Ambition and magic collide in Atlanta-based ‘Gold Diggers’

Debut novel centers on Indian immigrants and their suburban offspring
Atlanta author Sanjena Sathian's novel "Gold Diggers" is being developed into a series by Mindy Kaling.
Courtesy of Tony Tulathimutte

Credit: Tony Tulathimutte

Credit: Tony Tulathimutte

Atlanta author Sanjena Sathian's novel "Gold Diggers" is being developed into a series by Mindy Kaling. Courtesy of Tony Tulathimutte

In Atlanta author Sanjena Sathian’s debut novel, “Gold Diggers,” childhood best friends Anita Dayal and Neil Narayan are trying to keep their heads above water at Okefenokee High School in suburban Atlanta. Anita has her eyes set on Miss Teen India Georgia and an upgrade to a swanky private school in the city. Neil buries himself in Kumon books, debate tournament preparation and daydreams about romantic possibilities with Anita. Both teens fear they are giant disappointments to their Indian immigrant parents.

Part of the tension between Anita and Neil lies in Anita’s family secret. Her mother Anjali, a favorite target of gossip among the local Indian women of Hammond Creek, uses her catering business as a front for a gold thieving operation. She doesn’t steal the gold for profit. Instead, she pilfers it from high achievers and converts it into a liquid potion in her basement laboratory for her daughter to ingest. When the gold takes the form of this “special lemonade,” it bestows upon Anita the ambition and prowess of its former owners. And after a few swigs, Anita can’t seem to live without it.

Initially, Neil engages in a different sort of gold digging. While studying one summer at the local library, he uncovers a story about an Indian man from Bombay, “the Bombayan,” who joined the California gold rush in the 1850s. Neil longs to know whether the Bombayan is a fictional character or real. When Neil stumbles upon Anita and Anjali’s long running heist, he sneaks a sip of their concoction. The laser focus he gains swells into an insatiable appetite for success. With Anjali and Anita’s blessing, he continues partaking and hits every goal he’s ever dreamed of. His new habit comes to a screeching halt when he makes a decision that leads to an unspeakable tragedy, one that will haunt him for the rest of his life.

“Gold Digger” crackles with sarcasm and wit. Sathian has adroitly captured a cutthroat academic environment where students feel compelled to ace tests, win awards and maintain the flawless appearance of pageant winners. She has painted infinitely flawed characters who engage in cringeworthy behavior while also shining a light on their humanity. Anita’s mother Anjali did not set out to be a felon. She is simply a vessel of pain rooted in decades of gendered limitations foisted upon her by her own mother, Lakshmi, who never supported or revered Anjali in the same way she did her two sons.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

Hammond Creek’s teens feel crushed by the weight of their Indian parents’ Ivy League-sized expectations and cope in troubling and dangerous ways. Sathian scrupulously deconstructs the hypocrisy of the tight-knit community in “Gold Diggers,” where adults swiftly judge others’ marriages, looks and children’s perceived failures before they’ve even had the chance to hit puberty. Just beyond the sheen of top grades and prestigious college acceptances lies substance abuse and serious mental health issues, both of which are buried underneath deep cultural shame and a code of silence as thick as concrete. The human cost of such silence and judgment proves to be enormous.

Compared to his Duke University-bound older sister Prachi “who managed to be attractive and intelligent and deferential to our cultural traditions to boot,” Neil never seems to measure up. His inevitable emotional collapse is palpable. “I wished everyone would give up on me. Their gazes were too forceful, their hopes for me too enormous. For it felt, back in Hammond Creek, that it wasn’t our job just to grow up, but to grow up in such a way that made sense of our parents’ choice to leave behind all they knew, to cross the oceans.”

As an adult, Anita eventually comes to grips with all she endured as a child. “This was what it felt like, growing up. Adults and kids constantly gossiping about one another, judging whether or not you were Indian enough, using I don’t know what kind of standards. And at that point, it’s worse than gossip … We’re talking about an organized, systemic form of social exclusion. Perpetuated by everyone in the system.”

“Gold Diggers” is a dazzling tale. Local readers will delight in Sathian’s artful depiction of metro Atlanta circa 2006, as well as her take on the struggles of being a member of a minority community during the post-9/11 Bush era. Though Anita and Neil immerse themselves in Indian circles, they remain conscious of their status as immigrants’ children, as perpetual outsiders, as well as the wide gulf between their experiences as Americans and those of their white neighbors. Ultimately, their community, no matter how toxic, serves as a buffer between themselves and the rest of the world. “Our parents — the four brown adults in a largely white subdivision — collaborated to create a simulacrum of India in a reliably red Georgia county.”

Ten years later, long estranged from his former co-conspirators Anita and Anjali, Neil has relocated to Silicon Valley to pursue a Ph.D. in history in an attempt to bury his regrets. Though he’s long quit his diet of liquid gold, he decides to renew his search for the Bombayan gold digger. The gold digger may not help Neil complete his dissertation, but he comes to believe it will help him build a far healthier and more balanced life, and finally confront the grievous sins of his youth. “[T]he past lies just around every bend in the mountain highway ... if you kneel by the right stretch of land under the right constellations, it may even rise from the river and acknowledge you.”


“Gold Diggers”

by Sanjena Sathian

Penguin Random House

352 pages, $27