This piece first appeared on Terry Odell’s blog on July 7, 2009. She has a great site and I urge others to visit there, and I also thank her for the opportunity to share this with her many readers.
My First Love
One of my favorite pastimes is wandering the aisles of independent bookstores checking out the mystery novels, looking for books by new writers and new books from old friends. Writers take me into little known corners of the world—Dana Stabenow teaches me about Alaska, Alexander McCall Smith about Africa, and Cara Black about Paris. I love learning about a new place, and I understand the satisfaction derived from writing about a city or landscape well loved. For me that place is India.
My character Anita Ray grew out of a deep love of India and a longing to experience that country when I couldn’t get there. If I couldn’t take my vacation traveling out to the beach at Kovalam, I could send Anita, watch her stop at the local temple, enjoy a bowl of fruit sitting on the beach, or ride along with her on a bus into the hills. She took me to all the places I loved but were too far away to get to.
When I was about ten years old, perhaps younger, someone gave me a book of stories set in Asia, and I was hooked. I have never forgotten that book, and I have never forgotten the moment those stories opened up an entirely new world to me. And that was about it for several years—until I was sixteen. I went to a very progressive girls’ school (which is why I still count on my fingers) and had the good fortune to be offered a class in Asian history. Once again the fascinating world of India (and, yes, also China and Japan) worked its magic on me, and my love of Asia deepened into a love of India specifically. After the end of the class, I spent free time looking for information on India—cutting photos out of magazines, studying images of buffalos and monsoon damage and sari-clad women and visiting museum collections of Indian art. I was not very sophisticated about it, obviously. Unfortunately, back in the 1960s, there wasn’t much information available. India was regarded as just that country with millions of people living in poverty. Who would want to know about that?
And then I went to college, where the cosmos presented India in the form of art history, and that was it. I couldn’t get enough of it—and fortunately my professor was kind and tolerant and kept devising more classes for me to take. At the end of the year, when I had to graduate—and thus leave behind all these wonderful opportunities to explore India—he announced an Asian festival for the coming year—art lectures, exhibits, dancers, visiting scholars. I was tormented to be a worker and not a full-time student, but overjoyed to be participating anyway. (And so began my life as a writer with a day job.) And that year did it for me. An idle comment about graduate school and the following year I was on my way to the University of Pennsylvania, where I was the only graduate student studying India who did not arrive via the Peace Corps.
After living in India during two year-long trips, getting a PhD (yes, in Sanskrit), I had to get a job, again, so I reentered the so-called real world. I thought India was lost to me, and did my best to put it behind me. Then, after many years, my husband casually remarked that he had enough “miles” for a round-trip to India—for one.
I went back to Kerala, in South India, and not until I landed in Madras (the name recently changed to Chennai) did I believe I’d actually get there. When I landed in Trivandrum in Kerala I was stunned with amazement—and so were the friends who opened the door to someone they hadn’t seen in fifteen years. That was in 1999, and I’ve been returning almost every year since, trying to remember as much Malayalam as possible, taking in the changes in the landscape (high-rises everywhere), the streetscape (girls in jeans and tight jerseys), and shops (air-conditioning!). I’ve rejoined a community of friends that, kindly, never forgot me, and now I even toy with the idea of living there for six months a year after I retire. All right, so I’m dreaming, but it feels so wonderful to imagine.
I have never questioned the appeal of this country for me—it’s something I’ve taken for granted—it’s just a part of me. A good friend feels the same way about Umbria in Italy, and another has devoted his life to visiting Guatemala and helping a certain village there. Our callings, if I may characterize this love of other lands in this way, is a mystery to me, but thanks to Anita Ray and her extended family I can play with the smaller mysteries of her life while content to live within the greater one in mine.
Perhaps the conclusion to be drawn from this wandering through my education is the importance of exposure to other worlds. That is certainly important and significant, and I believe wholeheartedly in putting books and maps and artifacts in front of children and letting them learn how great and wondrous and large the world really is. But in the end that seems a pedestrian conclusion to my early journey. One friend insists my love of India stems from the obvious—reincarnation. I lived there in an earlier life and the echoes of that identity resound through my present existence. Perhaps there is something in me, a refusal to accept the strict format of Christianity, another kind of echo from my teen years when the headmistress forced a Thai Buddhist student to attend Sunday services, that resonates in the Hindu world.
I’m uncomfortable with easy, one-sentence summaries of a lifelong predilection that could have gone in any number of directions. Why, for instance, was I not influenced by my mother’s love of Greek and Roman culture, the wonderful books she found for me, and the extensive library she kept for herself and let me poke around in?
Sometimes I think we are all displaced and we find a path back to our home territory, and if we’re lucky it’s not too far away to visit, is relatively congenial and accessible in the present world, and brings us joy and insight into the rest of the world.