About the book:
Seventeen-year-old Samar — a.k.a. Sam — has never known much about her Indian heritage. Her mom has deliberately kept Sam away from her old-fashioned family. It’s never bothered Sam, who is busy with school, friends, and a really cute but demanding boyfriend.
But things change after 9/11. A guy in a turban shows up at Sam’s house, and he turns out to be her uncle. He wants to reconcile the family and teach Sam about her Sikh heritage. Sam isn’t sure what to do, until a girl at school calls her a coconut — brown on the outside, white on the inside. That decides it: Why shouldn’t Sam get to know her family? What is her mom so afraid of? Then some boys attack her uncle, shouting, “Go back home, Osama!” and Sam realizes she could be in danger — and also discovers how dangerous ignorance can be. Sam will need all her smarts and savvy to try to bridge two worlds and make them both her own.
I soak up the images, the tidbits and soundbytes, as we go through the [photo] albums.
This was during the trip to Niagara Falls, Look how skinny your cousin Pradeep is here! That was my favorite birthday shirt. I see Mom at six, wearing loud prints and checkered brown and orange pants, smiling broadly at the camera with her piano teeth; at ten, smiling pleasantly in a Raggedy-Ann dress.
Then at thirteen, the smile becomes just a small fraction of the crescent it used to be; her braids hang limp on the sides of her face, and her hands are folded in front of her on her lap.
But the photos of a teenage Mom are what hold me riveted. Mom and Uncle Sandeep both grow quiet. There are no smiles in these photos, and the spark in Mom’s eyes is gone. She stands, hunched, or staring off in the distance, almost as if she doesn’t notice the camera. The teenager in these photos is nothing like the Mom I’ve known my whole life. Nothing like the Mom in the photos we have at home—mom with her fist raised at a Take Back the Night march, or smiling with two fingers held up at a peace rally. Mom, with her eyes crackling in dissent. My mom.
I stare in disbelief at the photos, then look at my mother, and back again. No matter how hard I try, I can’t see that bleak teenager in the woman sitting next to me.
She points to the last photo in the album. “This was the day before I shaved my head,” she says quietly. She turns the page, and a small photo falls to the floor. I pick it up and turn it over. There, smiling blissfully back at me, is Mom standing next to a man I know must be my dad.
I gasp and hear Mom’s sharp intake of breath next to me. The photo is slightly discolored and a little dog-eared, but it’s whole and complete. Mom and Dad on the day of their marriage.
The halls of the courthouse are blurred behind them, in stark contrast to the shimmering excitement in their eyes. Mom has on a lustrous, fitted, silver-gray mermaid dress that reaches just above her ankles. She wears a dazzling bindi on her forehead, and there are tiny rhinestones following the arch above her perfectly plucked brows. Her hair is carefully swept up on top of her head and fastened with fresh flowers. Her lips are a deep ruby color, and tiny pearl earrings dangle from her ears. She stands in his arms; one hand on his chest, the other around his waist, and smiles radiantly at the camera.
He stands next to her, both arms around her waist. He looks dapper and handsome; tall and velvety dark in his suit and tie. His hair is slicked back into a tight, shiny, black ponytail, and he has a ruby flower on his lapel, the same color as the flowers in Mom’s hair. He, too, beams joyfully at the camera.
I feel my throat beginning to close up as Mom takes the photo from my hand. She looks up at Naniji. “Why would you keep this?”
Naniji keeps her gaze level, sharp pain clearly evident in her eyes. “It was the last photo we ever received from you.”
“But…but I thought you hated him,” Mom says, just above a whisper.
“Han,” Naniji says softly, “but he is not the only one in the photo.”
Mom stares at the photo in her hand. “This was when it was good,” she says, her words packed with static.
“We tried very hard to warn you, Sharanjit… He didn’t have a stitch of ambition, and he was absolutely un—” Nanaji gives her a look, and Naniji stops herself before turning away.
Mom holds the photo for a moment longer between her thumb and forefinger, gently like a cracked raw egg. Then she places it back in the back of the album where it was. A brief silence follows. Uncle Sandeep delicately takes the album away from Mom and opens the next one.
“Ah…! Look at cousin Rimi!” he says, opening to a page from earlier years.
Mom’s still quiet, but manages a small smile. “That was one smart girl. She knew how to get us in and out of trouble so fast, it would make my head spin.”
Naniji turns back to look at the photo. “Yes,” she says, “Very smart girl—she went to Harvard, you know, married a very wealthy fellow.”
“Good for her,” Mom says tersely.
I’m still fighting the surge of tears that threaten to pour forth. That was the first photo I’ve ever seen of the man that fathered me. Seeing it here, after seeing all the other photos of Mom makes it hard to get enough air into my lungs. I take a deep breath to quell the feelings fighting forward. Mom covers my hand gently with hers before taking a deep breath herself.
“Never would have thought it of little Rimi,” Naniji continues with a chuckle. “But if you’re going to be dark, I suppose you have to be smart.”
Mom’s face goes taut and her eyes flare. “What do you mean, ‘if you’re going to be dark’?”
Nanaiji straightens up to her full height. “I mean that being dark is already an imperfection in our culture. You know that, Sharanjit. Right or wrong, that is the way it is.”
Mom snaps the album shut.
“Sharan,” Uncle Sandeep begins, but Mom is already standing up.
I drop my head into my hands, my whole body trembling uncontrollably.
“This is exactly why I didn’t want anything to do with you,” Mom says quietly. “It’s bad enough I had to go through my whole life listening to this garbage. But now I’ve walked my daughter straight into it too.”
Naniji looks at Mom in dismay. “What…?” she says, holding her hands out.
Nanaji gets up too. “There’s nothing wrong with being dark, Sharanjit, that’s not what your mother is saying.”
Mom explodes. “Then what, Papa? What is she saying? Please tell me, because maybe I’ve been wrong for thirty-seven years!”
Naniji folds her arms across her chest. “I did not make up the rules, Sharanjit. Indians all believe light skin is prettier than dark skin—and as much as you would like to, you cannot place that entire burden on me. It has been so since before I was born, and is still so.”
“That does not make it right,” Mom fires.
“Okay, let’s not bring up the past again. Let’s move on…” Uncle Sandeep puts his body between Mom and Naniji.
“No,” Mom says, walking brusquely to the closet, “We can not move on. This kind of nonsense is precisely why we haven’t been able to move on. This was the reason you thought Harpreet wasn’t good enough for me, this was the reason I never measured up to my beautiful, fair-skinned cousins!”
Naniji puts her hands on her hips. “Sharanjit, Harpreet showed his true colors shortly after your marriage, didn’t he? We warned you, but you were too headstrong, and then you found yourself in a mess.”
“But that’s not why you didn’t like him! No, Ma. You didn’t like him because he was too dark. And for you, being dark means something else…it means a lack of ambition, a flawed character, an imperfection, right?” Mom shoves her feet into her boots, grabs her coat, and charges out the door.
I follow numbly behind.
—An excerpt from Shine, Coconut Moon, by Neesha Meminger (Margaret K. McElderry Books, March/09, New York)
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