Sayantani Dasgupta on how not to write about India



Tigers, Snakes and Monkey-brains: how to write about India if you're a tourist

1. Prepare for your trip by watching Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom. Pay special attention to two scenes in particular: the one where Amrish Puri offers human sacrifices and the one where Indian kings and dignitaries work through a feast of baby snakes, beetles and chilled monkey brains.

2. If, one evening, your yoga class ends early or you are feeling particularly adventurous, go home and watch Slumdog Millionaire.

3. Eat at Indian restaurants. Learn how to make paneer, lassi and curry at home. Pat yourself on the back for your global awareness when you perfect the pronunciation of "naan".

4. Practice how to say "namaste", "haan", and "theek hai", the only three words/phrases you will ever need.

5. Amp up the volume of your yoga routine. Tell your yoga classmates that you are headed to India. Agree with everyone that it will be "life changing", even though you will only be there for three weeks.

6. Do not under any circumstances read anything substantial about India

7. Once you are actually in India, get yourself a blog. Make sure the background is either orange or brown. Write about the real India, meaning, of course, the dirt-lined streets and the way it smells.

8. Do not forget the cows. Or the monkeys. Or the Ganges.

9. Never ever forget the slums.

10. Notice all the poor but happy faces. Feel rewarded.

11. Adopt a sad, caring and indignant voice in all your posts, even though you don't do so when confronted with urban poverty in LA or London. India is different, of course. It's an alien landscape.

12. Take pictures of sadhus. Make sure they have matt-dreadlocked hair, leathery faces, missing teeth and saffron scarves.

13. Search for the Indian headshake.

14. Encourage your children to be astonished by feral dogs and hungry kids since fear, hunger, cruelty and intolerance do not exist where you come from.

15. Work up an appetite by trying to find "curry" on the menu.

16. Give alms to beggars, lepers, homeless children and blind singers then feel superior and suitably crushed at the same time. Wallow in self-pity and empathetic emotions. Later, blog about it from your MacBook. Even later, discuss this as one of those life-changing moments of your trip with your yoga buddies, while sipping on kale juice fortified by chia seeds and further fortified by a handful of dirt.

17. During the entire length of your stay, do not discover a single Indian not suffering from one or more of the following: dowry, child marriage, arranged marriage or the love of cricket.

18. Return home and rejoice! Tweet that you can finally drink water straight from the tap!

19. Wear your newly purchased Fabindia kurtas everywhere. Use your Anokhi scarf to tie up your hair inside the yoga studio. Incite fresh envy.

20. Now write an essay titled "100 Days in India". It will get published because, by this time, you have perfected your voice. You can sound sad, indignant, caring and contrite all at the same time.


Author's note: The tone of this how-to list is inspired by Binyawanga Wainaina’s superb essay How to Write About Africa. The content, however, is in response to Jennifer Sinor's essay 100 Days in India, available here.


Sayantani Dasgupta is the author of Fire Girl: Essays on India, America, & the In-Between – a Finalist for the Foreword Indies Awards for Creative Nonfiction – and the chapbook The House of Nails: Memories of a New Delhi Childhood. Her writing has appeared in over 50 literary journals, including The Rumpus, Hunger Mountain and The Hindu. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, and has also taught in India, Italy and Mexico.