Sunday, November 25, 2012
Return to India - A Memoir
Title: Return to India - A Memoir
Author: Shoba Narayan
Author's webpage: Indicates where the book is available
Overview of the book as provided on Blogadda
In this intimate and remarkably candid memoir, Shoba Narayan, the author of Monsoon Diary, records her dilemma-ridden life as an immigrant straddling two cultures. What follows is a poignant story about love, family, identity and her search for a place to call home.
From the thrill of being a naive newcomer in America, to becoming a proud US citizen, to grappling with immigrant parenting challenges, she offers an intense yet humorous insight into the shared dream of the Indian diaspora to return to their homeland.
And as the countdown begins to her family’s relocation to India, she shows how the journey back can be more complicated than anyone imagines. Vivid and eloquent, Return to India is a powerful reflection on a country lost, and then found, by a writer of exceptional talent.
Return to India is a heartfelt memoir about what it means to be an immigrant in a foreign country , the challenges and joys of experiencing life there and the powerful feelings that compel the diaspora to return to their homeland.
The book is more than just about one person’s immigrant experience; it’s a bigger narrative is about family, love, friends, life choices and all that which makes coming back ‘home’ worthwhile.
In today’s day and age when outsourcing and H-1B Visas have become buzz words of popular culture, the book will strike a chord with numerous readers, especially those who have lived abroad—and those who aspire to.
This book, or at least the earlier part of this memoir, is set in the era when the American way of life – including consumerism, had not yet crept into Indian society, when one did not have much choice when it came to cars, or for that matter toothpaste or chocolates or when the only telephone you could possess was the black one (for which there was a long waiting list) and you had to actually dial and not punch the numbers.
Thus, the movie Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a multitude of Disney characters, Archie comics, James Bond, all made America seem a dream land, at least for Shoba Narayan who was growing up in Madras (now called Chennai) in South India.
American also meant freedom, it was a land where people recognised the need for personal space and could express themselves without being berated by their elders. Just like Shoba Narayan, who has penned her memoir – Return to India, many youngsters from all corners of India dreamt of going there for further studies never to return. Students found jobs, obtained a green card, or took the oath and became US citizens and settled within the comfort zone of American Indian societies or if they were a tad adventurous married a foreigner (generally an Amercian).
What I liked best about the memoir of the entire journey (almost twenty years were spent in America) was the sheer honesty – the good, the bad, the ugly, all experiences and her own behaviour were honestly portrayed.
Going to America was Shoba Narayan’s childhood dream and her mother once poured a bucket full of cold water over her head, as she – then only a child - insisted in the dead of the night that she would go to America (by pouring cold water her mother tried to exorcise her of this desire). Her orthodox family hailing from the Tamil-Brahamin community (a high caste community of South India) were hell bent against her going overseas, but she and her next door neighbour, Vicky (who was almost a brother to her) planned and plotted for their independence – which they felt was possible only if they went to America.
Years later, a fully paid scholarship, where financial support was guaranteed by Mary Jacob, dean for international students at Mount Holyoke, as distant relatives in this dream land did not step up and visa officials insisted on the guarantee despite the scholarship, made Shoba’s dream come true.
She talks of her first crush, Zahid whom she met at the serpentine queue outside the US Counsulate office, as they stood nervously for a visa. She actually brought him home for a cup of tea, springing further fears that America would transform her and perhaps she would end up marrying outside her caste.
Yet she, Vicky, Zahid, and Midnight (another acquaintance hailing from a rich family) finally made it to this foreign land. Shoba points out how all immigrant students seemed so much lighter as they stepped on American soil and cut their apron strings.
For instance, she had meant to obtain a masters in psychology, but America spurred her to follow her passion and she ended up as a full fledged art major with a specialisation in sculpture (something that in India would be perceived as futile as it would not result in a well paid job). She also learnt to accept diversity and had tons of gay friends, another aspect which would not have gone down well in Indian society – at least back then.
Even as Shoba kept in touch with Vicky and Midnight and on occasion with Zahid, eventually she married Ram, who worked on Wall Street – a meeting between the two was arranged by family acquaintances and the knot was soon tied. Following the birth of her first child, Shoba began to yearn for India.
To inculcate Indian tradition in her young five year old daughter she actually dragged the family to a temple on Sundays, wore a sari day after day for a week, and even tried her level best to enrol her daughter – Rajini in an exclusive India summer camp. This plan flopped as Rajini insisted on a ham sandwich during the interview session which was held at a restaruant. While they had followed a vegetarian diet at home, Rajini just wanted to adopt to the culture of her own American school friends – of course the timing of this demand was so wrong!
Zahid has completely transformed himself and was now called Zaid. His spouse was also American and he preferred to stay far removed from his Indian origins.
Perhaps this or for that matter Rajini adopting Britney Spears as her idol, set alarm bells ringing for Shoba, even as Ram did not want to move back. To illustrate the importance attached by youngsters towards being crowned prom queen or king unsettled her, the formal process of arranging for play-dates was a concept alien in India where kids roamed freely in the neighbourhood and she yearned for such an informal atmosphere that India could provide. Post the birth of their second daughter, with ageing parents in India, even Ram was inclined to move back. He sought a transfer to the emerging markets division of his investment bank, moved to Singapore and then finally they made it to India.
The author loved her life in America, her American friends and her Indian-American friends. But as she pertinently points out in one paragraph: If there was a way to combine America’s public volunteerism (that shone during 9/11) with India’s private hospitality (where even unwelcome guests are made to feel welcome), that would be paradise indeed. But such a place doesn't exist, for if it did, others would have discovered it by now.
It is a well written book and I loved reading it. But today the scenario has changed. Youngsters in India are more vocal and expressive and know exactly what they want to achieve in life. Further, today, several American’s want to work in India, to have the India experience on their resume; India is more liberalised, more accepting. Barring a few sectors, 100% foreign investment is freely permitted and many American companies such as GE, Sun, Microsoft have 100% subsidiaries in India. The retail sector is opening up in India, Starbucks has just set up shop a few weeks ago in Mumbai and is set to expand. McDonalds has existed here almost forever as has Coca-Cola.
America is now looking at Indian students for its Universities overseas, so as to earn more revenue (sadly one may not see another Mary Jacob – nor the generous scholarships that were once available to foreign students). Tighter immigration laws and more opportunities back home in India will also ensure that these students return to their mother-land.
About the author:
Shoba Narayan is a noted memoir writer and columnist based in Bangalore. She has won the MFK Fisher award for Distinguished Writing and was awarded a Pulitzer Fellowship at Columbia University’s School of Journalism. Her first book, Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes was published in 2004 to wide international acclaim.
She writes a weekly column, ‘The Good Life’, for Mint Lounge and contributes features to Condé Nast Traveler, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Time, Newsweek and The Financial Times.
This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at BlogAdda.com. Participate now to get free books!
Photograph: This photograph was taken by me, during my visit to Ellora caves, Aurangabad, Maharashtra, India. This elephant stands majestically outside Cave 32 (Jain caves). (This photograph may be downloaded and used by you for non-commercial purpose with proper attribution).