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Stories Bring Us Together, Untold Stories Keep Us Apart

Desi RootsGlobal Wings – a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience.

Stories can be powerful agents of change that reflect reality and move us towards a better future, if only we have the courage to share them.

“Stories bring us together, untold stories keep us apart” ~ Elif Shafak.

For a long time I was just a reader. First as a bookish schoolgirl and later as a quiet teenager who preferred the sensibly laid out plots in novels and logically solved thrillers to the confusing world around me. I graduated from Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers to Agatha Christie and Sidney Sheldon, reading whatever I could find in the homes of friends and relatives – dog-eared books, old magazines and past issues of Reader’s Digest. Sometimes I shelled out precious rupees from my monthly pocket money for dusty bargain paperbacks from street vendors and occasionally I borrowed books from the hole-in-the-wall Mumbai bookshops that doubled as lending libraries. 

Too naive to distinguish between literary fiction and pulp fiction, chick-lit and magic realism, to me a book was a book. I read for the pleasure of it. My science education was a blessing because I was not trained to read between and below the lines of the words on the page. I simply admired the stories. And authors remained mysterious creatures who concocted fabulous tales from the recesses of their imagination, forever to be admired for their storytelling skills.

 

Plenty to read

It wasn’t until I arrived in the US that I began to look at books more closely. From well-stocked public libraries to well-lit bookstores that also served coffee, it was a book lover’s heaven. Unlike the outdated, soiled collections that I previously had to make do with, now I could touch pristine paperbacks and glossy jacketed hardbound books. New releases and New York Times bestsellers, fiction and nonfiction books were neatly stacked at Barnes and Noble and were also freely available at my local library.

Through interviews with authors that aired on television and appeared in newspapers, I saw the people who wrote these books. From mythical creatures, authors became accessible humans who walked and spoke and ate and slept just like me. And once the connection between story and storyteller was made, I began to look for stories that spoke to me as a student, an immigrant, and a working mother, a search that grew with each year that I lived in the US. 

 

Stories connect us

While I am transported by all stories, I cannot find myself reflected in every book I read. Yet, when I see parts of myself reflected in a character in a story, even if they don’t always look like me or share my cultural background or my life trajectory, I feel seen and valued. In Maeve Binchy’s novel Echoes, set in a small Irish town, I felt a sense of kinship with the nerdy protagonist who excels in school. And when I suffered through a phase of infertility, the protagonist of Linda Crew’s novel Ordinary Miracles set in Oregon mirrored my pain and feelings of inadequacy.

 

Writing about the self

While in the US, I went through a phase where I actively sought writing by Indian American writers. In the pre-Jhumpa Lahiri phase, I read contemporary novels by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruini and Bharti Mukherjee and revisited V.S Naipaul. When I returned to India, in the pre-Chetan Bhagat phase, I binge-read Shashi Deshpande’s fiction. Each of these satisfied the reader in me to various extents. 

Following the huge success of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes in the US in the nineties, I came across other memoirs. Later when I began to dabble in personal essays, I became curious about the process of writing a full-length book of a person’s true story. Were there any memoirs by Indian authors I wondered? Of course, there were biographies and autobiographies, but these were typically about famous politicians, artists or celebrities with highly unusual life stories. 

Memoirs appealed to me because they depicted the often ignored extraordinary undercurrent of the lives of ordinary people whose stories were valuable to the rest of us precisely for the ordinariness that was our shared experience. 

 

Of writing and publishing

Earlier this year when I embarked on writing my memoir, I became even more curious about other Indian authors like me who had stepped into the untested waters of memoir writing. Culturally we are primed to celebrate outward success but keep the failures and tribulations under wraps. Infertility, divorce, mental health and other topics are all too often brushed under the rug, further isolating the individuals who are going through a difficult phase. Had anyone attempted to write about these topics? I had several questions that I knew would be of interest to readers and other writers.

Why did they write their story? And how? What was their path to publication? What did they learn from their writing journey? What did they want readers and other aspiring writers to know? 

In The Power of Meaning – Crafting a Life That Matters, researcher and author Emily Esfahani Smith claims that storytelling forms one of four pillars of meaning. Our storytelling impulse arises from a deep-seated human instinct to “make sense of our world and our place in it, and understand why things happen the way they do”.

I tentatively approached one author after another, to ask them the story behind their books. With each interview, I felt inspired and energized by their desire and commitment to share their story. I began to feature a monthly author interview segment on my blog where I highlighted their books and writing journeys which allowed me to refuel my creative tank  as I wrote about my own difficult journey through separation and divorce.

The process of reaching out to memoir writers, of getting to know their struggles with the story and the craft of writing has helped me tremendously as a writer and made me even more aware of the difficulties of sharing personal stories that demand both vulnerability and grit.

Publishing houses look for books that sell, a decision often made not on the basis of the inherent value of the story but on the author’s platform and the fit of the narrative in the current context. What about the ordinary stories of ordinary people that have the power to move us?

My goal for my memoir is for it to initiate conversations about divorce, which is becoming common in Indian society. My book may not reflect everyone’s experience but by putting it out there, I am adding to the practically non-existent body of literature on the subject of desi divorce. 

It is only by having many voices telling their story that we can truly break the hold of a dominant narrative that may be true but flawed, because it does not reflect the whole.

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete”Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.


Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, and a former resident of USA, who now lives in Singapore with her family. She is the author of three books and is the co-founder of Story Artisan Press. Her memoir – Rewriting My Happily Ever After will be available in October 2021. She loves connecting with readers at her website and at Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram

Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash


 

Watching My Daughter Graduate At Home

It was supposed to be a momentous year. I was planning to throw a party. A graduation party. Friends, flowers, photos. Smiles, speeches, tears. A memorable day where I would watch my daughter walk across the stage, surrounded by her peers, basking in the cheers of their families. A communal celebration. A coming of age. A time to fly. A time to sigh.

From the time she was four, I had imagined this milestone moment of her college graduation. Almost twenty years ago, I had heard commentary by Baxter Black about his graduating daughter on National Public Radio. It began with a question. “Did you ever stop and think to yourself – this will be the last time?”

It was a brief monologue, simple and moving, in the way heartfelt words often are. I thought about his words for days, trying to remember the order of those short sentences, trying to grasp the genuine emotions they conveyed. Years later, Google helped me trace the transcript. 

I printed the words on an off-white sheet of paper with green trellis design, inserted it into a plastic sheet protector, and tucked it into a cardboard box. The box traveled from America to India, and then to Singapore. My job was to keep the paper safe until her graduation day. The idea was to hand the sheet to her; to ponder, to keep, to discard, just like all the words I had uttered her over the years. That was the plan.  

To paraphrase John Lennon, Covid-19 is what happens when you are busy making other plans. Instead of the class of 2020, my daughter’s graduating cohort will forever be referred to as the Covid-19 class. 

Without a public ceremony for graduation, there will be no visible marker of an event to signify an end and a beginning. For me, the end of the years of direct parenting; for her, a beginning that would require her to fly away with strong wings and a smile. 

The disappointment of not having a large in-person ceremony was not just hers. I was hoping to vicariously relive the memory of my own graduation that took place more than two decades ago. To temper my disappointment, I revisited commencement speeches that form an important part of the US graduation experience. 

Encapsulating the distilled wisdom of the lived experience of writers, entrepreneurs, and people of substance, each speech is a mini self-help book of sorts, a concentrated shot of a carefully fermented brew that could cause a palpable buzz if swallowed swiftly. Many popular speeches became books that could be handed out as graduation gifts containing words of advice to young people stepping into a world of possibilities. 

But what advice can you give this cohort of millennial youth who feel cheated of their moment in the spotlight? They were denied the chance to post envy-inducing photos of a champagne-popping, hat-tossing, party-hopping day on Instagram. More importantly, they were denied the chance to savor the last in-person class, the last in-class exam, the last time of simply hanging out around campus, and the last chance to say goodbye. 

In an ideal world, my daughter would have heard inspiring words from influential people. All she can do now is hang out with family members with whom she has been stuck at home for months. While I cannot provide her the chance to march across a stage, victorious in a cap and gown, the one thing I can do is dispense pearls of wisdom. After all, I have lived an interesting life. But, as she helpfully points out, I have been giving ‘lectures’ forever. Instead of applause, my monologues are usually met with eye rolls.

Even though I grudgingly agree, I am tempted to install some final pieces of programming code into her before she flies away.

“Uncertainty is inevitable. Doing something is more important than getting it right every time. Take all advice with a pinch of salt.’ 

But in this post-COVID world, I look back on my years of parenting and consider the futility of the insistence on helmets and seatbelts, at the constant attempt to ease my child’s path and smooth the bumps, and wonder if anything I have said can prepare her for a world that has literally turned on a dime.

Words, however, are not empty platitudes. They carry with them the weight of a person’s experience, and their value is proportional to your trust and respect for the person involved. 

There is much I want to say, but this is the time for action, not words. I once again read Baxter Black’s musings and notice for the first time that like me, he has more questions than answers. 

All I can do is mutely nod in response to his final question – “Where did she go, this little girl of mine?” 

Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, a former resident of USA, and now lives in Singapore with her family. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She is presently working on a memoir. Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Blog


This piece was first published here.

It Does Take a Village to Raise a Child

As I watched the Netflix documentary that follows Michele Obama’s book tour to promote her memoir, “Becoming”, I was reminded of a former American first lady who published a book while her husband was in office. 

When Hilary Clinton’s book, It Takes a Village And Other Lessons Children Teach Us, was first published, I read about it in the Washington Post. Intrigued by the unusual title, I wondered about her credentials to write with conviction about raising children. After all, she had mothered only one child. 

During the Clintons’ tenure at the White House, I was first a graduate student, and later, a postdoctoral fellow at a university not far from Washington DC. I knew nothing about motherhood and parenting. Judging Hilary Clinton’s expertise to write a book (that I had not read) was presumptuous on my part.  

About a year and a half later, as I cradled my newborn daughter in Silicon Valley, I asked a friend who came by for a visit – “How will I bring up this tiny baby into adulthood? I don’t know anything about parenting.”

A mother of a preschooler, she smiled knowingly and replied “Don’t worry, they come programmed to survive and grow. You don’t have to know anything.”

I heard her but did not believe her. I had devoured What To Expect When You’re Expecting, during my pregnancy. Knowing my penchant for turning to books for advice, someone had thoughtfully gifted me the sequel to help me figure out the first year of my child’s life. 

During my short maternity break, I could foresee how much more difficult my life would become once I returned to work. With growing demands on my body, emotions, and time, I wondered if I would lose myself as I slowly dissolved into the ocean of caregiving that is motherhood. 

Children consume you in ways few other things do. They coerce you, bind you, and trap you with their heart-melting smiles even as you change diapers and pick up toys innumerable times. Coming on the heels of years of infertility, for me, motherhood, like my Ph.D., had been a long-drawn project, a goal that I had desired and aspired for, and my child, the reward for my prayers and effort. 

In the two decades since that initial expression of doubt regarding my mothering ability, I have discovered, to my eternal surprise and gratitude, that I am just the string that connects every person who crossed my path and provided me guidance and assistance along the way to raise my child. 

Photo Credit goes to Taneli Lahtinen

This year Mother’s Day was especially poignant because, in a few weeks, that tiny baby who used to fit in my lap, will fly out of the nest and head back to America, the country where she was born.

I think back to the village of people scattered across the globe, who not only directly impacted her growth but also influenced my journey as a mother. 

Some, like my mother, Amma, held my hand in the delivery room and took care of me in the early days. Amma rescued me several other times when I was in a pinch for childcare, struggling to remain in the workforce. Always supportive, but not necessarily indulgent, she followed the ‘tough love’ style of mothering, long before the phrase was coined. 

Catherine, the gentle, silver-haired British lady who took over as the local grandmother when Amma returned to India, was the first person outside the home to bond with my child. Using only organic ingredients to cook fresh meals and creating personalized birthdays for the kids in her care, Catherine was a loving, no-nonsense woman. It was impressive how she managed to carve out time for self-care, swimming thirty laps in the community pool after a long day watching a handful of babies and toddlers. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Catherine for providing reliable childcare, the prime reason I was able to focus on my budding career.

Bill, my boss, who looked the other way when he saw me slouched over my desk in the early days of motherhood, first introduced me to a lunchtime yoga class, and later supported all of my part-time or flex-time requests, ensuring my progress through the ranks. I shudder to think of how my life would have turned out without Bill as my boss.

In California, a circle of women friends gathered around me to provide assistance to a working mother in a dysfunctional marriage. When I moved to India, another group of female friends came together in Hyderabad to help me find my feet as a single parent. Loaning me a gas cylinder when I moved into my own place, watching my child if I was late from work, accompanying me to court, or to the doctor’s office, many kind women propped me up. 

When handling everything alone felt overwhelming, I remembered the wise words of a colleague who told me at my baby shower, “Parenting is a series of threats and bribes.” 

When I doubted my decision to quit my well-paying job with long working hours and choose a freelance consulting path that paid less but offered greater flexibility, I remembered my aunt’s advice to make whatever minor changes necessary but to not give up my financial independence.

I am indebted to a large global network of individuals who have shared my journey as a mother. It has not been smooth. I have been far from perfect. 

From our shaky first steps in California to the rocky patch in India, and now in our new blended family in Singapore, motherhood has been a delicate dance. The two of us held onto each other, flowing with life as it detoured into uncharted territories. We are at a point where our paths must diverge. My time of intense parenting is coming to an end. 

The river of life will take her in its fold, whisk her to unknown destinations. But I will send her away with the confidence that there is a village out there, to pick up where my direct influence ends. Just as a village came together and sustained her thus far, I have no doubt that she will build another one for the next leg of her life. 

Even without reading Hilary Clinton’s book, I learned first-hand the powerful lesson embedded in the African proverb that she chose as the title for her book. It does take a village to raise a child. And I stand humbled by the experience. 

Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, a former resident of USA, and now lives in Singapore with her family. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She is presently working on a memoir. Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Blog