A Conversational Book Review

Meera Godbole Krishnamurthy in conversation with Gita Chadha on her recent book, Balancing Act, published jointly by Zubaan and Penguin India. We are reproducing the jacket blurb here.

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GC: A lot of us could relate to the basic theme of your novel which, correct me if I am wrong, is about how some of us - despite a professional education - decide to stay at home in order to raise the children when they come and our subsequent feeling that we are not being true to our feminisms, of whatever kind…

MGK: The protagonist, Tara, is an architect in San Diego who must decide whether or not to accept a job when she has two small children at home. Tara immerses herself in what she knows best – architecture - to find her answers. Balancing Act is about the dilemma that women face when they enter the domain of motherhood and must decide whether or not to pursue their careers. I wrote this novel because I was seeing this story played out in a myriad variations all around me. I am delighted but not surprised, that so many readers can relate to Tara since they have been (or are) in her shoes – irrespective of whether they choose to stay home or not.

GC: Tara is very similar to you in profile. Is the novel autobiographical?

MGK: Gita, it’s almost a cliché now that first novels are autobiographical. So unfortunately, people have read a lot more of me into Tara than is true. The other day somebody wrote that I did my grad school thesis on Louis Kahn. I did not.  Some of Tara’s experiences may reflect my own, but the book is definitely not a documentation of my life. I think good fiction must transcend the personal if it is to draw the reader in. Many readers find that Tara is familiar. She is me, but she is also you!

GC: So does Tara reflect your views on feminism?

MGK: Yes and no. Tara is certainly more consciously a feminist than I am. Though I went to a very liberal college in the US which had a huge and vocal feminist community, I actually got engaged with it only while writing the book many years later. I did my research on feminism (Steinem, Katie Roiphe, Ann Crittenden et.al.) as part of the process of creating Tara’s character. The thing Tara and I agree on, is that motherhood and how you define it, like feminism, is personal and we both respect life choices that are different from the ones we have made.

GC: Some would argue that your book is an account of women from a privileged background.

MGK: Of course it is. Tara even says so at some point in the novel. I believe that feminism belongs to all women. A privileged voice also has a story to tell. There are many women who know that choosing to be a ‘stay at home mom’ is not ‘easy’. It requires strength and conviction.

GC: Also, I felt that perhaps the novel, situated in the USA, seems to have little connect with the Indian context.

MGK: Actually Gita, this novel was written entirely in the US and I never thought that it would be published in India. I’ve been fortunate that it was. See, I grew up abroad, I have lived outside India since I was twelve – first in the Philippines and then in the US and only returned here recently. So I don’t have a context to base my writing in India. Having said that, I feel that the theme of motherhood is universal. Women everywhere have to make sure a meal is ready and organize baby-sitting before they step out even for a girl’s night, for example. I have found that there is more uniting than separating us when it comes to motherhood and caring for the family, no matter where we are in the world.

GC: I did notice, on the other hand, that you don’t glorify, or sentimentalize motherhood in the novel.

MGK: I don’t. I was never one of those young women who fawned over babies and waited for marriage and motherhood. I never really even thought about it. I don’t think motherhood is necessary for a woman to feel complete. It’s all about personal choice. There’s no “one-size-fits-all.”

GC: And yet, it can be a totally engaging, intellectually and emotionally demanding activity. It sort of filled me up...and also, surprised me. How has it been for you?

MGK: Yes, absolutely. There’s no limit to how much you can put into raising children, as you said, intellectually and emotionally. It is truly the work of a lifetime. That’s what the book is really about - Can motherhood be the work of a lifetime in the “modern” age we live in? I would like my daughter and my son to grow up believing that motherhood is not a “lesser choice.” In fact, the original title of my book was The Architecture of Motherhood, but it did not go down well with the publishers…

GC: Really? Why?

MGK: They thought it sounded too academic. It was a losing battle. 

GC: Meera, your character draws a lot on Louis Kahn. Are you inspired by him?

MGK: Tara certainly is! As with feminism, Louis Kahn also belongs more to Tara than to me . But I obviously did a significant amount of research into Kahn’s life, architecture and words while writing the book, so I know a lot about him now. His lectures are the stuff of legends and I find his architecture to be pure, timeless and true. So, yes, Kahn’s architecture inspires me, not so much his family life.

GC: I did like the feeling in the book that Tara was passionately engaged with abstraction and form…typically women characters are shown being involved more with the content of a discipline than its form…

MGK: I guess that is the way I relate to architecture…

GC: But Meera, aren’t there times when you feel as a woman that you do not sort of ‘fit in’ the very masculine forms of architecture...

MGK: Well, there were times at architecture school when I felt that the entire design process itself seemed to be based on a very masculine notion of space and inhabiting it. Perhaps women and men experience space – and by extension, the physical, emotional, intellectual world - quite differently.

GC: So how do you see your novel? Would you say it is a feminist novel? After all, it is published by a feminist publisher!

MGK: I suppose the reader would have to decide that, Gita. It’s complicated enough to define what feminism itself is. It means different things to different people, doesn’t it? So to some my novel might seem a feminist one, to others it is just a novel - a story, Tara’s story.

 

On that note, we end our conversation. After I switch off the voice recorder, Meera and I chat with Aditi, Meera’s fourteen year old daughter, who has sat through most of our conversation attentively. And as if on cue, my cell rings. It is Ira, my fifteen year old asking if she should  wash her hair! GC