Return to India by Shoba Narayan

Shoba Narayan’s memoir of her family’s Return to India process, after living in the US for about 20 years. I knew I had to read to read it as soon as I came across it. To add to it, Smita, heavily recommended it on one of my posts. I just had to get hold of it.

Shoba charts her journey from the time she first started to dream about going to America. Her parents are horrified at the idea, and try everything to stop her. Fate, finally, had it’s way, and she made her way to America as a student, with stars in her eyes, all set to live the American dream.

America gave her opportunities that she had dreamed about. She had come to America to pursue a master’s degree in psychology, but ended up a full-fledged art major trying to do a master’s in sculpture, For Shoba, this was the essence of America’s opportunities.

As Shoba immersed herself in America, she also develops close friendships with her fellow Indian students as well as her American friends. Living her new life, the experiences of being a student on grant in America, studying subjects that excited her, finding funding and help in the most unexpected places, washing dishes to make some money, Shoba is content. Somewhere down the line, she gets married – a traditional, arranged marriage to Ram.

From her happy existence in America, her perspective on living in America starts changing after she became a mother. She slowly started thinking about the ‘India Question’, with more and more of her friends and people around her talking seriously about moving back to India. The country that she had fought to leave, was now, beckoning to her. The culture and society that she had once tried to avoid, was the one she started trying very hard to inculcate in her daughter. There are some hilarious episodes mentioned of how hard she tried to make her daughter ‘Indian’. She calls herself a ‘born again Hindu’, when she drags her family to the temple, she had never before visited, or tried to wear a sari the whole day, for a month, just to make it familiar to her daughter. In her own way, trying to bring India or being Indian, closer to her American born and bred daughter.

While she was passionate about moving back, her husband Ram, was more resistant to the idea. He was less bothered about the parenting worries that Shoba had. She was quite worried about how to parent her daughter, the American influences worrying her tremendously, while her husband believed that with the right values, their daughter would be fine anywhere. They had their discussions, their disagreements, and their concurrence on the ‘India Question’. Finally, after a few years, things fell into place and they did indeed move to India.

So, how did I find it? I really enjoyed her perspective on life in America(or abroad anywhere, for that matter). Her observations of how people behave, some reject India completely, while others become born again Indians. The way she herself changed after her daughter was born, is quite interesting to read. In some places cliched – just the way, we have heard of NRIs behaving, and in some places interesting.

When I started reading this, I couldn’t help wonder if I would find similarities in my situation with what she recounts, but I have to say, her situation, and her reasons for moving back were quite different, so I did not really relate to her story much. It was just reading her story than reading a story that I could totally relate to. Probably because we had not lived abroad for so long, nor had we ever planned to live abroad. Returning to India was a given for us, rather than a ‘question’. Also parenting worries of the sort she had, somehow, does not bother me. Influences of all sorts, would be there in any society, in my opinion. My daughter’s childhood cannot be exactly the same as mine, even if I went back to the town I grew up in, and did everything my parents did. But that is entirely my opinion.

An interesting read, in some places very cliched, but pacy and gripping all the same. The way her priorities changed over the years with changes in her circumstances is very interesting to read. I would recommend it to anybody who likes memoirs although I think I enjoyed her first book – Monsoon Diary more. Would I recommend it to someone who is relocating/planning to relocate to India? I don’t know. Mainly because I could not relate to it at all, but perhaps if you are in a similar situation as her’s you might relate and enjoy it much more. Other than that, as a memoir, it is an interesting read.

Why every little helps..

Deeps’ post and this post on Women’s Web prompts me to write on this subject again.

A lot of times when I start discussing the topic of the condition of girls in India, I get that ‘There she goes again on her feminist track’. The thing is,whatever I say, I feel that it is not enough. It will never be enough – until the date that people stop this yearning for a boy. It will not be enough until people stop treating girls as the unwanted sex. Until a girl child is welcomed just as much as a boy child is. Until people stop saying things like, ‘Pehla bacha ladka ho to santhusthi hai’ – this was said to a friend of mine.

How will mere words help, people ask. Well, I think, words help in its own way.

For one, some people accept it as part of culture. Having seen the boy child preference practiced all around, they take it for granted. They assume that it is normal for grandparents to love grandsons more than granddaughter(I have come across people claiming this- educated people, by the way). So when they hear/read people talking about the injustice, and the why it is so wrong to shun a girl child, they might turn a deaf ear initially, but slowly, I think it will make a difference. One of the people, who used to loudly proclaim how her son was the favourite of his grandparents, has now toned it down. She is now careful not to mention things like that in public again. Probably after she realized that not everybody thinks this way. Hopefully her thinking might have changed too.

I have seen this happen right in front of me. While people might not change their thinking right away, they might start to understand that culture is not a justification for everything.

The same goes for dowry. The more people talk about it, shame it, publicly, and stop treating it as part of our ‘culture’, the more likely it is to die away as a custom.

I am so vocal about this, that nobody in my friends/acquaintance circle dares tell me to have another child to have a boy. Somebody I know told a friend of mine to try again, maybe this time she might have a boy. Only to be told on her face, that she doesn’t care if she has a boy or not – she is happy with her daughter. That was the end of it.

Will all this talking make any real difference. I think it will. I think it makes people think – even if it goes against what they have always seen. And even if one person rethinks what they have grown up with, it makes a difference, don’t you think? At the very least, they might think before speaking in front of vocal people like us, some may remember not to let subconscious discrimination enter their actions, some might go even further.. From the place that we are at – any progress is better than no progress, wouldn’t you agree?

Relocating back to India..

.. and the cultural baggage that comes with it.

IHM’s latest post triggered this, but the ‘going back to Indian culture’ bit, I keep getting from people around here. We are relocating back to India this summer, and the most common conclusion that people jump to, is, that we are relocating because of daughter – so that she gets inculcated in ‘Indian values’.

We have some reasons to relocate to India, but daughter’s cultural well being, is definitely not on that list. If anything I worry if it is the best decision for her. In fact, I think for her, UK might be a better place to grow up in. The other day, I went to watch ‘Ek main aur ek tu’ with some friends. One of my friends remarked that it is going to be so difficult to bring up daughters when movies promote having boyfriends,sex and all that. She claims that it is easier in India -because of the ‘culture’. I couldn’t help asking her if she really thought that all this does not happen in India? Yes, people might keep things under the wraps – but it does happen. Just because parents refuse to acknowledge it, does not mean that things don’t happen. Yes, it is out in the open in the Western world – but as a parent, wouldn’t you prefer that you know what your child is up to, rather than live in blissful ignorance. And hopefully, she/he might be able to take you into confidence, and you might be able to explain why getting into a relationship at that time in life may not be the best thing.

Someone once told me that it is easier to ‘stay in touch with India’ than it was some years back because we get all the Indian channels here. She lets her child watch Indian serials so that she is comfortable with ‘Indian values’. Yes, those saas-bahu serials, those are just perfect, totally appropriate for 4 or 5 year old! Nice way of inculcating ‘values’, I should say! And what glorious values too!

One of daughter’s friends told her that they are learning Bharatanatyam to learn how to be ‘good Indian girls’. I was shocked when I heard that. I then explained to her that she is learning it because she enjoys it – not because learning a dance makes you a ‘good Indian girl’! Whatever that means, anyway! I had no ideas that there were such parameters to measure the ‘goodness’ of Indian girls!

But living here, I can see the tightrope some parents are walking, They want to do everything to prove that their children are as ‘Indian’ as people back in India. They live in dread that their children will compare unfavorably to cousins/friends back in India. So much so that they compare everything from cultural values(that they believe matters), to the education system. They also refuse to believe that India has moved on since the last time they visited.

They refuse to believe that in India we might face different challenges and sometimes the same challenges. Of a teenage child rebelling, of children testing their boundaries. At the end of the day, it is going to be the test of our parenting skills, no matter where we live.

When I see the way daughter is growing up here, as a confident person, who is never told that she is different because she is a girl, exposed to age appropriate things – I sometimes, wonder if I am doing the right thing, by moving back. Of course, there are other compelling reasons to move back, and I do believe that she will be fine, even if we have some initial hiccups. One thing is for sure, it is not because of the ‘cultural benefits’ that we are moving back.

All I know is that I want her to be a confident young woman, who is in a position to decide for herself what she wants in life. That I believe would be the same, no matter where I live. I certainly do not want her to be a puppet who does things because they are expected of her. I want her to know that any relationship she gets into, she should be happy and that she need not be a doormat to be happy. That any relationship that expects her to change into some other person, is probably not right for her. That things change, and if one has to walk out of a relationship, it is not the end of the world. And that no matter what, her parents will be there for her. And these things, I think, should not change, no matter which part of the world we live in.

The Bad, Bad West!

If I had a penny for the times I have heard people blaming every single problem on the West, I would be a millionaire!

Starting from credit cards, teenage mothers to joint families breaking up – blame the West. Every culture has its own drawbacks and its own positives. Surely, our culture has its own problems. Why be so blind to those and blame just the West.

People talk about credit cards as if they are the most evil invention in the world. To be honest, I use credit cards, and have not paid interest even once. It is a great convenience, helps in so many ways. I don’t have to carry cash everywhere. And my card also gives my cash back. Just as any tool, it can be used in both –  responsible and irresponsible ways. So why blame the poor credit card for all the problems? Then again I wonder, why people in the wonderful east are so bothered? After all, our culture is the one which has ‘so much to teach the West’. Surely we should be the ones to show the Evil West, how their evil inventions can be used so well rather than shunning them?

Western culture breaking up joint families is another thing we get to hear so much. I can’t help wonder if some people are blind(and deaf as well). While joint families might work for some, it just might not for others. Why does it have to be the norm? Can’t people decide what works for them, without being condemned for it, or being told off for aping the West?

Credit cards are just another form of loans, aren’t they? Money lenders have been part of every culture in this world, I believe. Haven’t we all heard stories with money lenders in them? What was so different about them? They lent money, and charged people for it. In case of credit cards, we don’t incur charges, unless we don’t payoff the money in time. Loans are much worse – then, again, loans are not really a western thing, is it? I grew up in a time where credit cards were unheard of. Yet, I have heard of people making unwise financial decisions and facing a tough time. So who was to be blamed then?

As for teenage motherhood, IHM has said everything about it here. And anyway, after living here for 8 years, I am yet to meet those teenage mothers we hear so much about in India. Where, where are they all hiding? Poor me, I expected to see them at every corner!

Nothing about the west goes without being blamed. I have heard people saying that schools are useless in the West. Imagine my surprise when I find wonderful schools, where children do learn a lot- contrary to what I had heard!

And then of course, there is the convenience factor. The West believes in convenience, while we, we believe in hardship – even where it is not required. I can’t figure out what is wrong with convenience? One lady told how it is going to be very easy for her to relocate to India because she does not even use the microwave(as opposed to people like me who like to use conveniences, you see). Somebody, please tell her that we do get have things like microwaves in India 🙂 Of course, it is sacrilege to use conveniences, Indian food has to be cooked the way to was cooked 500 years ago, for it to be authentic, you see. No ovens, no food processors, no microwaves – all influences of the evil west. Only lazy people use conveniences, and of course the west is full of lazy people, who do not look after their children, or cook proper meals. Funny, isn’t it, especially when some of these people are happy to be living abroad, while pretending to look down on all aspects of the West.

Parenting in the West is another topic that I am too afraid to even get into. It will take me a whole post, and some more to talk through that.

We are returning back to India next year. I get two reactions. One, talking about how great a decision it is, how my child would be saved from the evil influence of the West, and the great things about living in our culture. The other one is about how difficult it is going to be. How everything is bound to be bleak, and how we might regret it.

The truth will probably be somewhere in the middle. Yes, we might love it there, but might face some new challenges. Some aspects of living in India might delight us, while some might take some adjusting to. Yes, we might miss some conveniences that we have here, but might love other conveniences there. Just the way it was, when we first moved here.

One thing I wish I could tell such people is that people make bad financial decisions every where, people are lazy in every culture, things go wrong even in families who have had no western influence whatsoever. We are all humans, after all. we make mistakes, we may or may not learn from them. No culture is perfect, and no culture is totally imperfect. We all have our imperfections, and our strong points. If only we could pick the positives, learn to adapt and balance our lives, and live life the way it works for us.

PS: On a side note, I just completed reading ‘Growing Up Osama’ by Jean Sasson. It is about Omar Bin Laden, Osama’s fourth born son, and his first wife Najwa Ghanem Bin Laden’s memories of their life with him. One of the things that came to mind while writing this post was that Bin Laden had a similar phobia of all things Western. He believed that Westernization was the cause of evil, and forbade his family from using basic things like the refrigerator – in places like Saudi Arabia and Sudan! It is a fascinating book.