Title: Sideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in India
Author: Miranda Kennedy
Quick Review: 3.5 stars
Review: It took me quite a while to come to terms with this book. While it was quite readable and I liked the author (which is not necessarily required, but very helpful in a memoir), something just did not click with me. At first I figured it must be because she was so young, and usually young people have no place writing a memoir. But Ms. Kennedy was actually living a pretty interesting life in a country I am quite curious about. Kennedy was a freelance reporter living as a single (western) woman in India.
I eventually figured it out, the story has no narrative. While the author moves to India and slowly adjusts to the culture and customs, and makes friends with several locals before eventually returning home, there is no sense of accomplishment. Typically a story will have a purpose, and a memoir especially will demonstrate some climax that makes the telling of a life story a worthwhile trip. It would be like How I Met Your Mother ending the series without ever showing us Ted meeting his wife. An enjoyable show to be sure, but we would feel let down with the experience.
That said the book was filled with interesting side trips and tidbits that made the read interesting. My favorite thought was the statement on arranged marriages. They are like starting with a pan of cold water on a low heat; it will eventually build to a passionate boil over time. Westerners insist on the rolling boil before you marry someone and that has nowhere to go except to cool off. Given the divorce statistics of a typical western marriage as compared to an arranged marriage I must agree they have a good point.
I also learned just how impossible it is for a single woman to get her own apartment in India with it generally accepted that any female wanting to do that must be a whore. This is not just one or two bad, old fashioned landlords; it is pretty much universal. The author had to lie that she had a husband and he would be joining her later. Another cultural belief is that cats are generally considered evil and as such are avoided whenever possible. I asked a few of my Indian coworkers to confirm that which they did.
Finally I found the back and forth on the caste system fascinating. I was reminded in part of how we Americans are always trying to separate ourselves from each other with the belief one is superior to the other. Like the way southerners are stereotyped – just think about the last time you heard a southern accent – what did you immediately think about the person? It seems in India they have a whole cultural segregation that is understood and passively enforced by everyone. Interestingly a person’s financial status is not enough to bridge the gap between classes. Her maid was of a higher class and thus she had an attitude that defied her job status.
You should definitely read this book if you have an interest in India as the side stories a worth it. But if you are looking for some sort of life lesson or accomplishment by the author then this book misses the mark. On balance I would say this book is worth reading, but do not move it to the top of the to read pile.
Why Did I Read It?: I generally like a good memoir and I like books about India.
Where Did I get it?: Sent to me as an ARC from the publisher through Goodreads.
Publisher: Random House
Synopsis: When twentysomething reporter Miranda Kennedy leaves her job in New York City and travels to India with no employment prospects, she longs to immerse herself in the turmoil and excitement of a rapidly developing country. What she quickly learns in Delhi about renting an apartment as a single woman—it’s next to impossible—and the proper way for women in India to ride scooters—perched sideways—are early signs that life here is less Westernized than she’d counted on.
Living in Delhi for more than five years, and finding a city pulsing with possibility and hope, Kennedy experiences friendships, love affairs, and losses that open a window onto the opaque world of Indian politics and culture—and alter her own attitudes about everything from food and clothes to marriage and family. Along the way, Kennedy is drawn into the lives of several Indian women, including her charismatic friend Geeta—a self-described “modern girl” who attempts to squeeze herself into the traditional role of wife and mother; Radha, a proud Brahmin widow who denies herself simple pleasures in order to live by high-caste Hindu principles; and Parvati, who defiantly chain-smokes and drinks whiskey, yet feels compelled to keep her boyfriend a secret from her family.
In her effort to understand the hopes and dreams that motivate her new friends, Kennedy peels back India’s globalized image as a land of call centers and fast-food chains and finds an ancient place where, in many ways, women’s lives have scarcely changed for centuries. Incisive, witty, and written with a keen eye for the lush vibrancy of the country that Kennedy comes to love, Sideways on a Scooter is both a remarkable memoir and a cultural revelation.
Author: For five years, Miranda Kennedy reported from across South Asia for National Public Radio and American Public Media's Marketplace Radio. From her base in New Delhi, she covered the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and other major stories across Asia.
She wrote extensively about women, caste, and globalization in India, and her stories have appeared in publications like The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Nation and Slate Magazine. On returning to the US, she moved to Washington D.C. to work as an editor at National Public Radio's Morning Edition.