Set in a newly independent India, If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here tells the beautiful story of a young boy named Siva. Born to a mother who longs for a daughter, Siva, the surviving male twin is rejected by his mother following his sister’s death at birth. Dealing with a fate beyond his control, what unfolds is a stunning story about loss, change, identity and the cyclical nature of history. Siva’s life, much like the newly independent India in which it is set, is subject to brutal external factors and an inherited legacy of pain. As colonial rule leaves India in upheaval, suspended between an imperialist past and new found liberation, She is pulled apart and so too is Siva. Torn between who he is and who he feels he should be, his identity is questioned and explored beyond the usual gender binary. Resisting the identity limitations that are imposed by largely Christian ideals Siva unwittingly emulates his namesake. The millenia old androgynous Hindu idol who represents male and female (Ardhanarishvara), who is neither born nor dead and encapsulates contradictory elements in order to bring about positive change and balance. Srivatsa writes with immense skill and a deftness of touch that is both deeply moving and empowering. She draws on the strengths of thousands of years’ heritage to help summon the power to prevent history repeating itself. Yet her themes are understated, current and profound, simultaneously celebrating and criticising India. As an Asian in the diaspora this is exactly the type of story I want/need to read, because it feels like it was written for me. Let me explain. Lots of stories are written for wider, dare I say, whiter, audiences and usually there are little flag bearers in books which sometimes feel like buzzwords/topics put in, in order to appeal to ‘mainstream’ publishers and audiences. (I don’t blame authors for this at all by the way, but rather a skewed publishing industry and the middle-class, middle- aged white women they so pander to.) I’ve picked three buzzwords/topics in relation to the country written about off the top of my head to give you an example:
Pakistan: Taliban/Jihad/ Drones
Afghanistan: Taliban/Oppressed women
Somalia: FGM/Warlords/ Pirates
I often (and I’m sure many other PoC do too) almost subconsciously pick up on these ‘buzz’ words/topics, but what felt liberating is that this book had none! Another example of this is when I told a friend about the book and I said it was about an Indian mother who wanted a daughter, she instinctively ‘corrected’ me and said ‘you mean son!’ That is the extent to which PoC are typecast and stereotyped in mainstream literature- that we often feel that we already know their stories before we have even read them. We are too often reduced to reading pigeonholed, homogeneous caricatures of ourselves, in order to fulfil a diversity quota for others. PoC are not afforded the nuance and differences that reflect our reality in literature (or if we are, it’s only published through brilliant small independent publishers!) But If You look For Me, I am Not Here is refreshingly different. Instead it hones in on an intimate and interesting story of personal struggle to show an honest and often overlooked part of the subcontinent in literature- heterogeneity. And that to me is what diversity in literature should look like. Easily an early contender for one of my best reads this year, I already can’t wait for her next book.
Thanks to Bluemoose Books for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. (And thanks for publishing it!!)