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Indo-Canadian memoir too funny to read all at once

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On the Outside Looking Indian

How My Second Childhood Changed My Life

By Rupinder Gill

McClelland & Stewart, 264 pages, $30

Voracious readers, beware: Toronto TV publicist Rupinder Gill's memoir is not a book to be read in large gulps late into the night.

That's because it's too funny to consume in one bite. Standup comedy has pregnant pauses that allow the humour to sink in.

Gill's witty, fast-paced swirl through her year of discovery needs time to be digested. She could develop a routine just like Indo-Canadian comedian Russell Peters, who has made a career of poking fun at minorities in the North American milieu. With Gill, however, what appears to be a light-hearted look at the life of a child of immigrants, though, also contains reflections about the difficulties faced by immigrant families.

So read one chapter at a time and savour how she decided that her 30th birthday was a turning point. She decided to give herself the experiences she had yearned for growing up but was denied by her hard-working, frugal parents.

Those fun childhood activities -- sleepovers, summer camp, trips to Disney World -- were not for the Gill family, whose Indian values meant that Rupinder and her sisters spent their weekends and summers cleaning, cleaning, cleaning a house that was already draped in plastic dust covers -- "a furniture shrine," she calls it -- and listening to their father's never-ending hardship stories about making his only toys out of mud.

She says she'd be rich if she had a dime for all the lies she told her friends about family obligations to avoid revealing that her folks vetoed socializing outside their immediate circle. This taboo later extended to dating.

Her act of rebellion was to refuse to eat Indian cooking or absorb Indian language and culture. She and her siblings spent their early and teen years eating junk food and watching reruns of The Golden Girls. "'Home again on a Saturday night?'" Blanche would tease Dorothy. 'Yes,' we would all nod."

Gill literally dove in to her "better-late-than-never-approach to adolescence" -- learning to swim was one of the most daunting items on her to-do list. She also took tennis and dance lessons. The list of excuses she invented to avoid each week's class is entertaining, but she persevered and became a decent hoofer.

But it's not possible to recapture everything from childhood. Her plan to make prank calls on a sleepover with her now-adult girlfriends was ridiculous, she admits. Gill's positive experiences were those she adapted to an adult framework. Instead of going to camp she volunteered at program that helps children living with cancer.

She uses hyperbole to humorous effect: "Indians can't leave paying work unless they have been dead at least a week, and even then that can be considered a flimsy excuse."

Gill quit her job and headed for New York, though mindful of her parents' concerns for financial security, told them she was taking a leave of absence.

Each step forward is taken with a look back, with grim jokes about the embarrassing bargain basement clothes her parents made her wear and the permanent part on her scalp caused by her tight braids.

Finally, although she wishes her parents could have loosened up, she understands that a "typical" Canadian life was impossible for them, considering the costs and the context of their history. Her memoir explores her relationship with her parents; she expresses gratitude for the sacrifices they made for her.

Long, repeated lists of television sitcoms put a best-before date on Gill's experience, the only negative in an otherwise sharp read. At the end of the year, her gutsy life-changing decisions leave us with a taste for a sequel.

Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 26, 2011 J8

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