The Examined Life

WITHIN MINUTES of beginning, Padma Desai’s memoir Breaking Out: An Indian Woman’s American Journey, I was pleasantly struck by the writer’s intelligence and honesty — characteristics that I believe are crucial to the creation of worthwhile memoirs. I wasn’t surprised. Desai is, after all, a world-class economist, a formidable authority on Russia. Now in her 80s, settled in her long-term marriage with another famous economist, Jagdish Bhagwati, there’s little in her life that she would feel the need to hide. As I went on, I enjoyed her humour, ranging from gentle to astringent, and her literary erudition, a gift from her father, who was a professor of English. (The book is filled with scores of well-chosen quotations that throw light on situations and emotions, such as these lines from Sappho, with which Desai describes her daughter: “like a golden/flower/I wouldn’t/take all Croesus’/kingdom with love/thrown in, for her.”)

But I wasn’t prepared for her openness which allows her to discuss matter-of-factly thorny issues such as her seduction by the man who later became her first husband and gave her gonorrhea; her unsentimental yet deeply felt recollection of the tragedies and joys of her life, from her decades-long effort to get a divorce to her unconditional love for Jagdish and her daughter Anuradha; her clear-eyed analysis of her own decisions, including that of converting to Christianity in the hopes of getting a divorce, and ultimately her courageous dedication to truth even if it reflected negatively on her or her dear ones. These are the qualities that make this book worth reading.

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