Marriages break apart so quickly and so often these days that we too easily forget how traumatic a divorce can be for the children caught in the crossfire. Devyani Saltzman’s first book, Shooting Water — a memoir, serves to jog our memories in a terribly effective manner, leaving readers heart-bruised and aching for the girl she was when her parents divorced.

An only child, Saltzman was asked to choose which parent she wanted to live with. She chose her father, Canadian filmmaker and producer David Saltzman. “As an eleven-year-old with a child’s instincts, it seemed only natural to choose him over my mother,” she writes. “I felt safe with him, while my mother’s pain and anger sometimes scared me.”

Saltzman’s mother, acclaimed Canadian Indian film director Deepa Mehta, never forgave her. And even though she knew instinctively that she had made the right choice, Saltzman never forgave herself either.

For the next eight years, Saltzman drifted anchorless through life — torn between her mother and father, their two homes in Toronto, and their two countries, India and Canada. On the surface, she was the good daughter: studious, polite, and docile. But inside her, there was “a lonely space filled with guilt and with the fear of disappointing my parents,” she explains early on in her book. “I wished more than anything to escape this vicious cycle and somehow break free.”

Saltzman’s chance came in 1999, when Mehta, who was about to start filming the first installment in her elemental trilogy on India — Water, Earth, and Fire, invited her then-18-year-old daughter to work with her on the set as an assistant cameraperson. Shooting Water is, above all else, the personal story of their reconciliation. But it is also an eyewitness account of the struggles Mehta encountered in making her film.

Water focuses on the widespread problem of Hindu widow abuse that existed in pre-Independence India. Many people know of the now-outlawed practice of sati, or widow burning, an ancient Indian tradition where a dead man’s wife is placed on his funeral pyre to burn to death alongside his corpse. But few are aware of the equally ancient tradition of widow abuse and neglect that is still very much present in modern-day India. Many widows are cast out or exploited by their families for the bad luck of having had their husbands die. Often they travel to holy cities like Vrindavan, dubbed the “city of widows,” by the banks of the Ganges and settle in ashrams where they must beg daily for alms to survive.

Saltzman writes about visiting a widows’ ashram hidden in the basement of a guesthouse soon after arriving in the northern Indian city of Varanasi, where Water was to be filmed. “They all wore dirty white saris and heavily darned shawls,” she notes. “Their heads were shaved … The room was freezing, but there was no direct sunlight or heaters to keep them warm.” These conditions were pretty much the same as those Mehta wanted to depict in Water. But two days into production, the film set was burned to the ground by Hindu fundamentalist protesters who accused the film of being part of a foreign conspiracy to besmirch the image of Hinduism. Mehta and her cast received death threats and the state government that had initially cleared the script retracted its permission.

The outcry against the film reflected the tumultuous changes India was going through at the time. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) controlled the government, and Hindu militancy and fundamentalism were on the rise even as India as a country was modernizing and Indians were growing more self-confident as citizens of a rising economic powerhouse.

Saltzman ventures into stormy waters (pun intended) when she takes on the topic of the destructiveness of blind nationalism in the book, using the reception her mother’s film was given to illustrate her point. “You can’t pollute the Ganges! The Ganges will not tolerate your dirty Water!” shout female protestors waving their rolling pins in the air outside the film crew’s hotel in Varanasi. Saltzman says the women had never read the screenplay, nor did they know the plot of the movie; they were protesting simply because they believed their religion, and their nation, to be under attack. Both in her book and in an interview to promote the book, Saltzman cites a quote from Pavan K. Varma, a noted author and civil servant in India: “All nations indulge in a bit of myth-making to bind their people together.” According to Saltzman, “Water was one of the casualties of maintaining the myth of a Hindu India, an India without widows, an India without this really dark side of its history — especially in terms of its women.” That troubled period in India’s history has since passed but there are many other sacred cows that still exist within the country. (Recently, the Congress Party threatened legal action against a proposed biopic on Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the political party and the most powerful woman in India.)

But even as the political terrain was changing under their feet, mother and daughter were not able to change enough individually to reconcile. Saltzman recounts their struggles to heal their broken relationship: the tentative overtures toward one another, the lapses into shouting matches and bitter accusations of “You never loved me!” The conflicting demands on their time fuel this disconnect: Mehta is busy trying to salvage her film. Saltzman, meanwhile, is falling in love — for the first time in her life — with a young man who is so right (and so wrong) for her that you cringe following the progress of their affair, already seeing its inevitable conclusion. But the 19-year-old — so desperate to belong to someone — is blind to all of this and moons over her love when she should be with her mother.

So mother and daughter separate once again, their issues unresolved. Mehta travels to other parts of India, to search for alternative locations for filming. Saltzman returns to Canada, and then to Oxford University, to study anthropology.

Four years later, in 2004, the two receive a second chance at reconciliation when Mehta secures sufficient funding from the Canadian government to film Water in Sri Lanka. She invites her daughter, fresh out of college, to join her during the filming.

Everything is touch-and-go once again. Both India and Sri Lanka are in the middle of national elections. In India’s case, it appears the BJP will win a second term, putting an end to the country’s experiment in secularism. And in Sri Lanka, the outcome of the elections will determine the fate of the ceasefire with the Tamil Tigers. Fear that word of the film might torpedo it again results in the replacement of all the major actors and the film being given a fake name — Full Moon. And mother and daughter start their reconciliation almost from scratch again.  

The film is completed as Saltzman and her mother continue to oscillate between healing and hurting each other. But when, during yet another argument, her mother shouts at her, “Why don’t you just call your father. You chose him,” Saltzman is able for the first time to break the cycle of recrimination. “I looked at her sitting on the couch, rigid with anger. My own anger was numbed, but it was tinged with a clarity I hadn’t felt before. I didn’t run away to cry, or to call my dad.” Instead she tells her mother, “Mom, I chose Dad because it felt safer. I was 11. I’m 24 now.” And the process of forgiveness on both sides begins.

In Shooting Water, the parallels between the rebirth of the film and the rebirth of the mother-daughter relationship are as stark as can be, but so are the differences. In life — unlike in film — you can’t edit out the sad or painful scenes; there are no retakes. Saltzman chronicles all of the arguments, misunderstandings, betrayals as only the daughter of two filmmakers can: steeped in the aesthetics of film, with an eye for tight scenes and an ear for crisp dialogue. She writes with a deceptive simplicity — keeping her descriptions as spare as her mother’s screenplays — that reveals a deep, personal understanding of loss, guilt and the need for belonging. In a telling scene, she describes, how her parents flew from Canada to London when she suffered a nervous breakdown before her final examinations, undone by the realization that she could no longer be the perfect A-student for them. “They had sat together, side by side, on the itchy red synthetic seats of the Oxford Tube, an express bus service between the city and the university. And they had talked about me. They had talked about me as parents are supposed to talk of their children, perhaps for the first time.”

Perhaps the only flaw with Saltzman’s book is that it’s more descriptive than analytical — once again, very similar to her mother’s films. She does not discuss in great depth the rise of Hindu nationalism in India: When and how did it start? How does one combat it? What does it mean for minorities in India? This is a disappointment since patriotic hubris is an issue that will only become more important as India and other Asian countries continue to rapidly modernize their economies.

Equally, Saltzman’s disarming honesty about her own thoughts and actions doesn’t extend to her mother. She never quite explains why Mehta was always so angry or what caused the break-up of her marriage in the first place. Was it because Mehta’s start as a director was on the ascendant, causing professional tensions with her husband? Or something else? We aren’t told. There is a sense of conversations not yet attempted between mother and daughter — a distance still not bridged — and the story is weaker for it.

Despite these lapses, working on and writing about Water helped Saltzman carve out a new identity for herself, one no longer at war with her complicated heritage. When asked recently if she thinks of herself as more Canadian than Indian, Saltzman replied that she sees herself as a bit of a “global soul,” after the essayist Pico Iyer’s book Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home. “I’d like to think of a world that’s borderless,” she says. “People are always scared of their identity, not being one or the other, or how can you be this or that. I went through a little bit of that confusion but, ultimately, it’s what made me a writer. That in-between space enriched me. So Canadian is the passport I carry, but I’m a global soul.”

And with that, Devyani Saltzman leaves listeners heart-warmed that this child of divorce and difference can so confidently claim a space in this world — even if it is an “in-between space” — as her very own.

To read Anju Mary Paul’s interview of Shooting Water author Devyani Saltzman, click here.

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