A few weeks ago, there was an article in the New York times about a new book that irked me. A Caucasian woman who spent some time in India and studied Hindi has written about her experiences. I’ve no problem with that, of course. I am, I’ll admit, jealous to some extent. Of the publication part. I’ll admit it freely. It’s petty, but there it is. But the real problem to me, the larger one, is that this is part of a genre, and it’s the popularity of the whole genre that confounds me.
Take, for example, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Big sensation, right? Woman in her thirties leaves a troubled marriage and goes to find herself and the answers to her questions in India, Italy and Indonesia. A coincidence that they all start with the letter “I?” My mother looked at a page at random and counted 35 instances of the words “I,” “me” and “my.” Me me me me! Read all about me! Her book is a bestseller. This new one, about the Hindi learner, is on Oprah’s summer reading list.
Don’t get me wrong. I think this is fantastic for them. They took the initiative, put in a lot of work, had some good luck, and are, I hope, happy. Most impressively, they knew how to peg the market, and what niche to target. But I ask myself, and you: why am I bothering to research and write a series that will bring to light kathak dance, a 2,000 year old classical artistic tradition—its beauty and richness and complexity and historical, political and social significance?
Why don’t I write about being a half-white, half-Asian American raised in Paris? I could riff on the multi-culti theme. Why don’t I write about the year I spent in the posh, ultra-strict, Cathedral and John Connon School in Bombay, where by some strange alignment of circumstances I found myself one of the small handful of white-looking kids, and the only non-rich one, amidst a sea of Indian elite who had their hot tiffin lunches brought to them by their servants while I munched on soggy cheese sandwiches? I could wax eloquent on isolation, misunderstanding, teen-age angst in a (semi-) foreign land. But I find myself returning to the same question: who cares? I mean, really, who cares? And if someone does, then why? Maybe if I can figure these things out, I’ll get that call, the one for which I have my fingers crossed. In the meantime, my manuscript languishes, in bits and pieces—two chapters here, a query and synopsis there—Out There.