Interview: Wendy Doniger, author, An American Girl in India - “I don’t remember enough”
On why she probably won’t write a memoir, how criticism has affected her writing, and singing in Bengali
In 2019, you published a memoir on your parents and now, letters from your early 20s. Are these part of a larger autobiographical project?
These books just happened; they’re not part of a project. For years, I’ve been taking notes for an autobiography. I might write it, but I’m becoming forgetful. It’s not just forgetting where I put my pills — I don’t remember anything about my first husband! As for the things I remember, they might be embarrassing to people.
I could write about my academic life: teaching in Oxford, London, three ghastly years at Berkeley or the golden years at the University of Chicago before it changed. Then, there are the husbands and boyfriends, places I travelled to, wonderful people I’ve known. I could share my impressions, but I don’t remember enough. It wouldn’t be a record of my history, but a mythologised version of it. I don’t know if that would interest anyone. Right now, I’m translating some fascinating folk tales from the Mahabharata; I’d rather do that than remember what I did in 1960.
Was writing about yourself a welcome change from your academic work?
It was a welcome change from academic writing, but also an outgrowth of it. I have always expressed my opinions in my work, more so in recent years. All my books have had an autobiographical voice. I wrote about sex, jewellery, animals and the things I was passionate about. When I look back at those, I recognise my idiosyncratic voice as a woman, a New York Jew… In a way, these two autobiographical books were the most extreme instance in the ongoing process of making my writing more personal. I had more fun working on An American Girl in India than anything I ever wrote. I laughed a lot at myself.
In retrospect, what would you have done differently during your India sojourn?
I should have been more careful about my health. I had both amoebic and bacillary dysentery. It kept getting worse and they were treating me with arsenic. I got so sick that I had to leave early — in just eight months. Besides, when I reached India, you could still go to Kashmir. By 1964, there were rumblings of the Indo-Pak War and travel was restricted. Whenever I see pictures of Kashmir, I wish I had gone there when it was still possible.
After your first trip, you kept visiting India, albeit for shorter trips. What changes did you observe over the decades?
I mostly didn’t go back to the same places I went to in 1963–64, so it’s hard to say. Like everyone else, I saw the airport changing, there were more cars instead of bullock carts, traffic increased and streets got noisier. Elephanta was a place I visited again. But Elephanta was still Elephanta, even though the boat from Bombay and the restaurant at the caves were different.
You first impression of Delhi wasn’t good. Did that change on subsequent trips?
I was an antiquarian — I wanted to see the old India. On later trips, I saw the city’s Mughal parts. They were beautiful and interesting. I never liked the Taj, but I loved Fatehpur Sikri. I even liked some of Delhi’s new parts. I remember being impressed by the enormous avenues built in the 20th century. Delhi is still not my favourite city, I guess Calcutta is… But I haven’t seen Calcutta in a long time and don’t know what’s it like now.
How do you engage with India now? Do you watch Indian movies, cook Indian food or speak Bengali?
I don’t watch Bollywood movies, though I occasionally check out friends’ recommendations. That’s how I saw Lagaan and Amar Akbar Anthony. I love Satyajit Ray’s films and watch them often.
I don’t cook much, but I eat Indian food at every chance I get. There are excellent Indian restaurants in Chicago and my Indian friends sometimes cook for me. When I retired, many of my old students came to Chicago. I took them out to my favourite restaurant, Chicago Curry House, which serves Nepalese food.
I still know some Bangla, but don’t speak it much. I converse in it with my colleague Dipesh Chakrabarty; we have fun speaking it and sometimes sing Tagore’s songs. I can sing all of Akash bhora shurjo tara and most of Jokhon eshechhile. Bengali taxi drivers are delighted to hear me speak their language.
How have you documented your life after these letters?
I never kept a diary or a journal. For 20 years now, my best friend, who lives in Berlin, and I have been writing long emails to each other every day. I don’t sleep well. When I receive an email from her at 2 am (her morning), it helps me get through the night. I don’t know where all the emails are or if I’ll do anything with those, but those have been a record of my thoughts.
That’s a sad story. I took lots of photos in India, but I don’t know where they are. My publisher Ravi Singh was so sad! Other people took the five or six pictures featured in the book. I have an album with photos of my son growing up. I am a serious photographer now. There are 40–50 people to whom I send photos of the sea, the sky, my dog, etc. every day.
How has the transition from letters to newer forms of technologies been for you?
I am grateful to email, to Zoom — look at us, here we are! I live largely alone with my wonderful dog and in Chicago with my wonderful son. I always made friends with older people and most are gone now. And then there’s Covid-19. So, I don’t see people often, but I keep in touch with them through video calls. Even though I can’t get around very much, I can give lectures and participate in conferences by Zoom. I’m grateful for these technologies.
In the old days, receiving letters and seeing foreign stamps were exciting. I used to go to American Express to pick up my mail when I travelled abroad. In Moscow, I went to the American Embassy, which the Marines guarded, and got it from the diplomatic pouch. But I’m happy to give up the romance of postal mail for email’s immediacy and ease.
I draw the line at social media. It has done much harm as it is open to misuse by cruel and stupid people — a bad combination, though quite common. As it is, I get unpleasant, obscene, anti-Semitic messages from time to time.
Have the criticism and threats made you alter your writing style or tone?
No. When we published The Hindus in India, we considered Indian and Hindu sensibilities and changed a few things. We altered the map of Kashmir. Ravi felt it was inappropriate to use the word “rape” when talking about gods, so we used “assault” instead. But the things people objected to were insane. I wrote about Vivekananda saying he ate beef and they found it offensive. He said that; I didn’t make it up! When people sent violent messages to me, I asked, “What exactly did you find derogatory?” Many replied, “I would never read your books.”
But for every hateful message, I got two-three appreciative ones. I wrote for the people who liked the book, so why would I change anything? Some readers had valid critiques and I acknowledge the weaknesses they pointed out.
Syed Saad Ahmed is a writer and communications professional.