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Hyphenated Existence

Book Review: Return to India


KS NARAYANAN | New Delhi, November 3, 2012 13:35
Tags : return to india | shobha narayanan rupa | hard bound | |

Many a times, we have seen our more enlightened sibling, cousin or friend going through the grind of GMAT or GRE, TOFEL; standing in long queues outside the American Embassy or consulates across India and making arrangements for difficult to get scholarships – all to live the American dream. They would fly away to that land of Coca-Cola, Mickey Mouse, Harrison Ford and most importantly, of opportunities – to experiment with their lives and freedom from home-made shackles, tradition and red-tapism.

Shoba Narayan, the noted writer and columnist comes up with an intimate and remarkably candid memoir, Return to India, of dreaming about the America, living that dream and the dilemma of an immigrant straddling two cultures. She tells us a poignant story about love, family, identity and her search for a place to call home.

Recalling memories of her journey, Shoba also narrates stories of her friends like Zahid Khan, a Czar of Derivatives and his continued Americanisation and how Mallikarjuna Raghavendra Rao alias Midnight turns into Mallik Patel to get his American-born wife Nina Patel’s relatives to invest and to stay invested and so on...

In that sense, it is a book about an immigrant’s dilemma, written by an immigrant for an immigrant, and Shoba’s own dream of returning to her homeland. “My journey is emblematic of countless others. My dilemmas reflect those of many an immigrant today,” Shoba observes.

Shobha’s obsession with America grew when she, as a young girl, was exposed to cartoons, music, movies and of course to tales of Archie, Betty and Veronica. When she began to seriously dream about being in America, it forced her father to cancel the subscription to Archie comics and Mad Magazine and instead bring home sacks of Amar Chitra Katha, to teach her about the Indian culture and Hindu gods. Shoba’s mother, who lost one of her brothers to an accident in that distant land, tried to remedy her daughter’s obsession by pouring a bucket of water over her head, as if exorcising an evil spirit.

Acclaimed writer that she is, Shoba has packed the book with wit and wisdom and several anecdotes to keep the reader riveted till the end.
For instance, she tells us how eunuchs in Chennai get to know of her admission to US universities; how she learnt that “sorry” is not synonymous with pardon from the International Students Association and to pass out means to lose consciousness and not graduate from college; how she relished a care packet sent by grandmother and so on.

Shoba too craved for it the ultimate license to live the dream – the Green Card.  But when it arrived, the author who had just been married, trashed it into a neighbourhood dump thinking it was junk mail. Her husband Ram, whom the author has portrayed as far more logical and practical than her, took Shoba “to a fancy Italian restaurant, with candlelight, serenading musicians and champagne” to celebrate the event. As they walk home, Ram enquires about the Green Card and only then does the couple realise their faux pas. They finally found it in a yellow envelope after rummaging through bags of trash, flashlights in hand!

Later, blessed with a baby, Shoba faced her first challenge as a parent in America – naming her daughter. She liked ‘Sheila’ but her brother Shyam, a naval captain and later a Wharton Business School graduate found it to be nonsense. “If Americans can pronounce Witold Rybczynski and Arnold Schwarzenegger, they can certainly say Ranjini”, Shyam drills it into his sister.

Before gaining her admission into Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts, Shoba in her twenties was hell bent to leave India for America. “India is a hard country to love and at 20, I had little use for it. It wasn’t that I hated it with all my heart – my feelings were not so intense... I was fed up with the rules and conventions that dictated social behaviour”.

But 17 years after living in America, and after the birth of her second daughter Malini, Shoba was eager to go back to India. But then, the dilemma grippes her once again and she frantically prepares dozens of arguments, both for and against leaving the US. Finally, when her husband gets a posting as the head of Emerging Markets in Singapore, nearer home, she actually finds herself wanting to slow the clock down and remain in the US just a while longer.

What makes the book  a good read is that the journalist in Shoba has peppered it with quotes, conversations and observations over 269 pages. Last but not the least, the cover of book that bears the imprint of an airmail envelope is apt for such a voyage of discovery of an immigrant and a million others. 


Homesick blues

Shoba Narayan, in an e-mail interview, says her book addresses the set of immigrants who feel like Trishanku – not willing to give up India but unable to make their peace with America either. A Sequel to her latest Return to India is also in the pipelines, she says


Isn’t America still a dream for many Indians?
It is. And I am not against Indians going to America. I am merely pointing out a reality that most giddy-eyed students do not realise when they long for a new land.  A land of dreams at that.

Does the American dream turn into a self imposed exile for Indian immigrants after a point, when you have experimented enough or done well?                                                                                                                         
For the vast majority, yes. Some make their peace with living in a foreign land. Others revel in their new country and do not want to return at all. This book addresses the third group, which is like Trishanku – not willing to give up India but unable to make their peace with America either.

Given that the entire world has shrunk into one global village, shouldn’t straddling two cultures be less difficult for immigrants in the US, UK or Singapore?
No matter how global, cable television will never replace a hastily dictated recipe for rasam by your mother. It can never replace the SOS phone call that young women (and men) place during festivals to ask for how to make a particular dish. It is that visceral connection to home and hearth that you miss. It is an emotional – not a rational thing.

Your daughters were too young when you left for Singapore from the US and came closer to home. If your children were grown up, do you think the decision to return India would have been a little difficult?
It would have been more complicated.

How did your parents, husband, two daughters and friends in the book react to the stories in it?
I showed my father and father-in-law the book before publication. They all gave their blessing to the stories.  It is tough if you are part of the family of a memoir writer like me because I end up “using” all these people to tell stories.  Now, they have gotten used to it.

You have listed dozen reasons each for people who dream and want to go to America as well as people who want to move back to India.
But in the end, it is not the pros and cons that make you decide. It is an emotional tug that you are unable to free yourself from.

For millions of Indian immigrants, Return to India reflects their own dilemma – whether to continue in the land of opportunities or pay heed to their dreams of returning back to their homeland. In that light, how well has it done so far?
My publishers tell me that the book is doing really well. For me, it is the emails I get from readers who say exactly what you said above – that the book reflects their story; that reading the book is like reading their own thoughts – it is very gratifying to hear.

Is it being translated in other Indian languages?
I would love for it to be translated, but am not sure how to go about it. Rupa is not doing it.

Was writing Return to India a natural progression after Monsoon Diary?
Yes. Although I did not plan this, I find that I am comfortable writing memoirs.

Even as you are busy writing for several global publications, what is going to be the topic of your next book?
I am working on a novel; and a sequel to this book.


Author's Website








Author:  Shoba Narayan

Edition: Hard Bound

ISBN:  978-81-2911928-5

Pages: 269

Price: Rs. 395

Publisher: Rupa

Category: Memoir

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017