With sometimes just a few hours or days to immerse yourself in a new culture or in a new city, it feels impossible to get caught up in the story of a place, but I’ve found, it happens to be just the perfect recipe for a well rounded travel experience.
To understand the history or culture, I typically read a few guide books, historical facts and dates, but my favorite way to learn about a city is to immerse myself in a book* while I’m in that place; to paint a picture of the city and a fictional character within its walls. Sure it may be fiction, but often it is interspersed with little cultural anomalies, beautiful depictions of landscapes and insights into family structure religion of food and history. You won’t learn all the facts on a short visit anyway, but to be able to get swept up in the story or one small story of a place is a magic about traveling, that I love.
Having lived in India for two years, I’ve had the opportunity to visit quite a few cities. They are all so different and so rich in history. Like the places themselves, they are a product of their past. Their food is both sacred and shaped by the varied landscapes of the regions. The families are knit as tightly as the baskets they weave and homes are working machines whose parts grind together naturally, if not sometimes in need of a bit of oil.
My goal anywhere we live is to live as much like a local as possible. To shed the often safe and smothering excesses which we are afforded and to empty out those extra bits of American culture that I don’t require here, and to fill myself up in every direction with local customs, food, religion, friendships and knowledge. I find myself unfulfilled by guidebooks: the restaurants, hotels and highlights of the city’s architecture and past not enough to feed my interest in how and why people live the way they do. I want more art, culture, fashion and glimpses inside warmly lit evening windows, portraits of how people spend their morning on their front porches, to know, “What’s for breakfast?”
When my brothers and I were little we used to imagine each place we visited as our home, we’d ask each other to imagine what it might be like if we lived there, from our back yard tree house to cabins in the woods of our youth. As an adult, I still wander streets imagining my life if I lived here or there, in the platform lean-tos on the deepest streets of Chennai and the grandest palaces of the North.
These books have been a wonderful gift to my imagination, understanding and acceptance of the diversity and culture of India. I’ve arranged them by city (or state) for ease of selection for a particular location, but many characters cross the state boundaries and even slip the bonds of the country itself.
TAMARIND CITY, Bishwanath Ghosh
I’ve explored Chennai in depth. I’ve had time to do so, but with a culture and a city as complex as Madras one could never possibly learn everything needed to equip yourself for the streets and to build a life and raise a family here, not in a year or two or even ten, so I started my journey here by reading Tamarind City. Written from an outsider’s point of view, but with a respectful attention to tradition, history and culture. Not the best writing, but a great view of Chennai. “While in other big cities tradition stays mothballed in trunks, taken out only during festivals and weddings, tradition here is worn round the year.”
2 STATES: A STORY OF MY MARRIAGE, Chetan Bhagat
A novel loosely based on the Punjabi authors marriage to a Tamil woman set largely in Chennai. An interesting peek into the complex world of Indian marriage, strength of culture and the fight between love and the tradition of arranged marriages in the modern world.
THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS, Arundhati Roy
I started this just before my husband and I stole away on a romantic weekend to Cochin and Alleppey. Without our three children to care for, I was able to read it in its entirety, enjoy a warm day on the deck of our private houseboat while drifting through scenes right out of this novel. A non-sequential tale of twin boys raised on the backwaters amidst lush tropical vegetation and family strife. The story shifts back and forth between their childhood and their reunion as adults and the ways in which the smallest differences in their lives differentiated their fate as twins.
BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS, Katherine Boo
I wanted to dislike this book. While on a much larger scale, it was the very essence of truth of the small neighborhoods and shanty towns I spend time photographing here in Chennai. As the book neared the end, I searched desperately for answers, changes and justice, but none of those materialized, either in the novel, or in the slums of Mumbai where the story is set. Learning in the epilogue that the author herself had so deeply rooted herself in these slums and in the lives of real flesh and blood people, I earned a great respect for her. While we can’t go to a place and expect to change it as one, we can tell the truths of it and spread that knowledge via wildfire and fan it’s flames until our arms grow week in hopes that change will find it’s way.
SHANTARAM: A NOVEL, Gregory David Roberts
I’d be lying if I said I’d already finished this one. I can’t quite seem to want it to end and lucky for me it’s a long book. I began this on our transition back home this past week and the descriptions of India filled my wordless mouth, my swollen heart and the cracks beginning within it as our plane soared higher out of the thick Madras morning and toward another place we used to call home. Updates to follow from the completion of this book, but so far this book has described my love for this place in a way no other book, poem, song or portrait has thus far.
KALEIDOSCOPE CITY: A YEAR IN VARANASI, Piers Moore Ede
I started this book moments after I returned from Varanasi. In retrospect, it was too soon to delve so deeply back into the psychological roller-coaster that I’d imagine anyone’s first trip to Varanasi is. I had to put this book down and revisit it when I’d had more time to process my experiences in the city and was ready to approach from another angle. Piers Moore Ede lived in and studied this spiritual capital of India. Wandering and studying it’s inhabitants each day, he compiles and fascinating, respectful and informative collection of stories about this incredible and complicated city, from widows to the Doms who run the funeral pires. I want nothing more than to go back now with a deeper understanding of the city since finishing this book.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still wading through this one. It is apparently the longest book ever written in English at 1488 pages. I give it attention as attention allows and the story is beautiful if not a bit meandering like life itself. In the meantime, I learned out of sheer necessity, that the paperback book is the exact same dimensions as a yoga block. Some books come to us for different reasons. I’m appreciating it in many ways and will update here when I’ve finished the book.
CULTURE SHOCK, INDIANS IN AMERICA:
In an attempt to better understand ourselves in our host country, I decided to read more about Indians in the United States and with that came much grace and a gentle understanding of India as a whole. Many of these novels bounce back and forth between the United States of America and various homelands in India and the struggle, as we say, is real. To feel it in reverse was a beautiful, painful lesson.
THE NAMESAKE, Jhumpa Lahiri
When I look back on books that created a pivotal shift in my thought process, this will forever top the list. To be in the hospital room, in a foreign country, giving birth in another language (even though I had Clementine at home in Brazil) was a feeling all too familiar. The sense of ones own rebirth under the spinning of bright surgical ceiling lights, to emerge new and half-whole with a new creature in your arms.
INTERPRETER OF MALADIES, Jhumpa Lahiri
A brilliant collection of short stories, a few of which left me with tears streaming down my face. There is such respectable art to saying more with less, which is why I am such a fan of short story collections like this one. A poetic look at love and marriage and the truth about the heartbreak that such an endeavor inevitably entails.
THE SLEEPWALKERS GUIDE TO DANCING, Mira Jacob
Brain surgeon Thoman Eapen and his family live in suburban New Mexico, having left Salem, India in search of a better life. Leaving all that he knows and all of his family behind the family suffers the loss of their son and the eventual loss of Eapen’s own mind twenty years later. Their daughter, a resident of Seattle and photographer comes to terms with her father and the ghosts that he communicates with, when a tumor is discovered in her own father’s brain. This was an incredible story of family bonds, loss, love and letting go.
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*With as much traveling as I do I prefer to read on a Kindle. Nothing (and I mean nothing) beats the smell and the feel of a real book, but with three children and a career as a photographer, my priorities lie in free hands and unburdened shoulders, making Kindle the greatest gift to travel since, air-flight itself. I own this one and I love it.