On the Outside Looking Indian:
How My Second Childhood Changed My Life

by Rupinder Gill



Riverhead Books, 2011. ISBN 978-1-594-48577-0.
Reviewed by Mary Jo Doig
Posted on 01/04/2013

Nonfiction: Memoir

If you've ever wished you could return to your childhood to recapture some of the experiences and activities you didn't get to do, you will meet a kindred soul in Rupinder Gill. One of five children in a first generation American family from India, Gill was raised as girls are in her ethnic land, which is to say dramatically different from her American peers. The rules of Indian adolescence were numerous, she tells us: "...you cook, clean, babysit, clean, get good grades, clean, be silent, clean, and don't challenge your parents in any way, especially while cleaning." While her peers were spending their summer vacations at camp, swimming, boating, traveling with their families, and having sleepovers with their friends, Gill and her sisters were hanging out with each other at home, not allowed to take music, swimming, or other lessons, not allowed to talk on the phone with boys, and only very briefly with girls, and not allowed to have a family pet. So the siblings watched TV when they had free time, often viewing "The Cosby Show" and other family shows, which further reinforced how far outside of American family life they were.

Gill's family was comprised of four daughters until the birth of her brother, Sumeet, when she was twelve. "The birth of a boy in an Indian home could most closely be compared to winning the largest lottery in the world and then accidentally creating an immortality potion from a mixture of 7-Eleven Slurpee flavors." She then watched his life unfold as she had wished her own could have. Boys could swim at the pool, and do most of the other activities that girls were not permitted to do.

After college, Gill entered the work force, and years passed as she worked hard at a job that benefitted others more than herself. On her 31st birthday, an event caused her to take a long hard look at her life and she decided she was tired of standing poolside while her friends were swimming, and otherwise tired of being on the outside of so many other enjoyable activities that she wished she had learned.

She decided she would begin to learn how to do those activities as an adult and defined five goals: (1) learn to swim, (2) take lessons (driving, dancing, music), (3) visit Disney World, (4) go to camp, and (5) have a pet. Despite experiencing fear and other negative feelings that could have been barriers, Gill begins. Ever so slowly, and with some difficulty, she moves from one goal to the next.

I especially liked the chapter about camping, titled "lady and the camp." Gill, not surprisingly, wasn't able, hard as she tried, to get accepted into a child camp because of her age, but she accepted a close alternative that afforded unexpected, moving gifts.

Six months into working on her goals, Gill began to re-evaluate her life. For the first time, goals were not something one made and then soon forgot; she was moving slowly through an impressive list of goals. She realized then that goals were something she could really achieve, a step at a time. She also became increasingly aware that she'd placed work at the center of her life. In a growing reassessment of her life, Gill decided she needed time away for further introspection and left her secure job to go where her heart was leading her: Manhattan. Here she began to move beyond her yearlong goals and worked at making life long goals.

It's a lovely, memorable, and hard-won coming-of-age journey that Gill allows us to travel with her. There is not a miniscule particle of self-pity in her story, but rather a richly honest and often humorous exploration of not only her own struggles and victories but also insights into her parents' cultural backgrounds.

Rupinder Gill, in this, her first book, has well established herself as a talented writer. I look forward to her next one.


Rupinder Gill's writing has been published in the National Post and on the McSweeney's website. She has written for CBC Radio and Canada's "This Hour Has 22 Minutes." Visit her website.

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