Category Archives: Book review

My interview with author/journalist Sobha Narayan

Longing to Belong

By Deepa Padmanaban Email By Deepa Padmanaban
February 2013

Longing to Belong

Shoba Narayan is living in India and loving it. Why did Narayan, a successful author who spent some of her “best years” in the United States, go back to her homeland—and what was her life like in this country? She has written about her experiences in a new book that was released in India recently. Another India returnee spoke to Narayan.

In her recently released second memoir, Return to India, renowned journalist and author Shoba Narayan poses this question to herself in a Shakespearean fashion, with an immigrant twist: “To be American or Indian, to return or stay?” She elucidates the challenges of an immigrant in America and the dilemma of wanting to return to the home country after living in the U.S. for almost two decades—a dilemma that every immigrant has probably faced at some point in her life.

Having made the trip to the homeland myself after living in the U.S. and encountering some of the questions especially as a parent, her book resonated with me on many levels. I decided to interview Narayan, partly to hear her unwritten thoughts and to validate my own experiences. Narayan, who has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Time, won the MFK Fisher Award for Distinguished Writing. She published her first memoir, Monsoon Diary: A Memoir of Recipes, in 2003.

For decades now, young Indians have been attracted by the ethos of the American dream, in pursuit of a better life and better opportunities. Narayan, too, starts off her book by expressing her staunch desire to go to the U.S., partly wanting to escape the influences of a traditional South Indian upbringing. In her usual honest and humorous style, she pokes fun at herself and her well-meaning but conservative family who try to dissuade her from going abroad. The trepidation and joy accompanying the process of applying for and getting the student visa, and finally arriving in the U.S. with a sense of relief and excitement are familiar terrain to most Indian immigrants who have gone ashore as students.

She states that “the best years of her life” were as a student in Mount Holyoke College, her first home away from home, where she explored a variety of subjects such as music composition, cross-country skiing, and theatre, and experimented with new cuisines. At the same time, she faced the challenges of an immigrant student—living on a tight budget and trying to make ends meet by doing odd jobs. I ask her how living in the U.S. as a student helped her personally or professionally. She replies,“As a girl growing up in India, there were too many voices in the head—too many people telling what to do and what not to do. Living geographically away allowed me to find myself. It was a liberating experience. I think that everyone should have the gift of foreign education if they can afford it, to explore different cultures and open one’s mind.”

While she embraced all aspects of American culture at Mount Holyoke, it was when she moved to Memphis for a master’s degree that she chanced upon the concept of “straddling two cultures.” As she interacted with Indian families who had assimilated into the multicultural ethos of America at work but came back to Indian homes and socialized with like-minded Indian families, she also became aware of the apparent generation gap—what she terms as a “gaping hole” between India-born parents and their America-born children.

And it was after she started her own family (after an arranged marriage) when her daughter was born that the first conflict between Indian and Western values rose in her mind. She was worried about the mixed messages her daughter was receiving from her—her role as a traditional “Indian bahu” in front of the Indian uncles and aunts and an aggressive feminist in the presence of Americans. In a bid to inculcate Indian values, she even tried to assume a sartorial identity, wearing saris every day and taking her daughter to the temple, but the phase didn’t last long. Though her husband believed that it was possible to achieve the best of both worlds, she felt one couldn’t choose both. But aren’t there many Indians in the U.S. who are able to achieve a balance between the two cultures, I ask her. She replies, “Yes, certain Indian communities do seek out cultural experiences actively for their children such as Bal Vihar or Bharatnatyam classes, mostly in areas with a large Indian base. But it’s the little things that mattered to me—the familiar sights and smells of childhood, the social fabric in India that allowed a casual interaction between friends and neighbors, and the luxury of dropping off one’s kid at a neighbor’s or aunt’s place at short notice.”

Gradually, Narayan encountered the “moving to India”question as other young Indian couples discussed the booming economy back home and their plans of returning home. She had moved to New York by then and witnessed the chaos that ensued after 9/11. So, my next question to her is: Does she think that 9/11 played a role in Indians returning? After all, until then, very few actually made the journey back though the dream of returning home remained. Narayan pauses before saying, “I think yes. America never had a Department of Homeland Security before. It was unheard of. America had tightened its borders to outsiders. But then there was the recession in the U.S. which hurt or helped depending on who or where you were. And it was also the booming economy, the buzz of entrepreneurship in India that attracted people here.”

Eventually, after years of introspection and discussions, a job opportunity for the husband brought them closer home, first to Singapore and then to India. The book ends with the author and her family making the decision to move back to India. She doesn’t touch upon her experiences on returning home, but I ask her if the journey had gone as she had expected—did the children learn Indian values? She says, “It did not happen in a structured way as I had anticipated. But rather in a nebulous but organic way, through stories narrated by grandparents, watching Grandmother drawing kolams or breaking into a classical Carnatic song. Living in India makes you realize that you’re not the center of the universe, makes you selfless and forces you to think in a multipronged fashion. Here you learn to live with a certain lack of control. Besides, here I can walk into their school wearing a sari without causing them any embarrassment!”

Narayan says her book was in the works for about 10 years. This insightful and poignant memoir, with a basic theme of family, culture, and identity, is sure to resonate among all immigrants, those who are living abroad and those who have moved back. In the end, it is also the story of a person whose ideas and opinions change with the vicissitudes of life, but whose value systems remain the same.

The world of publishing in India has seen a flourish of debut authors in the last few years with many of them grabbing accolades and eyeballs of the media and young readers. So, I, too, decided to join the bandwagon and turned my attention to this growing breed of new Indian writers. I picked up a collection of short stories ‘Next Door’ by   Jahnavi Barua, published in 2008. This debut collection(of 11 stories) had garnered much critical acclaim and after reading the book, I can say it is well-deserved.  Her writing is very mellifluous, filled with vivid descriptions and rich textures of her homeland, Assam, the North-eastern state of India, known for its natural beauty and tea gardens. Jahnavi’s stories are woven with intricate emotions and complex patterns that define human relationships.And just as the mighty Bramhaputra River, known for its flash floods, yet is the lifeline of the Assamese people, so also it flows through her stories quietly and at times, tumultuously.  There’s also a sprinkling of Assamese words throughout, which though hard to understand, gives it a unique flavour.

The first story ‘Magic Spell’ starts with a day in the life of a young school-going girl, Jui Das. “She sits up in the bed and gingerly eases the bedclothes off herself. From there, she contemplates the cement floor. Her slippers lie on the floor, neatly aligned, just out of reach of her short legs. Jui sucks in her cheeks and places her palms flat on the bed, on either side of her, arms rigidly straight….Jui takes a deep breath and swings her body again, stretching her legs and feet and extending her toes until they ache and feels her hands begin to slip. Holding her breath she reaches out further and then she feels her toes touch the rubber; she grips the slippers gently and draws them slowly towards herself.”

The story goes on to describe the rest of her day as she gets ready for school, witnesses an argument  between her parents about bringing her paternal grandmother home, the walk to the school with her  mother and then school itself. Her day ends rather unexpectedly on a tragic note and does indeed cast a spell on the reader.

There are several references to the insurgency faced by Assam in the last 2 decades. One such story, ’The Patriot’  deals with the relationship of the protagonist, a retired Government official, Dhiren Mazumdar with an  insurgent, who takes refuge in his house. The story begins with an interesting narration of the elaborate morning rituals of Dhiren Mazumdar, the strenuous task (for an old man!) of collecting a basketful of  flowers for his morning puja, an awkward encounter with the dhobi (washer man) who has his shop across the road, followed by a cup of piping hot tea as he sits in his veranda examining his ‘kingdom’- a humble 2 bedroom house, built by himself, in which he and his wife live. And  another two- storeyed old dilapidated ancestral house, described as “ When the wind blew in from the river, laced with sand and the smell of fish, the house strained at its joints, moaning piteously….Wild vegetation had taken over the hapless building; tenacious creepers spread over the remaining standing walls …Taut green stalks of the kosu thrust belligerently through the rotten floor , their elephant-eared leaves tightly meshed above”

One day he sees some movement in the run-down house and finds a young injured boy, an insurgent,lying there. The insurgent initially bullies and threatens Mazumdar into bringing food and medicines for him and keeping his presence a secret. But over the days, as he tends to the young boy, Mazumdar develops a fatherly responsibility towards him and helps him to escape from getting arrested by his own son who is the Deputy Commissioner (with whom he apparently doesn’t share a great relationship).

Another touching story is ‘Holiday Homework’. The protagonist, an old man, Mr Barua, after observing his new neighbours (a young couple and their son) and the intense love between the mother and the son for a few days, decides to befriend them, and soon discovers that the young lady is suffering from cancer. The rest of the story goes on to narrate the unusual friendship formed between the three of them and the climax, though predictable,  is so moving,  that it brought tears to my eyes.

While some of the stories have an abrupt ending, they are still worth reading for her style of writing and keeps the reader engaged with even pace and unique plots . Jahnavi has previously won the Short Fiction contest hosted by British Council in ’05 and the second prize in the Children’s Fiction category of the same in 2006; but with this book, she has truly arrived in the world of literature . Her latest book, ‘Rebirth’ (2011), a novel, was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize.