Apartment C + What I’m Reading

I chose Apartment C (thanks for your input and good wishes, everyone — pictures below!). All’s well and I can tell I’m getting settled in because I’m acquiring books.

I bought a bunch of great stuff at the Queer Ink Book Fair, where I did a “talkfest” was really fun, at least for me! I talked about my book and read a couple of short sections. (Photo: me with some of the other writers & organizers.) I was ready to do some writing exercises too, but I think people were intimidated or feeling shy, so instead we ended up having a great conversation about writing process, courage, telling one’s own and other people’s stories, creativity, etc. Later there was an open mic where I read a couple of short pieces that people seemed to like.

Also bought a hot-off-the-presses “limited edition hardcover” of Samit Basu’s latest at his book launch last night. I was super excited because his Gameworld Trilogy is the best thing I’ve read, EVER. The reading was quite a shindig, with multiple television cameras, brand-name liquor, and celebrity host Cyrus Sahukar who introduced himself as a neurosurgeon-gynecologist-actor and then did a fake reading from the book that made it sound like a Danielle Steel/Shobha De novel. That was followed by a real reading by the author, as well as some jokes about Chetan Bhagat (maybe India’s most prominent mass-market writer) who was in the audience. Rumors of film offers for Samit’s novel already. Anyway it was all pretty entertaining.

Here’s some what’s on my shelves and nightstand now:

• Aditi & The One-Eyed Monkey — set of 12 kids’ books by Suniti Namjoshi — love these, so fun and playful and magical (thanks Queer Ink for gifting these to me!)

• Shame by Jasvinder Sanghera — stayed up late last night to finish this powerful story about a girl growing up in an oppressive family in England; the author went on to found a shelter for Asian women

• The Body & other stories by Hanif Kureishi — haven’t started this yet, he’s the British Indian author of My Beautiful Laundrette, The Buddha of Suburbia, etc

• Cinnamon Gardens by Shyam Selvadurai — gay Sri Lankan diaspora author of Funny Boy

• Zero Degree by Charu Nivedita — experimental short fiction

• Nuns, Yoginis, Saints & Singers: Women’s Renunciation in S Asia (anthology)

• Turbulence by Samit Basu

• Hindi-English Dictionary

• Teach Yourself Hindi

The great thing about being a writer is that all of this is “research.”

Mumbai apt – getting warmer, maybe?

Looked at more apartments all day yesterday, got a blister despite wearing my Keens — so you know that’s a lot of tramping around! It’s actually a great way to get oriented to the layout of the city and see different neighborhoods, especially because I had a chance to stop in at a bookstore and pick up my new best friend, the Eichler Mumbai City Guide, a street atlas.

I see why I don’t understand where I’m going most of the time 🙂 since, as the atlas reveals, the same road within a few blocks is called Turner Road, Gurunanak Marg, Perry Street, and a couple of other things besides. And mostly the street names are not posted.

But I’m already getting better at knowing sort of where I am, and I’m even able to direct a ricksha driver to my hotel now without having to stop and ask the way. Hooray.

I think there are three top contenders.

Apt A

This is the apartment of a family friend in the Gujarati neighborhood that I mentioned yesterday. It’s still in the running because it’s reasonably cute. But it has water damage and probably won’t be ready for a couple of weeks at least – possibly as long as a month since it needs to be repaired, then painted, and there are holidays in between. Doable, but not terribly appealing because I’m really eager to settle in and start writing; lots of ideas are popping into my head just being here. And other things, like where I take yoga and which bank I choose and what kind of Internet service I get and so on, will depend on where I live.

Should I be more patient? Or should I move on? It’s smaller than the other places I’m looking at, but somewhat cheaper. BUT, it’s not quite the bargain I was thinking it might be, especially since I’d need to move to (and pay for) a temporary place and then move again.

Apt B

This one is by the sea, on Juhu Beach, the neighborhood I liked a lot last time I was here. The space itself is similar to many others I saw, but it has huge, nearly floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room and the main bedroom, with unobstructed views of the beach and sea.

Don’t picture something tropical; Mumbai pollution is so heavy that even the ocean is quite grayish. But it’s fresher air than probably anywhere else in the city. I can definitely imagine being happy waking up there looking at the ocean and beach every day. It’s on the 5th floor; higher up means quieter, for sure. It also has a smaller 2nd bedroom that would be quite nice as an office/guest room.

But it has some serious drawbacks. The price is quite a bit above what I’d hoped to spend. Not impossible, but it does mean that I probably wouldn’t be able to save much money over the year — something I was really hoping to do. Or I’d need to cut into my travel/fun budget. The rent is nearly double the first place, and about $400 more than Apt C (below).

It has no refrigerator or stove, meaning I’d have to figure out how to buy or rent those (probably around $250 to buy a refrigerator), and possibly also a mattress. Of course people make such purchases all the time but since I never have, it feels a little scary.

It’s also a place I saw through a broker, which means a broker fee of one month’s rent, and more paperwork which might also take some time — a day or two, I think, though, not weeks.

And it might feel a little isolated. It’s the furthest north of any of the places, further from the train lines, probably about an hour into the main city unless there’s absolutely no traffic (right).

Apt C

I’m leaning toward this one. (I wish I’d taken pictures as I was touring the apartments!) It’s on Altamount Road, a very nice (“posh,” according to Giselle) neighborhood in the heart of the city. (The other two places were in the northern suburbs.) It’s on the 8th floor so it’s quiet; the owner calls it a little haven in the city, and I think that’s right.

I liked it right away when I walked in; after everything we’d seen on Thursday, Giselle and I were both wowed. It’s airy, spacious, with high ceilings and nice windows. The owners live in the UK and it comes fully furnished with all the appliances, even wifi.

But (you knew it was coming) … it would be shared space until the end of the year. A bit complicated to explain: It’s a 2-bedroom. One bedroom is usually closed up and the owner use it when they visit, which is 1 month a year (December). The other bedroom, the one they usually rent out, is occupied until the end of November. So basically I’d move in, stay in the owners’ bedroom from now until Nov 30, and then shift to the other room for December. So it would be January until I really had the place all to myself.

I was really turned off by that idea until I saw the place — no way would I be able to afford a place like this if it weren’t for the fact that the owners have this sort of special arrangement (and, I think, prefer to rent to expats). It’s pretty great compared to everything else I saw in that price range. It’s big enough that the spaces are separate and I don’t think I’d feel too cramped… but the bathroom is shared.

And I’ll be traveling for about half of November anyway. And maybe I could use December to do some of the research travel I need to do?

And — although I’ve been used to living by myself for a long time — maybe it would actually be good to be around people for the first couple of months, especially people who really know the neighborhood/place where I’m living and how to do stuff.

I wonder if I could also ask to pay reduced rent — half, even? — for the months that I’d be sharing the place?

It also has the benefit of being around the corner from my favorite bookstore/cafe in the city, where I had my book launch last year. Although of course that’s not a reason to choose an apartment, it did feel nice to pop into the familiar spot afterward and have lunch and feel sort of a sense of ownership of the neighborhood. And it’s in the main city, which means it’s near museums, performance spaces, etc., even though I know the “in” thing now is to live in the suburbs.

It’s a reasonable walk to Marine Drive, i.e. the shoreline; not really a beach but more like a promenade.

I talked to the owners by phone and they seem nice enough. I’ll talk to the other tenant in the morning; she’s apparently an Aussie who writes for the Indian edition of Vogue. She has a visitor staying there until Tuesday afternoon, though.

The apartment also “comes with” someone who cleans every day and someone else who cooks three times a week — mixed feelings about that, as noted yesterday, but at the same time that’d be one less decision to make. And at least they’re not live-in staff, which would feel *really* weird to me … although there is actually a “servant’s bedroom” behind the kitchen (that’s currently semi-storage). Yeah, whoa.

Apt ?

Now it’s Sunday, as well as a holiday for Hindus, so the realtors etc aren’t working. I had lunch with a family friend and am having a mellow day and thinking about this all. Tomorrow I need to make a decision about whether I’m going to choose one of these places, or keep looking and move to temporary digs for 1 or 2 weeks. I’m supposed to check out of my hotel on Tuesday… I could stay longer on my own dime, of course, but at $100/night that seems like the least desirable option.

So I could spend Monday seeing more apartments. There is a woman agent I haven’t worked with yet who I’d like to give a try; would love to be able to give my business to her.

But I’m not sure I’m going to see anything that gets me beyond these choices. I think I’ve seen about 10 or 12 in addition to these, at both higher and lower price points. There are lots of apartments in the “hmm I guess this would be ok” category, but now that I’ve got my standard-setters, I’m not sure how much more time I want to spend looking, vs. getting settled in already.

But (on the 17th hand), what if there’s a fabulous apartment that is just waiting for me to keep trying another few days?

Or I could just make a decision and then spend Monday getting the paperwork ready, exchanging the money, etc. … and move on to writing, living, etc.

Right now the latter seems appealing! But I’m giving myself at least till noon Monday to decide.

Do you have a vote?

Bright Lights, Big City, Bombay-Style

Dear diary,

Last night I was invited to dinner by a friend of a friend who told me that she’d just finished reading my book. A couple of nights earlier, she’d had a party and they were cutting lines on the book. The Indian cover of the book is like a patchwork quilt, and one of the guests, a writer, was making the lines of coke line up with the stitching in the patchwork, so that it was hard to tell where the drugs were, and they all kept sniffing at the wrong parts of the book.

While the writer was doing this, he recognized my name on the cover and said, “That’s my student!” Yes, many years ago I’d taken a writing workshop from him in New York.

And just when you thought print was dead. Can an e-book do that? I think not!

Meanwhile, the university where I’m supposed to be affiliated is embroiled in a book censorship controversy! A rightwing politician’s kid took offense at a novel by one of India’s best writers that’s been taught for many years. It’s a big brouhaha, in the headlines every day, and I will see how much I can bite my tongue when I go to visit the campus and meet the head of the English department next week.

My journey was fine and actually quite charmed. In the security line at SFO, I was whisked forward by a TSA staff person who told me to bypass the long line and take a shortcut all the way to the front. In the line in Frankfurt, a cute security woman teased me about my bear/neck pillow (Mr Takiyu, pictured), saying, “Oh you are carrying a dangerous animal!” And in Mumbai, at 2 a.m. after a 24-hour journey, a customs officer asked me a couple of questions (“Do you have an iPad with you? Any meat?”) and then waved me past the long “Nothing to Declare” line where they were x-raying everyone else’s suitcases.

Along the way I ate the fabulous food my mom had packed for me, watched the Karate Kid (not bad, but definitely not as good as the original with Ralph Macchio), and read Malinda Lo’s ASH, which I’d heard about when we were at a book awards ceremony together — a gorgeous re-imagining of the Cinderella story for young adults.

Here in Mumbai/Bombay, I have a “facilitator” assigned to me by the Fulbright agency, a lovely young woman named Giselle who is studying to become a journalist. She’s been teaching me to do things like ride the city trains and get out of rickshaws on the curb side rather than the traffic side. Always get in the ladies compartment, etc. Someone really needs to write a whole novel set in the ladies compartment; surely someone has?

I nearly gave Giselle a heart attack by getting out at the wrong stop (she said “next” and I thought she meant … anyway), and then suddenly I was on the platform and she was on the train, and the train started up again, and without thinking I ran alongside the train and swung myself back on, exactly like in Slumdog Millionaire. Ohmygod Ohmygod Ohmygod, said Giselle.

Thus far I’ve been feeling very well. I accidentally drank some non-bottled water this morning so I am hoping my digestive system doesn’t have a tantrum. I surprised the Fulbright staff by showing up at their office on my first day, as I was strangely awake despite getting to sleep at 4 a.m. and waking up at 7 a.m. They’ve just shifted to a new office so the head of the agency from Delhi was also there for the inauguration of the new space. I had a nice chat with him and I think I managed not to say anything delirious. They offered me lunch but I wasn’t hungry at all, and instead drank a juice box, for the first time in at least a decade. How fun to drink from a box with a poked-in straw!

I thought I’d packed everything I needed very carefully, but somehow several items didn’t make it, or at least are hidden away somewhere in my suitcase, including A) small notebook to carry around — no idea what I did with that, B) wattage converter (had to go get one immediately, as trying to run my 110v personal massager on a 220v current was really a bad idea), and C) pants. What happened to my pants? For some reason I seem to have only brought yoga pants and jeans. So far that’s ok, but I will need to go get some proper pants soon.

Happily, the cell phone I’d bought last year in India worked right away and even had plenty of minutes remaining, so I can be in touch with everyone easily. The hotel has fast broadband wifi in the lobby for about $1.50/hour which is just fine for email and looking up things, although not really private enough for Skype conversations, I think. Anyway it’s nice to feel connected.

I’m staying near the airport and I’ve been tired enough that it took me till now, day 3, to realize that the planes flying overhead at night are quite loud. Thank goodness for ear plugs and a natural ability to sleep. I’m getting in a lot of good research for my nap book, as I’m remembering important categories such as the jet lag nap, the afternoon heat nap, the post-apartment-searching nap, etc.

I’m not too homesick yet, but the apartment search is naturally an anxiety-provoking process. My hotel is in a neighborhood called Ville Parle, and apparently it’s a very Gujarati area. Lalaji, the first taxi driver I had on a day when I wasn’t with Giselle, was half-Gujarati and assured me that Vile Parle is 80% Gujarati while other areas are merely 30-40% Gujarati. Since my Hindi is really quite atrocious, it’s always a relief to find someone who speaks Gujarati, and we had a nice long discussion in which he gave me housing recommendations and inquired about my mother, father, brother, husband, etcetera.

From here to Bandra, which is the trendy area where all the expats and artists and queers like to stay, it’s approximately 6 rupees on the train, 90 rupees by rickshaw, or 250 rupees by taxi. That’s 15 cents, $2, and $6 respectively. Of course it’s all cheap if you have US dollars but it is truly exciting to be able to travel somewhere for less than a quarter.

Bandra, according to Giselle, is a traditionally Catholic area but since the Catholics are “more tolerant,” Bandra has become more cosmopolitan. By contrast, for example, in the Gujarati areas she says you won’t find meat. (Meat vs no meat seems to be an important organizing principle.)

So anyway, I’m pondering the benefits of living among the Gujus vs in a “cosmopolitan” area where I might have to speak more Hindi. And at the same time I do want to improve my Hindi, and be where the cool kids are, so…

I’ve got 7 nights in this hotel so I’ve been looking at lots of apartments. One was on the same block where Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan (unrelated) live, and the real estate agent made sure to point out their houses, easily recognizable by the crowds of common folk lingering about, gazing up at the terraces, waiting near the driveways, etc., hoping to catch a glimpse of Bollyroyalty.

We have two close family friends in the Mumbai suburbs, both of whom I’ve stayed with before, but both are in the process of moving themselves. I do have a place I can stay transitionally if need be, which is awesome, although I’d prefer to get settled sooner rather than later.

Once I choose a place, moving two suitcases in won’t be a big deal. But learning how and where to acquire the things I need feels a bit daunting. Simple things like where to buy groceries and cleaning supplies are a complete mystery to me. Sometimes apartments don’t come with things like refrigerators, and apparently one is supposed to hire a maid — we’ll see. I’d certainly need to clean the bathrooms, mop the floors, etc much more often here, because of the high levels of pollution and dirt (?) in the air and on the streets, and to keep the indoor insect population down. Progressive middle-class people feel a bit guilty or conflicted, but I’ve only ever met one person who totally did without household help. Others opt to try to raise the standard of living by paying double or triple, or what they consider a living wage, and offering things like paid vacation days, bonuses, and so on.

This weekend: More apartments and maybe I’ll catch a bit of the Navratri celebrations, and/or catch up with friends I’d made last time I was here, and/or meet some of the other Fulbrighters who are already in Mumbai. May try to take a yoga class too if I feel up to finding my way around.

I will keep asking questions and learning stuff. And of course, reporting back.

Signing off for now,

Minal “my book is a party” Hajratwala

PS just got word that LEAVING INDIA has received another lit award. I’m not allowed to say more for a week or so, but it’s exciting!

Mumbai apartment search

If all goes well I will be in Mumbai next week, October 13!

Want to help me envision and manifest the ideal place to live?

(Royal court in palace at Chittor, Rajasthan)

(Royal court in palace at Chittor, Rajasthan 🙂 )

This is my list so far:

Top criteria:


beach view and/or easy walk (2 blocks?) to a shoreline … I decided on this while at the beach in San Francisco a few weeks ago, realizing how VERY HAPPY the ocean makes me. And since Mumbai is basically a string of islands, with shorelines all around, I’m hoping this will be easy to find and also will help me narrow down neighborhoods.

• 1 or 2 bedroom apartment. Aside from my living space, I do need a separate space to write, that I can close off. I also would like to be able to put up an occasional guest.

• At least one room with air-conditioning. Cuz, yeah, it’ll be hot. I have no illusions about my stoic-ness when it comes to the weather. I am a wimp.

11208095260jaisalmer-fort-palace-room-interior1• Reasonably quiet since I’ll be writing there.

Wired for internet/wi-fi, or easy to acquire internet access… I’ve heard it can be kind of difficult/complicated/frustrating to get hooked up.

• Reasonable price. Rents seem to be all over the place; I know people who are paying $100 and people who are paying $18,000 a month (seriously? yea). I’m thinking about my own price range and I am prepared to be flexible and take the advice of locals.

• Furnished or lightly furnished (bed, stove, refrigerator).

• 9 month lease (but I’m flexible if I need to sign something a little longer-term).


I’m open to all areas of Mumbai proper as well as the trendier suburban area up north – that’s Bandra, Khar, Juhu Beach. Everyone seems to want to live in Bandra now, and there’s an emerging queer neighborhood there (that may be overstating it, though?). I will be affiliated with the University of Mumbai in Kalina, but I probably won’t need to be on campus too often, so I’m not worried about commuting.

I am not really interested in having a roommate although I would consider the right situation.

Extra bonuses would be:

Upper floor / terrace space

• Wi-fi

• Near someone/some folks I know; queer-friendly 🙂india_style_bedroom_2

• Landlord / neighbors who are helpful without being too nosy

• Convenient neighborhood for groceries, restaurants, art, community, necessities, getting rickshaws & taxis, traveling to other parts

What else should I think about?

I guess there are some basics — reasonably safe building/neighborhood, reliable plumbing and electricity, regular water — that we don’t think about much in the US but that I should probably make sure are on my list. And from what I understand, some apartments “come with” live-in domestic staff; I wouldn’t want that.

I sent out this list to a bunch of friends and family friends today, so I’m also taking heart today from my friend Renata’s excellent blog post on “Wanting” and gratitude. Check it out.

Sometimes I write as strangely as Dali paints

Moon Milk Review September 2010 cover


What kind of publication could list dead white guy Franz Kafka, live-wire comedian Rachel Bloom, and me in its table of contents?


A literary journal!  Specifically, this month’s Moon Milk Review, an online magazine that manages to be both cohesive in vision and wild in content.

I’m in it because I won a contest. Each month the editors post an image and solicit what they call “micro-fictions,” or “prosetry”:  pieces of 500 words or less that blend poetry and prose, and engage the image somehow. The entry that they like the most gets published.

My piece, “Archaeology of the Present,” is adapted from my poetry manuscript-in-progress. I spent a pleasurable afternoon fooling around with an existing, longer work to create a narrative for this painting by Salvador Dali, “Three young surrealist women holding in their arms the skins of an orchestra.”


You can read the published story here.

Or subscribe to Moon Milk Review here, to get new fiction and poetry in your email box once a month.

And here is next month’s contest. Follow the directions and enter by midnight, Sept. 30, 2010.

Un-Leaving India

So it’s official:  I am moving to Mumbai.   The visa has arrived, the medical clearance has cleared, the cat has a new home, and all that’s left to do is get an airline ticket and start packing.

(image from Meter Down, a friend’s award-winning blog of interviews with Mumbai taxi drivers:

http://meterdown.wordpress.com/about/ )


When are you leaving?

The first week of October 2010 if all goes smoothly (fingers crossed).

For how long?

9 months, or possibly longer.


To work on a new project for which I’ve received a Fulbright Senior Scholar Award.

What does that mean?

The Fulbright pays for my travel and living expenses for 9 months.  I’ll be based in Mumbai, affiliated with the English Department at the University of Mumbai-Kalina, and traveling to Gujarat and Rajasthan as well as other places.  This is a real gift of writing and research time, and I feel very lucky!

You must be excited!

That’s not a question. 🙂

Oh, ok. Are you excited?

Excited, scared, excited, scared, scared, excited …

Where will you live?

I’ll look at apartments when I get to Mumbai.  Ideally I’d like a place with a beach view, 1 or 2 bedrooms, at least one room with air-conditioning, and reasonably quiet since I’ll be writing there. If you have any leads, please get in touch!

What kind of writing will you be doing?

Forays into fiction. We’ll see where it leads. I do have a specific project in mind, and I’ll probably feel like chatting more about it once I get into the work.

Will you be teaching?

Not formally, but I will continue to work with selected coaching clients.  Click here for coaching info.

Can I see you before you leave?

Yes!  I’d love to see you. Please come to the INDIVISIBLE reading at 3pm Saturday, September 25, at the Oakland Public Library. There will be an afterparty and a chance to hang out; please check back at the same link for details.

Will you be blogging about your travels?

Yes, I hope to post here regularly.  Or at least, as irregularly as I have been.

Do you have family in India?

Not much; they left! (Thus the book.)  But yes, I will be in touch with some remaining relatives, as well as family friends and new friends/folks I met on the book tour last year.

How did you get a Fulbright? Can I get a Fulbright?

I applied! If you’re a US citizen, you can apply for the kind that I got, too.  Fulbright awards are given to almost every country, in almost every field of endeavor.  It’s probably easier than you think. If you’re a student, start here.  If you’re a working artist, professional, or faculty member, you’re a “scholar” in Fulbright terms; start here.

If you live outside the US, you might be eligible for a Fulbright to come to the US temporarily. Students, start here.  Faculty, professionals, working artists, start here.  If you could teach a foreign language to students in the United States, start here.

The main thing is to have a cohesive project for either research or teaching (or both), and to start early with your letters of recommendation.

Can you bring me a baby elephant when you come back?

Certainly.  Please provide your shipping address, credit card number, and preferred gender.


My take on the so-called Ground Zero Mosque

I had an awesome time creating this little fake animation using a transcript of Rush Limbaugh’s rant about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” in which he says it would be just like putting a Hindu temple near Pearl Harbor.


Limbaugh transcript: “Mosque Issue Shows Us We Have Our First Anti-American President”

William Dalrymple’s New York Times op-ed about the Sufi group at the center of the controversy

“Hallowed Ground”: Photos of stuff that’s near Ground Zero

Free text-to-animation tool

Fan Girl Meets Famous Writers

I met so many amazing writers this spring and am finally getting around to blogging about it!

sapphire1 At the AWP convention in Denver, I spotted Sapphire
wrapping up what had been a long book signing session for her, with hundreds of
people in line. The movie “Precious” based on her novel Push had just come
out. She seemed exhausted but was very gracious.
I ran up to Sherman Alexie as we were both waiting for Leslie Marmon Silko to start her reading. I think I made him feel like a rock star and
he liked it. I gave him a postcard for my book and joked that I’d planned to
call it The Toughest Indian in the World but he’d already used the title. He has a great, joyful laugh.
lesliemarmonsilko Leslie Marmon Silko read from her forthcoming memoir about the Star People who have been visiting her and demanding that she paint giant portraits of them. She said all of her work is basically true from life but in the past she’s had to publish it as fiction. Some of her Star People paintings appear in the Winter 2010 issue of the Kenyon Review. I loved how she sounded so happy and satisfied to be published as a visual artist for the first time.
This is the poet Elizabeth Alexander, whose work is amazing. She wrote President Obama’s inaugural poem. I’m still blown away by her earliest work on the Venus Hottentot. I don’t think poets get approached by fangirls/fanboys for photo ops very often. She was pretty tickled by it. elizabethalexander
michaelchabon I’d met Michael Chabon a few weeks earlier at the Berkeley Library Authors Dinner benefit, and he kind of remembered me. In Berkeley we had talked about writing speculative fiction and my fear that working in a genre I loved so much would take away the fun of reading fantasy and sci fi.  When we met again in Denver, it was just before his keynote speech. He agreed to a photo as long as I promised to laugh at all his jokes and say aah at the poignant moments. I said, What if I mess up and laugh at the poignant moments and ooh at the jokes? He said that would be ok too. I’m pretty sure I did it right.
David Henry Hwang came to Stanford recently for a 30th anniversary student production of his play “FOB.”He wrote it in 1980 as a sophomore and produced it in his dorm. It was picked up by Joe Papp at the Public Theatre in New York, launching David’s career as the country’s most prominent Asian American playwright. I was fascinated to hear him and the other original cast members reflect on the politics of Asian American theatre/ acting/ casting, then and now. davidhenryhwang
molliekatzen I told Mollie Katzen that I’d learned to cook from her (except for my mom’s food). Her Enchanted Broccoli Forest was the first and main cookbook I ever used. I was feeling shy to be one of the special guests at the Berkeley Library Foundation Authors Dinner. She “adopted” me and showed me the back route through the library to the bathroom, so we could get there without being accosted by (her) fans. She said she likes talking to fans but not when she’s trying to go to the bathroom. It’s good to have boundaries.
I was excited to have a chance to thank Abraham Verghese in person for his review of my book for the S.F. Chronicle and to tell him how much his work had meant to me. His memoir My Own Country, about being an immigrant doctor treating AIDS patients in middle America in the 1980s, was the first book I’d ever read that bridged both the Indo-American and the queer experience.
(Berkeley Authors Dinner)

“One heart / One world / One Pride”

Here’s the transcript of a webchat I just did, organized by the U.S. Consulate in Chennai (Madras).  It was 9:30pm here in San Francisco, 10am in India. A live audience of about 25 people gathered at the office of the HIV/AIDS group Sahodaran.

I did a few teensy edits for clarity, but I’ve left all my typos… much as it pains me!…  for that authentic webchat feeling. 🙂

Moderator (Brindha): Welcomechennaipride2010logo_blk to the webchat “Coming out in a Culturally Diverse Society” with Indian-American author, poet, performer, journalist and 2010-11 Fulbrighter Minal Hajratwala who will join us from California.  You will need headphones or speakers to view a short video and to hear Minal’s presentation.  Please submit your questions to Minal anytime before or during the program.  Your questions will be added to the queue and will be answered after the audio presentation.

Minal Hajratwala: Hello

Amy, U.S. Consulate (Moderator):  Everyone. We will begin the chat in a few minutes. Please feel free to submit your questions at any time. Welcome, Minal!

Minal Hajratwala: Thanks Amy, it’s a pleasure to be here.

(Moderator): Good evening, Minal!  This is Bryan Dalton, Acting U.S. Consul General in Chennai. Thank you for participating in this unique June Pride webchat. Our theme is “One heart. One world. One Pride.”  How appropriate, to share this with you in San Francisco, across oceans and continents, to talk about your book, Leaving India, in which you share the stories of your family over five continents.Thanks to our hosts at Sahodaran for allowing us to conduct this webchat at their office. Good morning to Sunil Menon and his staff. Vanakkam! Special thanks to the Consulate Public Affairs staff for their hard work connecting us through cyberspace to provide a ‘safe space’ for us to discuss “Coming Out in a Culturally Diverse Society.”

Minal Hajratwala: That is a lovely theme. So, what are the questions? 🙂

Anandaroopa: I am the gay partner of the Acting CG. Thank you Minal, for participating in Chennai’s second Pride celebration. As part of the celebration, there was a discussion/support group for parents and friends of LGBT yesterday. One couple came because their daughter had just came out to them about 4 months ago and they wanted to understand and receive support. That discussion reminded me that ‘coming out’ is always about us – our need to be loud and proud in spite (or despite) of homophobia and bigotry. But often, we don’t calculate how our parents will feel: how they might be ashamed to tell the relatives or afraid to hear negative whispers from neighbors. In Leaving India, you came out to the world — even writing about your first lesbian experience. Did you warn your parents or relatives about the content?

Minal Hajratwala: Thanks, Anandaroopa, for your question. I came out to my parents 20 years ago, so they have had a long time to enjoy having a lesbian daughter. 🙂  As far as the book, yes, I did give them a manuscript copy to read before it went to press. They also helped with many phases of the book research and writing.

sahodharan: Hii MiNAL…this is SUNIL MENON from SAHODARAN Chennai,,,AND ON BEHALF OF ALL GATHERED HERE…A big NAMASTE or VANAKKAM( as in Tamil)

Minal Hajratwala: Namaste Sunil. Tell me about Shoadaran and what your group is doing these days?

Minal Hajratwala: (PS sorry everyone for the typos — I have a very tiny screen to work with here, and I can’t really see what I’m typing.)

Minal Hajratwala: It seems Chennai has quite an active LGBT community. I met a couple of people from the  the Shakti Center here in San Francisco recently as well.

Amy, U.S. Consulate (Moderator): Minal, while Sunil responds, I have a question from Rose.

9626ac59423ebfb9ac95fc38d9db-1Rose: hi my name is Rose, I am India’s first transgender celebrity. I have a question for you, you have come out as a lesbian in the book, but you have been given a award for your book in the bisexual category , can you explain?

Minal Hajratwala: Hello Rose, it’s an honor to meet you! Yes, it is a bit confusing 🙂 You know, when I first came out I was saying very ardently that I was a lesbian. However, I was still sleeping with men … for at least 6 more years after that … So eventually I made peace with the bisexual identity for myself. I’ve been exclusively with women and transgender men for the last decade at least, but I do not disavow my past with [cisgender] men. So I accept both labels for myself. My preferred term in the US is actually ”queer.”

Amy, U.S. Consulate (Moderator): Sunil has described a little more about Sahodaran. I’ll share it with you now.

Minal Hajratwala: Great

sahodharanSAHODARAN is a male sexual health program that works on HIV/AIDS prevention amongst Transgender and Gay?bisexual males in the cty of Chennai and Pondicherry

magdalene jeyarathnam: Multi-sited ethnography has become an important part of social sciences research these days.  Have you or someone else done an academic (anthropology, sociology, etc) research project about your multi-sited family?  (from Eric at Sahodaran Office)

Minal Hajratwala: Thanks Eric. My book is not strictly academic but it does contain a fair amount of historical research, because I was interested in the social, economic, and political contexts in which my family migrated out of India.But no, there has been no academic study of my family. And I suspect they have no desire to be studied…
one thing that was important to me was that the people who are in the book would feel connected to the book, rather than feeling like little insects under a microscope 🙂  as one sometimes feels when subjected to an academic project.

sahodharan: how easy or difficult is it for indian women in the US, to come out in the US

Minal Hajratwala: I think coming out in the US has become a fairly commonplace occurence in general because of the radical cultural shifts over the past 20 years, pop culture and activist movements and all that. For Indian woman in particular, I think it really depends on the specific family / community. When someone’s family is very conservative or has strong religious views that are intolerant, of course it is difficult. But there is a very strong network of support groups for South Asian LGBTs across North American now. Conferences, a magazine, etc.  So in that since, once someone does come out, it is much better than it used to be.

Minal Hajratwala: Sorry meant to say ”in that sense’.  And I think one cultural difference may be that over here, the transgender presence is just emerging. Whereas in India it has such a long history and tradition.

magdalene jeyarathnam: Might you be able to say anything about possible (or even poetic) connections between exploration of new spaces/places geographically, and in terms of sexual orientation?  Definition of place and sexual orientation both seem to involve the questions – Who am I? Where am I?  With whom am I communicating? How can/should I behave? (from Eric at the Sahodaran Office)

Minal Hajratwala: Yes Eric, I think those questions are very meaninful and important. It’s my sense that LGBT people and migrants have something in common which is that by virtue of our circumstances, we have to ask these questions, ”Who am I”, at an earlier age and in a more focused way than many other people. and so I think of a ”queer diaspora” which is also something that my friend Gayatri Gopinath has written about from a theoretical perspective.

Anandaroopa: From Laksmi @ Sahodaran: Have your sexuality influenced your past and future works?

Minal Hajratwala: Thanks Laksmi, yes I think all of the aspects of myself have influenced my writing. I think being and feeling ”different” from a young age certain ly affects my way of observing the world very carefully, which affects how I write about it.   And this sense of difference comes both from sexuality and from growing up as an Indian child in a very white part of America, feeling quite alienated and differetn for that reason as well.

sahodharan: hi this is Angel Glady, a transgender woman in Chennai. It must have been an arduous task to break down your family tree. How did you manage to achieve this?

Minal Hajratwala: Hi Angel, I was quite lucky because I had two good sources for the family research. First my parents who have kept in touch with everyone very well despite being so far from home. It is actually a very close family. And second, I was able to visit the Bhatt who keeps records for our community in Gujarat — basically a scribe whose family has the records of all of the families of our caste & clan going back 13 generations.

ck: Hi! What advice for parents who observe a LGBT trend in their child, but he/she is hiding it. This is in the Indian context.

Minal Hajratwala: I think one mustn’t make assumptions about someone’s sexuality based on external and secondary characteristics, first of all. For instance there are plenty of tomboys who grow up to be heterosexual, yet some lesbians also grow up being tomboys, yet some lesbians (like me!) have absolutely no inclination toward sports. So for parents, it is good to observe and encourage the child to express himself or herself but not to rush to label it. And at the same time, to make it clear that other sexualities are absolutely ok; to develop a diverse circle of friends; to expose the child to films, books, individuals so that if or when the child is ready to declare an identity, they will have a range of options and models and people to talk to.

magdalene jeyarathnam: Hi, from heTimes of India illustrationre in Chennai, I provide counselling for the LGBT community in the US through skype, especially people from TN. Do you think counselling services that cater to Indians should be different?

Minal Hajratwala: I think one thing is to understand the intense importance of the family for Indians.  In the US, counseling sometimes is all about individuating, that is getting the person to operate totally as an individual, to break away from the family.  In India I think that is sometimes necessary but it is quite difficult.  It is more about learning to assert onself within the family, to be happy and fulfilled while still maintaining strong bonds  with family.  And to distinguish between those family duties which are healthy and loving, vs those that are repressive or guilt-induced and so on.

sahodharan: This is from Divya, You have won an award for being a bisexual writer. How do you think you are contributing towards the lesbian and bisexual movements for Indian women across the world?

Minal Hajratwala: Hi Divya, I hope I am contributing in two ways. One is by having been actively involved in my community where I live; I was a board member of Trikone, which is the LGBT group for South Asians in the San Francisco Bay Area. Some of you may have seen Trikone magazine which is also  distributed in India sometimes. The second way is simply by being visible, which is still a dificulty for queer Indian women. I was in North India last year for a book tour, and one of the last interviews I did was for a Times of India article about coming out to  parents. They quoted several people and among the women, I was the only one quoted with my real name. So I hope just by being willing to be out and publicly identified, I am doing some seva.

sahodharan: What do you think of the progres India has made and the amendment of Indian law on homosexuality?

Minal Hajratwala: I am incredibly inspired by the amazing activism happening in India, of which the Section 377 repeal is maybe the most visible victory.  I just am so awed by what it must have taken to pull together the coalitions that make such changes possible. I am also really delighted that communities like Sahodaran exist and I think much of the LGBT progress is built on the really dedicated work of HIV activists over many decades.

Amy, U.S. Consulate (Moderator): Minal, I’m told you just got an applause from the audience at Sahodaran!

Minal Hajratwala: And the fact that there are now things like pride parades, lesbian parties, a queer store in Mumbai, a queer online bookstore — it’s quite amazing. …
Thanks Amy –  I applaud the audience as well! 🙂

sahodharan: This is from Kavya. Do you have a steady partner? What do you think of permanent relationships? How easy or difficult is it to make permanent partners?

Minal Hajratwala: Hi Kavya, I’m currently single.  I have been lucky to have wonderfull, loving long-term partnerships in the past and I’m sure I will do so again, although when it comes to ”permanent” I suppose I’m something of a buddhist — what is really permanent in this world, after all? 🙂  I do think there is a challenge for LGBT partners to maintain relationships in a hostile envoronment without support. In an extended family if a young couple is having trouble, a family member may offer adfice or try to help them reconcile. For gay couples they may not receive that kind of support, and in fact the family may be working to undermine the relationship, so it can be difficult.

Anandaroopa: From Divya @ Sahodaran: I am a documentary filmmaker. Did you have any bad experiences with male partners which have encouraged you to become a lesbian?

Minal Hajratwala: Thanks Divya, no, I have never had any bad experiences with male partners.  I don’t think I ”became” a lesbian so much as I realized I have always had a strong attraction to and emotional affinity for women.

sahodharan: Do you consider yourself a good speaker as well or just a writer? You have a curious audience for your speech here. This is from JAYA, THE SAHODARAN BEAUTY QUEEN.  [Note from Minal: I’m told Jaya is in fact a beauty queen, having won a title recently.]

Minal Hajratwala: Hello Jaya, congrats on your beauty queen title!  Yes, I do speak and perform as well as write.  Unfortunately I don’t think my internet connection today is strong enough to support audio  🙂

LRamakrishnan: Your recent Lambda award was in the category of bisexual non-fiction. In your acceptance speech you appreciated the committee’s recognition of both bisexual and nonfiction as valid identity categories. Could you speak about bisexuality in particular, and the tendency of people to erase their bisexual histories and identites when they settle down with a partner. As you know there is a lot of pressure from gay/lesbian and straight communities to assimilate into those categories, depending on partner gender. What are the consequences of bisexual erasure for the individual, beyond the resulting invisibility of the community?

Minal Hajratwala: Thanks LR.  You know, according to the Kinsey study, and I’m in agreement about this, probably most people in the world, if they were totally free to pursue their desires, would be somewhere in between strict heterosexuality and strict homosexuality. That is, they would probably be bisexual to some extent, whether small or large. And I think anytime we are required to suppress our innermost desires, not even being able to admit them to ourselves, that has consequences for the psyche.  It is ok to say, Yes I have this desire and I choose to act or not act on it. But to not even be able to admit one’s own desire — it seems rather sad.

ck: Coming back to your unbelievable research in tracing your family roots… do you have an idea if any of your 36 first cousins are LGBT and are contributing in some way to the cause. kudos to your fantastic work!

Minal Hajratwala: Thank you, ck.  Let me say it this way — so far, no one in my family has yet come out to me.  🙂  But I do have cousins, as well as my brother and sister-in-law, who have been fantastic [heterosexual] allies.

sahodharan: Have you come across any discrimination because of your sexuality?

Minal Hajratwala:  no, on the contrary, I feel that being open about who I am has allowed me to be part of an amazing community and has opened doors and friendships that I would not otherwise have.  Small incidents of ignorance, yes, but far overshadowed by the beauty and rewards.

Amy, U.S. Consulate (Moderator): A note to our audience: We are coming to the end of our time with Minal.

Minal Hajratwala: It has been such a pleasure to chat with you all!  Is there one last question Amy?

sahodharan: Do you think you would have come out if you were born raised and lived in India?

Minal Hajratwala: Yes, without a doubt. I might have come out even sooner, since I would have probabl gone to a girls’ school — I hear that all kinds of interesting things happen there. 😉

Amy, U.S. Consulate (Moderator): To borrow your phrase, Minal, I believe that you have opened up many doors and friendships today. I’d like to share some of the messages that the audience is sending to thank you:

sahodharan: We at SAHODARAN, have thoroughly enjoyed this session, and am truly honored to b given this opportunity
: Ms. Ramba wants to host you at Sahodoran in Chennai. She would very happy to welcome you here in the community.
: From Kavya @ Sahodaran: My mobile is +[deleted]. Call me.
sahodharan: ths has been a truly rewarding and exciting experience foe all of us at SAHODARAN, and v wud like to take ths opportuinity to thank th e YOU and US consul and
Amy, U.S. Consulate (Moderator): And they’re clapping. 🙂

Minal Hajratwala: Thank you so much, everyone, and especially the Consulate and Sahodaran for hosting us. I hope we will meet in person some day.  As we say in Gujarati, awjo!

Amy, U.S. Consulate (Moderator): Minal, we hope that we can find a time to continue this discussion when you are in India on your Fulbright.

Minal Hajratwala: Yes, definitely. And then we will be on the same time zone. 🙂  Good night all, it’s bedtime for me!

Amy, U.S. Consulate (Moderator): For our audience, we have a special prize for joining us today. Please SMS Talk2US and your name to [deleted] for a chance to win a copy of ”Leaving India.”  Thank you again, Minal. On behalf of the US Consulate in Chennai and our friends at Sahodaran, thank you so much!

I won a Lammy!

Here’s the acceptance speech that Cecilia Tan kindly read for me at the Lambda Literary Awards ceremony in New York on Thursday night.


Thank you so much to the judges and to Lambda. It’s a real honor to be the first winner in this brand new category of bisexual nonfiction. And it’s a testament to many many people’s courageous efforts to tell their truths, over many years, that both of these words – bisexual, nonfiction – can now be taken seriously, one as a sexual identity and one as a creative literary identity. Thank you.

I’m grateful above all to my family, both the family I was born into and the queer family I came into, without whom this book could not have been written.

Leaving India is a book about migration and migrants, and so the thing that seems most important to express in this moment is my fervent wish that we as an American LGBTIQ community can find the IQ, the intelligent queerness, to take a stance on this increasingly critical national issue of immigration.

This is our issue. Because we, maybe better than any other Americans, know what it means to cross borders without permission. We know why it is sometimes necessary to transgress lines that other people, in their over-righteous morality, have arbitrarily drawn to divide our our families and our communities. We know the needs and desires that direct us to challenge the law or even break the law, if it is the wrong law for our bodies, for our hearts. In the heartlands of this country, for many generations now, every queer person has been an illegal intruder. And only through our brave work is this alien status beginning to change.

So I hope we can build alliances and continue to strengthen our incredible community, which includes and has always included immigrants, and the children of immigrants — with or without books to their names; with or without the right papers.

Thank you very much.

(Ron Hogan, who was my marketing manager at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt until recently, created this nifty little ad that ran on the Lambda Lit website during the time between when the finalists were announced and the awards ceremony.)