SOAS can be read at many levels. At one level, it is a cautionary tale for any Elizabeth Gilbert acolytes who wish to try the singles scene in India (the verdict: sparse pickings.) Start with the by-now familiar scene of the white female who comes to India for an adventure. Superimpose some journalistic career ambitions and a poor choice in picking potential mates. Round it all off with an anthropological attention to detail, a microscopic interest in the lives of a maid, a room-mate and a journalist, and a memoir is born.
At another level, it is a close reading of how the globalization has begun to influence the lives of three Indian women, each, in turn, representing Bollywood’s archetypal virgin, wife, and vamp. The narrative is full of instances where modernity unevenly overlays the older patterns of tradition.
The multiple narratives are set within the author’s own sense of unease about her choices. Has her decision to become Super Reporter Girl struck the death knell for any hopes of domestic bliss?
Kennedy’s brief flings in Delhi barely leave an impression. All the while, Miserable Jen, who “hated Indians and all its whiny inhabitants” hovers as a specter of how not to turn out: hard-bitten and alone, adrift in India.
As Miranda Kennedy’s postfeminist ideals collide with the patriarchal society of Nizamuddin ( a neighborhood in Delhi), her hackles rise at every act of sexism she witnesses. The conservative strictures of a society where women love their sons, selectively abort their daughters, and cheerfully subsume their individualities for the greater good of society becomes maddening for her. It almost seems that she doesn’t mind the lack of indoor plumbing as much as the subtle hostility to the single careerist female.
Third world grit could be tolerable, charming even, but what becomes unacceptable is the preachy gynecologist, the supercilious tea-boy or the uncooperative paanwaala. Even those who are the most oppressed further perpetuate the oppression of others. Ultimately, as she flees from an inebriated taxi driver and the accident he has caused, her feelings of dissatisfaction become impossible to ignore.
While Kennedy explores many of the usual themes of expatriates in India, there are some fresh insights to be harvested, particularly in the particularly quarrelsome exchanges between tradition and modernity.
Witness the male tailor who must exercise extreme caution not to actually touch the female body that he is measuring. Contrast this with Mr. and Mrs. Curves, who sell racy lingerie to modern brides-to-be for “globalized honeymoons.” They all coexist in the hurtling, jangling, contradictory economic success and social upheaval that is India today.
Part travelogue, part ethnographic observation, SOAS benefits from Miranda Kennedy’s contemporary journalist’s eye. SOAS has the added benefit of providing a woman’s perspective. In a country that is rapidly “disappearing” its unborn girl fetuses through selective abortion, it is not surprising that she reports that the many freedoms that women enjoy in the West are missing in India. No, you can’t rent a house as a single woman. No, your parents cannot know about your lover. And yes, even though India is a “passionate, emotive place,” perfect for love affairs, an occupational hazard of living in Delhi is that you could turn into an “aggressive bitch,” the kind who could slap a belligerent beggar girl or shower a rickshawwaala with choice swear words for overcharging.
My favorite part of the book was Kennedy expertly “reading” the Bollywood film. Bollywood blockbuster films become the mirror through which Kennedy can look into and critique depictions of globalizing lifestyles. Such films, she asserts, reflect changing societal expectations, and represent the vanities and preoccupations of the audience.
My least favorite part was Kennedy’s preoccupation with her maid and her eagerness to invest even the most casual utterance of Radha with societal significance. Kennedy’s ambivalence about the garish Punjabi wedding is palpable and results in lackluster prose. The drawn out dramas of the pre-wedding sangeet, as well as reflections on the Brahmanical purity of Radha were unexciting. The whole section dragged out like a too-earnest graduate student thesis.
Ultimately, Kennedy’s inability to shake off her sense of being a “colonialist intruder” portends the end of her sojourn in India. Happily, Kennedy has found a man, the end of her single road is nigh, and we sigh with relief that she has been spared the fate of Miserable Jen, who overstayed past the point where India was still an interesting, even fascinating puzzle to be unlocked.
Geetika Pathania Jain earned her doctorate in International Communications. She lives in Cupertino and teaches for an online University.