Shoba Narayan has written her memoir with an eye to Western bestseller ratings
Shoba Narayan’s Return to India comes a little late in the day. Too much has been said on immigrants and their identity crisis. This is not to belittle their traumas, little and large. But it is difficult to summon the same degree of emotional involvement the stories first evoked some decades ago. True, Return to India isa memoir and not a novel, but the situations and circumstances are a little too well-worn, and what could have been a unique life-story has the air of a generalised and lukewarm account of the immigrant condition.
Narayan makes a far better columnist than author. Also, she camps it up for an American readership. She says she is writing for the Indian diaspora and Indian students, but she’s obviously writing with an eye to Western bestseller ratings as well, so you have clichéd stretches about driving on Madras roads, about caste, fortune-tellers, eunuchs and gypsies. It’s like ticking things off from a ‘What I must put into an India book’ list.
What surprised me was how desperately Narayan and her Madras friends wanted to escape India and get to the U.S. Growing up in the 1980s in a Calcutta that was far less physically comfortable than Madras, with its power cuts, traffic, inertia and poverty (about all of which we complained ceaselessly) what I don’t remember is any of our lot being as frantic to get out — we seem to have been perfectly happy in our far-from-perfect corner of Indian urban hell. I find the sub-text here, that growing up in Madras is a suffocating nightmare, very interesting. Is this why so many Tam Brahms end up in the U.S., so many that it’s almost a bit of a joke now? Maybe the real book is here.
What you have to grant Narayan is the honesty. It’s probably one of the more felicitous outcomes of her American years, this happy, Oprah-esque unburdening. Her account is quite unflinching, even though this means that she comes across as a bit ditzy and trivial compared to her more balanced husband. Take, for instance, how Narayan reacts when she comes home one day to find her five-year-old daughter playing make-believe in shorts, cropped top and lipstick.
A ballistic Narayan declares: ‘Time to move back to India’. It’s the early 2000s, and if the family had been in Triplicane, a kid that age would still have been fooling around with lipstick and wacky clothes. Heck, her pavadai-chattai would have shown a glimpse of baby midriff and even her grandmother would not have objected; not in a five-year-old.
Episodes like this make you suspect if Narayan’s angst was not entirely self-created. I mean, if a woman is daft enough to make lists and cram facts at 3:00 am to get her child into a posh summer camp, or if she will willingly “sweet-talk, bribe and threaten” her way into Broadway shows and tennis lessons, she will do this just as well in Gurgaon as in New York. Why blame the city?
There is the possibility that we are meant to take this as a bit of a joke, but she does not quite pull it off; her tone is too heavy, too emotional. What I found particularly unfunny was her reaction to meeting Zahid’s mother. We meet Zahid fairly early on, when she develops a crush on him in the U.S. visa queue. In contrast to Narayan, Zahid is ruthlessly focussed on making it big in the U.S. and makes no bones about it.
He becomes Zaid, cons up wine facts, consults the Dictionary of American Slang, marries a white girl and is something big on Wall Street. Of course, in real life, it’s likely that he might have been a bit of an ass, but at least he is refreshingly honest in the midst of all the hand-wringing. Disapproval of Zahid’s enthusiastic disavowal of his Indian origins is one thing, but the embarrassing bit is when Narayan cheers because she discovers Zahid’s family is from small-town Hoskote and that his mother doesn’t speak English. It’s not so much disapproval of Zahid hiding the fact as glee in spotting what she clearly sees as a blemish on his image.
It’s a brand of pettiness that makes you wince fairly frequently through the book. The author admits that her reaction isn’t fair and tries to explain it away as a trait of the immigrant condition but it’s not convincing.
She speaks of “our ultra-competitive Manhattan Indian circle where success was measured in square footage, size of bonus, board memberships and photographs in the society page …” If you opt to belong to that circle, it thrives as much in Mylapore and Mehrauli, thank you, as it does in Manhattan or San Francisco. The question is who will you choose to be, regardless of where you are?
RETURN TO INDIA — A Memoir: Shoba Narayan; Rain Tree, 7/16, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 395.