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.

If Today Be Sweet by Thrity Umrigar

Cross-posted at BookReviews at Bookrack

I started this book with high expectations after reading and loving  ‘The Weight of Heaven’ by the same author.

The book is set in America, where Tehmina Sethna, still raw after losing her husband, Rustom, has come for a vacation at her son Sorab and American daughter-in-law, Suzanne’s house. Sorab has asked her to relocate to America and live with them. Tehmina is in a qaundry. She is unsure of the path that she ought to take. Bombay has been her home since her wedding and she is not sure if she is willing to give it up and move to a new place. She also has some tussles with Sorab’s son Cookie(Cavas) who claims that he is an ‘all American boy’, when she reminds him that he is ‘half-Indian’.  Sorab and his wife, while they want her to live with them , have their own sources of worries. At a time when she needs to make one of her life’s important decision, on her own, her husband’s absence hits home, for her. She was so used to his being around, taking care of things, helping every body mingle.  Rustom was as comfortable in America as he was in Bombay. She felt she needed him to make everything bearable, and not having him around was taking a toll on her.

Finally a series of events help her make up her mind.

This book, for me, was quite a disappointment. I felt that the story had a lot of potential, but in a lot of ways, failed to deliver. A lot of clichéd views, how India was great and everything in America is the pits, came across, which I felt was rather judgemental. It almost felt as if Tehmina was the only conscientious person in the place they lived and almost every body else was obsessed with material comforts than with emotions or feelings..  Tehmina reminisces of how people in India are ‘fearless’, in crossing roads, not wearing seat belts while the life in America was  sterile and antiseptic. While it could be Tehmina’s views, I felt it reduced the impact of the story for me.  There were a lot of stereotyped characters which were either too good to be true or totally black.

I felt ‘The Weight of Heaven’ had much better, much more balanced characters.  I did like the way the book explored the emotions that Tehmina, Sorab and Suzanne felt in the various situations in the book. Sorab’s frustrations, Suzanne’s understanding and frustrations with her mother-in-law. Tehmina’s reaction to things, the way she felt that she was unable to mourn her husband properly, her longing for the things that she considers familiar and homely. It was still an interesting read, but I would not give it more than a 2 out of five.