New York Times

Motherlode piece about girls

I wrote and rewrote this piece because it is a topic that I feel passionate about. Women are consensus seekers by nature and often, these voices paralyze action.

August 30, 2013, 11:14 am 10 Comments
For Girls in India, the Pressure to Conform Comes From Family
I recently watched the remarkable Malala Yousafzai speak at the United Nations to commemorate a day that is named after her. The 16-year-old who was shot by the Taliban, and has since become a celebrated activist for education and women’s rights, said that Malala Day was for “every boy and every girl who have raised their voice for their rights.” She bravely reinterpreted Islam and accused the extremists of being afraid of books, pens and education. “The power of the voice of women frightens them,” she said.

Malala is the same age as my older daughter. While she uses her voice to assert her rights, her use of the word made me think of the many other voices that my daughters and girls all over the world hear, telling them what to wear and how to behave. I have a ringside view of how this plays out with my two daughters, who were born in the United States but now live among our family in India, where the pressure on young girls to conform comes not just from society, but from family. It would be ridiculous to compare it to the limits on Malala and the young women of the Swat Valley, but its root lie in similar expectations.

Seven years ago, my husband and I uprooted our two daughters, Ranju and Malu, from their comfortable lives in Manhattan and moved to India to be closer to our aging parents, and to allow our American-born children to know their Indian heritage.

Today, Ranju is 16 and Malu, 11. They are entrenched in India and surrounded by family. For my daughters, dealing with their grandparents, aunts and uncles regularly is both comforting and demanding. Their grandparents’ notion of what is right is very different from theirs.

It is harder for my teenager, Ranju, who goes to a school that is no different from an American private school. Ranju wears Western clothes that she buys online or during trips abroad: typical teenage wear from Target or Gap. Occasionally, my sari-clad mother will tell her not to wear such “tight and skimpy clothes.” My dad will admonish her for going out to parties “at night.”

“Why can’t you go out with friends during the day?” he will ask. “Why don’t you go to lunch instead of to nightclubs?”

My mother-in-law will offer to massage their hair with coconut oil so that it grows long and lustrous. She will encourage them to speak Tamil, our mother tongue. This is all very nice once in a while, but when the advice, admonitions and loving instructions are constant, it gets wearying. I sympathize with my daughters when both grandmothers and assorted aunts hover around with food, oil, clothes, dos and don’ts, but I also expect them not to be rude to elders.

I would like to say that this dance of voices is an Eastern thing, but I am not sure that it is true. Girls in developing countries face enormous pressure to conform to the norms set by elders in their villages and towns. But I also imagine that a 16-year-old girl in Memphis who lives amid a close-knit extended web of family and friends has a nodding acquaintance with emotional expectations.

My girls are slowly learning to push back without being rude. When my mother-in-law brings in coconut oil the day before a party or event, Ranju will laugh, give her a hug and say, “Tomorrow.” She may joke about its strong smell. Jokes work to defuse and distract, she has found. The affection she gets from grandparents is wonderful and boundless, but it also clouds boundaries of self and personal space.

Occasionally, Ranju comes to me in a bad mood. “Can’t you tell them to lay off?” she asks. That’s when I give her a hug. “Think of it as practice for life,” I say. “If you can say ‘no’ to persistent Indian grandparents, you can say ‘no’ to anyone.”

So Ranju learns to look for the tricky balance between being assertive and courteous. She will tell her 81-year-old grandfather that although he thinks it is weird that she goes out every Saturday night, her school friends actually party four times a week. By asking for one weekend night out, she is actually compromising for the family and not straying off the path. She eats almonds; she oils her hair because they nag her to.

Young Malu wants to be a pastry chef. Ranju wants to be an entrepreneur. Both their ambitions usually get shot down at family weddings.

“Become a doctor,” an uncle will say. “It is more respectable than a pastry chef.”

“Don’t start your own business,” an aunt will tell Ranju. “It’s too risky.”

All these voices mean well, but they mean their version of well. Ranju and Malu are learning to accept the affection while asserting their independence.

It isn’t always easy or graceful. When my girls whine about “being forced” to wear Indian saris for family weddings, I get irritated. I call them drama queens. I have (and I say this sheepishly) used Malala and her cohorts as a tool as well. I talk about girls whose basic rights and choices are dictated by others, and here are my girls making a fuss about wearing a sari. But I do understand that they feel constrained.

They say that it takes a village to raise a child. But for girls, particularly in the East, it is also a matter of silencing voices and swimming against the village tide.

Shoba Narayan is the author of the memoir “Return to India.”


  1. Sorry I’ve been away a bit …
    Not to be a buzzkill but, purely from a consulting standpoint, let’s look at the situation here.
    In RTI book Shoba has listed “reasons to move to India” where some of the reasons are:
    * Want kids to have easier relationships with grandparents and get Eastern values. Yet in this article and others before it the only relationship with grandparents seems to be a gentle demurral, just say no politely, which only belies a steadfast opposition to many grandparent values. The only thing that’s gotten easy, it appears, is to just say no.
    * Something about not becoming Britney Spears clones. OK so clearly the kids are in school (even if it is oasis to oasis) and not just fooling around. But the singular elements of a young girls’ life (including mine when I was in high school and college) – clothes and music and all that stuff is really Britney Spears here.
    * Want kids to love India as [Shoba] does. All the articles here seem to indicate that the kids really like their MTV and FashionTV icons and no mention of how the kids have taken to Tamil/Kannada/Hindi classes or wearing saris or doing purely Indian things. This is doubly surprising since I really expected Shoba, the firebrand, to come back to Vinay with “what the heck are you talking about man, my kids are wearing saris at every occasion and belting out Hindi tunes in the shower, quite unlike your Telugu friend”. (Then we’d see Vinay eat some crow for once.)
    So on the big points of moving back the outcome seems to be neutral-to-negative (okay that’s a bit of consulting-ese).
    But I am not persuaded by NS’ idea that kids are just part of the package; this is because the subject of discussion here is kids and not Shoba herself, so NS’s statement sort of becomes a diffident beg the question deal.

    I guess the “world is oyster” is the only remaining response but that prompts this question. If Shoba herself fled India in the 80s to escape Indian-ness then why bring back the kids to Inda now anyway?

    With due apologies for any offense (which is completely unintended).


    1. Naina et al
      What I really don’t get (well, I sorta do) is the expectation that I have to “prove” that this whole “Return to India” exercise “worked” and the parameters that you all specify for me to prove that it worked. I can– like Atlas– shrug. But you are loyal and careful readers so I will engage.
      My big counter argument to the points made by Naina, Vinay, RG and others is a simple one. Culture can be absorbed through osmosis. It does not have to be a pleasant experience. In the NYT piece, my point was that my girls should learn to ignore the ‘voices in their heads’ from loving relatives here. This presumes that they engage with loving relatives, aka grandparents A LOT. I think the mistake people are making is reading my polemic and extrapolating entire worlds from it. My fault really, because I bring my family into it to make certain points. Yesterday, for example, we met for three hours for Ganesh puja at my parents house. It was lovely! My Mom made “unni appam” or “nei appam” because my daughter loves it. My Dad acted as ‘priest’ and taught his grandkids the puja. We ate breakfast together. But where is the article in that? The fact that I only choose to write about edgy stuff that are full of conflict and controversy does disservice to the range and texture of family interaction that happens here in India.


      1. Shoba first I am sorry if my piece (written quite late at night) sounded like a demand for a proof. That wasn’t the idea at all.

        I think we are just asking the question “how much of India was absorbed” and more broadly “did RtI achieve its goal”. Even if the answer is “no” or “not as much as hoped” there are lots of learnings about the journey and I fully agree with NS that a lot of us would be eager to discover what you learned over the past few years. (NS again is able to frame and phrase things in a more genteel and accommodating tone than ours, so that’s something we can learn from him.)

        In fact it’s interesting that some of my colleagues (also IBanking like your husband) are contemplating going back for similar reasons. They are discussing very pointed questions e.g. is [BOM, BLR, MAS] livable, can you get good help at home, how easy/difficult to find good schools that strike the right balance, what does it do for career etc etc. You have the rare gifts of observation and inference and exposition to rightly answer these questions. RtI 2 The Journey Continues, if you ever write it, is bound to be a great success.

        I am all ears. What things do you think USA (or foreign) born kids like and dislike about India? (I am clearly directing this at a collective set of kids and not any particular kid.)


      2. Naina, I agree … the only addition to Shoba’s comment is that the “parameters” are what she herself laid out (this I figured out after reading your post Naina!) before moving back to India; they are not a synthetic benchmark. So in a sense it was natural and logical for us to ask.
        In any case I can see there’s a lot of value in the follow on book.

        Shoba, are you going to write it? Is there a hush hush announcement in the works??


        1. RG, Naina, NS, et al.
          This is a very complex topic and I wish we lived in the same city (either in the US or here). So much to say and takes so long to write. Here are my points, which I have mentioned in the book as well.

          1. I don’t think people should move back for the sake of their children. Living in America confers rich advantages for Indian-American kids as evidenced by the rising number who are hugely successful there in all walks of life. I did not move back for the sake of my kids. I don’t know how many of you read Return to India, but there is a discussion there where I tell my husband that I want to move back “for me” as it were.

          2. RTI for the sake of parents is understandable, particularly as they ail and age. Everyone agrees on this and there is no edge there 🙂 so let’s just leave it.

          3. As for where “I” have achieved the RTI things that I set out of achieve: absolutely. The writer in me who thrives in angst-ridden zones began to say: “yes and no,” before saying the truth which is “absolutely.” There are costs. I miss lunching with NYC editors, for example. I miss the serendipity of job-encounters. I miss my book club and my friends. Email is a poor substitute. The costs are largely professional. India is better for the “personal” stuff: the word soul-satisfying really makes sense here. Be it a kutcheri or a colour or a random interaction. Yesterday, my Dad was telling me about “Ghana Shyama Sundara” which was a huge hit song in the fifties when he was a young man. Had never heard the song; had never heard the story. He sang it for me, sitting in my couch, late in the evening. I found it on Music India Online and played it for him. He laughed out loud. How to put a price on that? And where is the story in that? No conflict 🙂
          That said, I have close friends in Bangalore who were born and raised in America but moved to India for professional reasons. They are from U.Chicago, Harvard and Princeton. HBS (all four of them– my friends and their spouses). They are working in Bangalore on start ups and private equity. So their personal stuff is all in America and they are here for professional reasons. Interesting eh?

          4. The problem for people like me “people like us” really is that we can be “happy” in many places. I am happy here for now. But who knows? Ten years from now, depending on circumstances, I could be in Morocco, NYC, or Paris.

          The most interesting discussions in this arena center around child-rearing and what is better for kids. This is part of a larger topic that I am fully consumed with in a “Salon of Ideas” group that I am part of in Bangalore. How to instil culture in kids? How to let them “fail” and can you design controlled failure? How to transmit values to your kids? These are deeply complex topics with no satisfying resolution. Angela Lee Duckworth says ‘grit,” (all the research is from your old school, Naina (UPenn, Wharton– leaders in positive psychology). RTI is only a part of this larger “how do I make my kids better citizens of the world” topic. I am very careful to say that RTI cannot achieve such a goal. I am not even sure what can– since I muddle through parenting anyhow.
          Long answer. Maybe we do a skype conference call (once in two months). To discuss these and other topics? Don’t have the knowledge to set it up but will be delighted to join.


          1. I am not convinced about being “happy” in many places like Paris or Morocco.

            India is home, it is deep in our psyche and the idea of returning to India (returning “home”) is, for a woman, a very good thing for self esteem and self worth. All the earthy Indian stuff. And running a home and just *handling* it, be it the staff or the other things, is a strong and constant reminder of what you are worth as a woman: a wife or mother or daughter [or d-in-law].

            Moving off to Paris or Morocco is again no different than moving to NYC. I guess initially it is all romantic and charming (everything we have read and dreamed about, clinking glasses and starry nights and all that) but in the end it is again going on the hubby scholarship for a fine arts education. Good experience for a couple of years but pretty much useless after that.

            I am reading Gita and the part about karma (nishkama karma though the Gita does not say this precisely) really rings true. This led me to think about two things.

            Firstly the housewife in the USA (or really anywhere outside India) the job, as it is, is about organizing events and doing other repeatable tasks. It is all just play however. Organizing a dinner and choosing the menu and decorations is all very nice but in the end is not a real “value add”. (OK I admit I picked up that last term from my hubby. But he dare not say it!)

            But in India it is different. There are real challenges – kids are at school and the car breaks down. Or the driver has a problem. Or the maid has eloped with the driver next door. The woman has to really put nose to grindstone to somehow interact with others solve the problem. It is a tangible value add and something men can’t really accomplish.

            People think return to India means return to haldi kumkum as though it is merely an adornment. But to the woman who is able to wear and wield it – as the CEO of the home – it is the equivalent of the MBA of running the home which is no less stressful or significant than running a million dollar company.

            Venturing abroad again is just like the ironic symbol of wiping off the haldi kumkum. Just like the Indian degree or the marriage thali-kayar, strong and meaningful in India but strange and useless anywhere else.


        2. Shoba thanks for your response.

          1. I think we “get” what you now say i.e. did not move back for kids. The only contradiction is that 6 of 10 reasons for moving to India and 5 of 10 reasons for remaining in America (in your book, the “lists”) were about kids i.e. Indian values for kids, kids closer to grandparents etc. I guess this contradiction is resolved by the rest of the book and your own visceral feelings for India etc etc.

          2. Though I (‘we’ I daresay) live in the USA it is easy to appreciate the value of enjoying a moment (song etc) with Dad. Priceless indeed.

          3. But the question here I think was “how much of India has been absorbed by kids” and what, if any, might be the inhibitors. I guess your “Salon of Ideas” group is focusing on how to solve the problem i.e. what “things can parents do to facilitate absorption”. But we are curious about the problem itself i.e. what things do kids find “good” and “not good” about the India experience.

          Can you elaborate?


    2. Vinay, RG, Naina:

      For some reason I feel compelled to just step in the midst of this inquisition.

      Your collective point (singular) i.e. Shoba’s kids have not absorbed India to the extent Shoba had envisioned is not necessarily true or even relevant. Just think, when you moved to the US you (and I) might have had a broad goal of a ‘better life’ whatever it meant in terms of career and family and whatnot. But we end up variously in tech, finance, consulting etc. and our lives are none the worse really.

      In that same way Shoba’s point is that moving to India has given a greater return (measured in Indian Osmotic Units, IOUs) than remaining in the USA.

      Also keep in mind that the story of Shoba’s kids is far from over. How much we remember and miss India (our IOUs) often kick in later, which is to say after kids and family and (middle) age, so the real test of Shoba’s kids IOUs is probably when they have themselves got married and settled.

      Beyond that all I’d say is just remember Shoba can always plead the Fifth, particularly on this public blog, so it is probably best to temper expectations and keep it friendly.

      Shoba I will also say that I am deeply interested (for my kids naturally) to learn what your kids have liked (or not liked) about India. The years you have spent gathering and parsing that knowledge is an invaluable and rare insight for other parents who are considering moving back to India. (Vinay, Naina, RG are you getting the hint here? If you guys keep it down a notch and promise not to jump on every detail perhaps we can let Shoba teach us some more here.)


  2. I just sent the link to my mom in India. She has a grand-daughter but never offers to oil her hair.
    In fact, when the kid wanted her hair oil my mom just handed her the plastic bottle and left. She had a traumatic exp. with a Hitler of a grandma who got all upset when she re-plaited her hair the way she wanted.

    So she follows the non-interference policy when it comes to her grandkids and I love her for it!


  3. RG – you have a good question re. how much Indian influence has permeated Shoba’s kids. But remember that kids is only part of the equation for Shoba wanting to move back, the other parts (parents, her own desires, hubby situation) are probably bigger. I am not sure if you have kids, but if you do you will know that they develop (these days pretty quickly) into independent beings. How much they learn Indian-ness or anything else is a measure of their interests, not a measure of parenting. Nonetheless you have asked a good question and we’ll see what Shoba says.

    I am not sure I agree with your second question re kids and college because again it is not necessarily a measure of parenting or RoI as you say. Shoba left India (to study) at a different time when things were different. Clearly if her child wants to study baking then India may not be the right place – Shoba’s own comments notwithstanding. But if your question is, “Will Shoba say there is no need to go” then that’s a different (and valid) question.

    Ultimately just remember that choices and people (including Shoba) do evolve. So just keep a friendly and open mind. It is Shoba’s life and it’s OK either way and it does not diminish the value of her past work. Let’s just recognize friendly inquiry from inquisition and leave it there.



  4. For the kids, the elders’ fond attention is quite daunting. I remember my own adolescence when we boys liked growing our hair long (hippies) much to elders’ chagrin. But it didn’t take us long to realize that they were just directions to a cultural setting than a mandate to conform. Your kids will figure that out too, if not already.


    1. How do “directions” differ from “mandate”, what is your real point here? I think Shoba is talking about cultural conflict i.e. children growing up in the West (like my daughter), not Indian children receiving their western influences from music and Tv.


  5. Shoba this is an interesting point.
    You guys moved back 7 years ago, how much Indian heritage has actually been imbibed by your kids? From the looks of this article your kids – wearing Western clothes and nightclubbing and pooh-poohing coconut oil Indian dresses (especially saris, when their mom is so sartorial!). Are they going to Indian schools (not the expat International schools), are they active in local community? If they want to become a pastry chef that’s a good goal but hardly Indian.
    It appears you have clearly achieved your RoI (be near parents etc etc) with the RtI move. But are your kids under the certain impression that they are in India for a couple more years after which it is, as you have written elsewhere, college in the US and wherever their US citizenship jobs will take them?
    How likely is it that your kids will stay in India for college? Will you say to your kids what you had said in the NDTV interview i.e. India is thriving and there is no need to go abroad ??



    1. Thanks RG. What my kids do is (sadly) up to them. I would like them to be X, Y, Z, but at the end of the day you can only cheer and cushion. What else is a parent to do? As far as how Indian they are– that is a huge, hard question. They attend more pujas than they like; they eat Indian food every day; they have learned to deal with and dare I say, loved the two ladies who help me bring them up (cook and housekeeper who they call Geeta-akka and Rosemary-akka). These are countless other experiences make their life different here than there. But they listen to the same music that their friends in America do, populate buzzfeed, pinterest, justin bieber and what not. So they are– like the Indian kids growing up in America– cross cultural straddlers. One big difference that makes this move worthwhile is their answer to a simple question: Are you Indian or American? This produces a complicated answer from my nieces and nephews in the States. For my daughters, it is an unhesitating answer: “Indian.” I don’t know why, but that is important to me and no moral high ground or patriotic judgement here. Just a personal call. That I have achieved and am happy about


      1. Hmm, but what does the answer really mean? If they attend more pujas than they like – implying of course that it’s not something they like a priori – and if they don’t like Indian clothes or coconut oil or anything else … as in don’t really like it but some how bite your tongue and deal with it … then what really does it mean “Indian”? It’s a bit of a mixed bag here too – some “Indian-American”, some “American” and some “Indian” even the ones born here.

        How do you feel about them going to college in the USA? If Bangalore started a pastry chef school at the Leela Penta then would you urge them to go there instead?


      2. Hmm. Very thought-provoking response Shoba.
        One of my colleagues (who recently moved back to Bangalore) put it this way. He has realized that his kids (10-12 years old) are fundamentally American and their Bangalore experience is “oasis to oasis”. They live in an expensive gated community condo and a cook and housekeeper and driver and maid (oasis) and they travel by air-conditioned cars to a 1.5-lakh-per-year international school with other rich kids of rich parents (another oasis) and spend vacations abroad. Nothing wrong with this exclusive sort of life but would you call this Indian? Shaikh Al-Maktoum lives in an oasis and he is no bedouin no matter however much he waxes eloquent about “the feel of the desert” (esp to international investors).
        I told my friend:
        Your kids speak Telugu at home, but what do they prefer to speak? (English)
        Your kids eat Indian food at home, but what do they prefer to eat? (Italian. His kids have blander Western tastes.)
        What do they prefer to wear? (Western clothes, jeans and skirts. They find Indian clothes, esp saris, too garish and too uncomfortable.)
        What do they prefer to watch/listen? Western stuff, music, Youtube/Facebook etc. No hope whatsoever for Indian stuff.
        Where do they prefer to hang out? The mall or club. How about the cutting tea stall? No flippin way.
        What do they sing every morning? Sare Jahan Se Acha (or whatever Indian hymn).
        What do they prefer to sing? nothing! Just get on with it!

        I told him, his kids are no more Indian than he (a native Godavari Telugu) is a WASP.
        “Yenti WASP”, he snorted back. We smiled at each other.


        1. RG and Vinay:
          My point is that identity is a complex thing. Did any of us like or revel in going to pujas (or temples) as kids? I know I didn’t. But this is the stuff of memories. The language bit is a miss– I get that. My friend in San Fran has ensured that his kids speak Tamil by speaking that exclusively at home with his wife. Catch them young and make it exclusive is the trick to language learning. I have missed the boat on that one. As far as the future, RG, I would wish/nag/advice my kids on many things including joining National Law School in Bangalore– best in the country, close to home ‘sic’. But I hold my tongue because that is a guaranteed way to make sure the kid goes to Timbuktu. Kids– either here or ‘there’ (US/UK/NZ) today operate under the ‘world is my oyster’ principle which is glorious. This requires a longer response, but my Dad just dropped in and I have to go make him coffee. Thanks for provoking thoughts 🙂


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