On the first day of my 10th-grade American Literature class, as an introduction to the quintessential high-school-English-class novel “The Great Gatsby,” we learned about the ever-present American dream, or the belief that anyone can make it in the United States if they just work hard enough. To my then 15-year-old self, the critique of the American dream was foreign; my parents, who emigrated from India, are patriots who firmly believe in this social ideal. Thus, I was thoroughly intrigued by “Gold Diggers,” a 2021 magical realism novel written by Sanjena Sathian that portrays second-generation, Indian American youth willing to do whatever it takes to become successful. Sathian mixes magical realism, historical fiction and satire to deliver a truthful critique of the (Indian) American dream idolized by many immigrants in the late 20th and early 21st century.
“Gold Diggers” follows Neil Narayan, a boy crushed by societal expectations deeply infatuated with his driven neighbor, Anita Dayal. The novel is divided into two parts. The first, set in Bush-era Atlanta suburbs, details Neil and Anita through high school, where Neil struggles in his classes until discovering Anita’s secret to success: alchemy. Anita and her mother steal gold to brew lemonade that “harnesses the ambition” of the owner. Neil, desperate to fit into his community’s ideals, begins to down the lemonade in copious quantities until his actions cause tragedy to strike. The second part is set ten years later in Silicon Valley, where most of his peers have migrated. He reunites with Anita to pull off “one last heist.”
I made the mistake of starting (and finishing) the book during finals, reading it in a single sitting. The book bends literary conventions. It’s difficult to find books that can be incredibly entertaining while seriously pondering deep questions. It’s difficult to find books that capture the ambition taught from a young age within Indian American communities without dehumanizing Indian Americans into literal manifestations of the model minority myth as socially inept, clout-chasing side characters that lack inner worlds. It’s difficult to find books that bend genres like magical realism, historical fiction and satire in a way that is complex in its undertaking yet is still accessible. The deeply talented and witty Sathian effortlessly pulls it off, creating a masterpiece of a novel that questions the ambition of Indian Americans and their place in American history.
Sathian details the life of a community just outside “the perimeter” of Atlanta and American society. The community, like so many others, believes that if they keep their heads down and work, success is inevitable. They’re often berated for fooling around — in Neil’s mother’s view, this might “include anything from neglecting to take up AP Biology to shooting up hard drugs.” Children, pushed by their parents, try to uphold cultural expectations while surviving in a society they feel unaccustomed to. Some with seemingly effortless abilities, like Anita, breeze through high school, while others like Neil struggle. Neil, initially annoyed with his “lack of intellect,” realizes that the success around him isn’t effortless, and is in fact just the opposite: Aside from working ample amounts, Anita has resources, like her lemonade. Similarly, the American dream is never solely based on hard work or merit because often those who succeed already have the upper hand.
Sathian also focuses on the place of Indian Americans in American history; Neil, as a high school student, discovers the story of an Indian man in the California Gold Rush. As a graduate student studying history at the University of California, Berkeley, he becomes obsessed with finding the man, his “Bombayan gold digger,” who was ostracized and later lynched. The book focuses on how many Indian Americans weren’t viewed as American despite their ambition and participation within communities. No matter how hard the characters strive for the American dream, they continually struggle financially, emotionally and, eventually, physically. Their Indian American community constantly pushes the narrative of the dream, and Neil and Anita work like hell for it, hopped up on lemonade (and, sometimes, coke). Still, their solidified place “within the perimeter” of the American dream always seems just out of reach. Sathian uses Neil’s “everyman” character to indicate how stifling the myth of the American dream can be.
That’s not to say Neil is devoid of personality — the lengths that Neil goes to maintain the illusion of the community ideal of success are frightening. Neil is selfish, oblivious and insecure. Academically, by his community’s standards, he’s considered shockingly mediocre (which is an experience that I am not unfamiliar with). He’s a jerk and also one of the most realistic characters I’ve encountered in fiction. He constantly compares himself to Shruti, a girl who he ridicules but is jealous of, calling her “discomfiting” and “embarrassing.” Her refusal to adhere to the American social, beauty and femininity standards of the early 2000s annoy others, especially Neil, and thus, he uses her as a scapegoat to vent his frustrations with Indian culture. In order to pursue the dream, Neil engages in petty, selfish high school drama with Shruti, which leads to an extremely devastating calamity when mixed with supernatural forces. Sathian details horrors and truths too often swept under the rug in pursuing the American dream, indicating just how much of a toll the ideal can exert.
Many were deeply impressed with the novel; Ann Arbor’s local Literati Bookstore hosted an event with Sathian, which was organized by Sarah Thankam Matthews. Additionally, the book is being adapted into television by Mindy Kaling’s production company, Kaling International. It’s no surprise the book has made such a huge impact; the distorted reflection of the community in which many of us have grown up allows us to see precisely how the American dream has permeated our culture.
Sathian even mentions “The Great Gatsby” in the novel, and compares the lemonade-yellow light emanating from Anita’s house to the green light across the bay outside of Daisy’s house in West Egg. “The Great Gatsby” is known as a portrait of the 1920s in all its splendor; it’s only fitting that Sathian’s work, released in the 2020s, offers an updated portrait of the chase for the American dream, one that reflects a community firmly a part of American history, yet typically overlooked in the media. Ultimately, Sathian spins a mind-bogglingly extraordinary tale of generations of Indian Americans desperate to capture a dream of their own that will be remembered by the community for years to come.
Daily Arts Writer Meera Kumar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.