Swati is the last person Rachel Meyer expects to find at her front door in Mumbai. Swati is also the last person Rachel’s husband, Dhruv, expects to find at home after work one day. Swati, a native of Kolkata, is Dhruv’s mother and Rachel’s mother-in-law, and she’s moving in. So starts Leah Franqui’s novel, Mother Land, a story of trying to find oneself in another country and placing the success of that on another person.
Rachel is a Jewish professional in Brooklyn when she meets Dhruv. She hates her job; he loves his. Feeling stuck in life, Rachel finds herself swept away by Dhruv and his confidence and direction. The two date and marry at City Hall in New York all in the matter of several months. Rachel knows that Dhruv will be returning to India for work and sees this opportunity as one that will turn around her life.
While she knew she shouldn’t romanticize the days of the Raj, it had been difficult for her to imagine India as much other than languid British people sipping gin and tonics as they looked out onto massive tea plantations, unless she thought of it as Slumdog Millionaire. She didn’t know how to put the two realities together, in her mind, so she picked the one she preferred because it had sepia tones and 1930s costumes.
But after three months in Mumbai, Rachel feels lost. She has made no friends and Dhruv works all the time. Then her mother-in-law arrives. At least Rachel had been in charge of her life within the walls of her comfortable apartment, but that disappears when Swati takes Rachel and Dhruv’s bedroom and hires a cook behind Rachel’s back.
And if that’s not bad enough, Dhruv leaves almost immediately on a last minute business trip to Kolkata that’s supposed to last a month. This is the first sign that Dhruv might be more traditional than Rachel originally thought. He claims there’s nothing they can do about Swati moving in and that Rachel will just have to deal with it until he returns.
Franqui doesn’t demonize either Indian customs or American ones. Yes, Swati inserts herself into Rachel’s life in Mumbai, but she’s accepting when Rachel drinks alcohol, smokes cigarettes, and associates with male friends. When Rachel calls Swati by her first name and not an honorific for mother-in-law, Swati holds her tongue: when Swati was a young bride, she could never have gotten away with any of these things, nor would she ever even have thought of doing them in the first place. This realization is what convinces Swati to divorce her husband, Vinod, after forty years.
The colorful side characters include a couple expats who embrace Mumbai. There’s Fifi from the United Kingdom, also married to an Indian man. Fifi’s social schedule is packed and she has a job she enjoys; she and her husband explore Mumbai and make it theirs. Then there’s Richard, who goes by Rishi, an erstwhile LA surfer who epitomizes the caricature of foreigners who fetishize India.
Cultural cannibals, she liked to call them, people so in love with another culture that they wanted to become a part of it. Expats in Paris who said things like My soul is French and really believed them, deeply. When it came to India, that desire for ingestion took the form of a devotion to faux-Hindu wisdom, declamations in praise of the “spiritualism” and “simplicity” of the people, and the burning of a great deal of incense.
Write what you know, they say. Franqui is Jewish-Puerto Rican, married to an Indian screenwriter, and lives in Mumbai. She writes in her acknowledgements that Mother Land was inspired by a visit from her own mother-in-law. Franqui’s fictionalized experiences serve as cautionary tales for those hoping that a place or a person will change their lives—as well as for women with mother-in-law issues.