The Girl From Foreign: In Search of Shipwrecked Ancestors by Sadia Shepard
The book under review positively reels under the evocative weight of its subtitle. “What I know are fragments,” Shepard writes in her prologue, “I am here to weave them together, to create a new story, a story uniquely my own.”
Sadia Shepard is someone whose rich and complex inner life is clearly a source of endless fascination — at least to Sadia Shepard. She is absolutely enamoured of her mixed blood. Everything around her seems to be hell-bent on reflecting back to herself her own story. Sitting at the Film Institute in Pune, a friend, Rekhev, describes what used to happen here, in the following, choice, words: “‘Place memory,’ he says. ‘The imprint of past action on an environment. We are surrounded by ghosts here.’”
In a library, she chances upon a book about Amrita Sher-Gil, and it, too, becomes a mirror: “I look at her picture, tracing her Hungarian parent in her face, then her Indian one. A half-half person. Like me.” A simple instruction from her mother — “Come home” — becomes a heartfelt plea to fulfil an impossible destiny, an opportunity to dwell on the inherent complexity of the term.
The book is the story of the fulfilling of a promise, made to her grandmother as she lay dying (and helpfully reiterated even after she is dead, in a series of dreams): “Go to India, study your ancestors.” Her grandmother, Nana, is a touchstone for young Sadia, a spinner of tales, a secret-keeper, a repository of timeless wisdom in whose dual identity (she was a Bene Israeli Jew who changed her name, and religion, to marry a Muslim man) the author finds yet another echo of herself.
She writes episodes in her Nana’s life in the present continuous — a sneaky trick to make you think that this is actually what her grandmother thought, this is actually what happens. I don’t buy it: not for a minute. “Nana looks up at him, her eyes filling with tears. She loves him too much for her own good, she thinks.” I mean, really. Really?
The Girl from Foreign traces a particularly American journey: a journey to ‘find oneself’, to come to terms with stuff in one’s past, to achieve ‘closure’. It’s possibly a valid course of psychotherapy, but it doesn’t make for a terribly good book.
Unlike, for example, Mrinal Hajratwala’s Leaving India, the reader is left feeling like she knows rather too much about the author and precious little about anything else.
Outlook Traveller, May 2010