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.
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.
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.