Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha
Title: Unbecoming: A Memoir of Disobedience
Author: Anuradha Bhagwati
Publisher: Atria Books/ Simon & Schuster Inc.
“After a lifetime of buckling to the demands of her strict Indian parents, Anuradha Bhagwati abandons grad school in the Ivy League to join the Marines—the fiercest, most violent, most masculine branch of the military—determined to prove herself there in ways, she couldn’t before. Yet once training begins, Anuradha’s G.I. Jane fantasy is punctured. As a bisexual woman of color in the military, she faces underestimation at every stage, confronting misogyny, racism, sexual violence, and astonishing injustice perpetrated by those in power; “says the blurb.
“Pushing herself beyond her limits, she also wrestles with what drove her to pursue such punishment in the first place. Once her service concludes in 2004, Anuradha courageously vows to take to task the very leaders and traditions that cast such a dark cloud over her time in the Marines. Her efforts result in historic change, including the lifting of the ban on women from pursuing combat roles in the military,”marks the blurb.
Unbecoming – A Memoir of Disobedience by Anuradha Bhagwati is a rare and indefatigable memoir by a former US Marine Captain. She chronicles her journey — from a dutiful daughter of immigrants to a radical activist affecting historic policy reforms.
New York-based Writer, yoga and meditation teacher, founder of Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) — which brought national attention to sexual violence in the military and helped overturn the ban on women in combat — Anuradha is a regular media commentator too on issues related to national security, women’s rights, civil rights, and mental health, and is the recipient of numerous awards.
1975-born Anuradha’s parents, Jagdish Bhagwati and Padma Desai, are renowned economists. While her parents were trying to assimilate in a country where their intellect did not protect them from racism, she grew up in a predominantly white America.
Recounts Anuradha in this three-hundred -and -odd page memoir: “I had always been my parents’ little girl. Their only child, for some reason. I was shy in front of people and terrified of being in groups. I listened to Mom and Dad completely. Because they had a lot to say, I did a lot of listening. Mom met Dad in Boston when she was in graduate school at Harvard and he was teaching at MIT. They were both economists. This all meant nothing to me except that they were always going to the office or on their way to conferences.
“I remember flashes. Mom wore saris and a red powdered bindi on her forehead, and Dad made me a mug of hot chocolate with Hershey’s cocoa powder and milk for breakfast. Sometimes he and I sat together before sunrise in the quiet house while I sipped my cocoa through a plastic straw and he listened to the morning news on a tiny black-and-white television set.”
The memoir is objective: “My father was constantly being told he was brilliant, and he believed it. When we walked through airports on trips to India, random men would stop before him and bow. Dad loved these moments. Mom hated them. But for all of Dad’s fame, he never seemed settled.”
She side-splittingly writes about her father who never made it to the Nobel Prize: “It is a testament to my family’s strange narcissism that I knew what a Nobel Prize was when I was a toddler. My parents referred to it as ‘The Nobel’, and the consensus was that Dad had been robbed. Every September I witnessed my parents’ tortured theater as they tossed the names of potential winners around the dinner table. Each year when Dad was passed over for one of his colleagues, I would ask him gingerly how he was. He delivered the only line that ever made him feel better. ‘Oh, I’m fine. Even Gandhiji didn’t win a Nobel.’”
Anuradha’s voice as an émigré and her Indian experience makes for wonderful reading. It is audacious: she writes about her own flaws and that of her parents. It is about the inevitable love for one’s parents unlaced by hero worship.
Her mother was a pioneer in her field. Her father quit his job at MIT to support his wife when she got tenure in Columbia University. “My mother had been through so much,” she says. “She was really shamed when she was in India and was in an abusive marriage that was not her fault. So, she came to the US to start a new life. She had been keeping this traumatic incident from me and (trying to) reinvent herself.”
Years later, Anuradha encountered similar systemic sexism in the Marines. It was her mother’s experience that helped her find the courage to support others. “I was in command of 400 troops at one time. It was a lot of responsibility,” she says in the book. “When there was someone who was sexually harassing the women in my unit, it was my moment of reckoning. My mother gave me the courage to stick up for myself and these women.”
The narrator is a lot frank when she says, “Every Indian family seemed to have a story about a handsy Indian uncle or neighbor. Stories about sexual violence were told in whispers if they were told at all. Without any talks about birds and bees, I had no way of knowing the difference between sex, love, and violence. I had to find out on my own.”
Reminisces Anuradha in this enthralling auto-biography about her school days: “At thirteen, Bianca was one year older than me, and very thin, with budding curves around the hips. She wore shoes that adult women wore, with tapered toes and heels. Her jeans fit closely to her legs. I could spot Bianca in a crowd of kids by her bright-red lipstick. It drew out the green in her eyes and the dark brown in her hair. Bianca was some kind of Italian goddess, and I would never look like her.
“Bianca was crying this morning, and our teachers had surrounded her. Mascara was dripping down both of her cheeks. She had a complexion that was beyond white. It was the kind of porcelain I saw in museums, where security guards warned us not to touch anything. A face like Bianca’s inspired great art, and grave concern. The news reached us like the telephone game, from one child’s seat to the next. On her way to school, a strange man attacked Bianca, touched her in some harmful way. Bianca was still crying audibly, surrounded by a ring of adults.”
The memoir is gripping and powerful for precisely two reasons: first, about growing up in America as an Indian; and second, the relationship with her parents. In a deeply conservative household, when she discovered that she was bisexual, her mother threatened to kill herself if she did not end it then.
Unbecoming addresses the proverbial dilemma of confronting traditional expectations as a South Asian daughter. The book is an insightful story about a daughter of immigrants who tries to find her place in the country of immigrants while enduring racism, homophobia, and sexism. It tells the story of how she finally finds the courage to become an activist to “change the landscape of America to make it safer for women and children.”
The memoir is a veritable account of indomitable spirit “grappling with the timely question of what, exactly, America stands for.” It is about one woman who learned to believe in herself in spite of everything. It is the kind of story that will light a fire beneath you, and inspire the next generation of doughty female heroes.
Bhaskar Parichha is a Bhubaneswar-based journalist and author. He writes on a broad spectrum of subjects , but more focused on art ,culture and biographies.His recent book ‘No Strings Attached’ has been published by Dhauli Books.
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