From India with love

What I’ve been eating: lotus roots sliced thin and fried in honey-chilli sauce (at Kylin, Vasant Lok); Burmese khao suey noodle-coconut curry (at Kitchen, Khan Market); bear naked fruit & nut bar; custard apple; parathas, rotis, brown rice, home-cooked vegetable curries; pizza

What I’ve been reading: Perdido Street Station by China Mieville; Wicked by Gregory Maguire; Lonely Planet India; The Cost of Living by Arundhati Roy

What I’ve been spending (43 rupees = $1): 44 rupees to have 2 days’ worth of clothes ironed; 1 rupee per minute or per text on my new Vodaphone (email me if you want the phone number); 400 rupees for an hourlong massage

What I’ll be doing next: Book touring! Click here for updated India event details


I don’t feel like I have much new to say about India (at least not yet) that hasn’t been said a million times by foreigners coming here and being awed, overwhelmed, etc. So if you’ve been to India or read enough about it, nothing here is going to be that exciting. But for my friends, I want to use this blog as a way of staying in touch and sharing what’s going on; so, banal as these observations may be, I’ll continue. 🙂

I usually fly into Mumbai, but this time it was lovely to arrive in New Delhi, a more manageable city in almost every way — size, congestion, pollution, weather (a perfect 72 degrees upon landing, followed by a couple of cool and slightly rainy days). I’ve pretty much recovered from jet lag and this morning transferred over to the first of several hotels/guesthouses where I’ll stay for my book tour.

I stayed with friends for the first three days, which was really a lovely way to acclimatize and rest before starting work. The friends I stayed with are, like me, second-generation Indo-Americans, living in India for a year. Let’s call them Sweetie and Eatie, since the wife is super-sweet and the husband is known among all our friends for his prodigious appetite.

On my first afternoon Sweetie took me to buy a cell phone. Compared to my $100/month unlimited cell + data plan at home, here I paid about $50 for pre-paid talk time that will probably last me most of my trip. That includes the phone, a nifty little Nokia that rings with Hindi film jingles and offers me a Hindi word of the day. The most expensive calls I’ll be making, to the United States, are 7 rupees a minute — super cheap compared to the $1/minute it costs to call India from the U.S. on a regular land line.

Pretty much everything in India involves a lot of paperwork, so in order to get the cell phone, I had to first get passport-size photos taken. Sweetie took me to the photo place, where for 50 rupees I got 5 photos. The guy even photoshopped my hair so that it looked neater and (sigh) lightened me up a few shades. Instant “fair & lovely,” I guess. Back at the cell phone place I gave them one of the photos, a photocopy of my passport, and a photocopy of the passport page with my India visa on it, plus I signed several sets of forms; who knows where all this goes. I was so glad Sweetie was with me to show me which cell phone stall to go to and ask about special deals (“schemes”).

It’s 25 hours of travel to get here from California, and although I usually sleep well on planes, I didn’t this time, so I was practically hallucinating by the time we got back to the apartment. I took a five-hour nap, blearily had dinner with them when Eatie got home from work, and went back to bed for ten hours.

Sweetie is a human rights education scholar, here on a fellowship for a year, and I loved hearing little bits of her fieldwork with organizations that are teaching children from marginalized Dalit and Adivasi communities across India about their rights. I took a peek at one of the student workbooks and it had questions like, “Does your teacher beat students?” — a common practice.

Eatie is a lawyer working on financial reform in India, and he likes it here so much that they’ve decided to extend their stay by several months. He’s really embracing the India lifestyle and says he doesn’t miss life in New York at all.  They both seem to be doing really great work.  I was inspired by their projects and also by how skillfully they’ve immersed themselves into life here, living in a typical middle-class Indian apartment rather than a Westernized enclave, getting around in auto-rickshaws and eating at dhabas (open-air restaurants), and managing all the issues that came with their apartment, from the cook who grumbles every time she has to cook brown rice (“you pay double price for this? and it’s such bad rice!?”) to unfamiliar situations such as water being available only at certain times of day, pigeons invading the apartment, etc.!


Woke up after my sleep-a-thon to hot, fresh parathas made by their cook, delicious with yogurt delivered from the store. I ate about a million parathas and felt quite revived! (I’m vegan at home, but I’ve decided to incorporate some dairy while I’m here, so that I don’t have to fret about getting enough protein and can share the social ritual of chai without awkwardness for my various hosts. Also, yogurt does help with the digestive issues that plague most travelers to India, and which I’m prone to — though I’m feeling well so far, knock on wood. In the few days I was with them, the cook also made bengan bharta (one of my favorite eggplant dishes), moong daal, aloo saag … and oatmeal.

As I list all the food I’ve eaten since I’ve been here, I think I must be eating non-stop.  I usually come back from India skinnier from getting sick, but maybe this trip will be the exception and I’ll come back fatter!  It’s all been delicious so here goes:

One day we had lunch with Eatie’s cousin, a travel editor, at a restaurant called Kitchen in Khan Market. The place has an airy, cafe-style feeling and is known for its khao suey, a yummy, spicy Burmese stew with noodles, coconut milk sauce, and vegetables (mine had tofu, Eatie’s had prawns).  Sweetie ordered penne and was happy because it’s the only place around that makes whole-wheat pasta; like me, she’s a Bay Area-an at heart, and craves healthy organic food which takes some searching here.

Last night we went to KyLin in Vasant Lok, a very nice pan-Asian restaurant with fancy cocktails as well as “mocktails” (since many Indians don’t drink, most high-end restaurants offer non-alcoholic versions). My “Asian green soup” and ginger-pepper stirfry were quite good, but what was really amazing was our appetizer, lotus roots sliced thin and fried in a honey-chili sauce. I’ve only ever had lotus roots as a bland hard thing floating in a soup or stew, but these were really great.  Better than buffalo wings.

Both restaurants were in sort of open-air malls, with stores catering to the expatriate and middle/upper-middle class Indian crowd. If you’ve never been to India, please don’t picture a U.S. style strip mall. Khan Market and Vasant Lok are tidier than many areas of Delhi, for sure, but not sanitized in the way that Americans might picture a high-end shopping area to be. As you walk between the two- and three-story arcades, you can’t get too distracted by the cute-looking Mrs Kaur’s Crepe House or the gorgeous textiles in the FabIndia window; you also have to look down so that you don’t step on a trash heap or stray dog or puddle or random construction materials piled here and there.

I had time to browse around the boutiques, English-language bookstores, etc. It’s tempting to buy things since even in these higher-end places, the prices are much cheaper than they would be in the U.S. (even if you could find equivalents), but I’ve held back and only bought one very pretty Indian kurta-style top which I’ll wear once I get to the warmer climes. Since I have several weeks of travel ahead, I don’t want to overload my suitcase right at the beginning. These malls also have wifi cafes as well as American fast-food chains like Subway and McDonalds which, of course, have an Indian twist to their menus.


Yesterday I went to the National Gallery of Modern Art. I was very pleased with myself as it was my first outing alone in India, and I had to direct the rickshaw driver who told me there was no museum near the area; I was able to give him proper directions and find it based on my map, even though I’d never seen the place. Hooray for Hinglish.  Delhi is quite an English-friendly city and I’ve been happy that I’ve been able to get by with my extremely rudimentary Hindi — which consists of about three verbs, one and a half verb tenses, a smattering of nouns, and a few useful prepositions (“later,” “next to,” “between” are especially useful, I’ve found!). I also know the basic numbers and the alphabet, which is handy, and when I get confused I just stick in a Gujarati or English word, and it seems to work out ok for these basic interactions.

At the museum, I really liked some paintings by V.S. Gaitonde, G.R. Santosh, Arpana Caur, and others whose names I don’t remember. Also liked MF Hussain’s Mother & Child series of lithographs in tribute to Mother Teresa (pictured), which I’d never seen before.  Overall, though, I have to say that the collection seems slightly dated to me, and a lot of the works feel rather derivative. It made me wonder where the newer contemporary art in India lives, since there was no installation art, video/electronic art, or even photography.

Randomly, I ended up getting interviewed at the museum by a tv crew that was doing a piece on an exhibit of sculptures by Dominican artist Claudia Hakim. I was the only person near the exhibit so the cameraman took shots of me looking at it, and then the young journalist (who apologetically said, “I’m only a trainee”) asked me on camera whether I thought the art fulfilled its purpose and whether “as a foreigner” I thought the exhibit would improve diplomatic relations between India and Colombia. Um, sure? Instead I talked about how much I liked the sculptures, which look like giant pieces of expensive gold and platinum jewelry, but up close are made of industrial materials, screws, nuts, bolts, etc.

Then I wandered around the outdoor sculpture garden, which is nice although the sight lines are interrupted by utility boxes and lighting structures and such; bought a bag of chips at a roadside stand; and splurged for a taxi rather than rickshaw back to the neighborhood, since I didn’t feel like breathing the rush-hour traffic (trying to keep my throat healthy at least through the book events).


This morning I transferred over to the India International Centre, which is a kind of membership hotel and club that also has events, restaurants, and a library. It’s near Lodhi Garden which I’m told is a lovely place to take a walk, and also houses some monuments/tombs to past rulers of Delhi, so I hope to wander around there when I have some free time.

My launch event will be in one of the conference rooms here at the IIC on Monday evening (7pm, come on by!). It seems that discussions rather than readings are the norm here for book events, so I’ll be in conversation with Nilanjana Roy, who is the former editor of my Indian publishing house as well as a columnist/journalist/etc. Drinks afterward.

I also met my India editor for the first time for lunch today. We drank wine, ate pizza and tiramisu at The Deck (a private restaurant at another nearby members-only club, the India Heritage Center), and gossiped about writers and the publishing industry in India as well as New York, London, etc. English-language publishing in India is in a growth phase, particularly at my press, Tranquebar, which is releasing about 15 fiction and literary nonfiction titles this year, aiming for 50 next year and eventually 65. Their sister press Westland publishes mass-market books such as cookbooks, self-help, Chicken Soup series, etc. Both presses are a mix of Indian titles and reprints of books first published abroad. My editor is lovely and is going to chaperone me on the four-city tour, so I’m glad; I feel confident she’ll be able to take care of anything that arises. I have a couple of press interviews already scheduled and more on the way. Will update my Events page and Buzz page as things develop, and try to post here as much as possible.

Everything seems in good shape and now my only worry is about how the air pollution (too many diesel vehicles) is affecting my throat and respiratory system. Since I had bronchitis during the run of a stage play I was in last year, and also lost my voice this spring in the thick of my book tour, I’m rather paranoid about that; nothing worse than being unable to talk when it’s your job to talk! My throat is not terrible yet, but I can definitely feel the congestion and rawness, and have been trying to baby it with hot water, soups, honey, and cough drops.

My room at the IIC is very pleasant, rather like a nice American dorm room, which in India means real luxury: hot running water on demand, free wi fi, good lighting, electric tea kettle, tv, a work desk, no biting insects, and a twin bed which is now beckoning me, rather urgently it seems, to take a nap.

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