Book: Return to India: A Memoir
Author: Shoba Narayan
Number of pages: 269
Price: Rs. 395
Three odd years ago, the best friend emailed me a PDF. It was an essay titled Return to India: One Family’s Journey to America and Back by a Bangalore-based writer, Shoba Narayan. In that essay, she outlines her reasons for returning back to India, after having been in the United States for 20 years. I remember having intense chats with the best friend about how and why someone would arrive at this decision. I tossed it aside as a frivolous read.
But a fortnight ago, when I received an email from Blogadda that Return to India: A Memoir was up for review, I couldn’t resist my curiosity. I eagerly applied to review it and a week later when the book was in my hands, I was delighted.
Return to India: A Memoir opens in orthodox Chennai, with brief halts in the US before Narayan can call New York City her home and ends with the family relocating to Singapore.
The opening line in the prologue sets the tone of the book, “Return to India is a topic that consumed me for about ten years.” Note the use of the word “topic” as opposed to it being a decision.
The first few chapters into the book, Narayan draws you into her family home. She is twenty, aching to go to America but her parents are reluctant, a common scene in some Indian households. Narayan is edgy and uncomfortable but determined. She sets forth securing admission with a full scholarship at Mount Holyoke and then there is little that the folks can object to.
She sums up her angst elegantly, “India is a hard country to love and at twenty, I had little use for it. It wasn’t that I hated it with all my heart—my feelings were not so intense. Rather, I took it for granted. It was like family—always present. I longed to leave it behind. I yearned for something new and exciting, something different.” (Pages 58-59) I remember feeling somewhat like this when I left Bombay for Boston a few years ago. Eager to leave, and not so sure if I’d want to return. On page 63, she writes, “…I escaped the tight bonds of love that supported and—at least, that’s how I felt at the time—suffocated me.”
While the first few chapters detail Narayan’s travails of her life in Chennai, the rampant orthodoxy, the difficulty of procuring an American visa and the various infrastructural hassles, the next few chapters are a blur of how America indeed was everything she had dreamt of.
Narayan describes the easy routine her pals and she fell into. There are few logistical and infrastructural hassles and friendships are forged with ease. An academic arrangement that was to last a year extends to two and Narayan then takes off to Memphis for grad school.
On page 71, Narayan writes, “To be twenty, single and far away from home is a gift.” I concur. I remember sharing a similar sentiment with the mother often, on our daily Skype calls.
Memphis is again a blur of events. Narayan mentions briefly an Indian household, of an old family friend. There is much dichotomy in their lifestyle, as is the case with most Indian families, and some of which Narayan herself confronts in the later years. On page 97, Narayan writes, “During the week, they intersected with Americans, attending conferences, taking phone calls, and volunteering at inner-city programs. Once they entered their home, however, they retreated into a world that was completely and unequivocally Indian. They listened to Hindi songs, watched Tamil movies, cooked and ate Indian food, socialized with other Indians…”
A few pages later, Narayan is married and lives in New York City, after a brief sojourn in Connecticut. And that’s around the time when she “began confronting the ‘India Question’.” And slowly you begin to see her get obsessed with it. It had partially to do with Narayan becoming a mother. On page 150, she explains, “Until I became a parent, America had been a welcoming land where I had spent ten glorious years being young and free. It had denied me nothing because of the color of my skin or the foreignness of my character… After my daughter was born, America became her birthplace, her country, and I held it to high standards. I wanted it to accept Ranjini.”
Narayan had highlighted similar thoughts in the essay mentioned above. But her words made little sense to me then. I was still in the student frame of mode. But a few years down the line, I can understand where she is coming from because I understand my mother a lot more now. I understand that life isn’t about stark blacks and whites anymore. It’s more often than not about a large patch of grey, which we all have to confront and live with. While I don’t necessarily agree with Narayan, I understand why she felt compelled to do what she did. It also puts into perspective the return of so many Indian families, seeking either identity, roots or material comforts.
Narayan is candid about her choices and motives. And it is easy to forget that I’m reading a memoir. She weaves that honesty into the format of a story. The book is one delicious read. Easy to read but I want to savor it, word by word, emotion by emotion. There was so much emotion and intensity that I found myself shutting the book and keeping it aside, at regular intervals, and mostly smiling. There was so much I wanted to hold on to from the book and Narayan’s words. The last paragraph in Acknowledgements almost had me in sniffles. Someday, I want to be able to write like her. Personal, honest, yet engaging.
Thank you, Ms. Narayan for putting this together. Your words will remain with me for a long time to come.
Learn more about Shoba Narayan and her books.