Henna for the Broken-Hearted by Sharell Cook

I am an occasional silent reader at Sharell Cook’s blog, and when I found out that she had written a book, it came onto my wish list. A few weeks ago, I managed to lay my hands on the book.

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How far would you go to change your life?

Sharell Cook is 30 years old and living a privileged life in Melbourne’s wealthy suburbs. She has it all: the childhood-sweetheart husband, the high-powered job and plenty of cash to splash.

And it’s not destined to last. Sharell finds herself in a broken marriage, and everything she had taken for granted seems to have changed. Impulsively, she decides to take a break and go to India to do some volunteer work for a few months. Living in Calcutta, a life which was totally different from the time she traveled in India with her ex-husband as a tourist, Sharell grapples with life in India, the frustrations and joys, the unexpected and the normal. She also meets her future husband in India. Reading her book, you start to believe in destiny taking you where you belong.

The book is her memoir of her time in India, the way it changed her, and the way she now leads the urban life of a white Indian housewife. Her journey from what she was, to what she becomes, as she lives in a different culture, which she accepts so open-heartedly. Her transformation, as she calls it. Some of things which even, us, Indians would balk at, she calmly accepts and lives with them. It was fresh take, devoid of the stereotypes one would expect, and without any undue glorification of India either. She writes it as it is, and that in itself is very refreshing.

I loved reading her experiences in India, as she travels through India, lives in various parts, lives a life which is different at the same time, similar to locals. Washing clothes by hand, living through water shortages, temperamental landlords, nosy neighbours, part and parcel of middle class living in India, and accepting it all in a very matter of fact way. I absolutely love her attitude.

What really stands out is the risks she takes, probably because all that she considered familiar had changed after the breakdown of her marriage. The risks she takes in coming back to India, living with the man she would later marry, and her willingness to make the most of her situation, to accept what life has in store for her. It’s not something what most of us would find easy to do. And her attitude towards the changes in her life. Her open-hearted acceptance of the confusion that India can be, and her willingness to be a part of it all.

She literally taker us on her journey, through India, with the wonderful companionship she shares with her husband, and their adventures of various kinds. Living in different parts of India, until they reach the place they end up settling down in – Mumbai. Her husband’s family comes across as such wonderful people, accepting her a part of their family, and doing what it took to get her comfortable. The wonderful bond that she shares with them comes out loud and clear in the book.

If I had to describe the book in a few words, it would – honest and captivating. She keeps the pages turning, you want to know more, and you actually feel sad when it ends. A book I would definitely recommend.

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.