A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Almost anyone, given health and wealth, can travel to an exotic place for a vacation. But it takes a certain adventurous spirit to live somewhere exotic, to deal with all that unfamiliarity at ground level, rather than filtered through a resort or cruise ship stopovers. I like reading books about people who do that, it‘s more than a ‘fish-out-of-water’ tale, it’s someone who is trying to understand a place on a deeper level.
In this case, the author is an American journalist who moves to Delhi for several years. She doesn’t just use it as a base for reporting stories in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but makes every effort to become part of her Indian community. Her first major hurdle is attempting to rent an apartment as a single woman. Until she pretends to have a husband back in the U.S., she is considered a woman of loose morals whom no upstanding Indian would rent to. It’s a recurring theme in her interactions with people there, where women are still viewed much as they were a century ago, as servants to their husband and his family and daughters are raised to fulfill this role. Young women struggle with this, wanting a career and independence, while striving for the ultimate goal of marriage. The author’s friendship with a female neighbor, Geeta, follows the difficulties of finding a man who will allow his wife some freedom and individuality. This is made harder by the double standard of many young men wanting all of the benefits of modernity, while still expecting traditional behavior from their wives.
The other huge influence is caste, still the guiding force in Indian society, despite progress and some civil rights. Caste shows up in the most minute aspects of everyday life in what people can and cannot do. The author sees it up close in the uppity attitude of her Brahmain cleaning lady Radha disdaining Maneesh, who picks up the garbage. Maneesh is a Dalit (the modern name for an Untouchable) and actually lives in better conditions than the illiterate widow Radha, but that makes no difference in how she is treated.
The author notes how the new prosperity reaches only a small percentage of the population. “India may have lurched into economic success, but it had brought neither technology not stability to my friends in the neighborhood. In fact, in a fast-changing, cheap-labor economy, their lives were even more vulnerable to sudden transformation than they would have been a generation ago.”
A blurb on the back compared this book to the dull Eat, Pray, Love, but I was glad they were wrong. It’s much more interesting and less self-involved than Gilbert’s strangely popular travels. While not exactly a voyage of self-discovery (the author is in her 30’s and well established in her profession after all), her experience causes her to learn a lot about herself, not all of it good.She doesn’t like the way her personality has changed, mocking it with the moniker of “Super Reporter Girl” and how she uses distance as a barrier to family and romantic relationships. But she is genuinely fascinated with Indian culture, even if she never feels as if she completely belongs. As she prepares to leave India after living there for 5 years, she relates to Isak Dinesen’s feelings for Africa and wonders if anyone will remember her when she’s gone. It speaks of her fondness of the country and its residents and how unforgettable they are to her.
Random House 2011 342 pp. ISBN 978-1-4000-6786-2