Monday, 21 September 2015

Book review: From India With Love, Latika Bourke (2015)

This beguiling memoir offers a kind of tapestry formed over several different woofs - the long-ways threads that constitute part of the fabric of a woven creation such as a rug - through which the weave is threaded in order to make the body and pattern of the object. To start with there is the story of a baby adopted from India by Australian parents. There is the story of the headstrong and nerdy girl who wants to become a journalist and does. There is the story of the Australian confronted by the realities of a developing country. There is the story of someone who looks different and who strongly resents being classified. There is also the story of the child and the adult that emerges.

Then there is the strange epiphany that might make the central motif in the object's design. It begins with a chance viewing of a popular movie on DVD at a friend's house. When Bourke first watched Slumdog Millionaire - the 2008 film directed by Englishman Danny Boyle - she was convulsed with emotion. Her childhood distaste for anything Indian was at once overturned. Where once she had detested being associated with India - Bourke grew up in country NSW in a large Catholic family and never thought of herself as anything other than 100% Australian - now she wanted to find out more about the place. This conversion - for it seems to have been no less dramatic than a religious epiphany - happens midway through the book. The next step for the young journalist is to visit her birthplace.

Bourke's mother had kept all the old records detailing the child's adoption and so mother and daughter revisit the documents. With her partner, Bourke then plans a journey to Delhi and a small town in the province of Bihar - one of the poorest places in the country - where she had been first put up for adoption as an infant. Once overseas, Bourke finds herself again overwhelmed by what she discovers. Visiting the place where she had been left as a baby she even experiences a kind of spiritual reckoning, surrounded in the place by dutiful nuns working and living in their domestic environment.

Having settled outstanding debts to her origins, Bourke finds herself free to learn - the girly swot of old resurfaces and the inquisitive instincts of the trained journalist kick in - and the questions continue to materialise. Having had all the advantages of a normal Australian childhood, and having emerged successfully into independence along with adulthood, Bourke is free to develop any ideas she wants. And she does. Besides being an adoptee, of course, as well as a proud Australian, Bourke is a woman and this simple fact within the context of India - which she is happy to categorise as inspiring though chaotic - leads her to formulate her own thoughts on life as it is lived there.

Tying up the ends of a story is always a challenge for a journalist. Many practitioners swear by the maxim that you put the most important information at the top of the story, and let the end take care of itself. But my suspicion is that Bourke's account of India is not yet concluded. She has written her early story and in doing so has introduced us to a country and a personality. Both are interesting in their own right but as the author notes on more than one occasion, the visits to India will continue. There might even be an overseas posting there, if something can be arranged - you might presume - with a sympathetic employer. Given a sufficient quantity of will, things have a way, you suspect, of working themselves out. This fascinating and often moving book might constitute merely a first instalment. 

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