Ranbir Singh Sidhu is the author of the short story collection Good Indian Girls. His first novel, Deep Singh Blue (Unnamed Press, 2016), takes readers into his vision of Reagan-era America and introduces 16-year-old Deep Singh who wants out — out of his family, out of his conservative Northern California town, and more than anything, out of his life.
In an interview with Ploughshares, Sidhu tells of the origins of Deep’s character and drawing on his own family for the dynamic. The novel, set in 1984, also chronicles the racism of 1980s America, and in Rumpus the writer shared memories from that time when he was growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area’s city of Concord, where white men walked around town in KKK regalia and African Americans were stabbed and lynched in public. Deep Blue Singh also contains a narrative within its novel about the events unfolding in Punjab in 1984, including the anti-Sikh riots and massacres following Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Read the first chapter of the novel in which Deep refers to himself as a lost boy.
A winding drive took me along blank boulevards with their cross-eyed strip malls and condos screaming in a pastel-colored language all their own. I punched the lighter, waited for it to pop, and lit a cigarette. The road stammered in the heat and dust blew in streaks along the gravel sidewalks. The neon sign for a discount foam store fluctuated on and off and smoke curled across the windshield. I rolled the window down. Warm afternoon air gusted against my face. The sharp exhalation of a truck’s air brakes coming to a halt crowded out the closing bars of a song on the radio.
I took a left into the mall and found a spot outside the diner. I turned the ignition off and the engine stuttered to a stop. The metal snapped and creaked as it cooled in the hot sun. The lunchtime crowd had thinned and several spots sat open at the counter. I didn’t see anyone I recognized. Lily’s shift didn’t start ‘til four on Wednesdays, but I hadn’t come here to see her, just to leave her a note. I took a seat and pulled the menu out from where it stood filed vertically between the ketchup bottle and milk jug. My hands shook as I spread it open across the counter.
The year was 1984, the state was California, Ronald Reagan was president, and I was a kid, sixteen, the son of immigrants, who’d told himself he was in love. More than that, I was in love with a married woman a full decade older. I couldn’t guess what she’d packed into those ten years. None of that mattered to me — what mattered was that she love me back. And right then, as I wrote her a letter in my head, one I probably should have written long before I walked into the diner, it was a task I was failing miserably at.
My folks traveled here from India; not from the city but from the village. That journey must have been more unsettling than moving in the 1920s from a lonely farm in Idaho to the bright lights of Manhattan, with its flapper dens and speakeasies. When they arrived, they knew less about America than I had ever known about India, which meant they knew practically nothing. They weren’t doctors or engineers, neither had much of an education, they were the other Indians, the ones who don’t get talked about and whose stories don’t get written — the children of farmers, not even farmers themselves when they left. It was history with a small h — the kind that happens to ordinary people, not to countries — that tossed them like a handful of pebbles across a map of the world. Dad came to look for work, Mom came to marry him. They had no handholds to keep them secure, and the world they encountered was as mystifying as it was terrifying.
Out of that, I was born.
I’m not proud of the person I was that year, my sixteenth on this rock, but given the chance, I doubt I would have done a thing differently. Maybe I was throwing rocks into the well of my soul, listening for an echo to try to learn a little of what lay hidden deep within me. Or maybe that’s who I was that year, a regular messed-up kid who for all his smarts couldn’t see himself for the trees.
What I tell myself is this: You’re who you are, people do things, sometimes really stupid things.
And there I was, another American, just one of the people, doing things.
Behind the counter, a middle-aged woman bustled back and forth. She had arms like a stevedore. I could see the flesh of her body alive under her uniform, the muscles contracting and releasing, I could almost smell the film of perspiration sticking to the tiny hairs growing out of her skin, feel the pulse of blood shooting through her veins.
When she passed I called out, “I’ll have a coffee, black’s fine.”
I’d eat and leave the letter for Lily — something honest and to the point, that got to the heart of the matter. The waitress found a mug and filled it and carried it toward me, but instead of stopping where I sat, she deposited it at the seat of a young woman sitting at the far end. I’d add a little extra to her tip, I decided, to make sure my note made it to Lily. The goal, I told myself, was to pick the words carefully.
Not love, but passion, not desire, but thirst, not need, but necessity.
Several minutes passed before I called out again as she hurried by.
“A coffee over here, but no hurry, take your time.”
I realized I’d left the menu open. Of course, she must think I’m still deciding. I shut it and started tapping it against the counter when a guy in overalls sat down a couple seats away. The waitress with the thick arms walked up to him without a pause and set out a knife and fork wrapped in a napkin and asked if he’d like to start with coffee.
“Sure,” he said, and added that he knew what he wanted.R
She wrote his order down and shouted through the opening to the kitchen. Very efficient. Here was a waitress who took her job seriously, for which I had nothing but admiration. This left one problem. Had she not heard me? Maybe I’d pulled the menu out without waiting for her to offer it, committing an unforced error in the tightly run game of her afternoon shift.
I returned the menu to where I found it, standing tall between the ketchup and milk, an unequivocal sign that I was now ready to place my order.
“Miss?” I tried next time she crossed my line of sight. “I’ve been sitting here awhile and — ”
But she was gone without so much as turning her head. Her obliviousness left me with a feeling of rising irritation. I wondered if I was sitting in some sort of blind spot, or maybe she was confused, maybe I’d taken the seat so soon after whoever was sitting here before that she didn’t realize she had a whole new customer to serve.
I tapped my knuckles against the counter and half muttered: “I know, I pulled the menu out without asking, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want a coffee.”
The guy in overalls turned and stared at me, so did several others. At last, some attention. The kitchen bell rang and my neighbor’s plate appeared on the ledge. It sat for no longer than thirty seconds before the waitress pulled it from the shelf and turned to serve it to the gentleman sitting but two stools away.
“Here, hon,” she said. I heard a distinct note of tension in her voice. “Anything else for you?”
A warmth flooded my limbs. I understood the reason for her distraction. I heard it in her voice. A dark and private anguish was troubling her. I felt like a fool for not seeing this before. I turned and looked around the diner. Maybe half the tables were occupied. Single men eating quietly, a few women, some couples, a group of middle-aged guys in overalls, a family in the corner. There it was, in everyone’s face, the unspoken sorrow of daily life. My own small troubles deserted me and I was filled with an odd sorta love for these strangers and the daily hardships of their lives.
I knew what I had to write in my note to Lily. It came to me in a flash. I had been staring at it this whole time and I had been blind.
I pulled a sheet of paper from my pocket, unfolded it across the counter, and started writing. Dear Lily, I wrote, I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry . . .
I was halfway down the page when I looked up. I thought I caught the waitress looking at me with scorn, but she turned her face too quickly away for me to be sure. My heart sank, and I began to doubt myself: Why was I here? What was I doing? Did anyone actually see me?
“Hey,” I called out. “Over here.”
Nothing. The room began to grow warm as I watched the waitress talk to the woman at the far end of the counter.
I tried louder. Maybe she was deaf. “Miss, I’ve been waiting twenty minutes!”
She didn’t move, and I was filled with a feeling of sudden shame, which quickly spilled into anger. It had become a familiar emotion in recent weeks. My face hot, I turned to the guy in overalls.
“What’s going on here? Am I invisible? All I want is coffee?”
His eyes glided across me for a brief second. It was too brief to judge whether he even registered my existence, and immediately he returned to his lunch.
I struck the counter with my palm. The resulting thwack was louder than I expected while the sting in my hand assured me that most likely I wasn’t dead. Heads turned on all sides and silence descended on the diner. A couple of familiar faces appeared in the doorway to the kitchen. I was alarmed to see them glancing at me anxiously and whispering to each other. Finally, the waitress turned her head, acknowledged me with a cold, hard gaze, and walked slowly over, arms crossed over her chest.
She leaned forward, her face contorted, looked down at the letter, twisted her face into an expression of violence, and spat directly onto it. Her faint reflection shone in the distorted light around the edges of the bead of spit and I looked at her in numb surprise.
“I know who you are,” she said. Her voice rang with hatred. “We all do. Lily’s told us everything we need to know. You’re a slimy little lizard, aren’t you? You’re a rat chewing on a turd. I’ve met your type before, and if I was you, I’d do the intelligent thing and slide off that stool and crawl out of here. I’ll tell you right now, no way, not ever, are you getting service in this place.”
The world spun as I slid off that stool. I walked out through the diner’s resounding silence, all eyes on me, shame stiffening my face. I knew I had done something unforgivable. Lily had every right to poison people against me. The sharp gray sunlight battered my eyes, and despite a rising anger, I felt small and defeated.
What I didn’t know then, what I couldn’t know, was that within weeks I’d be lost, as lost as I’d ever been, on my way to lying abandoned on an old army cot in a small room in a forgotten town far north of here. My family would be gone, so would my few friends, and I’d spend my nights learning how to become a drunk.
This is the story of how I got there, and like any story of a lost boy, it contains the seeds of how I found my way back.
* * *
Ranbir Singh Sidhu writes stories, essays and plays, takes photographs, and dreams of making movies. He was born in London and grew up in California, and is a winner of a Pushcart Prize and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship. He is currently completing The Echoes, a novel about the end of the world.