The topic of divorce is shrouded in silence in South Asian culture both within the geographic borders of the Indian subcontinent as well as in South Asian diaspora communities. While some fictional works make tentative attempts at representing divorce, there is a dearth of autobiographical writing on this issue. India’s divorce rate from its census data is less than 1%. However, more people report that they are separated rather than divorced which is a testimony of the slow processes in Indian courts as well as the stigma in declaring divorced status. In the light of these socio-cultural factors, Dr. Ranjani Rao deserves kudos for her bold attempt in narrating her personal experience of divorce in a direct, balanced, and unsentimental manner.
Her memoir, Rewriting My Happily Ever After A Memoir of Divorce and Discovery, integrates various professional and personal struggles of the protagonist Ranjani, who moves to the U.S. as a young bride following an arranged marriage, pursues a Ph.D. in a scientific field, struggles with and overcomes infertility, experiences marital incompatibility, returns to India to start a new life, and eventually decides on divorce and single motherhood after a period of separation from her husband. In narrating her personal difficulties, Dr. Rao always focuses on the practice of gratitude and continues to see the positive aspects of her life, even in her bleakest moments of despair. Nor does she portray her partner as a retrograde. She is painstakingly fair and acknowledges her ex-husband’s devotion to their daughter and his solicitude as a parent. Dr. Rao even provides moments in the narrative when we sense her own affection for her former partner. One such luminous moment and counseling prompts her to try to live with him again after their initial separation. However, this experiment, too, does not succeed.
It is difficult in the midst of this restraint for the reader to figure out why two well-meaning individuals could not make their relationship work. From the hints provided, it can be inferred that the resentment in the marriage grew from Dr. Rao’s feelings of isolation and lack of support from her spouse. These became particularly pronounced in the lack of enthusiasm for Dr. Rao’s creative pursuits, especially her success as a writer while in the U.S. To this can be added the difficulties of unsupportive in-laws and their interference once the couple moves back to India.
The memoir acknowledges without any melodramatic excess, the loss of the marriage. However, it also celebrates from the first moment of leaving the marital home, the sense of liberation and peace accompanying this difficult decision. Dr. Rao celebrates all the people in her life who support her during her tumultuous transition. Beginning with her friend Radha who offers her own house as temporary accommodation, Dr. Rao makes many new friends among her neighbors in addition to reconnecting with old friends. Even though her first response is to withdraw from social events which stigmatize and judge the uncoupled, she is gradually able to forge a community of friends who accept her without any unpleasant questioning. Instead of hardening in her isolation, Ranjani becomes more generous and giving towards her employees and other contacts.
The memoir balances its focus on practical matters of financial survival, securing stable housing, work-life balance with attention to spiritual healing. In her journey, Ranjani leans on the traditional devotional practices of her parents’ Hinduism, yoga practice, and journaling as ways to overcome her trauma and move into the future.
The memoir captures shimmering moments of joy and triumph. Above all, it revels in Ranjani’s happiness in being a mother and the joy she feels in the company of her child. She is also buoyed by her sense of achievement in the professional sphere, and the hard work that ensures a measure of financial stability in her life. Instead of presenting divorce as a traumatic event that haunts the protagonist forever, there is a deep sense of optimism that the negativity of the marital conflict will recede, paving the way for deeper personal growth and fulfillment. For many women who are going through a similar predicament in their lives, this is a message of inspiration. This memoir goes a long way in demystifying divorce, and while not undermining its pain, it portrays divorce as a life challenge that can be overcome.
Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.