Return to India: a memoir, Shoba Narayan, Rupa 2012, pp 269, Rs 395
A Google search for Shoba Narayan, the author of Return to India, will reveal that she is a freelance journalist, writer, author, columnist, teacher and the award-winning author of another book — Monsoon Dairy: A Memoir with Recipes.
Return to India is the tale of a young lady, fascinated by things American, who left Madras to study in the US, and came back for an arranged marriage. Her husband Ram was an assets manager working on Wall Street. They got back to the US to live a privileged life. She became a US citizen. It was only after the arrival of their daughter that the questions came up.
Although the author does not address it directly, the book highlights two of life’s major questions: Who am I? What are my values? Ironically, it took the next generation — her daughter Rajani — to answer that question. The author desperately wanted to escape the Tamil Brahmin cloister she was born into, and go to the land of the free where she could live as she wanted — ignoring her parents’ objections. She married a fellow Tamil Brahmin. It was a blessed existence — “life was exciting.” The birth of her daughter made her reassess India. And before long, they returned.
She nearly did not make it. After obtaining admission and a full scholarship, the embassy official wanted somebody in the US to underwrite the first year’s expenses. She had nobody to help. Out of the blue, the Dean of International Studies offered to provide the letter. The first of many Americans who helped her.
The book uses the medium of her three friends, Vicky, Midnight and Ziad. She traces their lives from Madras to the US and uses their experiences to paint pictures of life in the US for an Indian. There is plenty of colour — Midnight marrying Nina Patel in a proper Hindu ritual because she was pregnant (not to mention the fact that she was the daughter of Mr Patel, a liquor baron); discovering that Zaid’s mother did not speak English, while attending a party thrown by Zaid at his swank East Side Townhouse. There is much humour as she describes their challenges in balancing their Indian and American persona.
The four friends flew to the US, to different universities. They would get together on weekends to cook Indian food. She relished the freedom of being in America — dressing as you like, eating different foods, and studying a variety of subjects. From being a serious psychology student, she changed her focus to arts and sculpture. She moved to Memphis to do her masters, where Aunty Gita piled her with a number of eligible bachelors — all Iyer, horoscopes matched. She describes the challenges of a student, of sharing her flat with male students (did not tell her parents), making ends meet by going to the church to have the post-service breakfast, and helping clean up so they could get the leftovers — enough to manage for a week.
While on leave in Madras, she got married to Ram. Upon returning to the US, she applied for her green card, and moved on to obtain full citizenship. She got pregnant “and with this, a whole new chapter in America,” began for her. The first seeds of discontent began to appear.
Questions of values began to arise. Dressing up for an Indian party — in western wear, or in a sari? Keep her Hindu name or anglicise it? She felt her daughter was “traumatised by the mixed message she got from her mother.”
Arguments with Ram too began — “being cosmopolitan is all very well for adults with set identities. It’s a disaster for young children.” She started cooking Indian food rather than the fusion food she liked. She started wearing a sari and visiting the temple with Rajini.
She started suggesting relocating to India to Ram —“Priscilla thinks we should go back,” she would say. “Who is Priscilla?” Ram asked. “The pretzel women at the corner of our street”. Ram’s reaction would be, “My job is too specialised.” Finally, one day, Ram sprung a surprise by saying their firm was considering opening up an office in emerging economies and that they would be relocating to Singapore.
Sometimes it’s not clear which audience she is addressing, especially when she is critical of India — is it an American audience or an Indian audience, or is she creating a rationale to abandon India? There are a few situations that do not fit the scheme of the book.
Apart from these, it is a well-written book. The conversations are especially well crafted. For those who have gone to the US and returned, the terrain may look familiar, even nostalgic, but for those who are planning to do so, here is a guidebook of what to expect. Enjoy.