Breaking Out
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Breaking Out

Sub title: An Indian Woman's American Journey

Author: Padma Desai

Padma Desai grew up in the 1930s in the provincial world of Surat, where she had a sheltered and strict upbringing in a traditional Gujarati Anavil Brahmin family. Her academic brilliance won her a scholarship to Bombay University, where the first heady taste of freedom in the big city led to tragic consequences—seduction by a fellow student whom she was then compelled to marry.  In a failed attempt to end this disastrous first marriage, she converted to Christianity.

A scholarship to America in 1955 launched her on her long journey to liberation from the burdens and constraints of her life in India, with a growing self-awareness and transformation at many levels, as she made a new life for herself, met and married the celebrated economist Jagdish Bhagwati, became a mother, and rose to academic eminence at Harvard and Columbia.

How did she navigate the tumultuous road to assimilation in American society and culture? And what did she retain of her Indian upbringing in the process? This brave and moving memoir, written with a novelist’s skill at evoking personalities, places and atmosphere, and a scholar’s insights into culture and society, community and family, tells a compelling and thought-provoking human story that will resonate with readers everywhere.

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Book Reviews

 ‘Breaking Out: An Indian Woman’s American Journey by Padma Desai is a deeply felt, yet unsentimental, account of the life of a brilliant girl born in the thirties of the last century in small-town India, who becomes a successful Sovietologist (now an expert on Russia) at a prestigious university in the United States.  We have come to expect a culturalist narcissism from such autobiographies, but this one has no trace of it.  Rather does it place an individual life in the context of the worlds it has traveled, with a gripping and relentless honesty.’ —Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, University Professor in the Humanities, Columbia University.

‘An elegantly crafted, richly readable memoir, alternately tender and astringent, like life itself.’   —Ramachandra Guha.

‘The outstanding quality of this meditative and fluently written memoir is the author’s courage, an indomitable spirit that leads a sheltered young woman from a provincial Indian town to Harvard and Columbia and, against many odds, climb to the heights of her profession. Padma Desai’s courage does not shy away from an unsparing examination of her inner world and her closest relationships, including a failed marriage, and acknowledges the inevitable regrets of a life that on the surface is full of achievement. Good memoirs are written only out of fearless introspection and Desai’s ranks with the best.’ —Sudhir Kakar .

 ‘Padma Desai follows Chekhov's brilliant advice to wring the slave out of herself and become a complete human being. She does this thanks to America, grace and forbearance. And recounts it with panache!’ —Gurcharan Das.

 ‘A fascinating and inspiring  narrative revealing both the personal and the professional struggles and triumphs of an extraordinary woman and great economist.’ —Wendy Doniger

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Published by

Penguin Books India


15 Apr 2012





Book Format



240pp with 8pp B/W illustrations


Indian Subcontinent only


Non-Fiction, Memoir, Classics





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