Throughout the time I lived in India I was plagued by the daily realization that I was an alien in that land. No matter how hard I might try to understand almost any aspect of life there, genuine knowledge eluded me. One day, talking with a European friend who had married an Indian and who had lived there for two decades, I lamented that it seemed to me I would have to stay 10 years before I had any understanding of the place.

"Twenty," she replied. "But you mustn't stay a moment longer."

In fact, my friend left India within the year. She could not bear the thought of ending her days in the Hindu way, as ashes flung into the Ganges.

And what she had really been trying to tell me was that there is a fine line that separates knowing India and Indian ways from becoming part of the country, from becoming subsumed by it.

In "Family Web," Sarah Hobson tries to travel right up to that line (after living in India only a few months) and then to reflect back an accurate picture of Indian family life. But she cannot. Inevitably she becomes ensnared--by her western expectations and assumptions about human behavior, by the limited scope of her imagination, and finally by the pull of emotions aroused in her by the Indian family whose lives she studied.

Sarah Hobson is a British writer who is also the author of "Through Iran in Disguise," a chronicle of her travels disguised as a boy through the often forbidden worlds of pre-revolutionary Iran. In "Family Web" her western eyes are once again trained on eastern exotica, but this time her focus is on a 26-member South Indian joint (or extended) family. Fortunately for the reader the powerful voices of this family are louder than the author's.

Hobson became involved with the somewhat atypical family--for starters, its caste allowed a man two wives simultaneously--when it was selected as the subject of a British documentary film examining rural Indian attitudes toward fertility and family planning. Hobson's husband, the film's director, asked her to join him in the project. Armed with a female interpreter and a hidden tape recorder, she spent three months with the family, first visiting them every day and then living with them.

The family never learned about the tape recorder, or that although they thought their guest suffered from a weak bladder she was really rushing off to the bushes to make surreptitious notes. But they did know from the start that they would be paid for their participation, and that the film crew (who descended upon them after Hobson had laid the groundwork) had an "official" connection--the interpreter worked for the Ministry of Health and Family Planning--both factors which surely affected their behavior.

It is through this rather cloudy lens, located in a small one-caste village in the state of Karnataka, that we view the family of Manje Gowda, his first wife, their four sons, their wives and their children, as well as the progeny and relations of the second (and now deceased) wife. When we first see them, the family unit has standing in its village--they have property, an impressive well for irrigation, some farm animals. They also have impressive debts. The oldest son--the pundit of the family--has been educated and has a good job in town as a government accountant, while most of the rest of the family grinds away at working the land. Two of the younger women are pregnant. Two more have not been able to have children.

As the author comes to know them better, she learns that the joint family system, with the security and chance for advancement that unity affords, may be crumbling for the Gowdas. During the three months that Hobson stayed with them, we see a multitude of tensions erode their uneasy truce. And by the book's end, the family splits up, its members more at ease in their chosen sub-divisions, but no longer financially secure, no longer a unified force.

"Family Web" is at its most involving when Hobson is focusing on this theme of division, the factors and conversations that lead to it, and the sadly lessened life opportunities that result from it. Unfortunately, however, much less of the book is spent on direct observations of village life (at which she is an evocative witness) than her own intrusive reactions and reflections: Does the family really like her? What is the comparative measure of freedom between the peasant women of the Gowda family and herself? Will she ever come to understand the men? Does the family believe she is sincere?

Does it really matter? With concerns like this she has crossed over the line that protects the observer from the observed. The effectiveness of Hobson's book is determined by who is doing the talking, and her tale is at its most successful when the Gowda family members speak for themselves. India wins out over its western interpreter. It usually does.