Friday, September 9, 2016

Book Review: My Indian Family

Title: My Indian Family


(Well, that's the photo Amazon has...my copy has a jacket with a turquoise-and-yellow cartoonlike print design on it.)

Author: Hilda Wernher

Date: 1945

Publisher: John Day Company

ISBN: none

Length: 298 pages

Quote: “If anybody had suggested to me that I’d accompany my own daughter on her honeymoon I’d have thought him crazy.”

When Mary Ann married Rashid, he told his mother-in-law that he thought Mary Ann “would be too lonely without” her mother. “Life in India is not easy…On your previous trip Mother and you…lived in State Guest Houses or good hotels.” Living with his family, Mary Ann said happily, “we shall know the real India.”

So they went to India, and wore veils and saris, and dipped up mouthfuls of intensely flavored food with bits of bland chapati (held only in their right hands) to render the intensity bearable, and let the servants explain that Mary Ann’s mother (Hilda) was supposed to call Rashid’s mother “Sister,” and had a delightful summer. Then, toward the end of the summer, Mary Ann died in a traffic accident.

The rest of the story—billed as “fiction based upon actual experience”—is about Mary Ann’s mother’s strange, yet traditional, year with Rashid’s family. Per local custom, since her daughter could no longer be his wife, Hilda now owes it to Rashid to find him another wife. So, with considerable help from her in-laws and the servants (and with an eye to the book she was going to get out of her experience), she does.

Well…it’s an interesting novel of manners, in which everybody constantly tries to be as polite as possible and their best manners still conflict constantly.

At one time I was asked to write an article about the hazards of a U.S.-Indian marriage, because my late husband had been of Indian descent. I gave the idea serious thought, then decided that my experience hadn’t even come within sight of the tip of the iceberg. My husband had been brought up a Christian, mostly on Trinidad and Barbados, and had legally immigrated to the U.S. as an Anglo-Canadian several years before we met. I’d lived with Asian-American housemates before, and adopted customs like taking off street shoes in the doorway, bathing after using the toilet, and eating rice instead of bread at every meal, also years before we met. His grandmother had spoken some Indian language, but both of us had always spoken English at home and learned French and Spanish at school. Differences in age and politics, and the fact that both of us had reputations for getting our own way, might have been real problems but weren’t. The only intercultural issue we had to contend with was being stared at because our skin colors didn’t match; apart from that we were just another couple of Bourgeois Bohemian yuppies.Nothing remotely comparable to what Hilda gets into, what poor Mary Ann would have got into if she’d outlived the honeymoon phase, or what the characters in Rumer Godden’s novels (one based on her experience, others on those of friends) get into, or Betty Mahmoody's Not Without My Daughter

So, is this the story about the hazards of a U.S.-Indian marriage? Well…one of them, although Mary Ann is British. Both countries are so vast and so diverse that I don’t think any one story could prepare anyone for the potential problems people encounter when they try living in a foreign country.

The United States and India have some obvious things in common, such as being unions of different States with different ethnic mixes and subcultures, and having English as an official language. Well, yes, educated people in either country will speak English, after some fashion—not necessarily a fashion that even educated people from the other country can understand, in casual conversation. Beyond that it’s hardly fair to generalize about either country, just because of all the multicultural richness. Having lived in one part of either country, or shared a house with one person from the other country, does little to prepare you to live in a different State or with a different person. People from the U.S. often “fall in love” with some of the appealing aspects of some Indian culture or other, and vice versa. When one visits the other country one can expect to find much to love, and also much to loathe. The concepts of cleanliness, honesty, family loyalty, can be interpreted in ways as different as Hindu and Christian religious practices.

The legal rights of family members vary from State to State in both countries; the legal status of American brides in India can be horrific for the unwary. Rashid’s family are on their best behavior toward Hilda, in this story, not only because they’re unusually nice, kind people but also because India has yet to achieve full independence from Britain. In some ways, for some people, legal and political changes made things worse not better.

But…generalize? Mercy. What are Indians like? What are Americans like? Are any two citizens of either country, if not siblings, at all alike?

So I’d rather just say, to anyone contemplating an international marriage: Here is a very nice, quaint, charming, happy story about one way it can go. Read My Indian Family and be delighted by some of the nicest, kindest characters you’ll ever meet in fiction. Then reread it, taking notes on the different kinds of cultural clashes Hilda encounters, and spend some quality time researching how those cultural differences will affect your plans, your relationship. Obviously your prospective in-laws don’t do things the same ways either Hilda’s or Rashid’s family did; how could they? Dates don’t begin with “193-” any more, do they? But this story does walk readers through the range of things they need to think about, including questions of how children will be brought up and what happens if one half of the couple dies. That’s why, old as it is, this book is still worth reading.


I even (sort of) appreciate Hilda’s painfully literal translations from Urdu into English. I don’t think anyone else who’s learned to speak two languages has found it necessary to signal “I actually said this in the second language” by systematically dragging archaic verb forms and awkward sentence structure into her or his native language (“Thou knowest that thou Muslim art,” Hilda chides a Muslim servant who has absorbed Hindu caste prejudice, instead of “I thought you said you were a Muslim”)…yet this literary device does give a sense of how alien everything in India, even the words she herself utters, comes to seem to Hilda. When I read the novel as a novel, this twirk annoyed me. When I read it as a friendly warning to young couples, I can understand why the editor told Wernher to leave it in.

Although Hilda Wernher no longer needs $1, the default price for books here still applies: $5 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment. (For offline payment, the post office collects its own surcharge.)