Here’s what Sayantani Dasgupta’s new collection, Fire Girl: Essays on India, America, and the In-Between, made me notice about contemporary nonfiction. Often we Americans, or more specifically we white Americans, or even more specifically, I, personally, write memoir that is untethered to the great sweeps of historical events that surround it. Sure, my parents play a part in some of the pieces I write and on rare occasions I mention a grandparent, but Dasgupta anchors the trajectory of her life within the experiences and languages and foods of her ancestors and situates their lives in the national and international forces of their times. I’ve never even thought of myself as having ancestors. I’m a product of the American myth of fierce independence.
Dasgupta is also the product of fierceness. Sometimes it’s the fierceness of those around her as seen in the essay “Reptilian Brain.” In it, a twenty-year-old Dasgupta is traveling the streets of New Delhi, off to a new job, reveling in the feeling of being, finally, a “grown woman.” But a sense of claustrophobia builds, starting with the trapped heat of her modern, synthetic clothing and high heels. Next we read about the polluted summer air, and then of crowds pressing together on the bus. She worries for the men hanging off the outside who sometimes fall and are crushed and about the men inside who use the closeness to squeeze a woman’s buttock or pinch a nipple. This, in a twisted version of victim blaming, is known as “Eve teasing.” The writing successfully evokes a sense of dread, and when Dasgupta is surrounded by men with snakes slithering over their bodies, snakes who stretch their heads and then their tongues towards her, when she becomes immobilized and obedient with fear and the men extort for her money, it seems inevitable.
But the recounting of a couple of hours of the author’s early life is only the twisting spine of this essay. The power of these essays lies in the fleshing out of a story with all that surrounds it—past and present, fact and myth. This greater sense of scope and historical perspective is a welcome addition to American memoir. In this first essay, Dasgupta includes stories of monkey and snake gods and her family’s disregard of their worship. Both Tina Turner and the novelist Khushwant Singh are quoted on the chaos of New Delhi. And she delves into the science of a human’s reptilian brain, which offers not only flight or fight, but also “tonic immobility.”
The geographic span of Dasgupta’s writings, of her life, is immense. She now works at the University of Idaho in a place where “the sidewalks looked like they were shampooed every morning,” that is “possibly one of the whitest towns in America,” and where her brownness has caused people to shout at her or try to convert her to a belief in Jesus. But it is also a place where she walks alone with a sense of safety and freedom that is not possible for her in India.
She uses this juxtaposition of cultures to illuminate one by the other. She arrived in Idaho as a young graduate student and was the only person of color in her writing classes. She found comfort that she, coming from a complex, grand, and messy world already had a “master narrative” and that her American classmates didn’t. An “invisible shield cocooned them from wars, drones, and starvation elsewhere.” And she decided that they were much too clean to know much about the human condition. Then a student read their family story and the young Dasgupta yelled, “This is insane. Fathers are supposed to take care of their children.” Her own invisible shields of class and family were revealed. She searches for connections and finds them in the Thai restaurant that comes closest to the flavors of home, the contrasts between “fairness creams” in India and her American students’ obsession with tanning lotions, and at a county fair where she discovers “a world where quilting grandmothers sauntered like Hollywood royalty.”
In the essay “Goddesses,” she writes about Durga, the mother goddess, who has 108 names, rides a snarling lion, and smites her enemies with the weapons clutched in her ten arms. She writes of the hypocrisy of worshipping powerful goddesses in a country that has a culture of rape. But now, in her home country, goddesses are being used in ad campaigns against “domestic abuse and female trafficking.” In Iowa, Dasgupta teaches about the fierce and unapologetic nature of Durga as a way to empower her students. At the very least, she hopes it will diminish her female students’ habit of saying “I’m sorry” so very many times in a day.
“Fire Girl” is one of the most powerful essays in the collection. The story of Draupadi, a mythical character from ancient Indian literature, is threaded throughout the essay. She was born of flames and stepped out of them already a grown woman. She was married off to five men and then gambled away to a prince who tried to disrobe her in a crowded assembly. She punished him. She had his chest ripped open and washed “her hair in the blood that gushed from the wound.” She also caused a war that killed almost a hundred thousand warriors. In between each segment of ”Fire Girl,” Dasgupti has placed unflinching scenes of the times she herself was sexually abused or attacked—as a little girl in a toy store, as an eleven-year-old slapped hard and repeatedly on the butt by an arm reaching out from a passing car, by a man leaning into the gates of her private school and jerking off and calling to the girls to come touch “it,” by her family ophthalmologist when she’s seventeen and has insisted to her parents that she’d old enough to go alone. And at twenty-three, in a method of attack and rape we’ve recently seen in the news, she is trapped by a gang of men on a bus. In her case, she is able to jump from the moving bus and run home.
Near the end of the collection the author’s returns to her family’s homeland in what is now Bangladesh. Here the vast forces of colonialism and partition and religious intolerance inform the circumstances of her great-grandparents choices to leave and become refugees in Calcutta who have to rebuild their lives. She visits with the offshoots of her family who remain. She visits rotting ancestral homes and the high school that her great-great-grandfather created. It allowed girls. He set the example by enrolling his granddaughter, Dasgupta’s grandmother, who became part of this revolutionary act.
Dasgupta’s mother has taught her about Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, who “lives inside every article of education.” Dasgupta describes herself as a “social Hindu,” “an atheist by faith, a Hindu in name and on officious-looking forms.” She does “not believe there are ten-armed goddesses hovering in the sky.” But still, “every time I drop a notebook or a book or a pencil, I pick it up with reverence, I touch it to my forehead, and plead for forgiveness.”
And now what shall I do with my own stories? I was born into a newly nuclear world, into a cold war. How did that form me? Perhaps I should find out more about my father’s youngest brother who is still listed as “missing in action” from the Korean Conflict. My mother lived through the Blitz of London. What did that mean about how she raised me? During the Great Depression, my fourteen-year-old father ran away from West Virginia. We only went back for funerals. My grandfather’s name was Welsh. I’m short like him and have his watery white skin and my hair used to black like his. Do I have ancestors who were the ancient forest people of Wales? Did my people (I have people?) become coal miners after English overlords cleared their land? I know so very little about how historical forces shaped my family. It seems impossible to figure it out.
But, like in Fire Girl, perhaps I’ll start with a moment. Dasgupta’s earliest memories of her grandmother are about food—”dumplings soaked in sugar syrup” and “rice flour crepes stuffed with sweet coconut filling.” I remember the first time I saw a lemon chiffon pie. It was served, along with the most food I’d ever seen, after my grandmother’s funeral. Her two remaining sons, my father and an uncle I was meeting for the first time, sprawled in overstuffed chairs and laughed while they told stories of their stern mother. I held the piece of pie in front of my face. It was so tall. I’d never seen anything like it. That first bite was all air and tang and white sugar.