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Updated: July 3, 2012 14:55 IST

Escape to victory, from India to the U.S.

Vibhuti Patel
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Breakingout: An Indian Woman's American Journey
THE HINDU Breakingout: An Indian Woman's American Journey

For three decades now, personal memoirs have been all the rage in America. Following the fashion set by television talk shows, which popularised public confessionals, these are neither the birth-to-death autobiographies of celebrities, nor official memoirs of politicians or presidents. Rather, they are works that openly air the most intimate problems of ordinary individuals. Following “Oprah,” the shame of such disclosures disappeared overnight and publishers found these true stories eminently marketable because they were fact-based narratives that had actually happened and, therefore, were more believable than novels which deal in “fictions” and artistic truth, instead of “reality.” But contemporary Indian writers, who have been immensely successful in these three decades, resisted the genre until recently. Is it a cultural reluctance to discuss private matters publicly? Or, perhaps, it’s a lack of the introspection fostered by psychotherapy that accounts for such reticence? Out now is economist Padma Desai’s recreation of “An Indian Woman’s American Journey” that focuses on her emotional odyssey out of India’s scandalous social repressions.

Free, at 80, to speak out honestly and unashamedly, Desai’s is a classic immigrant tale. She moved to America in 1968 to escape her terrible lot in India — a fate truly worse than death. She is a distinguished professor at Columbia University, a Padma Bhushan winner, the product of intellectual privilege, raised in a middle-class Gujarati Brahmin family in the 1930s, in small-town Surat. Her father had won a graduate scholarship to Cambridge University and returned home, a professor of English.

Her mentor

Desai worshipped “Father” as mentor and followed his example by concentrating on academic achievements: ranked second among 48,000 students in the state-wide matriculation exam, she’d missed being first by only two marks. Still, she won no praise, no encouragement from a father who, despite her love and loyalty, comes across as an unfeeling, rule-bound patriarch who refuses to appreciate, compliment or support his gifted daughter.

A man of contradictions, he teaches — and deeply admires — the works of Shakespeare, the Romantic poets and of Thomas Hardy. But, in his own life and family, the professor exhibits none of the Bard’s humanism, the Romantics’ liberalism or Hardy’s immense empathy for exploited Victorian women, whom middle-class Indian women — including his own much-wronged daughter — closely resembled in their pure innocence. In fact, he harps on her “unlucky birth on a moonless night,” claims to be a social reformer opposing dowry, while arranging marriages for all his children within their subcaste. He rescues his brother’s shaven-headed widow and brings her into his home but then, that’s where his liberalism ends. Like most widows of the time, she cooks, cleans and runs his home. She is the loving aunt to whom Desai dedicates the book for being the trusted surrogate parent “who endured.” The “Mother,” a manic-depressive incapable of loving her children, was forever indulged by Father. But when the young Desai graduated first class and won a fully-paid scholarship to Bombay University, he warned her that the achievement will be her “crown of thorns.”

Utterly unprepared for love, romance, sex or independence, this conservatively raised, sheltered young woman encounters her Hardy- a nemesis in the form of a heartlessly manipulative predator who seduces her. Her shocked parents compel her to marry him and when she becomes pregnant, the husband forces her to have an abortion — illegal in the 1950s — as she discovers to her horror (from her doctor!) that the monster-husband has given her gonorrhea. Then, abandoning her to deal with the VD, her job, and PG accommodation, he moves to Goa while she wins another scholarship — to Harvard.

The subsequent chapters describing life on campus, in Desai’s early 20s, are the happiest in the book: over four years, she thrives on intellectual challenges, stimulating friends, teaching undergraduates, earning a Ph. D., being admired for her exotic beauty and vibrant mind. In short, she discovers herself and secretly ruminates over her failed marriage. At Harvard, Desai meets and befriends visiting economist Jagdish Bhagwati who falls in love with her and patiently waits out the nine years it takes her to escape the ill-fated marriage which had already ended when she left India.

Horror tale

The roller-coaster dissolution of that sacramental marriage is the climactic horror story at the heart of this memoir: the incredible legal entrapment of the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 which drove Desai to a phoney religious conversion — the only permissible grounds for a judicial separation, if her husband agreed. He did — after years of denying her a divorce — then recanted. Her Christian conversion was in vain. Eventually, in 1968, she followed Bhagwati to Boston, won a position at Harvard, and freed herself via a Mexican divorce before she could remarry. That is the core of this feminist memoir — by no means the only tale of cruel patriarchy in well-to-do, “liberated” families where sexist fathers are blindly non-empathic, husbands jealously possessive “control freaks,” men who keep their women imprisoned in ossified traditions. Desai spent heartbreaking years in depression, loneliness, lovelessness despite having a brilliant, loving suitor waiting in the wings to give her a good life. Eventually, she finds that life (and an exciting career) in America, with the ever charming and lovable Bhagwati, first at Harvard and then at Columbia.

Unsparing in bold outspokenness, Desai is unsentimental about her parents, India, its culture and religion. Her highly readable page-turner with extensive literary foot notes reveals her passion for the intellectual life — Russian language and economy, Sanskrit grammar and literature, Agra-gharana singing lessons through tedious, post-Harvard, Delhi School of Economics years, appreciation of classical Western music and poetry. She struggles to find personal fulfilment, against all odds, by naturally conceiving her only child at age 43. Finally, she establishes a triumphant new identity through U.S. citizenship and unequivocally adopts the New World’s culture by “Breaking Out.”

BREAKING OUT — An Indian Woman’s American Journey: Padma Desai; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 499.

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I totally agree with Bharati's comment above!
As for Pravin's comment that'India is showing improvement in parenting' I would like to point out that India is the country where mothers have always nurtured, fed and taken care of their children till they were ready to leave home. Unlike in the West (esp U.S.) where babies are left in Day Care centres and creches and asked to leave home at 18! Also, male dominance is no less in the 'advanced' countries, if you see the number of domestic abuse cases there. The only difference is that they have 911 to call upon for help.
Unlike The Hindu Literary Review's book review of 2nd July that gave a very balanced look at this book, this review above shows Vibhuti Patel's personal prejudices against India. Perhaps this is one more wannabe NRI 'escaping' to the 'better life'!

from:  Shalini
Posted on: Jul 5, 2012 at 09:20 IST

very well said--Partho Dhang and Venkat--We should develop the attitude
of appreciating --not aping --good values of western societies as much
as we do ours--and also accept the darker side of our own historical and
patriarichal traditions -instead of harping all the time on our great ,
never to be criticized values and beliefs . It has taken so many years
for even a finally liberated woman of Padma Desai`s calibre to shake off
the cruel clutches of a great culture --goes to show how well she was
rooted in it --before breaking out.

from:  Raj vaidya
Posted on: Jul 4, 2012 at 15:54 IST

It does give a unique view. Understantable and worth reading. However,
not all stories are similar. Indian men may have a very different
experience from Indian women in the US. If Padma's dad's liberalism had
an end once the widow was allowed into the house, American liberalism
too has its end. They are too polished to show the rough edges to a
third-world woman, but have no hesitancy bestowing prejudice on the
male. Just ask the thousands of black Americans and latinos who are
harrassed everyday from workplace, to the local police beat.

from:  Karthik Ramanathan
Posted on: Jul 4, 2012 at 13:32 IST

I will take it as a personal view. India has so many horror stories when it comes to domestic violence and men dominace beyond limit. I have experienced 3 characters in my life resembling Ms Desai's father. Very open/kind to other's kids but very strict on own son/daughter. Ms Desai was lucky to make where she is happy for other unlucky life continue to be challenge. But there is light at the end of tunnel and India is showing improvement in parenting and decline in men dominance. A common view of wowan as labourer is reducing. Hope this takes it close to perfect society.

from:  Pravin
Posted on: Jul 4, 2012 at 10:49 IST

The classic Third World-to-First World story! Am not surprised that Penguin finds these very marketable...but surprised that people actually accept this as a norm. Whether the NRI's who 'escaped' to a better life believe it or not, Indians in India do have happy, stable home lives, and do study and work in 'intellectual, challenging' environments and do hold 'stimulating' friendships!

from:  Malathi
Posted on: Jul 4, 2012 at 09:44 IST

Amazing, people still look for a contest between east and west. I find
both lands beautiful and bounty full and also scary and unforgiving.
Biographies are to be read for experiencing diversity of living a life
on earth. It is to be read to appreciate a uniqueness of a soul.

from:  Partho Dhang
Posted on: Jul 4, 2012 at 09:32 IST

sounds like an interesting life and will definitely read the book. We can be reasonably sure that the book is not a commentary on the whole of India or on Hindu life. It is just a specific life in a particular time. The other commenters would be well advised to chill out and not make sweeping generalisations. After all, as somebody else has noted for the wrong reason, she has posed for the cover in the very Indian Saree and the very Hindu "dot".

from:  Asjok Rajamani
Posted on: Jul 4, 2012 at 05:19 IST

I find it amazing when women defend the Indian/Hindu culture which
openly has been subjugating them over centuries. Ours is a culture which
has pioneered in ways to actually convince weaker sections they deserve
all the horrible things that are perpetrated upon them. The norm in
which our society operate is in fact quite disturbing.

from:  Hari
Posted on: Jul 3, 2012 at 20:56 IST

Congratulations to Ms Desai on escaping the horrors of a Hindu identity and "unequivocally adopt[ing] the New World’s culture by `Breaking Out'" of the prison that is India. But then why does she choose for her book cover an equivocal picture of herself looking glamorous in what represents her prison's silk uniform, complete with the dot that represents the patriarchal subjugation of the Hindu female?

from:  Bharati
Posted on: Jul 3, 2012 at 12:53 IST

Ms. Deepa - both Indian and American culture have good and bad things. And bad and people form in both the places. It is about the individual instances and circumstances. So, what Ms. Padma recants should not be dismissed. We should look at it and say 'How can we ensure that this can be reduced (eradicating totally might not be possible - but that is the goal) now. And we Indians have this bad habit on harping on past - great Indian culture tradition, great sages, great inventions in the past, etc. etc. Let's look at present and what can be done now.

from:  Venkat
Posted on: Jul 3, 2012 at 12:53 IST

I agree with what Deepa has to say here!!!

from:  Richards
Posted on: Jul 3, 2012 at 12:27 IST

It is rather a confusing read. Ms.Desai seems to have had a very bad time in India and is it logical to blame Indian traditions, Hindu religion and culture for it? Was Dr.Bhagawati not the son of the same soil who married her. Didn't the Indian soil with it's great culture and traditions not produce such a kind man? Or is everything ok with the American culture which has made feminism a bra-burning event and nothing more.

from:  deepa
Posted on: Jul 3, 2012 at 08:34 IST


Good book as well as good review.
Close to my own experiences. Would like to go thru the book.

from:  Rajen Rajguru
Posted on: Jul 3, 2012 at 04:22 IST
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