I have always loved reading memoirs and was delighted to come across, ” Return to India” by Shoba Narayan. Here she writes of the angst caused in most Indian-Americans caught in a within the mind crossfire between the country where they were born and bred as children and their adopted country which has given them more than abundant monetary and other worldly conveniences they would not have got in the Old Country.
Shoba was highly focused on her goal as a teenager growing up in Madras ( as Chennai was called in those days) and her goal was to go to the United States away from the protective, cloying environment provided by family and friends. She imagined being free of all constraints and living a life of her own where she could start afresh and do whatever she pleased in a land of endless opportunity.
She writes in an extremely engaging style and her honesty in dealing with issues that troubled her in her youth and later add to the charm of the book. She speaks of the early student days in the US, when they had to scrimp and save and face the challenges a tough life as a new immigrant threw at them. She then expands the story to share how they enjoyed success in their chosen professions and a life style they would not have enjoyed in the India of those days. She had dreams of marrying an American whom she would fall in love with but ended up marrying an Indian American through an arranged marriage which was something she would not have wished for herself at a younger age.
In the last few decades, things have changed for the better in India. Many like her wonder if they should move back to take advantages of the professional opportunities now available in India and a far better standard of living than before. These had been woefully absent decades ago which was why they left the country seeking brighter pastures in the first place. Here a lot of cultural issues crop up which Shoba describes so well. How would they like their children to see themselves? As Americans of Indian origin (as they indeed are) or as American citizens by birth who however go through life realizing often they are not truly Americans in all senses of the term. Thanks to their parents who are first generation immigrants like Shoba the children are still moored to very different customs, religion, and traditions. The kids may seek to break out of this but their parents zealously try to inculcate these elements in them speaking endlessly of their ancient heritage and culture and so on.
Immigrants often think of their ageing parents and this is often one of the reasons they think of coming back to India. Shoba writes a lot about her parents and how they had to cope ( as so many Indian elders do these days) with new circumstances and life style which had them frequently yearning to be back in India in more familiar surroundings where they were less dependent on their children. The only element missing in this wonderful book, I thought was that very little was written about her in-laws, Padma and V. Ramachandran although the book is dedicated to them with the byline, “You are the reason we came home.”
Shoba is undoubtedly a talented writer. After all, she won the MFK Fisher Award for Distinguished Writing and was awarded a Pulitzer Fellowship at the School of Journalism at Columbia University. She now contributes features to renowned publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book and look forward to reading her other book, “Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes.”