American as Paneer Pie by Supriya Kelkar, 320 pp, RL 4
American as Paneer Pie
Cover art by Abigail Dela Cruz
Review Copy from Simon & Schuster
American as Paneer Pie surprised, challenged and delighted me again and again as I read it from cover to cover. Over the past years, I have narrowed the focus of my reviews to books with diverse main characters written by diverse authors. As a white woman reading these books, my eyes are opened again and again to the many layers of discrimination, aggression and privilege that our nation is made up of. Viewing this through the eyes of young narrators, it is uplifting and hopeful to witness characters grow, find their voices and speak out against racism. American as Paneer Pie delivers all of this, along with superb writing that subtly links moments and plot threads for some very satisfying storytelling. One disclaimer: Do not read this book on an empty stomach - Kelkar's writing about food had me alternately Googling and running to the kitchen.
Sixth grader Lekha Divekar just might be an ABCD - American-Born Confused Desi (a term most commonly used to describe a person of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin). She definitely has two sides to herself: Home Lekha loves Bollywood movies, eating Indian food and participating in Hindu holiday celebrations while School Lekha, one of the few brown kids in her small, xenophobic Michigan town, goes out of her way to avoid being bullied for her differences, pinning her bangs to cover the birthmark on her forehead that resembles a bindi and resulted in kids calling her "Dot." While Lekha's neighbor and best friend Noah, a reporter in training, works to be an ally, he is equally silenced by the bullies at school, although he is slow to realize this.
When Avantika, another Desi, moves in across the street, she opens Lekha's eyes in more ways than one. Sure that Avantika's thick accent will draw fire from the usual bullies, and worried about the assumptions that will be made about her if she befriends the only other Desi at school, Lekha is shocked when Avantika faces the racist comments head on, verbally shutting them down. Being friends with Avantika also opens Lekha's eyes to how much she has been sacrificing in order to fit in with her peers. Keklar adds layers of depth to her novel, showing multiple sides of difficult situations, and this is especially true when writing about sacrificing oneself in order to fit in. Winning a spot on the local swim team, Lekha is cautiously welcomed, with the girls making attempts to include her in "team building" experiences that range from tepid inclusion to bold faced bullying. At a sleepover before a big race, Aidy, who calls Lekha "Broom" because of her noticeable leg hair, convinces the eleven-year-old girls to shave their legs in order to get a competitive edge. Knowing that her mother doesn't approve of the speed at which American girls race into adulthood, Lekha declines. But Aidy refuses to accept and shames Lekha when they lose the race, even though the other girls, with their nicked and sensitive newly shaved legs, all swim slower. A window into another person's experience I greatly valued is a parallel storyline with Avantika, who dutifully applies her "Fair & Dainty" lightening cream every night because her mother has instructed her to. Lekha sees how Avantika, who seems so much more sure of herself and comfortable with being different and standing out in her new American home, is subject to a different kind of prejudice. The girls, who bond over the popular Bollywood genre of twins separated at birth, joking that they could be twins, discuss how, "Indians were obsessed with light skin. They thought you were beautiful only if you were fair. Like it made you a better person or something." Recalling ridiculous old television commercials for lightening creams, Lekha convinces Avantika to, if not throw out the cream all together, at least take a break from using it.
Given the assignment to write an op-ed piece for the school newspaper, Lekha struggles to find something she feels strongly about, even though she admits she is, "drained from having to answer for who I was... tired of always being different. Of being less than." Having established her as character who straddles two worlds, it is clear what Lekha will have to confront, and possibly lose, if she chooses to feel strongly about something, be it her heritage or her tenuous position with her classmates. When an anti-immigrant candidate for senator with the slogan, "Don't like it? Leave," gains popularity, her campaign signs and bumperstickers popping up all over town, people take this as permission to express their hatred openly, and the Divekar's garage is vandalized, "GO BACK TO YOUR COUNTRY," painted in big black letters. Feeling betrayed by Noah when he uses this incident as the subject of his op-ed piece, Lekha lashes out and alienates both of her friends. Alone, Lekha is finally able to look inward and move from silent onlooker to vocal activist.
American as Paneer Pie stellar work that touches on many complex issues with intelligence, insight and passion written by a truly talented author.
Also by Kelkar: