Thursday, March 7, 2013

Everything was Good-bye by Gurjinder Basran

 " 'What does want have to do with it? He must do what he is told. We all must do as we are told,' Masi said, her eyes close to mine as she placed a bindi on my forehead."
This poignant, heartbreaking novel, tells the story of a young woman caught between personal desire and cultural expectations.

Meena (Meninder) lives with her mother and older sister Tej (Tejinder) in North Delta, a suburb just outside of Vancouver. She is almost eighteen when the novel begins, and in Grade 12 in high school. Meena is the youngest in a Punjabi family comprised of six daughters. Her sisters are Serena, the oldest who is married and has produced the desired male first born, Harjinder who has run away from home after being attacked by a group of boys, Parm who lives in England with her husband, Parveen who married and moved to Edmonton, and Tej who is not yet married. Meena's father died in a workplace accident, when she was very young so she doesn't remember him. However, every Sunday, her mother hosts relatives and friends from the Punjabi community, who come to mourn the loss of her husband, sixteen years previously.

Meena meets Liam at school one day. She feels comfortable talking to him, and he is kind to her. She likes to listen to him talk, describing him as being "symphonic".
"You could be an opera," I told him. 
"No, you've got it all wrong. An opera needs tragedy. And that's your department. You're tragic through and through." 
Meena begins rebelling not only in school but also against the restrictions imposed by her culture and family. She spends more and more time with Liam, talking about life despite the fact that her mother has warned her to stay away from that "white boy" so as not to ruin her chances to make a good Punjabi marriage. Eventually the friendship between Liam and Meena develops into a romantic relationship. But, when Liam asks her to leave with him, Meena cannot make a decision, and one day she finds her only friend has left.

Time passes and in part two, Two for Sorrow,  Meena is now a 24 year old woman working for a PR firm. She is still being pressured to marry, and marry someone from her own culture.  Meena gives in and agrees to meet a wealthy Indian-Canadian man, Sundeep (Sunny) Gill. Sunny works as a corporate lawyer and with his entitled attitude is not a good match for Meena.  Even though neither Sunny nor Meena wish to be married to one another, they go through with the marriage to please their families. Three years pass in an kind of banal existence for both of them, devoid of children and in which Meena focuses on her career. When Sunny and his parents take a six week trip to India, in a twist of fate, Meena unexpectedly runs into Liam at an art showing. Her choices during Sunny's absence will have terrible consequences for everyone involved.

Everything was Good-bye is an excellent novel that explores the themes of identity and self-discovery. Meena struggles to develop her own identity and choose her own path in life but is largely unable to because of the expectations placed upon her by her Punjabi culture and the consequences if she steps outside her culture. These expectations have been there since she was a young girl and dictated how she dressed and behaved. Both the expectations and the consequences of not conforming become more imposing as she approaches adulthood.  She can't date a white boy because this will ruin her reputation for making a good marriage to some well off Punjabi boy. She can't take the writer's course in Toronto, because as her older sister Serena tells her, she has a duty to do what her mother wants.

Characterization in Everything was Good-bye is well done. Meena struggles to balance what she wants in life (to be a writer and be with Liam) with cultural expectations of her family (to marry well in the Punjabi community and to be a good wife and mother). However, the pressure to conform is relentless. We want Meena to have the courage to be true to herself, but her repeated inability to do so, thwart her life and her happiness. Eventually this balancing act becomes to much and the reappearance of her beloved Liam results in her first forward action in 5 years .The repercussions of going against her culture are shockingly deadly, in a way she couldn't have predicted. All this makes her a very sympathetic character.

The reader experiences Liam as an intelligent, kind man who loves Meena and who tries to accept her as she is. Unlike Meena, Liam has the freedom to follow his own path. But Meena's indecision leaves him frustrated and feeling confused.

Sunny is a completely unlikeable character mainly because he is a poor fit for Meena and also because he is abusive. Wealthy, well educated,  his sense of entitlement is overbearing. He is like Meena though because he doesn't like the restrictions his culture has placed on him either. He doesn't have the courage to go against Punjabi traditions. Instead he exists within them, but because he is a man, he has more freedom. It's evident by the way Sunny behaves, that he doesn't love her.

Overall the story was quite dramatic, almost like a Hindi movie, and holds the reader's interest to the very end. The ending is absolutely shocking and borders on unsatisfying because as a reader I didn't get what I wanted - a happy ending. Basran gives us plenty of foreshadowing of the unhappy conclusion to the novel.

Everything was Good-bye is a thoughtful, engaging novel on identity and culture that will resonate for many, regardless of their ethnic background. All cultures have expectations for young people and many of us experience the conflict, loss and confusion that this entails.

Book Details:
Everything was Good-bye by Gurjinder Basran
Toronto: Penguin Canada 2010
254 pp.

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