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Sideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in India Hardcover – April 26, 2011

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Random House (April 26, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400067863
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400067862
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.4 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (75 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #655,192 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Miranda Kennedy was a New Delhi–based correspondent for American Public Media’s Marketplace and National Public Radio for five years. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and The Nation, and on Slate. Before moving to India, Kennedy worked as a magazine editor and a public radio reporter in New York, where she covered, among other things, the September 11 attacks. She moved to Washington, D.C., to work as an editor at National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, and returns frequently to India.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1

Are You Alone?

Delhi's stale April air caught in my throat. Each breath had already been recycled through millions of Indian mouths, I imagined, growing hotter and thicker with each exhale. This is what it must feel like inside a burka: It was as though I was enclosed from head to toe in black cotton and inhaling the fabric that covered my mouth as I tried to scoop the dusty soup into my lungs.

"Natural air-conditionings, madam! Full breeze-open like a helicopter!"

When a three-wheeled auto-rickshaw slowed to a sputter alongside me, I was uncomfortable enough to pay attention to the driver's offer. I'd only been in India for a couple of weeks, but I'd already learned that most of Delhi's rickshaw drivers choose to nap away as much of the seven-month hot season as they can, sprawled across their backseats in a pool of sweat. When the temperature sails above a hundred degrees, they hike their fares to ensure that the predatory customers leave them to nap in peace. This driver must have been especially hard up. He gave me an exaggerated salesman's smile, disturbing the too-small pair of plastic glasses jammed onto his face, and agreed to a reasonable fare without arguing. I scrambled in, immediately grateful for the relief his rickshaw's flimsy canvas top provided from the sun, and for the slight breeze of his "helicopter" with two open sides.

The peppery smell of areca nut stung my nostrils as my driver dug a leaf-wrapped packet of paan out of a metal box and pulled it open with his teeth. Paan, a strong stimulant like chewing tobacco, reddens the teeth and lips of laborers, delivery boys, and shopkeepers across India. When my mother had first come to South Asia, she'd assumed the men were all dying of tuberculosis, spitting blood onto the streets. She had been only twenty-three-younger and even more naïve than I was when I first arrived, at twenty-seven. In fact, paan is a relatively innocuous vice, "the working man's way of getting through the day," as one friend later described it. If the middle class relies on air- conditioning and chauffeur-driven cars to endure the disorder and discomfort of Indian city life, everyone else blunts its frustrations with cheaper and more accessible aids, such as paan, hand-rolled cigarettes called bidis, and Bollywood films.

The rickshaw spluttered through Paharganj, a seedy district for low- budget tourists where British accents jostle with the guava sellers' Hindi cries and the shouts of the aggressive red-shirted porters at the railway station nearby. Adjacent to New Delhi Station, this area is the landing point for Israelis letting off steam after their mandatory military service, and for lost European souls in search of Afghan heroin or Russian prostitutes, or both. It's a little ironic that it is also where those in search of spiritual awakening come to lay their yoga mats. Paharganj isn't the "real India," but it was the version my parents would have seen when they made their way along the hippie trail to India back in the seventies. This, the spiritualized, photogenic India sought out by Western wanderers, didn't really parse with the globalizing India that I'd read about, of cable TV and McDonald's McAloo Tikkis.

Although I have been known to do yoga, I wasn't especially interested in a New Age-y ashram experience of India. However, there was no getting around the fact that I'd shown up in Delhi dressed the part. It took me longer than it probably should have to realize that outfits such as a long, wrinkled beaded skirt and tight black cotton eyelet top weren't doing me any favors in India, where neatness is sometimes the only way to tell the slightly poor from the desperately impoverished. Compared to Delhi's ladies-impeccable in freshly ironed silk saris and tiny beaded slippers, and radiating a fragrance of baby powder and palm oil-I looked like a sloppy hippie.

A few hours earlier, in the breakfast room of the Lord's Hotel, I had looked down at the strips of papaya and clumpy yogurt in front of me and tried to concentrate on my goals for the day. Half watching the translucent geckos skitter across the walls, I reviewed the list of interviews I wanted to set up, the apartment search I needed to embark on. It seemed overambitious and strangely irrelevant when I considered my surroundings: a cheap druggy traveler's hotel in a chaotic city that would seethe its way through the day no matter what I did with mine. I sighed in frustration and turned my attention to the geckos. Through their bodies I could see the cheery red and pink frescoes of Hindu gods.

I was determined to be more than a casual visitor to India. I'd been saving everything I earned at my job as a producer at a public radio show so that I could pick up and go overseas to try my hand at becoming a freelance foreign correspondent. The lack of transcendent, transformative experiences in my life so far had disappointed me: My days seemed a blur of headlines and deadlines. And even though it was a nineteenth-century idea, I couldn't help but worry that I needed to make a dramatic gesture to convince my New York boyfriend to stick it out with me. As much as I wished I could stride into the world without caring about such things, it wasn't that simple. I hoped that by taking myself off to the farthest, most exotic place I could imagine, I'd make myself more appealing to him.

There was never any question in my mind that India was where I'd go to do it. My family's fascination with the place dates back to 1930, when my British great-aunt Edith traveled there as a Christian missionary. My mother's side of the family is a small, close-knit group of wanderers, and I'd always expected that I would be like the rest of them. Going to India was like a rite of passage, entwined with my very idea of myself. Although the decision didn't make much sense to my friends, I had an idea that I would become my fullest, most interesting self there.

Moving around was also just a part of who I was. When I ask my mother to list the cities we lived in when I was young, she has to pull out a pen and paper to keep them straight. I think I went to four different first grades, beginning in England, where my mother comes from. Unlike some families, who are forced to change cities by circumstance or jobs, moving was itself the goal for my parents. Often, they would create the reason to leave. My father, a theater studies professor, seemed equally compelled by the drama of a life lived on the move as by practicalities such as career development or earning a good salary. Living in many places was important enough to them that they decided we'd never buy a new refrigerator or car. My mother was frugal by nature anyway; she'd half joke when telling us to eat our apple cores that this was how we'd be able to afford plane tickets to see her family in England.

My great-aunt Edith died when I was eleven, and all I have left of her is a family of brass elephants and a few leather-bound books of photographs carefully mounted onto wax paper. As a teenager in Pittsburgh-where my parents settled long enough for me to attend middle and high school-I would look at the three elephants lined up on my windowsill, each one slightly larger than the next, and imagine the life I would have. In every photo, Edith is wearing sensible black lace-up shoes and a dour Victorian expression. She and her missionary sisters look out of place, to say the least, under groves of South Indian palm trees, or floating on elaborately decorated wooden Kashmiri houseboats on Srinagar's Dal Lake.

In one picture, Edith is being carried by several underfed Indians in a covered sedan chair through a mountain passageway. Transported through Kashmir like a princess in a palanquin to her summertime retreat in the cool hills! To my adolescent self, stuck in an utterly unromantic postindustrial town, these images were reason enough to consider becoming a missionary. We rarely went to church and I didn't believe in God, so my mother had a good point when she suggested that I might want to consider something that required less religion-such as being a foreign correspondent, perhaps.

Even if the grass isn't always greener, it is always worth checking just to be sure-that is my father's belief, and I inherited it. Early on, I learned that it was easy enough to make friends and not get too attached to any of them; it was okay, my parents taught us, because we had one another. Committing to a group of friends and learning to belong to a school or a neighborhood-we didn't do that in my family. I was the kind of teenager who kept a running tally of the European cities I'd visited and asserted my opinions about world affairs over the dinner table. When my father was offered a position in Ireland, at the University of Dublin, it seemed natural to transfer my college credits there and go along for the ride; I didn't want to miss out on any of my family's cool international adventures.

After college, I wanted to outdo my parents and crisscross the globe again, this time of my own accord. New York yielded me all the things I'd hoped it would: It helped me realize what I wanted to do with my life, and it gave me a boyfriend who believed in the poetry of adventure, as I did. I found a cockroach-studded apartment in a rent- stabilized building in Brooklyn that was cheap enough that after several years of working at magazines and radio programs, I could buy myself a ticket to India.

My friends were right to be skeptical about my tripping off. New York was full of opportunities for an aspiring writer, and my developing- world country of choice offered nothing in the way of career assurances. Although we knew plenty of journalists who'd decided to freelance overseas, they'd chosen higher-profile regions, such as the Middle East, where their reporting was actually likely to generate some attention. India's economy was booming, but it wasn't a major story. When I talked to editors about my plans, their eyes lit up when I mentioned Pakistan and Afghanistan. I said I was interested in reporting from those places, too, b...

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Customer Reviews

The book ends rather quietly and perhaps with almost too little denouement.
Unlike Ms. Gilbert of "Eat Pray and Love" fame, Ms. Kennedy genuinely likes India and does not choose to leave her native country because of wanton wanderlust.
Vijay K. Gurbani
I love books that give readers a glimpse into the lives of people in other countries, and "Sideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in India" does precisely that.
Susan M. Heim

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

25 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Scorpiette VINE VOICE on April 19, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I really enjoyed this book. Although its purpose was somewhat different, I found myself thinking: This is what Eat, Pray, Love could have been. I mean that Miranda Kennedy's new book is not self-absorbed, not overly packaged, and not glossily superficial in its conclusions. I also did not find it boring in the least (I believe another reviewer had that experience.)

Several things struck me very positively about Sideways on a Scooter. First of all, I now have insights into the Indian culture that I might never have had; and not big-stroke, world-stage, political/economic insights, as much as intricate and human insights. I really enjoyed getting to know the people, the neighborhoods, and the customs Ms. Kennedy encountered as a young foreign correspondent. One moment I was shocked, the next touched. I shook my head in dismay, and rooted whole-heartedly for the underdogs - the upwardly non-mobile, the jaded, the cats. I rooted for Ms. Kennedy too, the young woman desperately seeking independence and belonging at the same time.

There was a little ambiguity at moments in terms of past/present orientation, but I have to say that I much prefer that to slick and overly controlled. This book felt ever so slightly messy, and I easily became comfortable with the medium being the message. There were no tidy lives in Sideways on a Scooter.

The book ends rather quietly and perhaps with almost too little denouement. But there is an epilogue, which is pretty satisfying for those of us who want to know how things have gone since then. I felt a little like giving the book a hug at the end. In fact I think I may have.

Would I recommend this to a friend? Yes, especially if that friend were female and interested in other cultures, or in the bold and trembling adventures of youth.
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73 of 97 people found the following review helpful By S. Mitra on June 30, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
First of all don't be awed by so many good reviews - if you look at the reviews closely you will notice that more than 80% of them are from the Amazon Vine program in which free copies of the book are distributed to a lot of people and they are asked to post reviews on Amazon, most of which generally tend to be positive. Most people who reviewed this book got it for free- there are only a few idiots like me who actually purchased this book! I didn't see any review of this book in the NYT or Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal or The Economist (or any other high quality print publication) - even though these publications are eager to review any decent book on India, which should have warned me. The author keeps making inaccurate generalizations about a mind-bogglingly heteregenous country of 1.2 billion people based on less than a dozen (rather strange) people she met in Delhi - there is no attempt of any kind to engage with the diversity of India. A lot of it has to do with the age and immaturity of the author along with her surprisingly ethnocentric attitudes - her way of analyzing and interpreting things is that of a high school teenager of average intelligence. In a more sensible day and age, no publisher would have given her a book contract.

(I teach in an university and specialize in South Asian history and politics). Quite simply, this is the worst book on India that I have read in the last several years- and I have read dozens! (See the very last paragraph of this review for my recommendations). You will know less about India after you finish reading this book than you did before! The major problem is the following.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Christine Zibas VINE VOICE on March 14, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Those of us wanderers who dream of a life abroad (or have lived one) will find great joy in National Public Radio (NPR) reporter Miranda Kennedy`s tale of her life in India. Like so many who wish for a fulfilling life and to see the world, Kennedy`s five years as a freelance journalist living in Delhi will ring true and keep readers turning the pages of "Sideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in India."

What Kennedy does so well is not only convey her own story (aspirations and reality on view for all to see), but also share the lives of the Indian women she came to know. The stories of these women--friends, servants, colleagues--highlight not only the challenges these women face in modern day India, but also the eternal tug between modernism and tradition.

Two of the women, about the same age to Kennedy (late 20s), become close friends with the author. One is trying to balance her life as a modern Indian woman with the desire to find love and marriage. Should she pursue an arranged marriage now that her college romance has not worked out? Is she too old? The fact that she lives away from her family makes her a target of gossip and judgment.

In fact, one of the most interesting stories in the book comes when Kennedy describes her own challenge in finding an apartment, something any Western woman wouldn`t even question. Without a husband, no one in Delhi wants to rent to Kennedy, assuming she must be a "bad" person.

The second story centers around an Indian woman who rejects the traditional concept of marriage altogether, and her challenges are many. She can't live with her boyfriend; in fact, she has a hard time just buying cigarettes as a woman.
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