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This article by Phyllis Maguire was prepared for the January 8, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

`Fifty-Fifty:’ Cultural Collisions for Part Americans

Almost 30 years ago, Jersey girl Robbie Clipper married

Davinder Sethi, a fellow graduate student at the University of California,

Berkeley, and a son in a sprawling Punjabi Sikh family from New Delhi.

The marriage has given Robbie Clipper Sethi — now chair of the

English department at Lawrenceville’s Rider University — a

teenage son, an extended family settled around the globe, and a unique

point of view. "Marrying into such a different family and culture

helped me expand beyond what I am," Sethi says, in a telephone

interview from her Skillman home. "I’ve learned a great deal more

about the world and the dynamics that play out in families."

Her marriage has also given Sethi rich literary material, which she

mines impressively in her first novel, "Fifty-Fifty: A Novel in

Many Voices" (Silicon Press). Sethi discusses the novel at Barnes

& Noble at MarketFair on Thursday, January 9, at 7 p.m.

The novel follows Sethi’s 1996 success with "The Bride Wore Red,"

a collection of short stories describing the seemingly unbridgeable

gap between Indian and American cultures straddled by marriage. Several

of the stories first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Mademoiselle,

and the New Review, while the title story won special mention in the

1998 Pushcart Prize for Small Presses.

In "Fifty-Fifty," Sethi follows three generations of a fictional

Punjabi Sikh family whose members stretch from India to the California

coast. The matriarch of the clan is Biji, whose family was dispossessed

and scattered in India’s 1947 partition.

With daughters raising families in India, Nairobi, and London, Biji

pins her hopes of settling her family together on her only son, Hari,

a pharmaceutical executive at Raritan’s Ortho-McNeil who has an American

wife and a teenage daughter, Rosa. For Biji and her children, America

is the land of opportunity — and the place where "no one,"

she claims, "gets kicked out."

While "Fifty-Fifty" has more of a central narrative than the

stories in "The Bride Wore Red," each of the novel’s chapters

is narrated by a different family member including, most effectively,

Biji’s six grandchildren, ages 15 through 30.

"The chapters work together as a unit, but from the beginning

I wanted the novel to have a variety of voices," Sethi says. "I

wanted each of the characters to tell his or her own story."

She credits her years as a college professor, as well as being a mother

to a teenager, with helping her craft the dead-on voices of the younger

characters. The result is a intricate tapestry of character, experiences,

grief, hopes, and guilt. Along with constant family contact and support

come almost crushing expectations. Hari, as the family’s heir, is

expected to find his own pot of American gold and has been infected

with what he calls "the immigrant’s disease," the need to

make his first million.

But his mother and sisters also expect him to solve family crises

in any part of the globe and secure for his nieces and nephews American

university slots, plum jobs, and suitable Indian spouses.

Two nieces in the novel, in fact, graduate from Rutgers, but don’t

have the grades to get into American medical schools, another family

dream. Instead they take dead end lab jobs in drug companies, while

Hari — his own pharmaceutical career stalled — tries to escape

his extended family’s clamoring demands by buying a muffler franchise

in San Jose and moving there with his wife and daughter.

"The expectations are not only on the sons," Sethi points

out, "but on the daughters as well." Biji and her daughters

pursue marriages for the family’s granddaughters as assiduously as

Ivy League degrees for the grandsons, showing the oldest granddaughter,

Nitasha, like so much real estate to prospective husbands. The encounters

bring Nitasha only loneliness, and obscure her path to a true relationship

and a calling.

"The expectations are like a weight on her shoulders," Sethi

says. "They stop her from achieving any degree of self-knowledge

early on."

Another granddaughter, Sheela, who wants the Ivy League brass ring

for herself, is told to find a good community college: The money the

family can spend on education will put her brother through Harvard

instead. Boys must be educated to support the extended family; girls

will be married off and become part of husbands’ families. Instead,

the resolute Sheela discards her grandmother’s American dream and

reverses the family’s diaspora by going back to India for university.

By the end of the novel, she is well on her way to attending an Indian

medical school, and becoming the family’s first physician.

Other members of her generation also return to India. Even Sheela’s

Harvard-educated brother abandons a fledgling Wall Street career for

one in London.

"My take on the American dream is pretty cynical, and I was consciously

trying to debunk it in this book," Sethi says. "I think the

idea that anyone can make it here, be Horatio Alger and rise up from

the streets, is unrealistic."

She is fascinated, Sethi says, by people’s desire to go elsewhere

to achieve, finding that the potent promise of "somewhere else"

can be an illusion. "If you’re going to be an achiever," she

says, "you’ll do it no matter where you are."

Another debunked myth is that the family’s children can reap America’s

rewards — without interacting with any Americans. "The older

generation wants to settle in the same place," Sethi explains,

"but there is a strong sense that `we have to protect our children

from the foreigners whom we’ve settled among.’"

While one stereotype of America is that it is the land of opportunity,

Sethi continues, "it’s also the place that’s supposed to have

loose morals and too much freedom." Just as with achievement,

however, the novel shows that those who get corrupted — by addiction,

for instance — don’t need to come to America to lose their way.

The novel’s title, "Fifty-Fifty," is the term Rosa uses to

describe herself, born in New Jersey to an immigrant father and an

American mother. She takes pride in the fact that she’s a mongrel,

just like the rest of her fellow Americans — and there is an hilarious

scene where she tries to figure out where to sit for lunch at her

new San Jose high school, since cafeteria seats get parsed out by

students’ Asian or Hispanic countries of origin. Rosa ends up rotating

among them all. For her, a mixed background means she has "the

best of both worlds."

But other members of her extended family reject that mutt quality

in American life. "For Rosa, being a hybrid is a positive thing,"

Sethi says. "But many of the other characters come from backgrounds

where they haven’t embraced that concept yet, so they’re uncomfortable

with it."

Sethi admires other South Asian-American writers who have also explored

the collision of cultures. She lists Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s novels,

as well as Bharati Mukherjee’s short stories and the writings of Chitra

Banerjee Divakaruni, as influences.

"I’m interested in writers in general who write about culture,"

she adds, citing Junot Diaz — a writer with a dual Dominican Republican-New

Jersey background — and his novel "Drown."

Sethi earned a Berkeley doctorate in comparative literature,

while her bachelor’s is from Indiana University in Bloomington (Class

of 1973) in English and in Slavic languages and literature.

Her husband, whose family fled Pakistan after the partition, has six

sisters and one brother. Several sisters have settled in New Jersey,

while his brother lives in New England. Other family members are in

Kenya, Australia, and Japan.

Sethi grew up in Cherry Hill. She assumed her father’s family (she

keeps Clipper as her middle name) was Dutch, until a family Bible,

discovered when a grandparent died, showed the name spelled with a

"k" and an umlaut. It was the first time she realized her

father’s family was originally German. "I also grew up with a

very ill-defined sense of religion," she says. As a child, she

was sent to a Methodist Church because it was around the corner.

For more traditional families, many Americans’ ethnic and religious

vagueness may be "too diffuse," she points out. "They

think we don’t have any identity, but that’s it — that diffusion

is our identity." Her own son, who is 13, has learned the religious

principles of both parents, taking some from each part of his religious

heritage. "I’ve done that myself as well," Sethi says.

Her husband is now bi-coastal, serving as chief financial officer

for a company in California as well as board member for New Jersey

businesses. Does he feel pressured to take care of his extended family?

"There is always a tension around the expectations on boys in

the family to settle sisters or nieces," Sethi says. "But

there is also a strong push — and this comes from being in America

— toward self-reliance. If my husband tried to get involved in

their lives, I think my nieces would say, ‘What are you doing? I can

find my own job, thank you very much!’ "

Just like in the fictional family she has created, "there is a

generation gap" in her own family, says Sethi, "that is very

lively."

— Phyllis Maguire

Robbie Clipper Sethi, "Fifty-Fifty: A Novel in Many

Voices" (Silicon Press), Barnes & Noble, MarketFair. 609-897-9250.

Free. Thursday, January 9, 7 p.m.


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