Parashat Tzav: Parsing identity

V. Lakshmi was raised by a Jewish family in the US, but felt driven to explore her Indian roots

‘I HAVE struggled to fit in my whole life.’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘I HAVE struggled to fit in my whole life.’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
V. Lakshmi was born in Tamil Nadu, India, in 1976. Tragically, her birth mother died two days later. While her father tried to care for her, he was unable to provide his daughter with milk. So when Lakshmi was five months old, her father gave her to a woman, a doctor, who was building an orphanage. She lived in the woman’s home until the orphanage was built, and six months later, was adopted by an American Jewish family, taken to live in the United States and raised as Rachel Beck.
Reading Finding Your Way When Life Changes Your Plans is a lot like reading a personal journal. Lakshmi, the author’s pen name, writes about her hopes and dreams, and shares the pain she has experienced. She asks herself questions that she shares with the reader: “Am I the way I am from my genetics, or is it because of my upbringing?” and “Why should humans continue to suffer over and over again?” When discussing her gynecological problems, she ponders, “Try for one minute to imagine what it would be like to have no medical history.”
In the first chapter, Lakshmi jumps right into her search for her true identity.
“Who am I? Where do I fit in? With whom do I belong?” she writes. “I have struggled to fit in my whole life, lacking clear answers to these questions. Most of my life has seemed like a free-floating, out-of-body experience.”
It is clear she struggled a great deal to understand who she is – a Jew living in the United States, born in India to Indian parents she never knew. The author stresses that she feels lucky to have her adoptive family that she loves very much. But her personal journey isn’t about them, it’s about her own feelings. Lakshmi’s adoptive parents supported her in her search for identity, which eventually led her to return to India as an adult and volunteer at the Family Village Farm, the orphanage where she lived as an infant. 
In the second chapter, Lakshmi delves into her attempts to become a mother. “For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a mother,” she writes. “It was part of my life’s plan.”
Lakshmi had surgery multiple times for her endometriosis, which she assumes is a condition inherited from her biological mother. After getting married, Lakshmi tried to get pregnant without success and then underwent fertility treatments, which did not work. Later, she became pregnant without medical intervention but suffered a miscarriage, which caused her and her husband tremendous grief.
After much thought, Lakshmi and her husband decided to adopt, going through the long process required by an adoption agency in the Midwest where they lived. They were ecstatic when they were told there was a baby girl for them. They prepared a beautiful nursery for the baby and flew to the East Coast to bring their new child home. When the infant’s birth mother changed her mind at the last minute they were both devastated. After this terrible experience, Lakshmi and her husband decided they were already a family and did not pursue adoption again.
The author says she wrote her book to help people going through similar experiences.
“This book is not about me,” she writes. “It is about giving you and anyone else who reads it inspiration to pick yourself up again and continue to find true joy and love. My goal in this world is to help as many people as I can. I will not leave this planet without reaching that goal. It sounds cliché, but I do believe we all can make a difference in this world by sharing our stories.”
The author’s goal is noble and sincere, but “this book is not about me” is simply untrue. The book is very much about her. It is, after all, a memoir.
Lakshmi writes that she “fit in with her family but nowhere else. Not in school, not even at my temple, not anywhere.” This contradicts her comment in the preface, where she says she attended a Jewish private school, “where I fit in because I was Jewish after all. After attending a Jewish school, Lakshmi was sent to a public middle school and high school, where she struggled socially. She hated her years in these schools because, she explains, she experienced racism and discrimination, because of her skin color and religion. She gives very little detail about these experiences, only sharing that they hurt deeply.
I would have liked more stories from the author’s childhood, about her family and her years growing up. She also says almost nothing about her husband beyond “when I got married to the man of my dreams,” and describing him as a “teddy bear and a love muffin.” She does mention that he is a Christian, although almost in passing.
In her 30s, Lakshmi reconnects with India and Indian culture, visiting her nation of birth and volunteering. She gets to know Indian teenagers at the Family Village Farm and makes Indian friends. For the first time, she experiences what it is like to be in a country where other people look like her. These visits complete a side of her identity she previously felt was missing.
Finding Your Way shares the personal challenges of one woman with an unusual background. The author opens her heart and shares her deepest feelings. She is to be commended for her honesty and desire to help others with her story. At the same time, no review of Finding Your Way would be complete without mentioning that the book is filled with typos and grammatical mistakes and is rather disorganized. Nevertheless, it is a touching book that adoptive parents, women who have had similar struggles and others will find worthwhile reading.