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Jun 15

Written by: Jennifer Kumar, LMSW, Cultural Adjustment Coach/Mentor
Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Friends!! I want to Introduce you to Cheryl Snell, Author of "Shiva's Arms", did you know Cheryl and I have something in common- both married to Indians and at that a Malayalee? ;-) Her novel on cross-cultural family life and the push-pull of cultural adjustment is a must-read for anyone who likes the topic and specifically for the dynamics of India and America and extended families. Visit my Authentic Journeys Facebook page next Tuesday June 15 to interact in real time with Cheryl Snell on her blog tour, starting here! Thanks Cheryl and Shana for having me go first, what an honor!!

And, on with the book review.....

Introducing "Shiva's Arms"!


I admit, reading novels has been challenging for me over the years. However, when the novel straddles real life to the point of complete belief, leaving me thinking, "Yeah, this really can happen in real life," I am sucked in!

Being sucked in, not once, but thrice, was easy with Cheryl Snell's recount of the struggles and joys of living in a cross-cultural, interfaith and bicultural family in the novel, Shiva's Arms.

It doesn't hurt that I can personally relate to many of the joys and struggles faced by the characters:

- Being ''coached" by friends, family, and even my spouse in how to behave 'more Indian': what to say, not say, what to wear, what and how to cook particular foods, what to do or not do for particular festivals or occasions, etc. There are two examples I would like to share from the book:

(1) Alice sets a Shiva statue in the kitchen. Ram pulls it out, offended and disgusted, telling Alice 'it doesn't belong in the kitchen where it's impure.' Of course, Ram has no reason as to why this is so. These kinds of situations are a 'dime a dozen' in India; people being told to do this or not do that because 'it's our culture,' but not having any reason behind it or offering alternative solutions. This is a frustrating part for many foreigners (including Indians born and raised outside India) to Indian culture to 'get used to', if in fact, there is any 'getting used to it.' This increases the push-pull, clear like and confusing disdain at time for a foreign culture. (More below!)

(2) Another aspect of this cross-cultural coaching that is even more challenging, in my opinion is being coached on how to tell jokes to "Indians" or appreciating the humor in Indian's jokes. There are a few instances in the book where Alice tries to tell jokes, that turn out to be inappropriate for Indian crowds and Ram pulls her away very quickly. I can completely relate to these situations and I guess without them no cross-cultural narrative would be complete or completely believable!

- Feeling I am putting my spouse or his family 'between two worlds' when trying to bring friends together from the "American" side or the "Indian" side. I was moved and memories of similar episodes from my life flashed in my head when I read the recount of 'Alice's first home-cooked Indian dinner party for friends' starting on page 29.

- The wonder, excitement and overwhelming chaos that ensues at an Indian wedding (any wedding for that matter can be equally chaotic, but when an American is a bride or bridegroom at an Indian wedding, and it's a new experience, it's more overwhelming, confusing and exciting, especially if done abroad). What a better opening to the story and novel than this scene! It will immediately draw anyone in. I could feel for Alice when her mood shifted, especially because rather than being 'coached' through the episode, she was basically picked up and moved through the scene like a small girl retelling a story with her dolls. Alice was at the complete mercy of her new in-laws.

- The on-going acceptance or repulsion of being intertwined in another 'culture'. I have read, written and reflected on the idea of 'culture shock.' In many of the writings, the reader is led to believe that culture shock is a linear process, and once 'certain things' are learnt and adapted by the newcomer, the culture shock is overcome. I don't believe this is accurate. Even if we live in the same country our whole life, if we assume that, we would not change and grow. In different times of our lives we experience different things which compel us to like or be repelled by the same things. This is clearly shown in the book- Alice's push-pull love with Indian culture, always having a love for it, but sometimes being clearly repulsed. The two clear examples would be:

(1) When Amma comes to U.S. the first time, talks only in Tamil in the home (she doesn't know much, if any English) and turns the home into a 'tiny India', making it, I think a bit foreign to Alice, and Alice exclaims, "All right, fair's fair. I wanna show you guys some American culture now. There's a play I wanna take you to. Come on, now. Let's go." This scene reminds me vividly of some of my frustrations living in India, being over stimulated by the Indian culture and at times over-emphasizing some of my "American-ness" as I felt it was not really 'allowed' to do so. Or, it reminds me of how in America it is very possible and realistic that even in one's own home, it's possible to live a different culture inside the four walls of a home that is completely different from the outside world. I am sure immigrants from all backgrounds can relate to this. In such situations, stepping outside the house is like living in a foreign land! Of course, in the novel, we find out Alice gives birth soon after her almost 'psychotic break' at the play. It may seem over dramatic because it is a fast-paced novel after-all, but in some ways, to me such a scene seems completely possible.

(2) Near the end of the book, Alice comes to terms with her mother-in-law through nursing her back to health in this time; she has in-law staying in the home helping her. One of the 'tasks' given to the in-laws by Alice is to have Amma tell them stories, and they translate them from Tamil to English so she (Alice) can draw narrations to refresh Amma about her life's memories. In this exchange, Amma opens up and tells personal stories about her life she has not told anyone.

There are many, many more points I can highlight in the wonders of 'Shiva's Arms' and why I recommend anyone interested in cross-cultural family life, Indian culture, American culture, Hindu culture or any of the other subjects in the book to pick up this book devour it. I say 'devour' because reading this book is so engrossing, even at my third read I am engrossed as my first. It is also possible to read this book in less than a day because it is indeed so engrossing. So, unlike other novels that you may find it impossible to pass the first few pages or chapters, I really don't believe it would happen with this one! Looking for some really great summer-time reading? Pick up this book, go sit under a tree in the summer shade or by the lake or ocean and while soaking up the summer breezes, soak up the wonderful narratives in Shiva's Arms. I guarantee you won't be disappointed.

Related Posts/Links:

Cheryl's Facebook Fan Page

My articles on Culture Shock: 
Culture Shock vs. Natural...Life...Changes 
Integrating Two Worlds: Life in America with an Indian Twist 


Thank you for spending time on Alaivani.com.

Copyright ©2010 Jennifer Kumar, LMSW Cultural Adjustment Coach/Mentor


5 comments so far...

Re: Shiva's Arms:the reach of a novel

Thanks so much for this review, Jennifer! The cross-cultural experience is indeed layered and ongoing, as you point out. I'm looking forward to our time together on Tuesday, here and on Facebook. See you then!


By Cheryl Snell on   Monday, June 14, 2010

Re: Shiva's Arms:the reach of a novel

What a lovely review of the book. I really enjoyed reading it. It felt so very real to me, and it's great to read from your perspective that the story rang true for you too.

By Sheila Deeth on   Sunday, June 20, 2010

Re: Shiva's Arms:the reach of a novel

My response to a harsh review found at Chocolate and Croissants: http://chocolateandcroissants.blogspot.com/2010_07_01_archive.html#7532422929094849010

I am sorry to hear you did not like this book. It's not for everyone. But ironically the reasons you dislike the book are it's exact strengths! Indian culture is a paradox of modern and traditional.

But in some ways it's no different than America. I will give an example... women are 'supposed' to be liberated and it's not 'supposed' to concern society if she's married or not, or if she's married a long time without kids. But, the reality is that it does. Random people have things to say about this- ironically this is one of the themes in the Eat, Pray, Love book.

Eat, Pray, Love is a popular book because it subscribes to a lot of popular notions about Americans and why we like and go to India.

In this book, Cheryl has done her research well. The fact 'ideas seem to come up randomly' and without any introduction (and also my impression is the time line is not always linear) are hallmark characteristics of Indian literature and more so Indian mythology stories. When I started reading these stories in the mid 90s it was challenging to keep up with the time lines and also to figure out who's who (as the same 'god' has many names and the names that appear to change throughout the book can often refer to the same 'god'). Kudos to Cheryl for understanding this very foreign concept to a typical American mindset.

As an aside I understand India - I lived there two years as the only American in my class. I earned my Master's degree there. I am married to an Indian and visit India regularly. I am very familiar with the cultures of India described in Cheryl's book because I lived in Chennai (Tamil Nadu) and currently visit Kerala regularly. She has described many aspects of daily life very well that are faced by cross-cultural couples and also by people in India who live their daily lives.

My response to a review by S. Krishna - http://www.skrishnasbooks.com/2010/08/book-review-shivas-arms-cheryl-snell.html

Swapna, I am Jennifer Kumar. I was the first on Cheryl's blog tour! You have shared some points that are very important.

For those looking for a lightweight, masala, feel-good Bollywood-type story, this is not what you're going to get here. Yes, there are parts that make you feel lighthearted but as you pointed out, over all it's a serious and often times emotionally challenging book to read. But, this is what makes it more real in my opinion. Some cross-cultural marriages are like this (let alone ones that aren't cross-cultural). Regarding the communication part- that is the point you highlighted that I want to talk to specifically. That is a good point I had not thought of from that angle. Actually, I suppose if Alice and Ram weren't 'blinded by love' and actually took things a bit more 'seriously' and communicated all the cross-cultural situations before marriage, we'd not have Shiva's Arms. Rather than being a weakness of the story, I feel this is a strength because it's a lesson of what cross-cultural couples should avoid to have a better relationship. Communication is key to understanding, and as you rightly pointed out it was missing. Sure, they had a steamy 'love life' but the dichotomy between love life and emotional closeness can be hard to swallow. But this happens again in many kinds of relationships be them cross-cultural or not.

The other lesson we can take away from the 'negative' or 'hard to read points' of the book you highlighted is the reason for lack of communication- regarding the culture. Oftentimes, I see people refuse to communicate because of stubbornness or more so because of ethnocentrism. One thinks, "Oh they can't or will never understand me because I am XXX (Indian/American/insert culture, ethnicity/ group identity, etc)." I lived in India a few years and I saw this as a big barrier to understanding others. Also when the culture is so mysterious even to those living in it, that makes it have an extra layer of complexity. When I lived in India, I'd ask "Why do you do that here?" To this, I'd get the answer "It's just our culture." or "I don't know. Don't ask about these things, just do them." When people in their own culture do not understand why things are done, it makes it more mysterious not only to outsiders but 'insiders' too. The most glaring example of this is the mysterious Indian wedding. How many people really know what all those rituals mean? Very few, but actually they do have very deep meaning - serious meanings, spiritual meaning or sometimes, plain fun meanings. But the meaning is lost in name of ritual. We see that A LOT in this book. (One example in the beginning, when Ram snatches the Shiva Idol off the dinner table, I believe.) This is very typical in Indian families but also in American ones too! :)

If you're curious, my review is posted here

Thanks for challenging my mind to bring the positives from the negatives, Swapna. Happy Onam!!

By Jennifer Kumar on   Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Re: Shiva's Arms:the reach of a novel

Very interesting review - you brought up some great points!

By S. Krishna on   Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Re: Shiva's Arms:the reach of a novel

Thank you Swapna.

By admin on   Tuesday, August 10, 2010

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