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On The Outside Looking Indian


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Rupinder Gill’s parents left India for a small, “whiter than snow” Ontario city in search of that well-worn cliché: a brighter future for their children. For the first 17 years of Gill’s life, however, most of that brightness came from the television screen in her basement.

The Gills were strict and overprotective of their four daughters. When the girls weren’t babysitting their baby brother, they were expected to be cleaning house. When it came to personal freedom — whether socializing with friends outside of school, sleepovers (which her parents visualized “as Roman orgies where the sleeping bags were filled with fluffy mounds of cocaine”), dating, outside lessons of any kind, vacations or going on school trips — Gill’s parents raised the word “no” to the level of a mantra.

“No” was Gill’s parents’ stock response, “regardless of whether or not it actually meant anything to them. It was just the easiest way. It saved them money, it saved them the worry, and they seemed to think we would easily get over whatever we were denied and forget that we were ever denied it.” Countless exceptions were made for Gill’s younger brother, who as the only male child took pride of place in the traditional Sikh family.

Because it kept her safe and indoors, the only indulgence Gill was allowed — if you don’t count copious amounts of junk food — was watching TV. Whether it was Dallas, The A-Team, Three’s Company or The Golden Girls, if it was on the tube, Gill watched it. Television taught Gill English. Television provided a tantalizing window onto a culture she was barred from. TV shows are also the inspiration for the book’s excellent chapter titles — “Girls Gone Mild,” “The Facts of No Life,” “Let’s Make a Daal” — that riff on Gill’s predicament.

Gill never complains about not fitting in at school. She describes her friends, rather, as “fun, smart, and kind . . . the most popular girls in our grade.” The irony was that countless turned-down invitations left her friends feeling like it was she who was rejecting them.

Gill went on to university and a job — fittingly, as a television publicist — yet she never got over the feeling of having missed key components of a Canadian upbringing. So at the age of 30, she decided to draw up a wish list of missed opportunities and then set out to fulfill them, one by one.

The result is this charming, witty chronicle of the trials and tribulations of one woman’s belated attempt at a second childhood, one whose top priority was learning to swim. “Indian girls don’t swim,” Gill writes, “because only a fool would think that learning a lifesaving skill is more important than keeping your body hidden forever.” Getting a pet, going to camp, visiting Disney World and taking dance lessons rounded out the list.

Some wishes naturally proved easier to realize than others. When Gill’s adult inquiries about attending summer camp are met with widespread incredulity, for example, she decides instead to volunteer with Gilda’s Club, a summer camp for children affected by cancer. The experience goes above and beyond her expectations. Getting a dog, likewise, gets ruled out after potential toilet training disasters seem to outweigh the possible benefits.

A lifetime of non-participation made confidence the greatest obstacle between Gill and her goals. Tap dance, swimming and driving lessons seem terrifying at first, although all end up reaping clear rewards. Emboldened by her success, Gill’s takes on an even bigger dream: moving to New York. When her request for a three-month leave of absence is rejected, she simply quits her job and goes.

All of this is fodder for a series of mostly good-natured swipes and zingers aimed at her parents and culture. Given the restrictiveness of her upbringing, it would be hard to blame Gill for sour grapes. But time appears to have mellowed both sides. While she recognizes her parents’ limitations, Gill is generous in her acknowledgement of their unselfishness, giving them particular credit for not pushing an arranged marriage on her children despite the “bazooka of guilt that for decades they’ve been blasting at unmarried women over 25.”

The end of the book finds Gill at a crossroads back in Toronto. She wants back into the television industry but in a creative role, not a supporting one. That is clearly where she needs to be, and this delightful book couldn’t be a better showcase for her bright comedic talent.

Emily Donaldson is a freelance Toronto writer and editor.