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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 25, Dated 23 June 2012
    Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

    The Examined Life

    In frank prose, the academic Padma Desai traces the arc of her meteoric career and sometimes rocky relationships, finds Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

    Padma Desai

    Such a long journey Desai in a file


    Reading The Crisis

    A Family Portrait

    An Indian Woman’s American Journey

    Breaking Out: An Indian Woman’s American Journey
    Padma Desai
    240 pp; 499

    WITHIN MINUTES of beginning, Padma Desai’s memoir Breaking Out: An Indian Woman’s American Journey, I was pleasantly struck by the writer’s intelligence and honesty — characteristics that I believe are crucial to the creation of worthwhile memoirs. I wasn’t surprised. Desai is, after all, a world-class economist, a formidable authority on Russia. Now in her 80s, settled in her long-term marriage with another famous economist, Jagdish Bhagwati, there’s little in her life that she would feel the need to hide. As I went on, I enjoyed her humour, ranging from gentle to astringent, and her literary erudition, a gift from her father, who was a professor of English. (The book is filled with scores of well-chosen quotations that throw light on situations and emotions, such as these lines from Sappho, with which Desai describes her daughter: “like a golden/flower/I wouldn’t/take all Croesus’/kingdom with love/thrown in, for her.”)

    But I wasn’t prepared for her openness which allows her to discuss matter-of-factly thorny issues such as her seduction by the man who later became her first husband and gave her gonorrhea; her unsentimental yet deeply felt recollection of the tragedies and joys of her life, from her decades-long effort to get a divorce to her unconditional love for Jagdish and her daughter Anuradha; her clear-eyed analysis of her own decisions, including that of converting to Christianity in the hopes of getting a divorce, and ultimately her courageous dedication to truth even if it reflected negatively on her or her dear ones. These are the qualities that make this book worth reading.

    Desai, who came to Harvard on a scholarship in 1955, arrived in America well before the immigration wave that began in the mid-1960s. It was a time when Indian women were rare in America, and her experiences thus have an additional historic interest. “I was clearly different,” she writes, with what some may define as politically incorrect pleasure, “an exotic creature from the far side of the planet.” There were advantages to this: the dean of Radcliffe College invited her to dinner at her home as a visiting Indian; male college mates offered comments like “You should be in Hollywood”; newspaper reporters came to campus to photograph this diminutive, sari-clad being teaching tall, suitedand- booted Harvard undergraduates. If there was racism, Desai, who tends to view her privileged American experience through somewhat rosy lenses, glosses over them and focusses on the ways in which her Harvard experience was a “magical awakening”. This perhaps is the one shortcoming of this book. Desai (who admits that she is more comfortable in America than India) credits American culture for all her successes, claiming that only because of immersion in it was she able to grow into “a sovereign self”.

    I don’t want to ruin the reader’s pleasure in Desai’s compelling and often surprising narrative by summarising it, so I will focus on a few highlights. Desai’s family left an indelible and not always positive mark on her psyche. Much of the book focusses on her father, mother, and widow aunt, Kaki. Desai’s love for Kaki, who is marginalised by her widowhood, is particularly strong. She dedicates the book to her (“In memory of Kaki, who endured”). Two sentences stand out particularly in her musings on this aunt. “When I look at her picture, I see in her face Hinduism’s timeless repression of women in her situation.” And “Ultimately she helped me master the art of losing.” Perhaps it is Desai’s sympathy for Kaki that makes her into a feminist, determined to run her own life.

    Desai’s mother, whom she describes as “fair beyond compare”, was a manic depressive (but undiagnosed at that time), with mood swings that were terrifying to her children; Desai sometimes fears she has inherited her depressive tendencies.

    Her openness and dedication to truth, even if it reflected negatively on her dear ones, are the qualities that make this book worth reading

    Desai’s relationship with her father was a particularly stormy one. She adored him but they often clashed because of his strict views on women’s upbringing. She hungered for praise, which he wasn’t able to give her. When in her matriculation exam she missed being number one by two marks (among 48,000 candidates), he remarked, “You are wearing a crown of thorns.” “No pre dicament in life is sadder,” Desai writes, “than for a girl to be... engaged in a struggle to win her father’s approval, to help her step outside the confines of enforced domesticity. Growing up, I felt like a fish swimming upstream.”

    Desai’s life is redeemed, however, by the love of her colleague Jagdish, who stands by her through the toughest times. Their relationship is special and charming, and shot through with humour. (Quoting Elizabeth Bishop, she calls him “the Joker in my pack”). I’ll end with Desai’s description of a domestic moment that underlines the renowned economist’s helplessness in the kitchen as well as their unconventional lives: “[He] ‘Darling, when do I know the water is boiling?’

    [She] ‘Darling, when it looks like champagne!’” Divakaruni is the award-winning author of The Mistress of Spices and The Palace of Illusions

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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 25, Dated 23 June 2012



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