A well-researched but stylistically flat family memoir.
Kamdar, a policy analyst with the New School in Manhattan, reaches back 100 years to place the Indian half of her family history into the broader contexts of the South Asian diaspora and the decline of India’s rural, clan-based, traditional culture. She starts with “one of the great mysteries of my childhood”: her beloved Motiba (grandmother) had abstract designs tattooed on her chin, cheeks, and forearms, but she never discussed them. After Motiba’s death in the 1990s, Kamdar learned these markings were probably applied for Motiba’s marriage ceremony nearly 80 years earlier, and were thus an emblem of her status as a precious commodity given by her family to her in-laws—a far cry, to her mind, from the tattoos that modern girls wear as personal fashion statements. She then puts this insight aside and launches into stories about her forebears: her great-grandmother’s pet female buffalo, her grandfather’s strict devotion to Gandhi’s moral philosophy (which kept him celibate four years into his marriage to Motiba), her father’s childhood in Rangoon in the 1940s and his later emigration to the US and marriage to the Danish-American farm girl who became her mother. These stories are fun and fascinating, and Kamdar connects them convincingly to larger historical events. But it’s only in later sections—discussing her own childhood as a “foreign” girl in Oregon and California during the 1950s and ’60s, for example—that her prose rises above the merely serviceable and becomes as riveting as her introduction.
An informative read, though not as memorable overall as it might have been. (b&w photos, maps, and glossary)