Home >Specials >Mint Asia >Ashwini Devare | Experiences of a globetrotter

Singapore: The NRI had done his duty. I had fulfilled my statutory requirement of returning to India to try to make a difference. Yet, I felt shallow; I had turned back from the base of the mountain without scaling the summit. Somehow I believed that going to India would help palliate the guilt that’s layered me since I left the country as a teen. Little pangs of patriotism, like small spasms within my chest. I guess it’s best to leave the overwhelming task of changing India to the likes of Anil and Shobha Deodhar, who have a supernatural ability to rise above the frustrations, and look through a thirty-year futuristic window. I was a pseudo patriot; an Indian who loved India from afar but couldn’t handle it up close and personal. Escapist."

These lines from Batik Rain—a collection of delicately nuanced short stories meandering through the lush locales of Bali and Siem Riep, and sprawling through the long and solitary highways of the US—seek a patch of earth, a root to hold on to, that will make life cohere for its characters.

As is often the case in reality, sometimes the catharsis is within reach in the homeland and quite often it is just an endless mirage. As Oscar Wilde famously once said: “Experience is simply a name we give to our mistakes."

In an attempt to try and unravel the waves of aspiration and guilt, and the accompanying experiences that defines the life of Indians in foreign lands, Ashwini Devare, a journalist-turned-author, has tried to give voice to issues around identity, and the angst of post-modern global, cosmopolite life. She has also in the process tried to make sense of her own nomadic life growing up.

Batik Rain has won critical acclaim since its launch this year and has been listed for 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story award. The book will also be launched at both the Ubud and Singapore Writers festivals in the coming months.

Devare, a soft-spoken woman in her mid-40s, whose intelligence comes across as sinuous and without aggression, grew up in a supposed cocoon of a highly privileged life of a foreign service brat. She unpacks the harsh realities of this mythical charming existence, and claims that hers was a completely disrupted, tumultuous life that left deep scars. Moving every two to three years, and having to navigate vastly different cultures in alien lands, was the opposite of an intoxicating life. Indeed, she claims it was a deeply unsettling experience that left looming questions of identity to unravel as an adult.

“There is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity," she says. “I had to make sense of and hold on to who I was in constantly changing contours of geography, language and culture, that was not only alien, but quite often hostile."

Born in Moscow, Devare grew up traversing vastly different cultures, countries and capitals, including Myanmar, Ukraine, Korea, the US, Indonesia and Switzerland. Each place came with its own challenges.

“I was, more often than not, the solitary brown kid sitting in the back bench in the sea of a mainstream culture classroom," she says. “It was lonesome and difficult."

By the time she was 15, Devare had lived in five countries. Reflecting on her life, she remarks: “The IFS (Indian Foreign Service), when seen from the outside, appears to be a glamorous, champagne-tinted world; but this is in fact a skewed picture as for most children of diplomats, it can be very disruptive. But most don’t speak up."

She adds: “My friends go for school reunions and talk about their childhood friends. I never really had any. I didn’t realize at the time that all these stages in my life were like tributaries that would eventually merge into a big, flowing river, enriching it with all the experiences, the good, bad and the ugly. These have no doubt helped shape the outcome of my book."

Batik Rain, a collection of six short stories that explore the theme of cross-cultural conflict and displacement as characters search for their moorings, took over three years to write but the seeds of the book go a long way back.

Devare says that her tryst with writing goes back to when she was 11 years old and wrote a mini book, Rita in Switzerland. Back then, her father was posted in Geneva as a young officer, and she is quick to point out that in those days, the Indian government didn’t pay for international schools for IFS officers’ children; so she was forced to attend a local Swiss school, where she had to study everything from math to biology in French, a language she had never even heard before. Throw in Latin, and the world becomes even more torturous for a 11-year-old.

“I happened to be the only Indian in most schools I went to most of my life," she recalls. “As a result, I experienced an intense sensitivity about who I was, about my provenance, about my background."

The author says she remembers writing these feelings down in her little diary. And that’s when she discovered that by writing it all down, she actually felt better.

“I could move on to face the next day," she recalls. “This self-realization was so therapeutic, so liberating. I had discovered a self-healing technique that remained with me throughout my life."

Like many Indian teenagers, Devare was drawn to the US and the liberating life it offered to “come into one’s own skin". She studied broadcast journalism at American University in DC as a young, starry-eyed student in the early 1990s hoping to make it big. The stars faded quickly. She was graduating at a time of deep recession, high crime and unemployment in the US. Besides, there were very few Indians in television news.

She recalls: “I was told it was near impossible for someone like me, fresh off the boat, with an Indian name, Indian background and no knowledge of American football, to go on mainstream TV."

Finally, a small community channel took her on, in Prince George’s county, a predominantly African-American neighbourhood, 30 miles outside of DC, and those five years, she claims, gave her deep and critical insights into a world far removed from the leafy diplomatic enclaves of the capital, from the power corridors of the UN, International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and from the cosmopolitan cafes of Manhattan.

“I was working as a news reporter in the dark side of the capital, a suburb that got the distinction of being the crime capital of the US, where I was covering homicides and fires in a desolate landscape of drugs and guns. Life was more challenging and surreal than ever before," Devare says.

She adds: “Looking back, though, I know now what I didn’t know then. That this would be one of the most invaluable building blocks for me, even though it seemed surreal at times."

After spending many years in the West, trying to lay down roots unsuccessfully, she and her family, much to her relief, found comfort in the warm tropical foliage of the little red dot nestled in South-East Asia.

In Singapore, Devare worked as a BBC journalist and found the job “absolutely thrilling". However, after five years of “facing cameras, chasing people for interviews, running after big, breaking stories, trying to look human at 4 in the morning for live broadcasts, and churning out news packages that had to be less than 2 minutes long", she says, she wanted out, to write something that was longer than a 6 seconds headline.

“How could one possibly cover the tsunami in a 2-minute package and feel satisfied," she asks. “The desire to move beyond the headlines was gnawing at me. The Bali bombings, the tsunami—these were big, traumatic events that had altered the lives of millions of people. They disturbed me so much that I knew I had to write about them somehow."

Batik Rain, she confesses, had been lurking in her head for many years. “Like a cloud heavy with rain. I had stories to tell. Then suddenly one day the cloudburst happened and the stories came pouring down."

Devare credits Singapore for showering her with a creative, enabling environment to succeed in this endeavour. She believes it is poised to succeed as a vital arts hub in Asia in the next decade, given the vision, commitment, and resources to make things happen.

She adds: “Singapore allowed my creativity to flourish and blossom like the bougainvillea and orchids that spill across the city. It is a fertile ground for aspiring writers and artists to make a mark."

“After all my travels, Singapore was finally like homecoming," she says. “I could breathe calmly again, I could think clearly, I could work creatively in this fertile ground that is completely safe and serene."

Edited excerpts from an interview:

What is your sense of your own identity having lived the nomadic life that you have?

We are who we are—shaped by the varied influences we encounter through our lives. The stories our grandmothers told us, the whiff of our mother’s sari, a quiet moment shared with a father—about a sister, a brother, a friend, a teacher. They have all played a part in making us whole. These influences are intrinsic and as I wrote, they hovered above me, seeped in me.

Writing the book was an emotional journey, because it was the culmination of many years of observations and introspection. Globe-trotting with a father whose diplomatic postings took us all over the world, these cross-cultural journeys found expression in Batik Rain.

What is the essence of your book, ‘Batik Rain’?

Batik Rain is about the universality of rootlessness. It is not just the diaspora that experiences this. You could be in Boston or Bangalore, and feel displaced. We live in a globalized world, we’re connected like never before. We are a hyper, jumpy generation. We have hundreds of friends on Facebook, yet we may not even know half of them. Yet, despite all the technology, there’s a growing isolation among all of us, and a greater need to anchor in. So while it is about people who are drifting, it’s also about finding love, finding comfort and laying down roots after being uprooted.

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