with Karsh, she realizes she likes him too. But what does that mean about her as a person? And how can she continue her friendship with Gwyn if both of them like the same boy? If Dimple is, in fact, falling in love with him?

Author Tanuja Desai Hidier tackles a problem many first-generation South Asian children experience: that of cultural and personal identity. The title comes from a shortened version of “American Born Confused Desi,” a phrase used to describe South Asians born in the States and how they view themselves (“desi” is a catch-all term referring to South Asians.) Hidier spends a considerable amount of time on the culture/identity issue, reinforcing the idea that she may have spent time grappling with it herself.

However, Hidier misses the mark by a wide margin. Because the book is in first person Hidier allows herself the luxury of dozens of paragraphs detailing Dimple’s thoughts. At some point the introspection becomes excruciating, and it may lead readers out of the story completely. No seventeen-year-old has the ability to examine her feelings and cultural transformation at the molecular level, but after several chapters readers will feel like Dimple is doing just that.

Also, Hidier fails to address what many readers might consider a key plot point. Dimple lives in New Jersey, which many South Asians jokingly refer to as an unofficial state of India due to the number of Indians who have migrated there. The cultural makeup of the New Jersey/New York area differs vastly from South Asian communities in other parts of the country. In essence, it is difficult to grow up in that region of the Northeast and not possess some working knowledge of one’s South Asian heritage. Hidier, however, would have readers believe that Dimple has done just that.

For non-South Asian readers this may not mean anything, but South Asian readers will find it tough to accept the concept that Dimple lives in the Garden State and doesn’t have a single clue about her own culture. Also, Hidier ignores other key elements present in South Asian homes, such as South Asian TV channels. Hidier had a chance to lend her book some authentic touches but didn’t take advantage of it. Also, facts like Dimple using a Walkman and not an mp3 player to listen to music dates the story, and if readers can get past the long wordy passages about Dimple’s feelings they may find the entire plot quaint.

Overall I would recommend readers bypass Born Confused.

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