Writer Sudhir Kakar says good memoirs should be written with fearless introspection. In her new book, well-known economist Padma Desai does just that. A few pages into “Breaking Out: An Indian Woman’s American Journey,” what grips the reader is the courage that led a sheltered young woman from a small Indian town to Harvard and Columbia universities and, against many odds, scale the heights of her profession.
Dividing the book into chapters named after significant events and people in her life, Desai, who is a professor at Columbia University, discusses both her personal and professional struggles and triumphs. In doing so, she offers an unsparing examination of her inner world and her closest relationships, including a failed marriage, and acknowledges the inevitable regrets of a life that on the surface is full of achievement.
“My first steps in the relationship were conflicted between wanting to honor Father’s wishes and advancing the cause of my heart,” she writes in a chapter titled “Seduction,” where she describes meeting her first husband, while studying at Bombay University.
She describes the relationship as “a series of catastrophes that were to trail me years after I left him.”
In a failed attempt to end the disastrous first marriage, she converted to Christianity.
“The Conversion to Christianity” chapter can easily be called one of the most personal in the book. “In converting to Christianity, then, I was not giving up one religion for another or exchanging a Hindu God for a Christian one.”
As the divorce proceedings for her first marriage reached a dead-end by 1960, Desai was told by her ex-husband’s lawyer that her marriage could be declared null and void if she converted to Christianity.
At an event – “Celebrating Padma Desai – held April 24 at the Pulitzer World Room in Columbia’s Department of Journalism, Desai read a few pages from her book and spoke about some events that are most important to the book. A few close associates and colleagues and Desai’s daughter, Anuradha Bhagwati, a former Marine, also spoke at the event.
Her husband, the renowned economist Jagdish Bhagwati, was present though he did not speak at the event.
Expressing her thoughts on the book, noted feminist writer Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, also a Columbia professor, said it does not have a “culturalist narcissism” usually expected of biographies.
“The book places an individual life in the context of the worlds it has traveled, with a gripping and relentless honesty,” she said.
Noting that the chapter describing her time at Harvard is the longest in the book, Desai said the journey across continents was “exhilarating as well as liberating.”
Her introduction to America was a challenging phase – it was the first time she saw vending machines, learned that a block meant a street, came across doughnuts and peanut butter and jelly, encountered a change of climate and saw “daffodils springing like a battalion.”
But along with all that, she gained a lot of knowledge at Harvard, where she had come to study. She also met her future husband there.
“A chance encounter transformed my life without my knowing it,” she writes at the beginning of the chapter titled “Jagdish.”
“It was late fall of 1956, and I happened to be serving chicken curry at an Indian students’ get-together at the International Student Association in Cambridge. Jagdish, who was visiting the economics department at MIT as a graduate student in 1956-57, had turned up at the event looking for food and company. As I filled his plate, he introduced himself,” she writes of their first meeting.
Desai grew up in the 1930s in the provincial world of Surat, where she led a sheltered and strict upbringing in a traditional Gujarati Anavil Brahmin family. Her academic brilliance won her scholarship to Bombay University.
A scholarship to America in 1955 launched her on her long journey to liberation from the burdens and constraints of her life in India.
With a growing self-awareness and transformation at many levels, as she made a new life for herself, met and married economist Jagdish Bhagwati, became a mother, and rose to academic eminence at Harvard and Columbia.
Regarded as a leading scholar on the Soviet Union and Russia, Desai is the director of the Center for Transition Economies at Columbia University and an elected member of the Council on Foreign Relations; she has served as president of the Association for Comparative Economic Studies and as U.S. Treasury’s adviser to the Russian Finance Ministry.
Her academic writings focus on the problems of other transition and emerging market economies. Well-known titles include “Marxism, Central Planning and the Soviet Economy,” “The Soviet Economy: Problems and Prospects,” “Perestroika in Perspective: The Design and Dilemmas of Soviet Reform,” “Going Global: Transition from Plan to Market in the World Economy” and (jointly with Todd Idson) “Work Without Wages: Russia’s Nonpayment Crisis.” Her “Financial Crisis, Contagion, and Containment: From Asia to Argentina” was described by Paul Krugman as the “best book yet on financial crises.”