Republished from MumbaiBoss.com.
On the genre of expat writing about India I’ve pontificated far more frequently than I’ve read. But two new volumes of non-fiction arriving this month seem to have been written with me (and presumably you, reader) in mind: Henna for the Broken-Hearted by Sharell Cook and Delirious Delhi by Dave Prager.
The authors are neither foreign correspondents (see Mark Tully, Sam Miller, Joseph Lelyveld) nor full-time orientalists (William Dalrymple, Patrick French). They’re — wait for it — bloggers. It’s an encouraging sign that we might not be forced to learn too much as we flip pages. Facts, especially when true, have a tendency to drag a book down with them.
No, these books are written by proud amateurs. As a committed generalist, I approve. In another sense, though, their authors have become consummate professionals in the field of being expats. They are the tour guides who, having learned the secrets to negotiating the path between worlds (or, you know, restaurants), return to help others find the way.
Luckily, there is a ceaseless stream of newbies here, to whom such accounts serve as a kind of Lonely Planet supplement. But are there other, stay-at-home readers, along for the ride? A track record of, and evidently a market for, the literature of Indian self-discovery—that is to say, in India, by non-Indians—would suggest so. There’s Holy Cow (Sarah Macdonald), Dreaming in Hindi (Katherine Russell Rich) and, last but not least, Eat Pray Love (Elizabeth Gilbert), to name a few. Am I missing something, or is this a genre with a distinctly feminine perspective?
Sharell Cook’s story reads a little like Gilbert’s might have if Eat and Pray had sat quietly in the back seat. And I’ll admit that from its title and cover I’d figured Henna for the Broken-Hearted for the sort of weepy chick-lit from which I usually run screaming. (Sister of My Heart? Seriously, Mom?)
Nonetheless, I soon found myself cheering Cook onward. Raised an only child in sparsely populated Victoria, Australia, she harboured a sense of herself as somehow apart from her surroundings. When the eponymous heartbreak launches her on a quest for that self, she lands up, as so many do, in India.
“Why India?” is the question usually asked, and here the clues are sparse. Unlike Gilbert’s, Cook’s isn’t a spiritual quest, per se; it is baba-free. What stands to reason, however, is that a place teeming with so many selves would have one to offer her. And it did.
One hopes the formula that succeeded so famously for Gilbert, will work for Cook as well. Of course, for her it’s not a formula; it’s her life. Cook’s blog, Diary of a White Indian Housewife, is less pulpy than its name would suggest. (Or perhaps that’s just my imagination running wild.) The mundanity of her housewifely routine in Mumbai is, indeed, key to appreciating the many mysteries an expat encounters. Her current post, as I write, is “Introducing 3 Typical Indian Cleaning Implements”. About the latter, Cook is too nice to say, but an anthropologist friend of mine — like Cook, a Melbourne native—is not; they’re designed for maximum humiliation.
As a professional expat, Cook featured with her husband on HGTV’s House Hunters International. She fesses up on her blog to having been asked — in the name of “reality”—to feign shock at the wet floor of an undivided Indian bathroom. As I believe Kurtz said upon encountering such a bathroom: the horror.
In that regard, writing of an encounter with the unfamiliar (and unsettlingly damp) isn’t so different from reality TV. We’re asked to recall our initial surprise at such and such — over which we are by now more than a little embarrassed. What was it, again, that set our heart pounding in the first place?
Dave Prager and his wife Jenny co-authored a blog named, with audibly gritted teeth, Our Delhi Struggle. That their book is the diametrically denominated Delirious Delhi says a lot about the journey they went on. Back in New York, Prager proclaims himself “terrifically nostalgic for the stuff that terrified us” on his arrival. Which, naturally, was pretty much everything.
They’re enormously sympathetic Midwestern emigres who impetuously took up an offer to relocate to Delhi on an 18-month contract. (Prager assiduously avoids discussing the work at his day job copywriting for an ad agency. It’s a feat, considering the book is only about his experiences.)
With a sense of humour that can only be described as Jewish, Prager serially skewers Delhi’s peccadilloes. He astutely identifies traffic-light begging as “trickle-up economics”, noting that “money earned by Delhi’s poorest moves inexorably upward into the pockets of those who have power over them”. He finds the root of the practice of “gora evasion” — when foreigners will pretend not to notice one another on the street — in preserving, against all appearances, the illusion that there are still mysteries remaining to be uncovered.
Prager’s sly allusion to Anurag Mathur’s The Inscrutable Americans reminds us that his book is mostly about misunderstandings, and that misunderstandings are mostly comical. The means by which they’re overcome — openmindedness, diligence and generosity of spirit — amount to a game. The Pragers’ Delhi struggle is, ultimately, to understand. To which I say: Inquilab zindabad!
In regaling us with a thousand and one minor triumphs, Prager staves off any emotional reckoning with India, beyond his nostalgia pangs. While the voice in Cook’s head asks “Who am I?”, Prager’s soundtrack is more “What the hell?” with a smattering of Appetite for Destruction. But through the process, Prager and his wife gained a fuller appreciation of Indians and, in the process, of their own American-ness. Whether that appreciation will rub off on readers who are not themselves on such a journey is a question I ask myself every other week.
(PS: I’m a lover of Mario. Our walls will ever be the poorer for his departure. R.I.P.)