Miranda Kennedy spent five years in Delhi as a reporter. Her book, Sideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in India, tells the stories of women she befriended and their struggles with love and marriage. It is also an intriguing memoir about the challenges of being a female foreign correspondent. She spoke to Angus McDonald about the book.
You went to India aged 27 to try and establish yourself as a correspondent, having never been there, without much money and with few contacts. Is that a course of action you’d recommend to others?
In a word, no! But of course that depends on what your goals are. For me, it wasnt quite so clean and simple as wanting to achieve journalism success – if it had been that straightforward, then I don’t think my path would have been the best one. But since I was also seeking something much less tangible – some idea of becoming a well-travelled, fuller, more experienced person; and of exploring my family roots in India – then it wasn’t such a bad idea as it might seem!
As anyone who’s been to India knows, marriage is front and centre of people’s domestic concerns, without question the most important institution in Indian society. Yet there have been relatively few books written about it. Why do you think that is?
Marriage is definitely a mainstay theme in Indian fiction… everything from A Suitable Boy to Arranged Marriage to The Namesake. There are fewer nonfiction accounts about marriage, it’s true, and I can only think that is because there are relatively few Indian nonfiction authors, at least outside of the academic realm.
The picture that emerges of love and marriage in today’s India isn’t a particularly happy one – modernisation and liberalisation seem to have made the whole business more fraught than ever. Do you think things might get easier for Indian women at some point?
I do. I think right now, Indian women are caught in a period of transition in India; between the two poles of tradition and globalisation. And that can be very liberating in some ways – women are now joining the workforce in unprecedented numbers, so rather than staying home all day, they are heating up microwave curries and outsourcing the childcare to their extended families. But it can also be extremely confusing, culturally. I think that’s how most Indian women experience it – as a massively confusing time. As one friend said to me once, “We have pressure from both sides now – our friends want us to work after marriage and to choose our own partners, and our parents and grandparents continue to pressure us to lead traditional lives, sheltered from the outside world.” There’s no way to know how long this in-between stage will continue, but I am quite certain it will last for many more years to come. Still, things have radically improved each year over the last 15 years, and will continue to. It will be a gradual process, but things will smooth out and become easier as the wider culture adjusts.
One of the appealing things about the book is its very Indian sense of sprawl – you meet women in all kinds of places, at the press club, on the street, at the gym, by hiring them as housemaids. Each comes from a very different background, and has her own story to tell. It must have been quite challenging to meld it all into a narrative.
I wanted the book to reflect the wide diversity of my experiences as a reporter in India, and to be able to speak to something of India’s amazing variety. I knew it was essential to include women from across the class and caste spectrum. Even though my best friends primarily hail from the upper castes and the middle class – because of their comfort with English and their level of education – I carefully chose four of my six main characters from among the women I knew from other parts of my life. Weaving their stories together with those of my two middle-class female friends took a lot of planning. I decided not to break up the chapters by character, because I realised that these six women, who had such different outward lives, were in fact connected in many ways, and I could in fact link them thematically instead. In fact, all these women struggled with the same things – in spite of also coming to radically different conclusions, in different ways. So I used their choices and priorities to organise the book, rather than their superficial characteristics.
Do you have any updates on the lives of the women who feature in the book?
To my surprise and sorrow, the women’s lives haven’t changed as much as I’d expected and hoped they would since the book went to press. The updates in the epilogue of the book mostly remain the same, which is to say that Azmat still isn’t married, and Geeta is still childless. I don’t want to say much else though, for fear of spoilers for those who haven’t read the book.
There is a sense of real life about the book, that there are rarely neat endings to stories. Yet at the same time there is a perceptible arc to your own story. You go to India hoping to become your ‘fullest, most interesting self’, and in many ways it seems you achieved that – career success and, in the end, marriage. Is that the way you look at it?
My original objective in India now seems pretty naïve and silly to me – to have thought that by skipping off around the world I could magically overhaul my personality and ensure that the rest of my life would be happy and fulfilled. Travel and living overseas can do many wonderful things, and I am very much in favour of them, but I don’t believe they do change your essential inner self. What I think happened to me in the five years I lived in India is that my idea of myself changed, and so did my priorities and goals. If I’d gone to India seeking adventure and intrigue, I’d had quite enough by the time I left. I was ready to find someone to spend my life with – and that’s why I got married; not because I’d become some fabulous version of myself.
Part of the appeal of working in India seems to have been that you could cover stories outside the mainstream media concerns of war and disaster. What were some of the more satisfying stories that you worked on?
Definitely, the stories that brought me the greatest satisfaction were those that allowed me to dig deeper inside people’s lives, rather than the wham-bam stories of war. I learned that I was better at reporting on the aftermath of war rather than on war itself, for instance, following the lives of war widows in Kashmir, rather than reporting on the frontline of the conflict in Kashmir. I did a series of stories about the Indians who hail from the lowest rung on the caste hierarchy, the so-called ‘untouchables’ or Dalits who are born into professions such as garbage-collectors and trash-pickers. Some of my favourite stories were those that were closest to my life in Delhi, such as reporting on the daily life of Maneesh, who worked in my apartment building as a garbage collector, and is also a character in my book.
During your time in India you worked your way from underemployed freelancer to established foreign correspondent, a dream job for many people, yet you decided it wasn’t for you. Why?
It was a dream job for me, too, and I did it for three years, meaning I stayed in India much longer than I’d planned to – a total of five years, including the years that I freelanced there – but a dream job doesn’t always feel like a dream forever. I talk in my book about how I came to the realisation that as much as Delhi had taken me in and made me a part of it, I’d never actually belong there. There’s no way for a foreigner not to stand out in a place like India. And it was a sense of belonging to a community and family that I did long for, so that was ultimately what helped me make my decision to leave.
The book appears to have generated a lot of interest in the US at a time when the country is largely focused on domestic issues. Are Americans interested in India?
I think Americans are much more interested in India now than they ever have been; but they still aren’t deeply interested in the place the way England is, and Australia is, and some of India’s neighbours are. Americans now have more interaction with India and Indians than they ever have before, though. Now, we have some three million Indians living in the US, if you include those studying here, and they are becoming more dominant and visible in US life after three generations or so of immigrants. There are dozens of Indian-American actors on TV shows and they are also becoming much more visible in politics and other high-profile areas. There are also, of course, the call centre-led interactions that Americans have with India. All of that contributes to a greater familiarisation with the place.
How have Indians responded to the book?
The Indian-American community has responded to it quite positively. When I give readings around the country, I often am asked critical questions by Indians living here – because the book deals with hard and uncomfortable topics, like caste discrimination, female feticide, and dowry – but for the most part, the Indian-American community has welcomed it and I do a lot of events with them.
At one point in the book you talk about how difficult life can be for female foreign correspondents, and that you dreaded ending up like ‘Miserable Jen’, single, cynical, and addicted to alcohol and adrenaline. The male correspondents in Delhi tended to be older, married, and higher up the ladder than the female ones. Would you consider working in India again as a correspondent as a wife and mother?
Absolutely – but only under certain conditions. Unfortunately, it’s probably not possible to be a full-fledged correspondent for a news organisation like NPR, where I now work as an editor, and also be a good caregiver to a child or children, because you are expected to be ready to skip off to cover bombings at the drop of a hat. So I’d love to live in India again if I could work for myself…
What’s your favourite Bollywood film, and why?
Probably DDLJ, the 1995 Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, because it hits all the Bollywood buttons: extreme silly humour, high romance, and garishly bright ideas of wealth and glamour.