In this intimate and remarkably candid memoir, Shoba Narayan the author of Mansoon Diary, records her dilemma-ridden life as an immigrant straddling two culture
From the exhilarating thrill of being a naive newcomer in America, to becoming a proud US citizen, to grappling with immigrant parenting challenges, she offers an intense yet humorous insight into 'hyphenated identities' and the shared dream of the Indian diaspora to return to their homeland. And as the countdown begins to her family's relocation to India, she shows how the journey back can be more complicated than anyone imagines. Vivid and eloquent, Return to India is a powerful reflection on a country lost, and then found, by a writer of exceptional talent.
Shoba Narayan is a noted memoir writer and columnist based in Bangalore. She has won the MFK Fisher award for Distinguished Writing and was awarded a Pulitzer Fellowship at Columbia University's School of Journalism. Her first book, Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes was published in 2004 to wide international acclaim. She writes a weekly column, 'The Good Life', for Mint Lounge and contributes features to Conde Nast Traveler, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Time, Newsweek and The Financial Times.
Return to India is a topic that consumed me for about ten years. I was living in New York at that time, part of a community of Indians, all of whom were in the midst of this conflict. This book is written for them: for the Indian diaspora in America, the UK, Singapore and elsewhere, who wrestle with the 'R2I' question. This book is also written for another set of Indians- students in Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Chandigarh, Coimbatore, and countless other Indian cities; men and women who are young and ambitious, and cannot wait to leave their homeland for foreign shores. I used to be one of them. I want to tell them what it's like on the other side. I began writing this in New York ten years ago and finished it in Bangalore. If, at times, this book sounds like it was written for an NRI audience, it is because it was-at least in the beginning.
This is a book about an immigrant's dilemma, written by an immigrant for an immigrant. It is about my dream of returning to the homeland. Other Indians share this dream too-most recently, Bollywood diva Madhuri Dixit, and her family-and perhaps all immigrants fantasize about riding back home on gilded horses with gold coins, to the sound of applause from adoring families. They may do nothing about this dream; they may not speak of it. Some, eventually, disdain or discard it. But for others, it festers at the back of their minds, rearing its head at random moments, till-as it did for me-it becomes an obsession. Go back home, go back home-and like in the film, ET, we say-home ... home...
Home: a word filled with loss and longing. Snatches of music bring to mind a mother's song. Smells in restaurants conjure up a kitchen back home. A face in a crowd looks like a relative. Birthdays, anniversaries and other milestones bring guilty reminders of ageing parents and the relentless march of time. A tug of war between two cultures-New York or New Delhi, San Francisco or Santo Domingo, Toledo or Taipei. A competition between countries with no clear winner; a championship game for the title of 'Home'.
When I was an immigrant in America, 'home' for me was a melange of memories that had softened with time into a happy haze, like an Impressionist painting. There were people in this painting: iconic figures like my grandmother, dead and gone long enough to be elevated to the status of a benevolent ancestor. There were others who remained like my parents, in-laws, aunts and uncles, slowed by age but resolute nonetheless, with laugh lines and worry-warts marking a life lived with character and charm, wit and wisdom. There were physical places and wide open spaces. Most delightful of all were the scents and tastes of childhood-the fragrance of blooming night jasmine, dew wobbling on a lotus leaf, tinkling cowbells, shrieking parrots, the taste of cilantro, cumin and ginger-all of which imbued me with a powerful longing for the land that is called India, but which I call home.
My own relationship with the two countries I have called 'home' is complicated. My love for India is one that a child feels for her mother, albeit a chaotic, unwieldy, harassed mother who doles out exuberant affection and unpleasant surprises in equal measure. My admiration for America is what one feels for a perfect, if emotionally detached, father-part hero-worship, part reproach. I respect many things about America, and therefore hold it to very high standards. I expect it to be more moral and more just than other nations. When it perpetrates or even tolerates injustice, I am crushed. Because I put America on a pedestal, it sometimes falls short. Because I take India for granted, it sometimes surprises me pleasantly. India's unchanging ways frustrate me. America's impenetrable core flummoxes me. I can't escape India, but America sometimes escapes me.
The problem for immigrants like me is that we are equally at ease in two disparate cultures and, therefore, fit into neither. We belong to both countries, yet choose neither. Most of us end up in a no-man's-land, neither here nor there, in an angst-filled limbo. We remain immigrants forever, unlike our forefathers who swore allegiance to one nation due to political or economic repression.
In generations past, life in the old country was a struggle. Immigrants to America were fleeing revolutions that stripped them of title and property, and threatened their life and liberty. They were the pregnant women who threw themselves on boats, willing to submit to raging seas and the risk of drowning, just so that they were afforded the opportunity to be rescued by the US coastguard-and their babies, the right of US citizenship. They were the desperate refugees who begged, borrowed and paid their entire life savings to visa agents, only to be told that they should flush all their papers down the airline toilet and land in America uttering two words, 'Political asylum'.
My path to America did not involve anything as drastic as jumping fences, crossing borders in the middle of the night, or overstaying a tourist visa and slipping into the shadow world of illegal immigrants for years on end. Mine is not a tale populated by bloodthirsty dictators, rampant epidemics, boat people, barking dogs and blood-smeared fences. I am neither a political exile nor an economic refugee. I went to America merely as a student seeking opportunities. Yet, I believe that my journey is emblematic of countless others. My dilemmas reflect those of many an immigrant today.
What is home anyway? Is it a place, a person, or merely a fleeting memory? Can one ever go back home, or is such a trip fraught with disappointment? I didn't know the answers when I began asking these questions and, perhaps, there is no one answer to questions so individual. Along the way, I found no universal truth, no personal path to salvation. But in the meantime, I discovered many things-about life and loss, about risking it all and making do, and about my place in the world.
This is what I found out. This is my journey.
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