Return to India by Shoba Narayan

Shoba Narayan’s memoir of her family’s Return to India process, after living in the US for about 20 years. I knew I had to read to read it as soon as I came across it. To add to it, Smita, heavily recommended it on one of my posts. I just had to get hold of it.

Shoba charts her journey from the time she first started to dream about going to America. Her parents are horrified at the idea, and try everything to stop her. Fate, finally, had it’s way, and she made her way to America as a student, with stars in her eyes, all set to live the American dream.

America gave her opportunities that she had dreamed about. She had come to America to pursue a master’s degree in psychology, but ended up a full-fledged art major trying to do a master’s in sculpture, For Shoba, this was the essence of America’s opportunities.

As Shoba immersed herself in America, she also develops close friendships with her fellow Indian students as well as her American friends. Living her new life, the experiences of being a student on grant in America, studying subjects that excited her, finding funding and help in the most unexpected places, washing dishes to make some money, Shoba is content. Somewhere down the line, she gets married – a traditional, arranged marriage to Ram.

From her happy existence in America, her perspective on living in America starts changing after she became a mother. She slowly started thinking about the ‘India Question’, with more and more of her friends and people around her talking seriously about moving back to India. The country that she had fought to leave, was now, beckoning to her. The culture and society that she had once tried to avoid, was the one she started trying very hard to inculcate in her daughter. There are some hilarious episodes mentioned of how hard she tried to make her daughter ‘Indian’. She calls herself a ‘born again Hindu’, when she drags her family to the temple, she had never before visited, or tried to wear a sari the whole day, for a month, just to make it familiar to her daughter. In her own way, trying to bring India or being Indian, closer to her American born and bred daughter.

While she was passionate about moving back, her husband Ram, was more resistant to the idea. He was less bothered about the parenting worries that Shoba had. She was quite worried about how to parent her daughter, the American influences worrying her tremendously, while her husband believed that with the right values, their daughter would be fine anywhere. They had their discussions, their disagreements, and their concurrence on the ‘India Question’. Finally, after a few years, things fell into place and they did indeed move to India.

So, how did I find it? I really enjoyed her perspective on life in America(or abroad anywhere, for that matter). Her observations of how people behave, some reject India completely, while others become born again Indians. The way she herself changed after her daughter was born, is quite interesting to read. In some places cliched – just the way, we have heard of NRIs behaving, and in some places interesting.

When I started reading this, I couldn’t help wonder if I would find similarities in my situation with what she recounts, but I have to say, her situation, and her reasons for moving back were quite different, so I did not really relate to her story much. It was just reading her story than reading a story that I could totally relate to. Probably because we had not lived abroad for so long, nor had we ever planned to live abroad. Returning to India was a given for us, rather than a ‘question’. Also parenting worries of the sort she had, somehow, does not bother me. Influences of all sorts, would be there in any society, in my opinion. My daughter’s childhood cannot be exactly the same as mine, even if I went back to the town I grew up in, and did everything my parents did. But that is entirely my opinion.

An interesting read, in some places very cliched, but pacy and gripping all the same. The way her priorities changed over the years with changes in her circumstances is very interesting to read. I would recommend it to anybody who likes memoirs although I think I enjoyed her first book – Monsoon Diary more. Would I recommend it to someone who is relocating/planning to relocate to India? I don’t know. Mainly because I could not relate to it at all, but perhaps if you are in a similar situation as her’s you might relate and enjoy it much more. Other than that, as a memoir, it is an interesting read.

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Antharjanam: Memoirs of a Namboodiri Woman by Devaki Nilayamgode

I came across this book last year, when I was in India, but could not get hold of it. Since then it was on my must-read list of books.

The book is an English translation(by Radhika Menon and Indira Menon) of a Malayam book written by Devaki Nilayamgode, a 75 year old Namboodiri woman. She recounts the life of a Namboodiri woman from childhood. Namboodiri women are called, ‘Antharjanam’, which literally means, ‘People who live inside’. After the age of 6 or 7, Namboodiri women are confined indoors, and not seen even by their own fathers or brothers. Those days, it was common for only the oldest son in a family to marry within their caste. The other sons would do a ‘Sambhandam’ with Nair women, and the Nair women and their children would continue to live in their house and not in the Namboodiri illam. It was common for the eldest sons to practice polygamy for various reasons. There were instances where a man on his death-bed would marry a teenager. Illams traditionally would have unmarried girls, married women and widows of the Namboodiris.

The author recounts her own childhood in a prosperous illam. She grew up in a prosperous illam, and yet her childhood felt almost inhuman. The hierarchy is clear right from the beginning of life. A girl child was never welcomed with happiness. She talks about how they did not even have a comb to brush their hair. Nobody cared about such things. She talks about how her mother never encouraged her or her sisters to have any sort of freedom, as that would not bode well for a life where they would have to live under the shadow of others. Rituals, traditions and rules, made their lives. Some of the things she describes are heart-breaking. Namboodiris could get polluted by getting touched by other castes. During deliveries, Nair women would be attending to the Namboodiri women, so after the delivery, the first thing the poor women had to do was go and have a bath in the pond, to purify themselves. Already weakened by the delivery, they had to make their way to the pond, have a bath before they could be rest at all. As Nilayamgode mentions, nobody spared a thought that often the water would be muddy during the monsoon, and having a bath in that condition might attract infection in the already weak women. Traditions were the most important thing, so had to be followed.

The plight of the widows were particularly sad. They had to pay for the crime of having outlived their husbands throughout their lives. Nilyamgode’s mother was a widow, the third wife of a Namboodiri, but she was respected for her abilities, so she had a slightly better life. Education was practically non-existent for women. Devaki learnt how to read and write, and that was about it. Her sisters started reading books that their brother would slyly pass to them, and that was their only source of reading. It was only when they came in touch with their sophisticated Nair cousins that they realised how different their lives were. The Nair girls would be well-groomed, well looked after, and would even treat the little Namboodiri children with affection – something they never got from their mothers or fathers. She recounts how they would give them pieces of soap, which was treasured and used sparingly to make it last longer.

Fortunately for Devaki, the family that she married it was very liberal and socially progressive. By that time, social reforms and movements had begun. They were focussing on educating women, widow re-marriage, encouraging the other sons of households to marry within their caste.

Nilayamgode writes about how her book will be the last of it’s kind, because change has ensured that there are no longer problems that are restricted just to the Antharjanams. That life today is so much better than it had been a few decades ago. The book brings to focus how much of change has happened, and how change can happen when communities decide for themselves that things have to change – when the change happens from within. Most of the change that happened in the Namboodiri community was because people themselves realized that things have to change in their society. When the society convinced their widowed sisters to remarry, educated their daughters, and encouraged their wives to take control.

I though I was shocked because I grew up in a different time. My mother started reading this book, last week, when she was here, and she was as shocked as me. She had an inkling about the lives of the Antharjanams but had no idea how different it was. My grandmother would have been 86 or 86 now had she been alive today, so around 10 years or so older than Devaki Nilayamgode. They would have grown up in villages quite near by, in families of similar financial capabilities and yet Ammamma(and her sisters) was an educated, empowered lady. So much of variation in lifestyle just because they belonged to different castes.

Isn’t it wonderful how time and progress has brought it to a point where today, everything else being equal, there would be no difference between me and a Namboodiri girl?

A wonderful book. A must read.

We can pull it off by Suresh Taneja

A book review that I should have done a while ago. This is the first requested review that I have done.

‘We can pull it off’, is author Suresh Taneja’s debut book, and is about corruption, which is something the author is passionate about tackling. The book is even more appealing given the fact that corruption is something that just about everybody agrees, is one of the biggest problems that India is facing today. Eradication of corruption could effectively resolve most of the other problems that India faces today.

The book starts off in 2030, where a group of four friends(G4), are meeting up in America. An America where Indian brands and India itself seems super-powerful. The story goes back and forth between 2009 and 2030, tracing out the revolution that changed India and helped make it the most powerful country in the world.

The four friends,Vikram, Yuvika, Manisha and Akshay  whose parents were close-knit friends themselves, came across instances of corruption that made them realize how badly corruption affected life in India. How the innocent could be framed. justice denied and life could be made complicated by corruption. They decide to tackle it and come up with an idea to eradicate it completely. They harness the youth to tackle corruption and change the way India looked at things.

The concept behind the book is excellent. The author’s passion for the subject is evident in his writing. The book is fast paced and a very quick read. Despite all these factors, the book did not work for me. It fell flat. There was something missing. The story seemed too easy. too good to be true and it could certainly do with better editing. Spelling mistakes, grammar, cheesy dialogues and some unnecessary sequences/events made me cringe a few times. It could have been a more hard-hitting book had it been edited better. While the intention of the author is commendable. one can’t help wish the story was etched out better.

As it is,I would give it a 2.5 overall, which is a pity because it is on a subject that really matters today.