Title: drenched thoughts (a novel in poetry and prose)
Author: Anita Nahal
Poetry and prose mingle in a breathing, pulsing, sensitive, witty, believable novel!
drenched thoughts by Dr. Anita Nahal, is an original perspective on the beauty and challenges of immigration and womanhood. Coming from an Indian perspective, the originality and wisdom within Nahal’s lens and vantage-point, is fascinating and well elucidated. A compelling iteration of one woman’s discovery both of herself and her place in the world. Overcoming significant trauma and obstacles to create a sense of belonging in a vastly different cultural milieu, haunted at times by what she has “lost” whilst simultaneously building for the sake of her son’s future is at the center of the book’s protagonist, Priya’s story, all written without censor and often with unfailing wit, in the footsteps of the author’s forefathers:
“When asked, “Where did you learn to speak English like that?” / She joyously said what her father had taught her to say / “I learned English, while you picked it up.”
Of particular interest, is the way Dr. Nahal juxtaposes internalized thoughts alongside action-narration and a solid three-dimensional character arc, whilst managing to insert regular vignettes of poetry/prose. This can either be fantastically successful or a real mistake, in this case the former, with a natural “voice” maintained whether in prose or poetry, the believability and necessity of falling into poem, works well alongside the detailed experiences of the protagonist and her family. What may for some be pretentious or extraneous when utilized incorrectly, was deftly wielded in drenched thoughts, enhancing this novel with a deeper layer of mis-en-scene that draws the reader into the protagonist’s universe and aids our discovery of her inner-thoughts, much like a personal dialogue. The poetry works as another means of describing the tumult and consternation of the characters, binding the relationships tightly, leaving you more invested in their outcomes.
Nahal has done a superb job of creating a believable world where we need Priya to succeed and find the happiness she deserves. This is a multi-facetted novel, with insight, abundant humor, and most of all a lovely blending of Indian culture alongside the experience(s) many of us have when we are immigrants. The sensitivity of this portrayal and the vulnerability expressed, is why this novel isn’t just a work of fiction. I am firmly convinced there is a lot of actual experience shared and that’s why it’s more impactful than fiction alone. The title is a perfect synonym for the journey and there is a truth here that few writers are able to express, perhaps because having gone through so much, the author is willing to let go and give us the whole story, rather than a highly protected version.
As a huge fan of Indian literature and culture, I enjoyed this novel immensely for its multi-cultural foray and unveiling of the minutiae of a fascinating world. It is a real accomplishment to be able to successfully marry two cultural experiences so seamlessly and lend access to worlds we may not be familiar with but want to learn more of. Nahal’s strengths lie in her humor, which is interspersed throughout, her attention to narrative and ability to flesh out characters through their conversation. This is less a novel of scenes and detail, than a living novel of emotions, responses, relationships. In many ways, these are the cornerstones of modern Indian culture; family, discovery, ambition, loyalty, and friendships.
‘Ghar char diwari se nahi banta hai … us char diwari ke andar kya h ora hai … usse ghar banta hai, use kahte hain ghar …’ Priya was shouting. ‘But you don’t understand that na …so, here it is again… in English this time… the four walls of a house do not make it a home… what is happening inside is what makes it a home. That is what is called a home.’
Consider this soulful consciousness contrasted with an Indian woman moving to America and the baffling differences in what is prized and valued, and drenched thoughts elucidates this through a realistic portrayal of Priya, and her son, finding their foothold in the US. In Chapter 9, Priya becomes unemployed and talks of her shame and regret, having been so successful in India. She understands unemployment as a failure, and it is left to her friend Gracilyn to explain this is more a modern predicament than failure. Just as Priya was told by her parents that she couldn’t be a dancer when growing up, and years later in the US takes up line dancing and R&B dancing. Reclaiming the activities she wasn’t able to do in her native culture, at that time and place, whilst respecting why that was so.
The comparison in what we understand growing up in India versus being a native-born American, struck me deeply, having experienced similar discrepancies in my own immigration story. At the crux of this, a shifting identity seeking to comprehend the nuance of cultural difference, which at times lies beyond explanation and can only be accepted through direct exposure. Much as I struggled with America’s emphasis on competition and competitiveness; Priya must balance what she knew in India, with the differing social mores of America. In addition, it is moving testament to the shift of time and how we do the same thing from different places in time, almost memorializing those we lost:
‘Mummy loved her small diaries which she kept everywhere. In her purses, on her dressing table, and even under her pillow. Priya did the same earlier, just in case she thought of a poem in the middle of the night she could jot it down. Now, Priya simply sent herself a text on the pone or write in the notes app.’
I should point out my favorite parts were the poems on feminism and equality because having read Dr. Nahal’s poetry previously, I am a big fan of her ability to convey a lot in a single poem. Her subjects are important, she doesn’t shy away from what matters to the modern woman, and shines a realistic, unflinching torch on social injustice:
‘Single women and single mothers are generally the target of discrimination all over the world, including I America. She hoped to create an alternate paradigm, modify the language.’
These insights fit in well with the narrative and help us relate to Priya as she navigates leaving an unhappy relationship and takes the risk of changing her life drastically. Many of us have wished to do this but few succeed. drenched thoughts is one woman’s brave odyssey. Her love for her son is the beating pulse throughout, and still, she is able to describe such a full, rich world both internal and external, that we believe Priya is alive, walking alongside us. Additionally, there is a phenomenon those who have immigrated will be familiar with; that of leaving only to return and not recognize “home.” The changes over years can be disturbing in their unfamiliarity, and leave the immigrant unsure of where they now belong:
‘I thought humans have the same red blood / flowing. Color, gender, class, sexuality / nor religion mattered. We come from one God / neither mattered, caste, ethnicity, nationality / language, or disability. Yet minds differ, yes, they do / between governments and nations too.’
This contradiction is palpably rendered several times, not least where Priya is being told by her friends back in India how different India is, how modern, and the changes for women particularly. There is a humor here around shaving legs, but the deeper message is one of change, which whilst positive, can also be disconcerting to the returnee. ‘The more you age in India; the more society burdens you to look old!’ Former concerns are updated as Indian women demand equality, but for Priya, she can only remember how stifling it was for educated, mature women who were kept behind men. This is the heart of testimonials about sexism and ageism, deftly woven into the storyline.
Any immigrant knows, one of the hardest aspects is living so far from family, especially as they age. Priya’s pain is not sentimentalized, but a stark honest response to distance. I felt it in my chest when I read her father’s words about missing his daughter. ‘Sighed her dad, so far away / his voice like a persistent sun ray / trying to find its way / to his daughter / making her day.’ Whilst simply written, the poignancy of those words and others, evoked the longing we keep secret, when we are far-flung. No amount of success can reduce that ache, and it is the price we who immigrate, pay for our journey, exquisitely evoked in this tender novel.
Rather than making everything a positive, harmonious journey, Nahal has been candid about the invariable struggles of such a change, and this increased the value of the story in my estimate, because it’s too easy to write positivity, but most of us want to hear the real story, with all its hopes and losses, dreams and failures, that’s what makes us human, that’s what causes us to root for the heroine. And we do. Hopeful Priya’s journey will culminate in peace-of-mind we are gifted an insight into an educated woman’s life and follow her transformation. This is done almost bilingually with two competing cultures, interspersing, lending the novel a vibrancy and relevancy on two fronts. This parallel is brilliantly observed in English, whilst in America, with the use of Hindi; ‘You bloody bitch! Didn’t I tell you to stay put in the car! Kutiya!! …The Hindi word for bitch, Kutiya, sounded even worse, more brash, cruder.’
Some may not understand how a cruel word in one’s first language, has devastating power when inserted in one’s 2nd or 3rd language, how it acts more as a nail for being in one’s “familiar” language, and scores a greater offense. Such nuances and private pains are uncannily described, evoking a kind of superstitious terror that is far greater than were one language to dominate. Comprehending the Indian issues of caste, culture, gender, dignity, in a foreign world where such things are not understood in the same way, vividly paints the exposure any immigrant feels in a foreign land, even as they desperately try to fit in. The poetry throughout acted for me like a memory, evoking the past, happy memories of family and then some not, but always with a vividity that contrasts with the present-day arrival in America and the more prosaic struggles therein.
Ultimately, the value of this novel lies in love, as with life. Priya’s salvation is found through her decisions and courage, but also the relationship with her son Avijeet. For many women with children, the happiness and success of their children, as well as their support, is how they weather the many hardships they endure. Combining the beauty of Indian culture alongside the reality of living in modern-day-American, Dr. Anita Nahal has given us a breathing, pulsing novel filled with wonder, pain, and laughter. I hold truth and love in the highest estimate, and these are the center of drenched thoughts. Priya endures and thrives; in part thanks to her love for her son; ‘He was a sagacious old soul / From early on in age / He’d been her broken soul’s bandage / Sent to her from Heaven’s bowl / Had it not been for him, Priya would / Have long ago died, on a wretched pyre of wood.’
The way many of Indian heritage and culture, write when they write in English, flavors a flat language with color and vibrancy. They seem to instinctively wield greater alacrity over their interpretation of English, and speckle it with the history, beauty and heritage that is India. I don’t say this patronizingly, but quite the reverse. I am continually amazed at the vibrant fluency of Indian writers who write in the English language and what they bring to that language. It is, I believe, a language of their own, and one to never edit or reduce. Beyond that we have a simple story with a profound heart. And that’s what I remember most after reading drenched thoughts, just how much she loved, and what she understood of love. For nothing is as important as that.