About the Author
Padma Desai grew up in the 1930s in the provincial world of Surat where she had a sheltered and strict upbringing in a traditional Gujarati Anavil Brahmin family. Her academic brilliance won her a scholarship to Bombay University, where the first heady taste of freedom in the big city led to tragic consequences-seduction by a fellow student whom she was then compelled to marry. In a failed attempt to end this disastrous first marriage, she converted to Christianity.
A scholarship to America in 1955 launched her on her long journey to liberation from the burdens and constraints of her life in India, with a growing self-awareness and transformation at many levels, as she made a new life for herself, met and married the celebrated economist Jagdish Bhagwati, became a mother, and rose to academic eminence at Harvard and Columbia.
How did she navigate the tumultuous road to assimilation in American society and culture? And what did she retain of her Indian upbringing in the process? This brave and moving memoir- written with a novelist’s skill at evoking personalities, places and atmosphere, and a scholar’s insights into culture and society, community and family-tells a compelling and thought-provoking human story that will resonate with readers everywhere.
Padma Desai is the Gladys and Roland Harriman Professor of Comparative Economic Systems and director of the Center for Transition Economies at Columbia University. New York. A leading scholar of the Russian economy, her publications include Conversations on Russia: Reform from Yeltsin to Putin (2006), which was the Financial Times’ Pick of the Year in 2007. Her most recent book, on the current economic crisis, is From Financial Crisis to Global Recovery (2011). She is married to the economist Jagdish Bhagwati. Her awards include the Padma Bhushan and an honorary doctorate from Middlebury College, USA.
When I came to America more than half a century ago as a student, I did not know what lay ahead of me, nor did I plan my stay as a one-way trip. As my American journey has unfolded, I have left behind the uncertainties and the fears I had brought with me as part of my Indian upbringing. I realized I was in a different environment. I felt freer, less encumbered by countless traditional rules, relaxed in my relationship with people, and in charge of my daily routine. My American world was less intrusive. It implied that I did not need to be unduly assertive or secretive. I was gradually stepping out of captivity. ‘The best way out is always through’ in the words of Robert Frost. I have indeed broken out.
Assimilation in America is a tumultuous process for someone who comes from a totally different world. In the early days, I tended to judge American situations in terms of Indian norms and practices. At the end of five decades, I am instead an unhappy stranger in the land of my birth during brief family visits. This book tells the story of my transformation in the intervening years as I reacted to surprising discoveries and battled unexpected challenges, first as a graduate student at Harvard, then as a professor at Columbia, ultimately emerging as a scholar of Russia. The process became arduous because of grievous events in my Indian past which I could not change. Ultimately I feel freer and happier here than if I had chosen to remain in India or settled somewhere else. Benjamin Franklin once remarked that ‘in England, [I am] too much an American, and in America ... too much an Englishman’. My predicament is asymmetrical. In India, I feel too much an American. In America, no longer an Indian.
This is not a complete story. I have excluded some events and omitted a few names and perhaps made mistakes in dates but I have narrated the facts as I remember them. I believe, in the fashion of Rousseau’s Confessions, that I have not been ‘wrong about what I have felt, or about what my feelings have led me to do; and these are the chief subjects of my story’.
I was born in 1931 in Surat, then a provincial town of shopkeepers situated north of Bombay (now Mumbai) at the mouth of the river Tapti (now Tapi) on ‘the spicy shore’ of the Arabian Sea. I was brought up under rules which were designed to prepare me for the role of an ideal daughter-in-law in someone else’s family. While Father was a crusader against dowry and the practice of bride burning which prevailed in my sub-caste, he remained a one-step forward, two-steps backward presence during my childhood and adolescence. I wanted to excel academically, reach out for the stars, and go to America. But I had to fight silently and stubbornly each step of the way while continuing to hold him in a strong bond. Mother, who had grown up in a village in Surat district, could barely read and write in my mother tongue, Gujarati, and knew no English whereas Father, who had a degree from Cambridge University, taught Shakespeare and the English Romantic poets in the college. She made up for these handicaps with her fiery ambition, wild imagination and extravagant stamina. She, however, suffered from an acute bipolar disorder which I came to understand long after I had left home.
A regimen defined by Father’s rules and Mother’s mood swings would have been joyless but for the nurturing I got from Kaki. Kaki, the teenage widow of Father’s brother, lived with us from the day Father brought her from her village. She pampered us children, made hot snacks for us, and gave us occasional betel- leaf treats following our meals. And yet, with her shaven head requiring the timely services of the town barber, she was no more than a sad presence in the house. When I feel listless, I remember Kaki, whose memory helps me subdue my mid-morning blues and come to terms with my losses.
Living in America and looking back, observing American families and children, and reading about their complex bonds, I have come to understand my parents and resolve my tangled relationship with them. Had I continued living in India, I would have held back from ‘analysing’ them, failed to accept their limitations and to overcome my resentment towards them. Nor would I have realized that we treated Kaki in a manner which we considered normal in terms of the immutable norms prescribed by Hinduism for widows. I needed a liberating American perspective to restore my love for the three important adults of my childhood.
By contrast, my bonds with my three siblings were uncomplicated. I am close to my younger sister Hansa, Cordelia among us three sisters, and Dinker, my only brother, a little over two years older than me. We played cricket with improvised stumps and a tennis ball which bounced a lot. We flew kites, and sampled raw tamarind which we were forbidden to eat. I loved going to school with Hansa, remained at the top of my class and in my teachers’ affection. I scored the second rank among 48,000 candidates in my matriculation examination, and won several prizes, among them a bicycle which became my prized means of escapades from Mother’s watchful eyes. I majored in economics and topped the list of examinees in the BA examination of Bombay University, winning enough scholarship funding to proceed to Bombay in 1951 for graduate studies.
Bombay turned out to be the Eden where I fell from the crystal parapets of heaven to the gates of hell. I was brought up to believe in a girl’s view of virtue and innocence which explicitly ruled out sexual freedom and premarital sex. Its violation by a man whom I eventually married following a deliberate seduction converted me into a sin-obsessed woman. Writing about my first marriage brought back memories which I thought I had put behind me and which I wished I did not have to revive, because the marital relation had infected me with venereal disease.
I came to America in 1955 on an American fellowship, initially for a year only. I was married and carried anguished memories of my marriage which I managed to conceal with outward composure as I collected a slew of a grades at Harvard and stayed on for four years, eventually completing my PhD requirements. My academic performance was a continuing tonic. And the distance helped. I finally chose to break the marriage.
I returned to India in 1959 and began lecturing at the Delhi School of Economics to students with whom I felt no connection. My Delhi students remained quiet throughout my lectures, whereas I had begun to believe as a teaching fellow at Harvard that questions were important. In 1963, Jagdish, whom I had known at Harvard as an MIT fellow student, had joined the Delhi School of Economics. He had also declared his intention to marry me, offering me not ‘a blaze of love’ but ‘a lantern glimmer of the same’ which would last a lifetime. We lectured at the School, shared adjacent offices, and lived in separate locations. That was as close as we could get without disturbing our equilibrium, although we were in love and planned to marry. I battled the emptiness in my daily routine by studying Russian grammar and practising the note combinations of Indian classical music.
I realized that the marriage was impossible to dissolve. So, I filed a petition for the easier option (allowed by law) of judicial separation. This was not an easy decision for me. I felt shamed and guilty at having disgraced my family, first with an impetuous impulse to marry and then with a decision to dissolve the marriage. And all this in a traditional family of respectable parents settled in a provincial town more than half a century ago. The judge threw out my petition and lectured me about fulfilling the role of a dutiful wife.
Childhood and Adolescence
Harvard, 1955-59: Four Years of Magical Awakening
Down and Out in Delhi, 1959-68
The Conversion to Christianity
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