She was at temple one day when she heard it.
Raminder Sidhu was sitting nearby as a group of women were chatting. She couldn’t hear everything clearly, but the tone the ladies were using was definitely sullen. It sounded like they were talking about a couple who had lost a child, and how it was especially tragic because they didn’t have any other children.
Then, Sidhu realized she was wrong. She had misinterpreted the conversation.
The women weren’t lamenting a death, but mourning the birth of a third daughter.
She was stunned.
“Seriously, this is still happening?” she thought.
Having grown up in a South Asian community, straddling the North American culture she was raised in the midst of in Vancouver, she’d seen and heard a lot of things she had questioned over the years. But this was the last straw.
“Somebody has got to do something about this,” Sidhu thought. “Nobody’s going to change anything if no one’s going to recognize this is a problem.”
She began scribbling her thoughts in a notebook and with no plan and no outline, a short story emerged. And eventually, from that short story grew her debut novel, Tears of Mehndi.
Published earlier this year, the book, which explores the intertwined lives of several female characters living in Vancouver’s Little India neighbourhood, is written in first-person narrative through a series of diary entries.
“The South Asian community is based on rumour and gossip and hearsay – no one ever knows the facts. I wanted to use a format that actually shows the way the community functions.”
The format allows her to explore myriad social issues – domestic abuse, gender discrimination, racism – from a variety of points of view, from a young girl anticipating her arranged marriage, to an older woman torn between the shame of divorce versus living with an unfaithful husband.
The different perspectives, Sidhu says, are important.
“It seems like everyone talks about the people in our community but nobody talks with them, to help them.”
And the author doesn’t shy away from her opinion that though they’re often the victims, females are also a big part of the problem.
“I wanted to show that women are perpetuating gender discrimination. All the violence and domestic abuse just progressed naturally. When you’re raised your whole life to be inferior to men, it’s natural progression that these tragedies are going to occur.”
She has learned, however, that the issues raised in her book are not unique to the South Asian community.
“It’s so cross-cultural. I’m getting so much feedback where readers are saying ‘where you say good Indian girl, I want to cross it out and put good Chinese girl, or good Italian girl’.”
Sidhu, who has lived in Surrey since 1991, is a middle-school teacher in Coquitlam and did not have big dreams of being a novelist.
“I never in a million years imagined myself as a writer or ever wanted to be a writer,” she laughs.
Still, the story flowed easily, she says, although the subject matter wasn’t always pleasant to deal with.
“I was so compelled. You know how they say ‘the book chose me’? That was it,” she says. “I’ll admit it was disturbing at times. I would be overwhelmed.”
Since the book was published, she’s heard of many more incidents of violence and heartbreak.
“I know I wrote a fiction novel, but this is real for so many women,” Sidhu says, adding she initially naively thought she was writing about a minority and that attitudes toward women in her community had improved much more since the ‘60s and ‘70s than they have.
For now, Sidhu’s happy her book is getting the word out and encouraging dialogue.
She hopes that one day the “great” side of South Asian culture can shine through, but says it’s nearly impossible until the pervading social problems are dealt with.
“I’m just the voice. I’m hoping readers will be the action.”
Tears of Mehndi is available online and at all major bookstores.