Like so many contemporary memoirs, On the Outside Looking Indian begins with a high-concept gimmick. The daughter of strict Indian parents in small-town Ontario, Rupinder Gill grew up watching television in her basement, never being allowed to experience supposed childhood milestones like slumber parties and karate classes. Now, having reached the doddering, wizened age of thirty, she plans to relive her lost youth. She compiles a list of goals — learning to swim, visiting Disney World, going to summer camp — and embarks on a second childhood: a madcap mission from which, of course, she will emerge stronger and smarter.
But this shallow, trite, and unbearably whiny memoir is based on a glaring fallacy. Gill seems to think there is some Platonic ideal of a normal childhood, and is outraged that her parents — who, although stern and traditional, were loving and engaged — deprived her of this Elysian adolescence. The irony, of course, is that this is a construct shaped by her years in front of the hypnotic television; every time she mentions an experience she missed, she uses an example from television to illustrate her point. Unfortunately, she lacks the self-awareness to recognize the flaws in her own world view.
Her prose is competent enough, but it relies too often on clichés (many pairs of birds are killed with single stones), vague platitudes, and failed attempts at self-deprecating humour. The text itself is as punny as the title. As she ambles through her adolescent to-do list, her account takes on an uneven, meandering tone. A stint as a camp counsellor for kids with cancer — rendered with saccharine, Chicken Soup–style earnestness — is followed up with a sojourn to New York, featuring all the tired, cheeky tropes one might expect to see in a single-girl-takes-Manhattan narrative from 1999. Always present, however, are notes of self-indulgent petulance and alarming disrespect toward both her culture and her parents.
The experience of a traditional Indian upbringing in a North American context offers rich territory for reflection, and certain moments, like Gill’s visit to India, or the jarring differences between the ironclad rule under which she was raised and her younger brother’s more lenient upbringing, beg for deeper insight. Instead, the cultural analysis is limited to broad strokes and crass generalizations. “Indian parents have a deathly fear of sexuality,” she gripes, in between calling her Punjabi “gibberish” and rolling her eyes at her mother’s traditional cooking. Her parents, meanwhile, are reduced to stock sitcom villains who have the gall to clothe her in non–brand name jeans. In attempting to illustrate the restraints imposed by her culture, Gill’s memoir only manages to expose her own narrow-mindedness.