V. Lakshmi tackles questions of identity in Finding Your Way When Life Changes Your Plans, a memoir in which she explores being a person of color of East Indian descent, Jewish, and female.
But those descriptors only scratch the surface of a book in which the author, now a professional photographer in the Kansas City area, endeavors to come to terms with issues of loss -- loss of hope in giving birth to a child of her own and loss of any assurance that the physical pain that she has lived with for more than two decades will someday completely cease.
Born in the mostly Hindu South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Lakshmi, 43, sustained her first loss on the second day of her life: the death of her birth mother.
"Losing her life to give birth to me has shaped my life," said Lakshmi, writing under a pseudonym. Because she has been wracked with guilt by this cruel tradeoff, she observed, "every birthday is bittersweet" for her.
As a newborn, Lakshmi was promptly taken in by a nurse/Christian missionary who was building an orphanage in the region at that time, but she was soon adopted by a Jewish-American family on the East Coast. At a very young age, she underwent a formal conversion to Judaism at her family's synagogue.
Raised in the upper-crust suburbs of Philadelphia's Main Line, Lakshmi attended a Jewish day school through her elementary school years. "I was a minority in the school," she said, "but I was fully welcome."
"There was always the curiosity [about why I looked different than most other Jewish children]," she added, "but kids just question."
On a teen trip to Israel at age 16, Lakshmi met a girl on a kibbutz whose family, part of a tiny East Indian Jewish community, had made aliyah. "It was a life-changing moment," she said, recalling the first time she met someone who resembled her in complexion and shared her Asian heritage. "I still remember lighting candles with her family [and thinking] I'm not the only one."
Over the years, Lakshmi noted, she has often been mistaken for someone other than her parents' child. "When my [adopted] mom and I are together, people have asked me, 'Are you her caregiver?'" Lakshmi recounted. "My mom will always say, 'This is my daughter.'"
Lakshmi's Finding Your Way is not just about being a Jewish person of color navigating a culture and society that are still overwhelmingly Caucasian and Eurocentric. A large portion of the book deals with Lakshmi's health crises over the past two decades, the most salient and excruciating of which has been endometriosis. She has had multiple surgeries over the years, which have only intermittently alleviated the pain. After a miscarriage, followed by a partial hysterectomy, she said, there is now no hope that she will ever bear a child of her own.
This loss was particularly devastating to her, Lakshmi said, because a baby would have given her an opportunity to create a bloodline. As someone who never knew the identities of her birth mother or father, she had always craved to have a "biological connection."
Lakshmi has worked through the emotional pain over the years, sufficiently so that she has been able to address her experiences openly during talks as a diversity awareness speaker. At one of these events, she said, an audience member came up to her and said, "You should write a book." That, Lakshmi said, was the genesis of her memoir.
Partial proceeds of the book, which is scheduled to be released by the end of 2018 by Citrine Publishing, will go to Family Village Farm, a nonprofit in India that provides housing and support services to orphans and the elderly. It was founded Dr. Pauline King, the missionary who had rescued Lakshmi some 43 years ago.
"She saved my life," Lakshmi said, "and now I want to give back to where I came from."