In late February, I got the green light to go to Pune in August. (Among Iyengar yogis, “going to Pune” means going to study at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute.) Five months to prepare. To me, this meant buying Lonely Planet India, finding an apartment in Pune, booking flights, getting vaccinations, avoiding injury, and reading up on India.
Five months is enough time to do it all–except the reading.
While I’m going to Pune primarily for yoga, I have a hunch that the Pune experience encompasses more than classes at the institute. I’ve never traveled to India, and I suspect that my yogic challenges will go beyond 10-minute headstands–and test my adaptability to a society starkly different from what I know.
Perhaps because I’m a travel writer, my instincts tell me to be independent, to avoid tourist stereotypes, to know something about my destination. I can’t help recalling my first job, waitressing one summer in my Hilo hometown, when a tourist complained, “Why are there so many Asians here? I didn’t expect this.” Surely he appreciated Hawaii’s beaches and sunshine; but he was clueless about Hawaii’s plantation history and culture. That type of tourist sees only the obvious, overlooking the reality of a place. I don’t want to be that type of tourist.
Since February, here’s what I’ve read:
Beyond the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity Katherine Boo This New Yorker writer follows the lives of several residents in Annawadi, a slum near the airport. Published in 2012, this is a consummate piece of journalism, written in a gripping, novelistic style. Couldn’t put it down!
The Age of Kali, William Dalrymple Researched throughout the 1990s, published in 1998, this set of essays introduced me to the caste struggles, political posturing, and irreversible changes of post-Partition India. Dalrymple, a British historian and writer, takes the reader around the subcontinent, presenting glimpses of its wildly varied regions. The best type of travel writing.
Ladies Coupe, Anita Nair I borrowed this 2004 paperback novel a friend who bought it in India. It’s well-done pop fiction, some might call it chick lit. Initially skeptical, I enjoyed this portrait of five women, strangers to one another, who share a train compartment and their life stories. A contemporary look at the social conventions expected of women–in India and everywhere.
Tales of Firozsha Baag, Rohinton Mistry I read this 1987 collection of related short stories about 10 years ago. Rereading it, I was even more impressed. Set in a middle-class Parsi neighborhood in Mumbai, the stories trace the lives of several characters, including a boy who, like Mistry, fulfills the ultimate dream of moving abroad, to London, to New York, or, in his case, to Toronto. A great read.
Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, Suketu Mehta Mehta lived in Bombay until 1977, when he was about 14, left for two decades, and then returned for two years in the late 1990s. His 2004 account of that return combines memoir, investigative journalism, travel writing, and history. Through his eyes and ears, we go behind the scenes in Mumbai, glimpsing the world of gangsters, cops, dancing bar girls, Bollywood, and a Jain family that renounces their worldly lives. Very memorable to me are his mini essays, “Country of the No” and “Adjust,” both which seize on Indian personality quirks from an insider’s point of view. A must if traveling to Bombay/Mumbai.
The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri Set in 1960s Calcutta and in Rhode Island, this 2013 novel of two brothers and their intertwined lives is a page turner. Based on her first two books, I’ve considered Lahiri a better short-story writer than novelist, but here I found the characters emotionally convincing. As in the prior two books listed, this novel deals with Indian protagonists who leave the country–and must somehow negotiate between worlds old and new.
I’m now reading An Area of Darkness, VS Naipaul, published in 1964 and masterfully written. I’ve had to stop and reread sentences and paragraphs: they are perfect. As an Indian who grew up in Trinidad, he is neither an insider nor an outsider; perhaps this gave him an ideal perspective for sharp, objective, heartfelt observations.
These books span some fifty years, covering different eras and giving me context. No one book can apply to all of India (or all of Mumbai or all of any group).
On my reading list:
- A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
- Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
- Calcutta, Amit Chaudhuri
- Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure, Sarah Macdonald
- Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts
Acknowledgment: Thanks to K Yarker for excellent advice on books and India. A true adventurer, she traveled solo around India for one year.