Times Literary Supplement
"[T]his luminous debut...captures precisely the heartache of growing up."
Library Journal, Top Spring Indie Fiction
"Sawhney's debut novel, a coming-of-age tale mixing grief, violence, and extremism, follows the life of Indian-American teen Siddharth Arora as he deals with the death of his mother, political tensions at home, and attempts to fit in amongst the bored and troubled youth of his Connecticut suburb...With shifting teen angst colliding with his new, upturned reality, Sid becomes aware of his failings and mistakes as he discovers what it means to be loyal to the ones you love. This is a fantastic debut about growing up as an outsider in a divisive environment."
"Sawhney weaves together his own plot, with heartbreaking difficulties about confronting the complexity of identities, with nationally and locally important issues like Islamophobia, all painted on a southern Connecticut backdrop."
"In his debut novel, South Haven, writer Hirsh Sawhney chose his native New Haven and suburbs as backdrop for this part tale of mourning, part coming-of-age story...Sawhney skillfully captures Siddharth's readjustment to a life without his mother. Much of this readjustment centers around the different and complex relationships Siddharth forms with the handful of friends he makes following his mother's death, his college-bound brother, the 'new woman' in his Dad's life, and with his larger-than-life father, a radically opinionated academic who is caught between what it means to be American and the culture he's left behind."
New Haven Magazine
"A powerful story...a universal look at the complexity of how people wrestle with guilt and blame amid tragic loss."
New Haven Independent
"[A] sensitive, poignant, resonating novel."
"A raw portrait of a motherless family...poetic...[Sawhney's] characters are distinctive: They open up differently, more ominously, than American fiction's best-known South Asians of the NortheastJhumpa Lahiri's...[and] exhibit an outsider-ness without glamour."
The Village Voice
"An unforgettable and unnerving tale of grief and migration."
Siddharth Arora lives an ordinary life in the New England suburb of South Haven, but his childhood comes to a grinding halt when his mother dies in a car accident. Siddharth soon gravitates toward a group of adolescent bullies, drinking and smoking instead of drawing and swimming. He takes great pains to care for his depressive father, Mohan Lal, an immigrant who finds solace in the hateful Hindu fundamentalism of his homeland and cheers on Indian fanatics who murder innocent Muslims. When a new woman enters their lives, Siddharth and his father have a chance at a fresh start. They form a new family, hoping to leave their pain behind them.
South Haven is no simple coming-of-age tale or hero's journey, blurring the line between victim and victimizer and asking readers to contend with the lies we tell ourselves as we grieve and survive. Following in the tradition of narratives by Edwidge Danticat and Junot Díaz, Sawhney draws upon the measured lyricism of postcolonial writers like Michael Ondaatje but brings to his subjects distinctly American irreverence and humor.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
By Hirsh Sawhney
Akashic BooksCopyright © 2016 Hirsh Sawhney
All rights reserved.
Siddharth Arora has no way of knowing it, but today is the last day he will ever see his mother. He is on the armchair in the family room, straining his ears so he can hear the television. His father and Barry Uncle have been making a racket all morning, and Siddharth has been trying to watch a game show. His mother thinks he is too young to watch game shows. Thinks he should spend time on better things. Going to friends' houses, or having them over. He enjoys these things. But would trade them all in for the television. He could sit in front of the television every waking hour of the day. He wouldn't mind sleeping in front of it.
His father hates the television. Thinks it is evil. A cancer that will ruin the greatest civilization on earth. His father thinks he should spend more time reading. Arjun reads a lot. Arjun studies and gets good grades. In two years, Arjun will be away at college. The thought of his impending departure sometimes keeps Siddharth awake at night.
Siddharth clicks his tongue. Says, You wanna keep it down? Barry Uncle is perched on a ladder behind one of the sofas. White leather sofas that Siddharth's mother has recently pur- chased against his father's wishes. Barry Uncle says, in his raspy voice, Hah, boy? Speak up.
Siddharth scowls. Says, Keep it down!
Barry Uncle chuckles, then coughs. Says, Boy, you don't need to hear that show. You don't need to listen to those blondes. Just sit back and admire the beauty. Barry Uncle rests a knife on the leather sofa. Wipes his shiny brow. Says, Have a look at that redhead. I'd buy a washing machine from her any day. I'd buy ten. Reminds me of my ex. Before she blimped out, that is.
Gross, Siddharth says. But he is pleased that Barry Uncle has spoken to him about women. He turned ten five months ago, and thinks they should speak to him like a grown-up. They should speak to him the same way they speak to Arjun.
His father, Mohan Lal, is wearing shorts and a green collared shirt that is stained with paint. He says, Siddharth, didn't you hear your mother? Get off your butt and go!
Two minutes, he says. The show's gonna be over in two minutes.
Mohan Lal says, With you it's always two minutes. He hands Barry Uncle some sort of tool. Says, Try this, it's wider. It will give you more leverage.
Barry Uncle says, Gimme a dull rock for all I care. Says, Mind over matter. You hear that, boy? When it comes to the hard stuff, it's always mind over matter.
Whatever, says Siddharth.
Mohan Lal and Barry Uncle are removing the old wallpaper from the family room. The wallpaper is a mural of trees and a river from some national park that Siddharth has never visited. He wants the family room to look sleek. Modern. Like a mansion in Beverly Hills or Fairfield County. He wants the family room to have a modern black lamp from Europe, a modern black lamp right beside the new leather sofas. When his mother bought the sofas, she told Mohan Lal to relax. That she knew how to care for their household. Mohan Lal exploded. Said, Yes, I'm an idiot! I know nothing about caring for my household.
Siddharth hates it when they fight. Each time they fight, he worries about divorce. He has learned at school that half of all marriages end in divorce. But his parents usually make up quickly. The night they fought about the sofas, Siddharth stayed up late with his ear pressed to their door. At first, his parents exchanged angry whispers. But then he heard rising laughter. His father's laughter. His mother has a harder time laughing after fights.
The sound of footsteps. It distracts him from an advertisement for a toy he wishes he could own. His mother's footsteps. Shit, he thinks. Shit is no longer a new word, but he still feels a small thrill upon uttering it. The Connor boys from next door started using it first. Eric and Timmy Connor have taught him many new words. Cunt. Dyke. Motherfucker. He feels older when he uses these words. Stronger.
He turns his head and glimpses his mother. Swallows. Knows he must accept that his time in front of the television is over.
His mother says, Siddharth?
What did I say? Go get ready.
But I am ready.
He watches his mother check herself in the hallway mirror. The mirror hangs beside the ugly Indian sculpture that her sister gave them on her first and only visit to America. His mother is parting her closely cropped hair down the middle, patting it down with her pudgy fingers. He misses her long black hair, which used to fall in a braid down her back. But Mohan Lal prefers this new manly style. He was the one who encouraged her to chop it all off. Mohan Lal said short hair is the mark of a modern woman. The mark of independence. Arjun said, Dad, this is a free country. Let her do what she wants.
Siddharth notices his mother is showered and ready, wearing pants and a tucked-in shirt. A silk shirt with a floral print. She is ready, in case the hospital calls her in. The VA hospital that she hates. The VA hospital where she has worked for the past twelve years. Today she is on call, and Siddharth hates it when she's on call. For then he might have to be alone with his father. But today Barry Uncle is here, which means there will be laughter if she goes. There will be chatter, even if it is about Gandhi, Warren Hastings, or the Mughal Empire. Siddharth hates it when they talk about India.
His mother says, Don't be smart. Go get the brushes, fill a cup with water. Use a paper cup. And put some newspaper down on the table.
It is Saturday, and his mother gives him art lessons on Saturdays. Together they make cubes, bowls, and cups. They shade them in with special pencils. Lately, his mother has been placing various objects on the table. A pear, a candle, a spoon. And he has had to draw these objects. After he sketches them in pencil, he and his mother mix watercolors on the back of plastic yogurt lids and paint them. She keeps all of their art supplies in a brown plastic tackle box. He wishes they would use the box for something important, like fishing. Mr. Connor is an expert fisherman.
He sighs. Says, Okay, in five minutes. I'll do it in five minutes. He wonders if it won't be so bad if his mother gets called into the hospital. Just for a few hours. Then he'd miss his art lesson. Then he'd get to stay on the armchair.
Barry Uncle whistles suddenly. Says, Looking sharp as usual. But I miss that long black hair of yours. That hair was something gorgeous. It was sexy.
Siddharth grimaces. Says, Gross.
Mohan Lal says, Chief, your problem is that you are always looking backward.
Barry Uncle says, Boss, I don't know why you've always been so ashamed of tradition.
His mother clears her throat. Says, Barry, I'll let you know when I need your opinion.
I love you too, sweetheart, says Barry Uncle.
Siddharth sits up, stretches his arms toward the ceiling. Heads toward the closet outside of the bathroom to get the brown tackle box with the art supplies. But on the way there the phone rings, and he turns to grab the yellow receiver. In case it's the Connor boys. In case it's his brother, checking in from Hartford. Something might be wrong in Hartford, where Arjun has been for the past two days at a youth-in-government conference. Something might have happened to Arjun.
His mother beats him to the phone. She says hello, then laughs. But it's not a happy laugh. She shakes her head and rolls her eyes. Says into the receiver, What can I tell you? We could have avoided this. Says, I told him not to do it, but he's always in a rush. He never listens. She puts the phone down, grabs her purse from the white leather sofa. Grabs her keys from the drawer under the phone that holds the yellow pages, the takeout menus, and the postage stamps. Kisses him on the head and walks out the door.
Many years from now, he will blame himself for wishing that call to come. He will wonder, as a rational, atheistic adult, if the universe was trying to teach him some sort of lesson. But in that moment, all he feels is relief. Contentment. In that moment, he feels powerful. Lucky. Wonders if he should wish for other things. For money. For his parents to buy a Japanese luxury sedan, or perhaps an Audi. For Barry Uncle and Mohan Lal to shut the hell up. For them to be called away too.
The rest of the day slips by in a blissful haze of game shows, cartoons, and reruns. His mother calls once to say that she will have dinner at the hospital. She'll probably sleep there because they might have to operate on somebody in the middle of the night. He is disappointed, especially since Barry Uncle has gone, and his father has become grumpy. Mohan Lal has made him change the channel to public television, which is airing a program about the fall of the Berlin Wall and a new era of peace and prosperity. As Mohan Lal watches his program, Siddharth lies on the leather sofa with his feet on his father's lap. He daydreams. About Chris Piz- zolorusso's birthday party next weekend. It will be at Skate World, and it will be his first boy-girl party since the first grade. He daydreams about their upcoming family vacation to Florida. Maybe Arjun and he will pick up girls. They have plans to go snorkeling, and he wonders if they might find a sunken treasure in the middle of the ocean. Then they'd be rich. Then his mother wouldn't have to be on call anymore, and he wouldn't have to be alone with his father on Saturday evenings.
Mohan Lal interrupts his reverie. Says, Son, time for a shower, I think.
I just showered yesterday, says Siddharth.
Mohan Lal laughs. Says, Son, I can smell you from here. Go shower.
It's your farts, Dad. You're stinking up the whole room.
They both laugh.
Arjun gets home at seven, and the three Arora men eat dinner together. Mohan Lal has prepared his famous tacos, made with hard El Paso shells. Red kidney beans, raw onions, and grated orange cheese. Arjun tells them about his youth-in-government conference. Explains that he and Adam Aaronson designed a bill that would discourage people from staying on welfare.
Siddharth is growing bored. Doesn't like the fact that his father listens so attentively when Arjun speaks.
Mohan Lal says, Son, a strong state must protect its vulnerable citizens.
Siddharth isn't totally sure what vulnerable means. But he knows his father has said this word incorrectly, pronouncing the v like a w.
Mohan Lal says, Arjun, I'm proud of you. One day you'll make a great politician. One day you'll be a man who will make a difference.
Arjun says, Thanks, but politicians make diddly. I'm gonna be a radiologist.
Siddharth and Arjun go to bed around eleven. Within minutes, Arjun is snoring. Siddharth is happy to have his brother nearby on a Saturday night. Usually, Arjun is out on the weekends. Out with Adam Aaronson. With his friends from the cross-country team, the school newspaper. Sometimes they go drinking. The drinking makes Siddharth nervous, but he has agreed not to tell his parents. His father doesn't need another excuse to get angry with Arjun. Mohan Lal blows up when Arjun isn't working hard enough. For his mother, it's the opposite. She gets annoyed when Arjun doesn't take time out to relax. Siddharth agrees with her. He thinks Arjun needs to learn how to chill. Thinks Arjun should watch more television.
Siddharth falls asleep peacefully, contented by the knowledge that his mother will have the next few days off. He thinks, Maybe we'll have our shitty art lesson tomorrow. Thinks, Maybe art lessons aren't so shitty. At six in the morning, a thunderous pounding wakes him up. He struggles to open his eyes, the light feeble outside his window. At six in the morning, he stares from his bed as his father barges into their bedroom. Mohan Lal shakes Arjun. Mohan Lal's wispy gray hairs are tousled, and he is wearing nothing but his tight white underwear.
Arjun groans. Says, Dad, what the hell?
Siddharth cringes because Arjun has said hell in front of their father. Now Mohan Lal might erupt. But Mohan Lal doesn't react. He just says, Get up, son! Get up. I need to talk with you.
If it were later in the day and he weren't so sleepy, Siddharth would protest. He would say that he is old enough to hear whatever is about to be said. But once Arjun follows Mohan Lal out of the room, Siddharth closes his eyes. He closes his eyes and falls back asleep.
He arrives at the Connors' just before six thirty. Eric and Timmy are still sleeping, so he sits in their family room and watches cartoons on their big-screen television. Mrs. Connor is beside him, smoking cigarettes and ironing the family's church clothes. Siddharth is jealous of this large television. He is jealous that everybody from his school gets to meet up at church.
Eric and Timmy wake up at a quarter to eight, and he is relieved. The three of them head out to the garage and examine Eric's new bike jump, which he constructed with spare plywood, nails, and two-by-twos. Eric is three years older than Siddharth, and now in junior high school. Timmy is two years older than Siddharth, but he is only in the fifth grade because he stayed back when he was eight years old. The Connors are his best friends, but he thinks Eric is cooler than Timmy. Eric is like a superhero, the way he can build jumps and do back handsprings. The way he can do a flip in the air without taking a running start.
Mr. and Mrs. Connor adopted Eric and Timmy from Laos, a place Siddharth can't locate on a map. But his father has told him that America has ruined that part of the world. Mohan Lal says that the only reason the Connors adopted Eric and Timmy is because they screwed up their first kids. Their real kids. His mother gets upset whenever Mohan Lal says this. She tells him to be more compassionate. To mind his own business.
After admiring the bike jump, the boys grab Timmy's brand- new Daisy air rifle and head to the backyard. They stray into the Aroras' back lawn, and Siddharth is glad to be closer to home.
Realizes now that he has been uneasy at the Connors. He has been uneasy even though he usually loves it there. He tells himself Arjun will pick him up soon. That his mother was just having a little car trouble and they shouldn't be much longer.
Timmy Connor says, Your dad needs to cut the grass. He always lets it grow so freaking long.
Siddharth feels ashamed of his father. Annoyed by Timmy. Says, He'll mow it. He's a busy guy.
Timmy says, Your dad's tractor sucks. You know what my dad says when your dad cuts the grass? He says, Hey, guys, grab the popcorn, old Hajji's at it again.
Siddharth isn't sure what this means but knows it isn't nice. Says, Whatever, I bet my dad makes more money than yours.
Eric Connor says, You both got no fucking clue what you're talking about.
Eric takes aim at Siddharth's mother's squirrel-proof bird feeder, which dangles from the maple tree behind their screened-in porch. A cardinal is nibbling at some seed there. Siddharth wants to tell him to stop. Wants to tell him that this is his mother's feeder, and he shouldn't shoot. But he also wonders if Eric will actually go through with it. Wonders what it will look like to see a dead bird.
Eric turns from the feeder toward Siddharth's old jungle gym, which is being claimed by the woods. Is engulfed by vines and the branches of a black cherry tree. He fires. Hits the metal slide, which clangs loudly. The Capasso kids, who are enemies with the Connors, can probably hear it. They can probably hear it all the way down the street. Siddharth isn't sure if he likes the gun. The noise. Eric fires again, and the clang echoes more loudly. It's a frightening sound, but one that fills him with adrenaline. He can picture his mother. Imagines her lecturing him about shooting BBs in the backyard.
Eric tells Timmy to raise his leg in the air. Says he wants to shoot Timmy on the sole of his sneaker.
Siddharth can already picture the blood dripping onto the grass. Says, You sure that's a good idea?
Eric says, Don't be a pussy. You'll see — I'm gonna shoot you next. It hurts less than a bee sting.
Timmy raises his foot in the air. Siddharth swallows.
And then the bell rings.
It's Mrs. Connor's bell, calling them in for lunch.
Eric says, Dangit!
Excerpted from South Haven by Hirsh Sawhney. Copyright © 2016 Hirsh Sawhney. Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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