Pramila Jayapal’s Pilgrimage: One Woman’s Return to a Changing India is a sensitively written memoir that represents one woman’s search for her identity, exposed as she is to different cultures from early childhood to adulthood. Born in Madras in 1965, she leaves her country of birth at four and has her schooling in Indonesia, and Singapore, as the daughter of an oil company executive, in typical international schools, having only a part-time experience of Indianness, like hoisting the Indian national flag on India Day functions, wearing sarees, and visiting families during annual vacations in India. America had a greater attraction for the author, growing up like the children of many affluent non-resident Indians and foreign diplomats, with no interest in India. A trip to Delhi and Agra with her mother and sister, however changed all this and piqued her curiosity about her country of birth with its rich layers of history, religion and culture.
Pramila Jayapal came to the U.S. at the age of 16, for undergraduate study at Georgetown University. Procuring a B.A. in English and Economics at Georgetown, and an MBA from Northwestern University, Jayapal worked as the director of an international loan and technical assistance program which involved working with women and children in developing countries, including India, on health programs. Like all new entrants to this country, she tried to assimilate into mainstream society, but felt unsure of her identity, since she had not lived long enough in India to absorb her roots. She got the chance of a lifetime to rediscover India, when she received a grant from the Institute of Current World Affairs to spend in India for two years.
Jayapal and her American husband Alan immersed themselves in the life of authentic India by living in the cities as well as the villages of India. From Bangalore to Kerala, to Uttar Pradesh and Ladakh, they traverse the length and breadth of India, shedding some of the myths that they had entertained about India and noticing the positive changes that were occurring there. She points out that Kerala is a model state in the vanguard of reform like literacy, particularly female literacy, life expectancy, low infant mortality and death rates, family planning, and public health care.
Jayapal spices up her writings with mythology as well as sociology. While bestowing praise where it is due, she is equally candid in her criticism of this model state. Her guide in Kerala, Viji, tells her that the Kerala success story is not without its problems like corruption, high unemployment, and gender discrimination. In spite of rich natural resources like rubber, Kerala does not have a strong manufacturing base, and the high cost of labor inhibits investment in industry in Kerala. “Education combined with lack of opportunity is a deadly combination,” says Jayapal. “It is hope for the future and despair for the present, all wrapped in one.” Describing Bangalore, she points out that the city has changed much with the influx of multinationals. The Garden City had become the Silicon Valley of India.
In spite of the fact that women in Bangalore were modern, surprisingly, feminism was unpopular among them. They did not seem to mind the fact that women also did not have much say in deciding birth control choices, nor were they opposed to arranged marriages. However, they also seemed to want a new definition of their role in society. Cultural concepts of duty and responsibility clashed with the modern western concept of individual rights.
Jayapal and her husband found Uttar Pradesh a fertile ground for examining some of the issues that their grant covered. These were issues of poverty and social justice. Even though she was an Indian, Jayapal felt a sense of despair at the filth, the amount of begging and the barbarous practice of using human beings to pull cycle rickshaws. Caste is still being practiced although people in the lower castes have made economic progress through land reform legislation. Everything is not negative, as V.S. Naipaul has described in his book, India, A Wounded Civilization. There were some positive changes brought about through the tireless efforts of youth movements like Angkur, led by a dedicated, underpaid teacher. Women’s literacy still had a long way to go in Uttar Pradesh although some reform was afoot. The practice of child labor did not seem to bother even some educated people.
They spent a pleasant two-month stay in Ladakh, a place of surpassing natural beauty. A trek had been arranged for them. The hilly landscape was dotted with Buddhist monasteries, and palaces. Jayapal gives a brief history of Ladakh, and points out that from being a self-sufficient economy, it had now become solely dependent on tourism and government subsidies for agriculture.
Jayapal feels that modern technology should not be applied en masse in India which is predominantly rural, but should complement the village culture, and nurture the interconnectedness of such a culture. On a personal note, Jayapal ends her book with her complicated pregnancy in India, and the delivering of her baby son in one of the elite hospitals in Bombay. The Indian odyssey helped Jayapal “look for spirit and soul, to experience contradictions and wonders of the country and, in doing so, to discover India, myself, and the universe.”