This book is a memoir detailing an immigrants dream – what starts as a dream to break free of all shackles back home, a dream to embrace adventure, new cultures and new friends and finally the dream to get back where it all started – India or home!
Author Shoba Narayan, speaks about the desperation to get away from an orthodox and middle class upbringing in Madras to explore the land of freedom, independence and opportunities, the land where neighbours don’t stalk your every move be it the clothes you wear or the company you keep, the land where personal space is respected,the land where personal hygiene is of utmost importance and most importantly the land where you can be yourself. In her case the land is the US of A. Set in the 80’s and moving into the 2000’s, the book talks about her experiences as a student in America, of finding herself, settling down in marital bliss,discovering the joys of being a mother and finally the most difficult question that an immigrants asks himself or herself after living the dream life – Is it time to go back to the mother land?
As far as memoirs I should say I enjoyed reading this book at least half way through(To be honest, I haven’t read any memoirs before and this was my first!) The second half of the book just seemed to constant rambling about going back to India and making comparisons between India and the West. Not that I have any problems with that but then most of what the author was talking about does not even apply to Chennai of today! Let me give you some examples:
- She mentions how house guests would drop in unannounced and how normal it was whereas in the west you need to call in advance before visiting anybody….The reality of today is that in homes of Chennai today where everybody is working, busy, tired and stressed nobody likes it if you turn up at their doorstep unannounced and worse, stay for dinner!!!
- Next is the fact that you could pick your nose when nobody was looking whereas that is really scorned upon in the west! The fact: whether it was the 80s, 90’s or 2000s we still don’t like it if you pick your nose in public! The fact that some think that is okay just reflects very poorly on all of us.
- Her story about how her young daughter was not allowed to audition for the role of Cinderella in a school play, as the role would only be limited to blue eyed blonde girls. Don’t we in India have prejudice? There are several real life examples where people prefer those with fair skins and how north Indians have something to day about the rice eating madrasis and how south Indians have a problem with the dalda chapathis!!
- What takes the cake is the thought process of some NRIs is that their kid would not turn out to be gay if they grow up India!! (Now this is not the author’s views but that of someone she knows) This is just plain crazy in a country where you have talented gay men and women in all walks of life!
Everybody who grew up in Madras(now Chennai) would know how special it was – it was a place that was less crowded and polluted, known for its lush green avenues, clean beaches and people were not as rude as they are today! Today the situation is different. Each person is more stressed out than the next with hardly any time to do the things they love and the old world ideas that the author talks about like a neighboring uncle who would teach the kids chess or some uncle that would teach you to fly a kite or an aunt that would hand over free chocolates is pretty much a dream. Life today involves those that hardly know their neighbors leave alone smile at them or baby sit their kids. Life is as mechanical as it can be, with daily battles against power cuts, low salaries, stressful jobs, bad commutes, haggling with maids and more. Weekends are meant for catching up on sleep (if you are not working that is) and not may have time to socialize.
Also the book makes it pretty clear as to how one can live comfortably in our country on an American salary. So much so that when the author and her family finally decide to move they take the expat route and as fate would have it they don’t directly move to India but to Singapore [so that they can visit India over the weekend(??)] and then to India. They return as citizens of the States and clearly tell their daughters that they can back to the Americas to study and pursue their dreams and be what they want to be.
Again I am confused – if one hankered so much to get back, why would you tell your kids that they can go back to the west to pursue their academic dreams and achieve their life’s ambitions? By the author’s own arguments, don’t we have good schools in India? Agreed that the system is not as perfect as the West and you cannot study to be a doctor in Chennai if you belong to the forward caste, but isn’t home the place where the heart is? (please imagine my sarcastic tone here :-p)
And to top it all when the family returns to India, they settle down in Bangalore! Not Chennai (a.k.a Madras that the author claimed she was missing so much !!) Honestly I was very confused after reading this book – Agreed I am not a citizen of another country, but I have been around enough to understand the differences between our land and other places and I for one can definitely understand the emotions of those planning to return. Making the move when you have a perfect life, successful carriers and enough money stashed away not to mention an expat salary is not really a great challenge! Honestly I do not see such NRIs battling daily chores like driving in peak hour traffic (I am pretty sure they will have chauffeurs) or living in a middle class neighborhood or their kids going to a normal school! So why make such a big fuss about moving back?? I mean these guys do come back with the option of leaving whenever they feel like…..
The challenge is for other folks, the ones that are not overtly successful are not citizens or have not made tons of money; Folks who do not have a back up plan! I mean if someone like that could write a memoir it would be a good book to compare with this one.
I am not saying I hate the book, I mean I did read it cover to cover – it’s just that I don’t agree with many of the thoughts expressed and I feel it does not express the thoughts and emotions of a common immigrants. This book sticks to the emotions of the more privileged prodigal sons and daughters…I would recommend the book for some good writing (after all the author is a Pulitzer prize winner) and some honest rambling.