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Sitting at yet another job interview for an NGO, the question arises again. After hearing it repeatedly over the past three months, I am prepared for it.

“But, what are you doing in India? What made you move here?”

The interviewer is curious, perhaps because she hasn’t come across many like me. We, the children of Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), who want to live and work in their parents’ respective countries, are a rare breed.

“Honestly, I am here because I see a real need for education reform in this country, but also because I really love India.” The former, a statement that would help me land me the job. The latter, intended to satisfy curiosity.

The interviewer moves on to the next question, but after hearing the second part of my answer, most people press onwards.

“You love India? Compared to America?” they ask, as if it is unfathomable. More… “Going the Right Way”

Kanan Gole has written for Table Matters (on, ironically, her inability to cook) and The Smart Set, and enjoys writing about her Indian heritage and her travels. She currently works and writes in Pune, India.
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Screenshot from a Fair and Lovely ad
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When Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America in 2014, she was the first Indian American in the pageant’s history to win. But she wasn’t America’s – or even India’s – favorite. Tweets such as “I swear I’m not racist, but this is America” and even “9/11 was four days ago and she gets Miss America?” followed her victory. In India, rather than celebrating a daughter’s success in the land of the gore lok, the white people, many were perplexed when they noted the color of her skin. They considered her complexion too dark to be beautiful. Had she entered the Miss India pageant, she would have been advised to “fix” her skin tone.

My family is from India, and I, along with many Indian-American women, can empathize with Nina. We face confusion from the Americans (“But where are you from?”) and scrutiny from the motherland, which we visit only once every few years but remain fiercely connected to regardless. India is my second home, Pune city in Maharashtra state is my favorite city in the world, and I am proud of my Indian heritage. Yet I have developed deep resentment specifically for India’s obsession with fair skin. In my earlier trips, relatives “recommended” that I stay out of the sun, and they emphasized that a “dark face” is not an attractive one. I, at 10 years old, told them about genetics, but the comments didn’t stop. While India has a range of skin tones, varying from olive to chocolate brown, the vast majority falls at the latter end of the spectrum and ironically envies the small percentage on the other side.
More… “Fair Game”

Kanan Gole has written for Table Matters (on, ironically, her inability to cook) and The Smart Set, and enjoys writing about her Indian heritage and her travels. She currently works and writes in Pune, India.
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Different countries, different decades, different ideologies, same size.
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In the midst of Volkswagen’s latest scandal, we take a look back on the love bug’s long drive from a Nazi creation to a children’s television character, and how Hitler’s dream of “The People’s Car” was realized in an unexpected way over 70 years later — in India.

It was Hitler who said “the people” must have a car they can buy for next to nothing. Ideology created the demand and then gathered the forces necessary to fulfill it. The outcome was so damn good and clever and lovable that it outlived the crazy and terrible ideology that had created it. It was Hitler who said “the people” must have a car they can buy for next to nothing. Ideology created the demand and then gathered the forces necessary to fulfill it. The outcome was so damn good and clever and lovable that it outlived the crazy and terrible ideology that had created it.•

Read it: VW Recall by Morgan Meis »

Get in touch with The Smart Set at editor@thesmartset.com.
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Reaching toward the West
From a 1935 ad for the Chevy Master Deluxe in Trinidad
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In a typical brain-spasm of deep insight, James Wood once wrote that V.S. Naipaul “is a writer who has a conservative vision but radical eyesight.” This, in an essay for The New Yorker a few years ago. The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul by Patrick French had just come out. The literary world was agog. Naipaul, never shy to air controversial opinions or disreputable thoughts, had given his biographer total access to his private life. This created some surprises. One surprise was a revelation about Naipaul’s affair with an Argentinian woman in the early 1970s. Here’s how George Packer described the episode in his review of the biography for The New York Times:

Naipaul and Margaret began an affair that set free all of his desires and fantasies. When his editor and friend Diana Athill scolded him, he replied, “I am having carnal pleasure for the first time in my life, are you saying I must give it up?” Carnal pleasure meant violence — in fact it was inextricable from beating Margaret up, degrading her in bed, turning the great man’s penis into an object of worship. How do we know these things? Because Naipaul tells them to his authorized biographer. “I was very violent with her for two days with my hand; my hand began to hurt. . . . She didn’t mind it at all. She thought of it in terms of my passion for her. Her face was bad. She couldn’t appear really in public. My hand was swollen. I was utterly helpless. I have enormous sympathy for people who do strange things out of passion.”

Reading French’s biography, some praised Naipaul’s honesty. Others felt disgust. It has always been so with Naipaul. He splits opinions, drives a wedge into what might otherwise be polite literary conversations. Nearly everyone who has read Naipaul has strong feelings about him. No side ever fully wins the debate. The Naipaul Question has been a live one for more than forty years.
More… “The Naipaul Question”

Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at morganmeis@gmail.com.
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The writer R.K. Narayan was not prone to supernatural thoughts. He understood as well as anyone why The English Teacher — his 1944 novel about a grieving professor who learns to communicate with his recently deceased wife through trance writing — would inspire bewilderment in his readers, and even rage. In the first half of the book (the “domestic” half), a benignly self-absorbed English teacher of thirty, Krishna, living in the fictional Indian town of Malgudi, decides to devote himself more fully to his wife and child. In the second half (the “spiritual” half), the happy domestic picture dissolves into — as Narayan wrote in his memoir My Days — “tragedy, death, and nebulous, impossible speculations.” Readers might feel, wrote Narayan, as if they had been baited into the second half by the first. But he hoped readers would find an explanation knowing that, of all his novels, The English Teacher was the most autobiographical.
More… “In the Ground”

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.
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At a station in India

 

A man in tattered clothing jumped into the car as the train lurched forward violently, sending him unintentionally crashing into a group of five women near the door. They radiated femininity in their colorful Indian outfits and ornate jewelry, but their soft faces contorted with fury as they unleashed unexpected hell onto this imposter. Suddenly the women were screaming and beating this man. As quickly as he had leapt onto the train, he was thrown off. The concrete platform seemed to do him no harm; he bounded up immediately and pursued the train, cursing the women who cursed right back at him.

From my seat, I watched the spectacle with wide eyes.

“It happens every day, on every train. Sometimes it’s a lot worse,” a lady wearing an elegant salwar-kameez, a traditional Indian outfit, sitting next to me said in a dialect of Gujarati, since my expression… More…

Bangalore

After days of planning, I was finally sitting on the metal stool next to the sidewalk typist’s desk. Two typewriters covered the entire surface of the desk — one for English and one for Kannada, the local Indian language — sitting back to back. A thick white rag strategically placed beneath the typewriters enabled the typist to switch between them with a quick spin of his hands. He typed expertly but not particularly fast. A few inches in front of us, pedestrians of all ages, wearing a mix of traditional and Western clothes, urgently squeezed past each other while to our right, a steady stream of young men and women filtered in to use the two Xerox machines that supplemented the typist’s business. If I had been standing among them, I’m sure I would have found it crowded and stressful, but as I took in the scene from my stool,… More…

The Hindu calendar has 70 holidays, some lasting days or weeks. It is therefore almost impossible to visit India without having the opportunity to celebrate at least one of them.

I was especially lucky on my recent trip to experience the biggest and most sacred of them all — the Kumbh Mela, a three-month long festival that takes place every 12 years in the holy city of Haridwar.

From January 14 until April 28, millions of pilgrims from every caste gather at the Ganges River in hopes of washing away their sins. A dozen astrologically determined days are believed to be particularly auspicious; the Maha Shivratri is arguably the most significant. On this, “The Night of Shiva,” the Ganges is believed to offer endless blessings.

For most of the day, the Ganges is restricted for use by the sadhus — mystics, usually men,… More…

Neon greens, pastels...

The town of Alwar in India is a couple of hours to the north and west of New Delhi by car. The Alwar Government Museum is found by ascending a series of connecting stairways within the City Palace of Anwar, now used largely as a headquarters for various government agencies. It is easy to get lost when you emerge from the first staircase into an open courtyard about the size of a football field. Seventeen stray dogs are lying in their favorite patches of sun, dead to the world. A million tin canisters are stacked at the far side of the square, left over from World War II maybe. A group of men are filling out documents in an alcove. If you ask them where the museum is, they will point up with one finger while continuing to write at those precious documents. The dogs sleep, the bureaucracy churns out… More…

The doctor being oneself.

 

In No Laughing Matter, the novelist Joseph Heller outed his friend Mel Brooks as a world-class hypochondriac. “He is the only person I’m acquainted with who subscribes to The Lancet,” Heller wrote. “Principles of Internal Medicine and Dorland’s Medical Dictionary are Mother Goose to him.” I grew up in a two-doctor home strewn with medical curiosities. Among my childhood toys were plastic models of inner ears, femurs, and gastrointestinal tracts. Every day, our postman delivered a stack of medical journals dense with text broken up by gruesome clinical photographs. Every morning while eating my Cheerios, I used the magazines as placemats, read the articles absentmindedly, and stole glances at repulsive skin conditions. When I left home to travel, the memory of those photographs kept me feeling healthy. When… More…