Breaking Out by Padma Desai – Book Review


Breaking Out is memoirs of a remarkable woman, born in pre-independence India, studied at Harvard just after Independence. Worked in Delhi in the 60s. And returned to the place that she chose for herself to Live – America. There is a story of an academician who scaled heights that most women in those times could not even imagine. There is a story of a woman, who struggled with her own family, her chosen husband to finally find solace with her second husband and daughter. A story of the contrast between the Indian and American culture that every migrant has to deal with. And Padma very gracefully adapted herself to her chosen land.

As an academician, you see her focus on excelling in whatever she does. She tops all examinations at home to reach Bombay for her undergraduate studies. She chooses Harvard for her further education. Like a true soldier, her focus is so well defined on her object that she just jumps past all the obstacles that come in her way, including a personal situation. Her constant endeavor to be best in what she does in her chosen field of economics. And be known only on the basis of her work is a reminder for the current generations that look for rewards before putting in any efforts.

Her eagerness to learn various subjects along with her primary subject like Russian as a language or Hindustani vocal music, for the sheer joy of learning is something admirable. It was a delight to read about her passionate pursuit of her learning in various fields.

Author has organized the memoirs around the people and places that put together are a part of her life. She starts by speaking about her Father, Mother, and her Kaki, three adults she grew up with. But she never mentions their names or even the way she addressed them, she always calls them Father, Mother, and Kaki. She obviously belonged to a reasonably affluent family of Gujarat. Her father studied in Cambridge at the beginning of 20th century. He had seen the world, was open-minded. But was still bound by the traditions of the time.

Padma very nicely portrays the character of the Father. The love of books that she inherited from him, but she also constantly talks about the distance that existed between them. A formality that did not let either of them open up to each other. Her father let her go to Bombay to study. Got her married to the boy she got intimate with and could not influence her decision to go to America on her own as she was married by then. Her mother comes across as a traditional housewife of those times who would be pampered by the rest of the family. And who controls everything within the domestic domain. The author is not very close to her mother. Though she clearly identifies the traits she inherited from her like mood swings.

Here again, I saw a constant anguish of a daughter, who does everything to win the affection and admiration of her parents who happen to be oblivious to her achievements. She wants them to nurture her. But all she gets is the functional support not emotional, and she misses this part of her relationship with her parents to date. She finds that nurturing an emotional connection with her Kaki, the widow of her father’s brother, an uneducated woman with amazing resilience. She has a nurturing impact on Padma and she feels the closest to her. And it shows in her dedicating this deeply personal memoir to her rather than her parents or even to her husband or daughter. She is not alone in feeling so about her family or Kaki. But not many have the courage to acknowledge it in public so honestly.

It is the age and the distance from the experience probably that gives her this wisdom to share her deep emotions. I wonder if she would have been able to write with the same equanimity if she had written this memoir a few decades back. Her relationship with her siblings is usual. They share the childhood but not too much intimacy beyond that.

Two men in her life take a lot of space. Her first husband seduced her into marrying her, left her with a disease. And then refused to divorce her and let go. Her second husband Jagdish Bhagwati, hailing from a prestigious family of professionals pursued her with a kind of devotion not many women would be lucky to get. A fellow economist, he searched her through a mere surname in Delhi. Followed her to America. And then gave up his career to be with her in New York. For a long time, they were together but could not be married as she could not manage a divorce even after converting to Christianity as suggested by the lawyers. What is remarkable is her unconditional acceptance in Jagdish’s family in a web of entangled relationships.

While talking about her daughter Anuradha, she is just a mother, who cherishes every moment spent with her daughter. Who tries to be friendly and nurturing towards her daughter. Who worries about her but does not breach her privacy even by a single word in the book.

An important aspect of the Breaking Out memoir is uprooting of Padma from India. From her hometown in Gujarat to America where she was more or less on her own. She did all that was required to be done to merge with the place. Developed a taste for their music, their cuisine, their lifestyle. And even dirtying her hands literally in her adopted soil. She so lovingly embraced America, a land that gave her all she needed. Excellent grounding for her academic career, free air to live in and an acceptance as an individual. Her story of Americanization is very interesting as you see her transitioning but returning to her Indian roots as and when she felt they were better options like when her young daughter wanted to sleep with her.

Like a true American now, she mentions all the important people in her life. But with a care that their privacy is not breached.

She has a life that was not ordinary. She worked towards what she wanted in life personally and professionally. And sooner or later got what she wanted. Now at an age of 80+, she can look back and smile at her wonderful life with its ups and downs. And then share it with the world. Her love for literature is reflected in the poetry that she quotes every now and then in the book. Giving the memoir a vintage feel. And adding a layer of grace and finesse to the storyteller. One error or anomaly in the book that I could not resolve is that she mentions her date of birth as on 12th Oct 1931. And then her birth anniversaries are celebrated in April.

Read Breaking Out book to read one of its kind memoirs. In her times, there were not many women like her and after her, the times changed.

You may buy this book – Breaking Out An Indian Woman’s American Journey by Padma Desai at Amazon.

Breaking Out by Padma Desai

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