Breaking Out is a book that will resonate with many talented Indian women who are ambitious enough to dream big. Set in India in the 1940s and thereafter, the book is economist Padma Desai’s chronicle of her evolution, indeed, escape from tragic personal circumstances, to become an internationally recognised economist. Academically brilliant, Ms Desai moved in the 1950s from Surat, where she was born, to Bombay University on a full scholarship. Duped into a relationship for which her serious, academic self was ill-prepared, Ms Desai was forced by her parents – in turn, products of their own milieu – into a marriage that settled like a cloud over her for decades. While married, she won a scholarship to Harvard, where she completed her doctorate, acquainting herself with, and acquiring, several American perspectives in the process. One of these was to seek a divorce, easier wished than done in India in the 1960s. Along the way she was fortunate enough to find love, with economist Jagdish Bhagwati, whom she married after an excruciatingly long wait for divorce, which nevertheless eluded her; it was the imaginative use of American-Mexican laws that enabled them to marry.
The experience, which singed Ms Desai, arguably forms the vein of this book. The memoir is her way of coming to terms with her personal relationships: her parents, a loving aunt, her husband and daughter. Most of them – especially her parents and her widowed aunt – are appraised from not just a different point in time but also cultural change. Guilt haunts her to this day over the secondary position that her much-loved aunt occupied within her parental household. There is a sharp and detailed recollection of her growing-up years, interwoven with numerous forays into detailed discussions of caste and sub-castes, gender and widowhood; flowers, trees, hot summer skies and classical music; religion, illnesses and thirst for knowledge; a passion for studying and to excel. All these criss-cross throughout to absorb the reader, who needn’t necessarily be Indian to enjoy this. There is the magic of Harvard, which offered her, apart from academic opportunities, much solace from the disturbances preceding her departure from India. There is the most painful account of her efforts to get a divorce, including a religious conversion to Christianity, in an attempt to get away from her first marriage.
She is a gifted writer with prowess to evoke. Those of us who have heard Jagdish Bhagwati at lectures, seminars or even on television can feel the pulse of his personality as described by his wife. And those who grew up in small towns will feel the vibrations of Ms Desai’s growing-up years; this reviewer was transported back to the hot summer skies of her own childhood in a small town in Rajasthan, altogether not so different from Ms Desai’s in Gujarat. Female readers, particularly those with a rebellious streak, will identify even more with the subtle and overt discriminations practised within the Indian household and outside it; these overwhelmed her. And academics who returned to teach in India will recognise that yearning to return — not simply abroad, but to an altogether different academic environment that nurtures and makes you blossom, even as it is ruthless in its exactitude.
The recollections are also a base from which Ms Desai compares and contrasts Indian and American cultures, values, institutions, religiosity, society and many other things. In her account of her mother, for instance, Ms Desai suggests she might be a consumer advocate had she been born in America. At another place is a thought-provoking comparison between cremation and burial from the standpoint of revisiting the dead: does the absence of a grave in the former preclude memories and remembrance? On balance, she prefers the country of her adoption, America; understandably so, for which Indian woman held back by traditions and circumstances wouldn’t want such a trade-off? And many of us who studied abroad to return will surely agree with her assessment of the lack of day-to-day challenge and non-merit driven environment that characterise universities and most professions in India to this day. Yet she remains quintessentially Indian, unable to shed her love for cricket in favour of American football and baseball!
One is not sure, though, whether one agrees with her when she says she couldn’t have written this account – break out, as it were – had she continued to live in India. Personally, maybe yes, but such a retrospective feeling would possibly echo amongst many readers and society in general in today’s India, not seeming out of place. One also wonders about the counterfactual: would she have achieved as much had her personal circumstances not been so? Difficulties and obstructions will sometimes push an individual to direct all energies in one direction, often to excel; being pushed to the wall will occasionally bring out the latent potential in others; and sorrow may lead some to escape by getting absorbed. A book that challenges you to think of endless such possibilities is worth reading.
An Indian Woman’s American Journey
Penguin Books India (Viking)
222 pages; Rs499
The reviewer is a New Delhi-based macroeconomist; she is a former staff member of the International Monetary Fund and the Reserve Bank of India