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.

My views:

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 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).


Susan P. Cooper said...

I loved this review. What a charming read this must be. Leaving ones birthplace for another experience is always exciting. Returning home to our heritage can be challenging and rewarding. I will be checking this book out for a future read.

Jena Isle said...

Worthy of praise with what you do, Lubna. I'm fascinated with India's culture and everything.

The book would indeed be a good read.

Dilip said...

Nice review Lubna. Book will surely be an interesting read.

Catarina said...

Good plot that I can relate to having been "an immigrant" all over the world. Reading your review made me think maybe I should write a book..:-)

Seems the author wrongly concluded Bond's American. He certainly isn't and neither is Aston Martin.

Destination Infinity said...

The author's way of expressing things (both emotions and factual) stands out. That's why, even though the second half of the book required some patience to read, it was never difficult. The style of writing, though stoic is still engaging! I liked her sense of humour (at times) as well. Good to read your review...

Destination Infinity

Lubna said...

@Catarina- I really think you should write a book. It would be an interesting read.
The author referred to the series James Bond - the movie, the books - Hollywood - rather than James Bond per se.

Edward Reid said...

This was a good review. My wife and I both appreciate this type of book so I will let her know about it immediately. Thanks Lubna.

Scott said...

Interesting review. I think the tensions between traditional and new ways of thinking are still here though. A couple of years ago I got to know an Indian graduate student through a mutual friend. She lived with 3 other Indian girls in a big house, and her two main complaints with America were the clothes (she felt Indian cotton was far superior to the materials used here) and the tension in her household between the girls who wanted to maintain strict conservative values and the others who wanted to live like American college girls, drinking at parties and dating. I guess some themes are timeless, and change is the most consistent one of all.

Doreen Pendgracs said...

Very interesting about how recently there were few choices in India re consumerism.

It is something that we in North America take for granted. I am Canadian, and we have always been privileged to have Canadian, American, British, and more recently, good from nearly every part of the world at our fingertips.

Leora said...

I tend to like books that talk about the conflicts of two cultures. Thank you for the review, Lubna.

Years ago I had a friend who grew up in India and talked about the difficulties he had with the parties his American friends from India threw. He married a woman that grew up in India - last I heard, they were happily married in California. But the partying part of modern American culture was difficult for both of us - we had that in common.

Jeri said...

I am more than certain I would love this book as I love memoirs and am always drawn to the narrative tension that can arise from culture clashes.

Jules said...

Thank you for another wonderful review. I haven't done much reading this year. It seems to have gone by in a bit of a blur. While I may not get out to buy or read the books you review I enjoy periodically visiting and getting great summaries of what is available.


Kelly Wade said...

I absolutely love and am so interested in the idea of seeing the U.S. through the eyes of a foreign person. I enjoy seeing how people from other countries see our country, especially after living in Spain I think its so cool seeing how others judge our society. This book sounds really fascinating.

Jeannette Paladino said...

Lubna - another fascinating review, as usual. America is truly the land of immigrants and always will be for those who don't have the opportunities in their own countries. But now the vibrant Indina economy and relaxed attitudes towards women no doubt are making Indians who are thinking of relocating hesitate to move when they have so many more opportunities at home.

Susan Oakes said...

The book looks very interesting and my country is mostly of immigrants. Having a couple of friends who came from other country it is interesting to hear their stories.

Krystyna Lagowski said...

If the book is half as good as the review, it's on my list of must-reads! Immigrant experiences are close to my heart as my parents were immigrants - the experience has changed a great deal in some ways, yet stays the same. Today's immigrant likely still clings to memories of their homeland, no matter how good life is in their adopted new land.