In 2019, you published a memoir about your parents and now letters from your early twenties. Are they part of a larger autobiographical project?
These books just happened; they are not part of a project. For years I took notes for an autobiography. I could write it, but I get forgetful. It’s not just about forgetting where I put my pills – I don’t remember anything about my first husband! As for the things I remember, they might be embarrassing to people.
I could write about my university life: teaching at Oxford, London, three terrible years at Berkeley or the golden years at the University of Chicago before things changed. Then there are the husbands and boyfriends, the places I’ve traveled to, the wonderful people I’ve known. I could share my impressions, but I don’t remember enough. It wouldn’t be a record of my story, but a mythologized version of it. I don’t know if anyone would be interested. At the moment, I am translating fascinating folk tales from Mahabharata; I’d rather do that than remember what I did in 1960.
Was writing about yourself a welcome change from your academic work?
It was a welcome change from academic writing, but also a consequence of it. I have always expressed my opinions in my work, more so in recent years. All my books have had an autobiographical voice. I wrote about sex, jewelry, animals, and things I was passionate about. When I think back, I recognize my idiosyncratic voice as a woman, as a New York Jew… In a way, these two autobiographical books were the most extreme example in the ongoing process of personalizing my writing. I had more fun working on An American in India than anything I’ve ever written. I laughed a lot at myself.
Looking back, what would you have done differently while in India?
I should have taken more care of my health. I had both amoebic and bacillary dysentery. It kept getting worse and they treated me with arsenic. I got so sick that I had to leave early – in just eight months. Besides, when I arrived in India, you could still go to Kashmir. In 1964 there were rumors of the Indo-Pakistani war and travel was restricted. Whenever I see pictures of Kashmir, I wish I had gone there when it was still possible.
After your first trip, you continued to visit India, albeit for shorter trips. What changes have you observed over the decades?
Most of the time I didn’t go back to the same places I went in 1963-64, so it’s hard to say. Like everyone else, I saw the airport change, there were more cars instead of oxcarts, traffic increased and the streets got louder. Elephanta was a place I visited again. But Elephanta was still Elephanta, even though the Bombay boat and the cave restaurant were different.
Your first impression of Delhi was not good. Has this changed on subsequent trips?
I was an antique dealer – I wanted to see ancient India. On later trips, I saw the Mughal quarters of the city. They were beautiful and interesting. I never liked the Taj, but I loved Fatehpur Sikri. I even liked some of the new parts of Delhi. I remember being impressed by the huge avenues built in the 20th century. Delhi is still not my favorite city, I guess Kolkata is… But I haven’t seen Kolkata for a long time and I don’t know how it is now.
How are you engaging with India now? Do you watch Indian movies, cook Indian food or speak Bengali?
I don’t watch Bollywood movies, although I do check recommendations from friends sometimes. That’s how I saw Lagaan and Amar Akbar Anthony. I love Satyajit Ray’s movies and watch them often.
I don’t cook much, but I eat Indian food every chance I get. There are great Indian restaurants in Chicago and my Indian friends sometimes cook for me. When I retired, many of my former students came to Chicago. I took them to my favorite restaurant, Chicago Curry House, which serves Nepalese food.
I still know a little Bengali, but I don’t speak it much. I converse there with my colleague Dipesh Chakrabarty; we have fun speaking it and sometimes we sing songs by Tagore. i can sing anything Akash bhora shurjo tara and most of Jokhon eshechileh. Bengali taxi drivers are delighted to hear me speak their language.
How did you document your life after these letters?
I never kept a diary or diary. For 20 years now, my best friend, who lives in Berlin, and I have been writing long e-mails to each other every day. I don’t sleep well. When I get an email from her at 2am (her morning), it helps me get through the night. I don’t know where all the emails are or if I’m going to do anything with them, but these have been a record of my thoughts.
And the pictures?
It’s a sad story. I took a lot of photos in India, but I don’t know where they are. My editor Ravi Singh was so sad! Other people took the five or six photos presented in the book. I have an album with pictures of my son growing up. I’m a serious photographer now. There are 40 to 50 people to whom I send photos of the sea, the sky, my dog, etc. every day.
How did the transition from letters to new forms of technology go for you?
I’m grateful to email, Zoom – look at us, here we are! I live largely alone with my wonderful dog and in Chicago with my wonderful son. I’ve always befriended old people and most are gone now. And then there is Covid-19. So I don’t see people often, but I keep in touch with them through video calls. Even though I can’t move around a lot, I can give talks and participate in Zoom talks. I am grateful for these technologies.
It used to be exciting to receive letters and see foreign stamps. I used to get my mail from American Express when I traveled abroad. In Moscow, I went to the American Embassy, which the Marines were guarding, and got it from the diplomatic pouch. But I’m happy to ditch the romanticism of snail mail for the immediacy and ease of email.
I draw the line on social media. It has done a lot of harm because it is susceptible to being misused by cruel and stupid people – a bad combination, although quite common. As things stand, I occasionally receive nasty, obscene and anti-Semitic messages.
Have the criticisms and threats made you change your writing style or your tone?
No. When we published The Hindus in India, we took Indian and Hindu sensibilities into account and changed a few things. We have changed the Kashmir map. Ravi felt it was inappropriate to use the word ‘rape’ when talking about the gods, so we used ‘assault’ instead. But the things that people opposed were nonsense. I wrote about Vivekananda saying he ate beef and they found it offensive. He says that; I didn’t invent anything! When people sent me violent messages, I asked, “What exactly do you find derogatory?” Many replied, “I would never read your books.
But for every hate message, I got two or three grateful ones. I wrote for people who liked the book, so why would I change anything? Some readers had valid reviews and I recognize the weaknesses they pointed out.
Syed Saad Ahmed is a writer and communications professional.