Category Archives: India

On The Right Track

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Abhay and I fell in love at the cinema: a relationship studded with sprocket holes. First date was Herzog, first kiss Godard; our first ‘I love you’ followed a screening of Cocteau’s timeless Beauty and the Beast. Our romance burned like an old projector lamp: fiercely, and for a short time. We lasted six months.

But Thomas – now, Thomas is different. His mixtape won me over: Shaa’ir and Func, Sulk Station. Cool, but not self-consciously so. We unspool slowly, comfortably, easily into each other. I think I’m on the right track with this one.

*

This story was written for Bench Media’s One Frame Stories, which calls for stories of under 99 words based on an image prompt. My submission to Frame Two got lost in the system somewhere, so I’m publishing it here.

You can submit to the latest OFS round here. Only 99 words! It doesn’t take long.

(Photo by Jan Photography)

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AUNTY AND THE STAR PEOPLE: The Observer

(via nziff.co.nz)AUNTY AND THE STAR PEOPLE
directed by Gerard Smyth
Interview on Radio New Zealand Nine to Noon, 23 July 2014

The film opens with Jean Watson, eighty, her face creased with river-like wrinkles, wandering around the streets of Kanyakumari and lowering herself into the ocean as dozens of young Indian boys (and a camera) look on. My first thought — I couldn’t help myself — was ‘I’ve swum in that ocean!’ And I had, a strange trip in 2009 during which my then-girlfriend was groped repeatedly and I lacerated my feet on sharp underwater rocks. It’s a beautiful location, revered by many as the point where three seas meet, but my memories of it aren’t entirely positive. No such problems for Jean Aunty, though, who wanders through it all with the same inscrutable expression on her face, and who emerges from the water cleansed and energised, ready for the next challenge.

I hadn’t heard of Jean Watson before seeing AUNTY AND THE STAR PEOPLE, and I expect many New Zealanders won’t have heard of her either, despite her many published novels, her long romance with Barry Crump, and her considerable humanitarian work in India. Watson is one of life’s observers, regularly found at the extreme right or left of group photographs, peering into the camera with the same watchful eye she casts over her surroundings. She is an intrepid,  self-effacing realist, moving through life without fanfare; even in a South Indian village, where any foreigner is met with prolonged stares and chatter, she seems capable of blending into the background. Her decades of involvement in improving young boys’ and girls’ lives in India prove that you don’t need to be romantic to be idealistic; she sees the world as it is, not for what it could be, and tries to make it better.

Watson is the chief benefactor of Karunai Illam, which was set up in the late 1980s and which offers orphaned children the value of routine. Rather than being left to scratch around the streets on their own, or bounced from orphanage to orphanage, Karunai Illam gets them out of bed and brushing their teeth at the same time every day before filling them up with a hot meal and sending them off to school. These are children for whom deceased parents are merely a fact of life. But they look healthy, and happy, and show an abundance of curiosity about the world.

In fact, given their aspirations to become doctors and engineers, it’s slightly frustrating that so many of director Gerard Smyth’s questions to the girls revolve around marriage. This feels like a missed opportunity to gain more insight into their deeper thoughts. But marriage and reproduction are also a huge factor in the kids’ lives, an inevitability for many, and probably at a young age; it’s understandable that it might be at the forefront of their minds. And apart from this, Smyth does a fine job of taking us inside Watson’s two worlds: her anonymous writer’s life in Wellington and her status as life-changer for hundreds of children in Nilakkottai.

Apart from Watson and the kids, the other person seen most often in AUNTY AND THE STAR PEOPLE is Joy Cowley, an old friend of Watson’s and — through her innumerable and widely popular children’s books — a friend to almost every New Zealander. Where Watson’s insights are plain-spoken and straightforward, Cowley’s are effortlessly elegant and warm. She has a gift for language and, apparently, great reserves of empathy and generosity. She is a joy to spend a little time with. I can’t wait for the film about her.

Learn more about Karunai Illam — and, if you like, donate to the organisation — here.

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THE LUNCHBOX: Overlaps and folded chapatis

Irrfan Khan in THE LUNCHBOX

(c) Sony Pictures Classics

THE LUNCHBOX
directed by Ritesh Batra
Metacritic: 76

After a note about the high volume of seat ushers and a small bitch about the seat allocation (I was stuck somewhere up the rear right of the Embassy Cinema despite booking my seats quite early), the first of my scribbles about THE LUNCHBOX was one word: ‘hungry’.

It’s not a film about food, exactly, although food is an important part of its subtly expressed message about the fundamental connections between people. But you see food early, and often, and you want to eat it, regardless of whether you’ve just eaten an enormous yum char lunch (as I had). With its combination of tastes and textures and unpretentious presentation, Is there any cuisine more visually appealing than home-cooked Indian?

Similarly appealing are Nimrat Kaur and Irrfan Khan, the housewife (‘Ila’) and salaryman (‘Saajan’) at the centre of THE LUNCHBOX’s straightforward plot of a dabba that repeatedly gets sent to the wrong man. The mistake could be corrected easily, but both Ila and Saajan settle into a note-passing routine that seasons their unfulfilling lives: she with her distracted, near-absent husband, he with his widowed malaise involving little more than cigarettes and government files. Kaur is just fine, and Nawazudin Siddiqui is perfectly pitched between irritating and charming in a supporting role, but you must see this for Khan, one of the great actors of our time. He does so much with so little.

The teeming metropolis that surrounds these characters seems to function more as a delivery device for boosted GDP rather than as a social structure. The man alone in a Himalayan cave for years could never be as lonely as the man in the city who lives alone, works alone, and travels on the packed commuter trains alone. But connections are possible. One of the most striking ways Batra illustrates this is by regularly overlapping sound between scenes — as if the previous scene continues to echo in a character’s head, even if they weren’t in it. They’re all in it together, for better or worse.

By the way, THE LUNCHBOX is set in Mumbai, a city I have visited and loved twice. The opening shot was of a mass of drab suburban railway tracks and the plain apartment blocks that overlook them. It gave me the chills. My impression of the film might therefore have been coloured somewhat favourably, but it is really good.

Read an interview with director Ritesh Batra here.

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Tenzin’s Hammer

Nizar, the owner/chef at Amantha Restaurant, whose grinning, elongated face is the kind you never forget, had a habit of inhaling on cigarettes as he smoothed out paratha dough on the hot plate. On fine mornings, the smoke swirled elegantly in a beam of sunlight that streamed in through a hole in the corrugated iron shroud. It partially overpowered the sweet and spicy smell of masala but was no worse than the exhaust fumes emitted by passing rickshaws, so if you had objections initially, they quickly melted away (especially if you were also a smoker, as I was at the time). In any case, the taxis roaring by at 80km/h on the newly paved Edava-Papanasam road were a far greater health hazard than any air pollution.

Where's your cigarette?

Nizar tossing parathas at Amantha Restaurant, Varkala

More pertinently, the food at Amantha was cheap, tasty, and delivered with a smile. As it was situated at a busy junction, where three thoroughfares meet, the tables were often full.

One morning, I was walking over for a breakfast of appam, egg curry, and chai when I spotted Tenzin sitting at one of the front tables, barely a metre or two from the asphalt surface of the road. A large hammer was resting on the table in front of him and he held a glass of chai still in his hand. His eyes bore a hole in the street in front of him, his mind seemingly elsewhere. I imagined him finishing his chai in a single gulp, slamming down his glass, picking up the hammer and striding off to mete out bloody, mafia-style justice to some foolish transgressor.

I deliberately walked into his eyeline so that he would notice me, and as soon as he did, the blank expression vanished and his face lit up.

“Oh! Barnaby! Hello!”

Tenzin would smile with his whole face. Everything lifted, from the corners of his mouth to the highest wrinkles on his forty? fifty? year-old forehead, and he looked directly at you with wide and unassuming eyes. Even his voice lilted pleasantly as he greeted you. His intensity from a few moments ago stood at stark odds with his usual serene demeanour, and was quickly forgotten as I reflected his smile.

Tenzin had been running his Tibetan shop Wind Horse on the top of the Varkala cliffs for over about a decade at this point, which made him one of the longest serving shopowners in Varkala’s tourist area. Like many other Himalayan natives –- Kashmiris, Tibetans, Nepalis -– he would be in Varkala from mid-August to mid-May every year, and during the May to August monsoon he would return with his wife to Tibet to spend time with family and buy stock for the next season. Together, they would use their customary courtesy and a quiet, unshakeable self-belief to convince tourists they needed beaded necklaces and notebooks made from recycled paper, among thousands of other items in their cliff shack.

“What’s the hammer for?” I asked as I sat opposite him, my back to the street.

“Pardon?” he replied. Obviously the hammer wasn’t as prominent in his thoughts as it was in mine.

“The hammer! It looks like you’re… ready to use it,” I said, hoping he’d understand my implication.

“Oh! The hammer! Well, I have some workers to build my new shop but they don’t have a hammer, so I had to go and buy one. After this I will go back and we will continue the work.”

These two weeks of construction in mid-July were the exception to Tenzin’s off-season routine. Like many other shopowners on the cliff, he had returned to Varkala early to rebuild his shack, which had deteriorated after a summer’s worth of wind and spray from the Arabian Sea below. This tearing down and rebuilding was Varkala cliff’s yearly regeneration ritual. Most workers who come from elsewhere only make it through one or two of these regenerations before cutting their losses and trying their luck in another tourist paradise. Either they weren’t making money or, worse, they made too much money and got forced out by a local population swift to act against any successful rival to their operations.

The end result is that each season a few old shops would disappear and be replaced by new ones. This particular aspect of the regeneration cycle was sometimes made unconsciously explicit in the naming of new establishments. One year, Sun Rise Restaurant was torn down by its departing proprietor and replaced by a row of fabric shops. A little further along the cliff, a new eatery was being erected with an almost identical menu, despite no connection to the previous management. It was called Sun Set Restaurant.

Sun Rise or Sun Set, maybe?

A clifftop restaurant in Varkala

Tenzin’s longevity in Varkala was therefore something of a miracle — but it didn’t mean he was exempt from the regeneration, or the quality of local labour.

“How’s the work going?” I asked.

“Oh, Barnaby, it’s not going very well. These men, if I don’t watch everything they do, they do very bad work. I have to tell them all the time what to do!” He raised his voice above the din of a passing Ambassador taxi racing along the tar seal with its horn blaring. “Even though they are builders and I am not a builder!” He was still smiling, almost laughing at this point, as though this crucial stage of the process -– which sets the foundation for his and his wife’s livelihood until next May -– was just another trifle to be dealt with. Nothing to get too upset about.

It was a hard enough fight just to remain solvent for a businessman in Varkala, let alone to remain as calm and collected as Tenzin always seemed to be. The challenges were frequent and ranged from the petty to the physically dangerous. One nightclub-style establishment once had its electricity wires cut by a neighbour envious of its success, while the manager of a textile shack (which also served as his accommdation) awoke one morning to hear a rival placing a venomous snake at the entrance to his shop. One of Tenzin’s biggest problems came when the cocky young Nepalese manager of a new restaurant took a shine to Tenzin’s wife and started openly flirting with her. Within a couple of days, Tenzin called a meeting with him and halted the issue before it exploded, as such matters so often do in Varkala. Despite the affront, he made sure to maintain a positive professional relationship with the guy, and in his shop, with the customers, his smiling demeanour wasn’t compromised.

According to a few rare confessions, during which his voice would drop and his gaze would fall from my face to the ground, Tenzin wasn’t always like this. He used to drink and smoke and ride a motorcycle at high speed, late at night, on winding roads carved high into the mountains of Tibet. He used to have extraordinary violence in him that could rise to the surface at the slightest provocation.

Something happened to change all that, something he never told me about in detail. All he ever said of it was, “I thought I died. I should have died.” After that catastrophic event, he latched onto a selection of Buddhist and Hindu beliefs that made sense to him, found a guru, and was effectively born again. The idea of an angry Tenzin, which I had never known, seemed impossible to reconcile with the peaceful man I knew. He defeated all comers — not with blunt instruments but with a warm heart and unwavering conviction.

I wondered, though, if that look on his face as I walked up had offered a glimpse into his past. Perhaps that violence was still in him, somewhere. Maybe just the memory of it returned to him sometimes, an unwanted but necessary reminder of what he had been, before he files it away again and moved on with his life.

Tenzin tipped back the last of the chai and placed the glass back on the table. “Sorry, Barnaby, but I have to get back. If I’m not there, you know, they won’t work! It was nice to see you.”

He picked up the hammer by its head and allowed it to hang freely from his fingers, like a set of house keys dangling innocently from a forefinger. And off he went down the road armed only with his inner strength, the hammer’s potential menace neutralised.

*

This is a re-edited version of a piece previously published on The NRI, an online magazine bringing together Indians, NRIs and anyone with an affinity to India.

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Let my own lack of a voice be heard.

Poetry has always been the most challenging style of writing for me, both to write and to interpret. In high school English classes I would search for meaning that wasn’t there, missing the point again and again, and any attempts to write poetry felt forced and directionless. Brevity has never been a strong part of my writing, and it seemed that poetry should be brief, or at least economical.

Overall, my lack of engagement with poetry for most of my life is more directly a result of my own doubts and failings, and a sort of laziness: I don’t get it, so why even try? Occasionally this thought would take on a fanciful life of its own and I would dismiss poetry out of hand. Bloody exclusive club. Too lofty, too out of touch with reality to appeal to me and my firmly grounded brain. This, of course, is rubbish; I live in as much of a manufactured fantasy world as anyone else.

A few people have helped turn this around. A few months ago, I came across the poetry of Ashleigh Young, a Wellington-based poet and writer. It seemed accessible to me in a way that poetry generally hasn’t in the past, naturalistic in style and easy to relate to but still very graceful and lyrical. Have a look at ‘Afternoon with Simon’ or ‘Certain trees’ and you might see what I mean. I think what I like most about her poetry is the way she can describe places, people, and feelings in words that I can manage semantically without a second thought, then blows me away with one deeply poetic and resonant line — like this, from ‘Certain trees’:

Certain trees reach for a woman
who is handing washing to the wind, a shirt
by the arms, pants by the waist, socks
by the feet;
              handing over parts of the body has never
              been so easy.

The other heartening thing about Ashleigh’s poetry for me, a guy who felt bounced from the poetry club, is that she writes essays and blogs and tweets as well. As obvious as it may seem, this was a revelation to me: to write poems, you do not need only write poems. ‘Here, she also writes the same sorts of things I do!’ She’s much better and more practised at them than I am, of course, but the thing she demonstrates to a poetry philistine like me is that you don’t have to choose sides. You can write prose and poetry, if you wish, and you can certainly read and appreciate both.

In late 2012, Ashleigh organised Twitter Poetry Night NZ. The basic concept was that people would record themselves reading poems and then, over the course of a couple of hours on a Sunday night, she would tweet them from the @PoetryNightNZ Twitter account. This idea rather freaked me out — quite apart from the horror of trying to read poetry aloud, I find the sound of my own voice painful — but I wanted to branch out and give it a go, even if it turned out to be awful.

But what to read? Well, two other friends from Twitter made the decision easy. Sameera is from India, Kathleen is from Brisbane; both are great admirers of the late Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali and had frequently shared his lines. Ali’s poetry is beautiful and shattering, accessible even as it breaks you down with horrors you can’t imagine. From ‘A wrong turn‘:

I’m alone, walking among the atrocities,
guillotines blood-scorched
gods stabbed at their altars,
dry wells piled with bones,
a curfew on ghosts.

Because Agha Shahid Ali’s poems had brought a notably strong response from me, I wanted to read something of his. By doing so, perhaps I would show Sameera and Kathleen how thankful I was that they had introduced his work into my life. And perhaps his stunning verse would sound good even when spoken in my flat, monotonous tones.

So, a few days before Twitter Poetry Night NZ, I sat down with a couple of glasses of red wine (because Muse singer Matthew Bellamy says red wine soothes his vocal cords and he does have a remarkable voice, even if Muse’s music is overblown and hilarious and the opposite of Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry) and recorded a few takes of ‘Snow on the Desert‘. I chose ‘Snow on the Desert’ because it seemed about the right length for a poetry reading — a little under four minutes — and unlike much of Ali’s work, I felt I could read it without feeling like a total impostor. His words often seem to speak for Kashmir to the world, and as such it seems right to me that they should only be read by a Kashmiri, or by someone who has experienced similar hardships, while the rest of the world ought to simply listen. With ‘Snow on the Desert’, though, I felt Ali’s voice was more general, so speaking the words aloud didn’t feel like such an intrusion.

You get a lot closer to words when you carry them from one medium to another. Writing down what someone is saying, for example, forces you to act as their representative in the transition from speech to text. There’s a kind of responsibility there, however meaningless the words may be, and your job is to process those words adequately so that you can represent them accurately. The difference with text to speech is that you are now using something more personal to you — your voice — and the exercise becomes as much about representing yourself as about representing the words and their writer.

By the fourth take, I had learned technicalities like where I wanted to pause during the reading, where to speak faster, how to keep my voice aimed at my laptop’s tiny in-built microphone. I had learned that even though I wasn’t there when Begum Akhtar sang in New Delhi and the lights went out, I was still able to read aloud Ali’s description of that event and remain comfortable that my voice was simply a vessel for his experience. I had also learned that the final few lines moved me every time I read them, and I couldn’t help but feel like I was speaking my own deepest thoughts, albeit dredged up and articulated by a superior wordsmith.

I uploaded the fourth take of ‘Snow on the Desert’ to Soundcloud

…and sent Ashleigh the link. She said nice things about my reading, and when it was posted on Twitter on the night itself, lots of other people said nice things too. Even Sameera and Kathleen, who are worthy poets themselves, liked and shared it. I was pleasantly surprised by the positive feedback, but more than that, I was surprised at my own satisfaction in the whole thing. It felt like I had confronted something alien to me and engaged with it in a way that helped me understand it a little better.

The best feedback was still to come, though. A few months later, after I’d more or less forgotten about the whole thing, I was stumbling around Soundcloud listening to free electronic tracks and DJ mixes when I noticed I had received a message. Here are some of the words in that message:

I thought your reading of Shahid’s poem was lovely. […] Did you know Shahid? I was a friend of his; we met in the late 70s, and I saw him often until he died. Even in Arizona.

This is one of my favorite of his poems, and my favorite book of his is that one which houses Snow on the Desert, A Nostalgist’s Map of America. The title poem is brilliant, and it breaks my heart each time I read it.

Anyway . . . thanks for recording this and putting it out into the world, for others to enjoy, and to discover Shahid.

Someone who had known Agha Shahid Ali personally (they even called him ‘Shahid’) had listened to my reading of one of his poems and enjoyed it enough to let me know. I had read the poem and put it online because some Twitter friends had helped me see the greatness of his work and given me a place to share it. If you spend enough time on the Internet, you have moments like this that make it all worthwhile.

Now there’s another NZ Twitter Poetry Night coming up on Sunday 10 March and I’m considering whether to have another go. I got a lot out of the first one, obviously, but I doubt the experience could be so positive the second time around. I have no idea what I would read. Most of all, I still doubt my capability as a reader. But it seems that doubt will likely always be there, and it would be worthwhile to re-engage with poetry in a deeper fashion than simple consumption. Whether I will ever try to write poems is another story — here’s another needlessly verbose blog post down — but I am glad these recent experiences have given me more of a connection with poetry than I used to have. Turns out the doors of the club were open all along; it just helped to know a couple of people inside.

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Do Not Leave Your Homes, Everything Is Fine

A reminder that Wellington is a small city, and New Zealand is a small country.

I normally walk to work along Willis St, the busiest road in Wellington’s CBD, and today was no different. This morning, however, this street – usually full of courteous cars and pedestrians holding takeaway coffee mugs – was almost deserted. The following photo was taken at 8:15am:

There hasn’t been a massive earthquake, nor has there been a zombie apocalypse. (Zombies are fake and boring and stupid and no reason to clear the streets anyhow.) It’s just a public holiday – Labour Day, in fact.

Because my job involves multiple time zones and countries, I’ve got work to do. Meanwhile, @mishviews on Twitter (and presumably a lot more of Wellington’s population, given that the semester also wrapped at Victoria University on Friday) is still in bed.

Being one of those pompous asses who cannot help but compare everything at home to my Big OE, I look at these near-empty streets with some curiosity. In Tokyo, no matter how important and respectfully observed the public holiday might have been, streets would definitely be full of people by now. Job comes before anything else, a hangover from the post-war years of working double to try and return a shattered nation to its pre-war glory. And if for some reason you have a whole day away from work, you’d better make the most of it. A day trip to Hakone, a jaunt to Tokyo Disneyland, some crepes in Harajuku. Don’t waste any chance to work or play.

Maybe that isn’t a fair comparison. Tokyo is the biggest city in the world, after all, and Wellington is the Coolest Little Capital In The World. But Varkala in the south Indian state of Kerala, a tourist town of about 40,000 people, was also a good deal busier than this at any time. So many people were in the midst of trying to be upwardly mobile that no matter the occasion, they needed to be out in the streets or opening the shop, seven days a week. Everything is in a constant state of development and transition and if you miss even one day, you might get left behind.

Here in socialist paradise New Zealand, as one US-based friend puts it, we are pretty comfortable and the city streets aren’t changing much. There’s no real worry of falling behind if you take a day off with everyone else, which isn’t that many people anyway. Things will be okay.

I think it’s really easy to forget this, because Wellington offers quite a lot to do and can seem like a bustling metropolis at times. When we decide to stop bustling, though, we generally can. And we’re very lucky for that.

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“It’s the most confusing, energetic, and hilarious place I’ve ever been”

Hilary and Indian child (image © Girish Menon)

Hilary FG is the author of hilary in mumbai, a blog about her life as an American expat in India’s so-called Maximum City. Her posts cover the gamut of Mumbai activities – from the perils of buying food, to coping with humidity, to the cast of characters at a regular expat party – and while her blogging is occasionally infrequent, this is largely in an effort to ensure quality.

I first discovered Hilary’s blog when she commented on one of my posts for The NRI about dealing with the dreaded local FRRO on the quest to obtain tiny-but-vital residency stamps. My immediate reaction upon looking through a couple of her posts was to laugh, loudly and repeatedly, but consistent reading showed that her humorous take was not merely frivolous. Many are lengthy and detailed, and the humour acts as a vehicle for quite genuine insight into what it’s like to be young, white and female in such a seething foreign metropolis.

Hilary has been known to undertake long flights somewhat regularly, and works full time for a living in a place where working full-time can easily occupy all of your surviving brain cells, but she was happy to answer my questions and let us a little further inside her world.

(NB: You will notice that Hilary is American and therefore spells ‘humour’ without a ‘u’. Please forgive her for this.)

***

Why did you start blogging, and why do you keep blogging? (Is this your first blog?)

For about one week my sister and I had a blog called “Sisters Make the Best of Friends” on which we posted pictures of the cake we made on the 4th of July, items of clothing that prove that money can’t buy class, and video clips we think everyone should see. We didn’t really share it with anyone and took it down the next week.

I started blogging because my fellowship encouraged us to, and because I thought it would be a good way to keep my family informed without sending monster emails to everyone. My blog ended up not being about my day-to-day activities, so I still sent out those emails anyway, but the blog definitely helps me put events into context and reflect.

I keep blogging because it’s fun and other people seem to enjoy it. People tell me I say things they’ve wanted to talk about but couldn’t express. Expats here have sent my blog to their families and said, “Now they can picture just what I’ve been going through.” I love that. I also want a testament to all the things I go through here that I might forget later in life.

Have you ever kept a personal journal? If so, do you see ‘hilary in mumbai’ as an extension of that journal (or vice versa)?

I tried to keep a number of journals at a young age and failed pretty miserably. I usually liked journaling because I loved buying pretty notebooks, and physical paper is one thing ‘hilary in mumbai’ doesn’t have. I think there are a lot of “stream of consciousness” blogs out there, that are very journal-esque, and I’m usually not a very big fan. I like to give events the proper time to ruminate before I try to put words to them. If I had a journal it might have even more swears in it.

There are also a lot of things I go through that I will never put in the blog. Some things might be interesting, but violate some general privacy considerations, like my personal relationships or my job. Other things, like travel logistics, are just boring, and I don’t think anyone should put them anywhere.

What is your first memory of writing creatively?

My first experiment with writing creatively was a journal I kept of our family trip to Italy. I was around 5 years old and the whole thing is barely comprehensible and phonetic. I think it makes for a really wonderful read of life through the eyes of a weirdo 5-year-old.

"This is sugar packet from a very fancy restaurant."

I was told I was a horrible writer for 20 years of my life and it never came easily to me. I’m actually a published author now, and there’s the ole blog, so people have been eating their words.

Describe something that is beautiful to you.

I really like gradients in nature, like sunsets and horizons. I think the beach my family and I go to in Wellfleet, Cape Cod, is probably the thing that I dream about the most. Thinking about the transition of the dunes to the water to the sky makes me very homesick. There is something particularly magical about the light on Cape Cod.

Have you always been interested in India, or was there a moment in your life that pushed you to go there?

I have a pretty nerdy backstory. I took Latin and Greek in high school, and I started taking Sanskrit so I could get all three Indo-European root languages. I’ve forgotten almost every word I learned, but I loved the material I was reading. The difference in worldview and philosophies that I came upon studying Sanskrit spurred an interest in India, although I really knew nothing about it when I first started. I visited India for the first time in 2004. I was on a high school trip in which we visited the Mumbai slums. My world was definitely blown open by what I experienced. I had no idea how to categorize or contextualize everything that I saw, and I knew I was never going to stop studying India. I remember picking my major in college and knowing that if I picked South Asian Studies I would never get bored. Since then I’ve been back on a study abroad program and now “for good” in September 2010.

How would you describe Mumbai to someone who had never been there? What advice would you give someone visiting for the first time?

I have two pieces of advice, once of which you’ve probably read on my Twitter. “Take the shits with the giggles” and “It’s worth it” are my main words of wisdom, but I would also tell people to try to suspend judgment for as long as possible. It’s difficult to describe Mumbai to people, especially if they have never been to a developing country. It’s the most confusing, energetic, and hilarious place I’ve ever been. If you can take the shits, you get a lot of giggles. Literally. I think visiting India can be really fun and worthwhile, but moving here might not be right for everyone…

People who come with preconceived notions of spirituality and romanticism can be disappointed, and people who come expecting to see the functioning and developed financial hub of a major world power may also be disappointed. It’s better just to show up. Oh, and use a lot of talcum powder and unscented baby wipes. Eat the street food but don’t wear valuable shoes. And come say hi!

Pretty much every post of yours cracks me up one way or another. I sense such an appreciation of the absurd in the way you view the world around you and your own endeavours. Is this something you’ve had to work at? Who has influenced your sense of humour?

Thank you! Humor is a family specialty. I grew up surrounded by the funniest people I’ve ever met. We have a very verbal family and sitting around making fun of things is probably what we do best. When my last visit with my mom and sister ended we joked that we weren’t going to laugh again until we got to reunite. My father passed away from cancer a year and a half ago, and he kept his sense of humor until the very end. It was impressive.

When I started the blog, I wasn’t sure what audience I should try to write it for. My sister told me to write it like I’m talking to her, and that set the informal tone. What I have to work at is balancing how much to let events speak for themselves, or try to explain the humor in them. I find myself in a lot of situations here that are objectively funny, and I always have to remind myself not to add, “It was soooo funny,” at the end.

It might also be worth mentioning that I have a degree in South Asian Studies and I’ve been studying India for almost a decade now. I try not to make the blog too academic, but I know that my experience with the subject matter means I can spend less time trying to figure out what the hell’s going on, and more time laughing about it. I try to put in My Mind Numbing Fact of the Day to acknowledge that even though I’m laughing, there are a lot of fascinating and devastating things happening all around me.

Even before I moved here, people have complimented me on my ability to convey my worldview in an entertaining and interesting way. People generally like talking to me unless I’m making fun of them. I think if people aren’t naturally observant or critical, a blog by them won’t be fun no matter where they are.

How much of an effect has living abroad had on your belief system(s)?

I’ve changed a lot since moving here, but I’m not sure if it’s had an effect on my belief system. I was an atheist when I moved here and I’m definitely still one. My family has always been the most important thing in the world to me, and that’s still true, maybe more so. Living abroad has definitely made the world seem really small to me. If it’s near an airport it feels nearby to me now. I also think I have been more determined to convince everyone that all people deserve the same standards. The inequity here is really difficult for me to live with and I think that it does not get adequately portrayed in the media. You can’t help but see firsthand here how GDP can correspond so little to people’s lives. Don’t believe the hype.

Is there a post on your blog that you are most proud of?

I like ‘approowalls’. I think most foreigners have a lot more help with relocation than I did, and so not a lot of people have to deal with all the Indian approvals at the same time right when they land, with no maid, driver, phone, internet, etc. That whole experience made me feel invincible.

Has your blog made a difference in other areas of your life?

I’m a more confident writer, and I definitely have more pictures because I force myself to take them. People have recognized me at parties and introduced themselves. Professionally, I try to keep things pretty separate, at least for now, but I like knowing that if I ever need to produce conversational material at a later date for my job, it shouldn’t be a problem. I like to judge new friends by how they respond to the fact that I have a blog and then check in later to see if they’ve read it. I’ve come across some great people that I would probably never have encountered if I didn’t put myself out there, including my interviewer.

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This interview is part of Inside the Bloggers Studio, an ongoing project of short interviews with bloggers I read and admire. (Apologies to James Lipton.) To view the archive, click the category tag in the ‘By Category’ section at the top right of this page.

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