FIFTY YEARS AGO, when I arrived from India at the age of 21 as a graduate student in the University of -Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, I was, quite possibly, the most innocent, most ill-equipped and least savvy young woman American higher education had ever greeted. Heading into the Iowa winter, I still wore saris and sandals. Except for household servants, I had never spoken to a male unrelated to me. I had never handled money—we kept a servant for that—and my convent school in Calcutta (now Kolkata) had dismissed the notion of an “American” literature. Naturally, I expressed no opinion (nor did I have any that might run counter to the revealed knowledge from religion, politics, history and my father).
I realize now I had no individual identity. I was a communal creation, part of a chorus of assent that traditional Indian culture expected of its children.
I confess this neither from pride nor from shame. I was merely acting out a role, the embodiment of the perfect middle daughter from the highest caste of the self-proclaimed most exquisitely evolved state in India, West Bengal. We were top dogs in an ossified society.
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