May 2011

A coming-of-age in India

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When Miranda Kennedy, an American public radio correspondent in India, first made friends with the Delhi neighbor whom she calls “Geeta,” the young woman seemed to personify the new urban India: a college-educated, single professional living away from her family who alternated between Indian and Western clothes.

Unsurprisingly, Geeta’s life turned out to be more complex than it initially seemed. Yes, she aspired to Western-style independence. But she also had strong ties to the traditional Indian culture of family, religion, caste, regional identity and female subservience. Her internal conflicts culminated in her search for an appropriate “boy”: Should she let her parents arrange her marriage? Or should she find her own true love?

Sideways on a Scooter is partly a memoir about Kennedy’s coming-of-age experience in India during this century’s first decade. But the heart of the book is her sensitive depiction of Geeta and her other Delhi friends, Indian women facing the challenges of a society that is fitfully becoming an often confusing amalgam of South Asian tradition and Western “modernity.” Another friend, Parvati, was frighteningly unconventional by Indian standards, an unmarried career woman in a semi-open long-term relationship, while Radha and Maneesh, Kennedy’s servants, had lives constricted by poverty, caste and discrimination against women. Kennedy learned something from each of them as she coped with her own romantic complications.

Kennedy is candid and even-handed, showing readers both the splendid side of Indian culture and those aspects that many Americans will find difficult to accept, and the outcome is mostly hopeful. Of course, Geeta did eventually find a husband. But the journey had as many intriguing twists as one of her beloved Bollywood movies.

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