Posted Friday, Sept. 2, 2011, at 10:21 AM
The cover of Miranda Kennedy's Sideways on a Scooter, with its lanky Western woman walking, Abbey Road style, between two women in bright pink traditional Indian dress, suggests the all-India version of Eat, Pray, Love. So does the subtitle: "Life and Love in India." In fact, there's a blurb on my copy assuring me that "if you liked Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, you have to read this book."
I did like Eat, Pray, Love, but if you buy the book expecting Kennedy to do little but dish up her life's most complex emotions and dissect them in the light of her exotic setting, you'll be surprised, although probably not disappointed. Kennedy, who lived in New Delhi for five years while reporting from across South Asia for NPR and American Public Media, limits her personal story to how her experience in India changed her, and although she's frank about saying that India's family-centric culture made her reconsider her own reserve and her choice of a career (as a war and conflict reporter) custom-made for loners, drifters, and swashbucklers, she's not one to strew herself, sobbing, across the pages. She's just slightly guarded, as befits someone who wants to keep her day job. But her reserve lets India, and the women she meets there, take center stage.
And as interesting as Kennedy's adventures are: renting an apartment and being taken for a prostitute, succumbing to India's demand that she hire servants and learning that her Western "hippie" wardrobe (contrary to that picture on the cover) earns her no respect from the people around her, it's in her relationships with the women she's befriended by in various degrees that she's able to see, and share, a view of India that's seen by few feringhees (Hindi slang for a white foreigner). She works out at a women's gym otherwise populated entirely by Indian women more intent on getting out of their restrictive homes than on breaking a sweat. She helps a friend create an online profile for an arranged-marriage website, and later serves as her bridesmaid in a two-week-long wedding extravaganza (her friend is upset that Kennedy can't come to live with her at her parents' home for the entire three-month period of wedding prep). For that, she's mocked by her other close Indian friend, a modern fellow reporter, for trying to be too open-minded about what the friend considers to be archaic Indian customs—but even that most Westernized woman proves to still be very caught up in India's conservative culture underneath her professional facade.
Sideways on a Scooter is a memoir with a hundred other stories within its pages; I was as interested in following Kennedy's stories about her maid and the girl who wiped down the machines at the gym as I was in Kennedy's own fate. Kennedy herself is at her most absorbing when trying to figure out what brought her to India in the first place, and who she might become if she stayed. I put the book down as sorry to leave Kennedy's India as she was, but fully understanding why she had to go. It's true: if you liked Eat, Pray, Love, you'll probably enjoy Sideways on a Scooter. But if you didn't like the now-iconic EPL, you might be someone who'll like Sideways even more.