Off the Shelf: Life in India by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Rachel Meyer already hates the phrase she’s heard far too many times since she moved to Mumbai, India, with her husband, Dhruv: “Get used to it.” It’s as if India demands that she change her basic nature in order to make a home there. It doesn’t help that she and Dhruv married and moved after a six-month whirlwind romance. Adjusting to a different country is not easy in the best of times, but things get worse when Rachel opens her apartment door to discover her mother-in-law, Swati, unexpectedly standing before her. Swati has left her husband, who lives in another part of India, and declares she now wants to live life on her own terms. Unfortunately for Rachel, that means living with her only son and daughter-in-law. In the novel “Mother Land” by Leah Franqui (William Morrow), Rachel and Swati, who have very different ideas about life, are forced to juggle their wants and desires, something that becomes even more problematic when Dhruv leaves for a month-long trip for work. 

Rachel and Swati quickly clash over the running of the household. Rachel, who is a foodie, prefers to shop for and prepare her own meals. She’s distressed when Swati hires a cook and even more disturbed when Dhruv simply accepts his mother’s decision. Rachel protests by refusing to eat the cook’s food and continuing to wash her own dishes, even though their maid is now coming in twice a day to clean. Rachel’s Jewish family had encouraged discussing difficulties and options so that everyone is heard, something she realizes is a problem not only with Swati, but with Dhruv. Neither of them want to talk about their feelings and why they think something is important. They also are not interested in learning why Rachel feels differently. This dismissal of her concerns and desires leaves Rachel confused and upset.

Although Rachel tries to create her own life and make friends, her meeting with other western women living in India doesn’t go well. The level of disdain they express for the country makes her uncomfortable and some of their remarks strike her as racist. Rachel wants to be able to complain about her problems, but doesn’t feel they should be an indictment of all of India. She is no more comfortable with the Indian wives of Dhruv’s colleagues. Her life feels empty until she applies for a job doing voice-over work for an English-speaking version of a Romanian soap opera. The main character’s life is so unlike her own that Rachel manages to lose herself in the story. Yet, she knows this is not what she wants to do with her life and wonders whether her move to India was a positive one or her way of escaping an unsatisfactory existence in New York City.

The beauty of “Mother Land” is that the author allows Rachel and Swati to tell their own stories, something that adds depth and perspective to the work. It’s clear that many of the problems they face are cultural in nature and their misunderstandings show the very different ways they were raised. For example, Swati had to cook for her in-laws when she first married and was thrilled when she was able to turn that job over to someone else. For Rachel, “food was essential to her, and to her family, and everything in their lives revolved around it. She learned to cook as a child, with her mother, and her grandmother, who was an immigrant who had spent most of her life in Iran and cooked Persian dishes with skill and love.” Yet, it was seeing the nature of Rachel and Dhruv’s relationship – the way they interacted – that inspired Swarti to leave her husband: she realized that not only doesn’t she love him, but she doesn’t feel anything for him. What the two women learn that they have in common is that they both want to be seen and heard for who they really are. 

“Mother Land” is a heartwarming, absorbing work that will leave you rooting for both characters, even as they alternately irritate each other – and the reader – in big and small ways. It’s perfect for book clubs that like to discuss cultural differences, although these are usually based on Rachel’s being an American, rather than the Judaism she notes she doesn’t practice. The novel’s ending was particularly satisfying, as Rachel and Swati learn that “getting used to it” and doing what is expected is not always the best way to live a life.