Several whitey sons-in-law and daughters-in-law live in India: Carlo Pizzati
Italian writer-journalist Carlo Pizzati, settled in rural Tamil Nadu after his marriage to writer-dancer Tishani Doshi, talks about his memoir Mapillai, and experiences in India.
It’s a familiar story, yet quite out of the ordinary. It’s a tale of exploration, and a love story. In the December of 2008, Italian writer-journalist Carlo Pizzati turned up on Indian shores, until then, as he understood, to ‘put a pin on the map’ (and meet an acquaintance). Fate intervened — as it is wont to — and by way of a khoobsurat ittefaaq, Pizzati soon found himself smitten by the Indian dancer and poet, Tishani Doshi, (the Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods writer then had the acclaimed novel The Pleasure Seekers to her credit).
Time passed — he met her in Chennai, she forgot his name later; she met him in Venice, they kissed soon after. The two married, and Pizzati stayed back in India as an Indian mapillai (son-in-law), to live in a house in rural Tamil Nadu, with Tishani. Ten years on, Pizzati came up with his memoir — the rollickingly fun and exposingly philosophical Mapillai, which he discussed recently at the ongoing Jaipur Literary Fest.
Harsh Sadhaka — that was the name Pizzati briefly gave himself when a Hindu priest laid down his condition for the alliance to take place (Thankfully, the couple went the Arya Samaj way, and no conversions happened). How providential was the name really? “OK, all right, you got me,” replies Pizzati. “Yes, it’s actually product placement for The Pleasure Seekers. But I also thought it made sense because when I first came to India in 2008, I was seeking a goal, to understand spirituality, and I was hoping to find an unachieved happiness. So I was a sadhaka seeking harsha. And I found it!” he gushes.
And there is a lot else he has found as he has gone about eking a peaceful coexistence with nature — scared snakes in his kitchen, pesky rats living in and around the washing machine, toads and 18 stray dogs. Then there must be the other factors: cuisine, language, weather. How difficult is it to choose a new home — geographically, culturally, linguistically? How difficult is it to jump what is apparently a gaping wide gap?
“I’m not so sure we are in charge of our choices as much as we think. Often occasions present themselves and, if you have a bit of courage, you allow yourself to follow them. I’ve been infected with that curious German virus called wanderlust. I’ve needed to see and know more. So it was experiential, exploratory and in some measure spiritual. But never satisfied. Reciprocated and mutually understanding love with a kindred soul finally brought some peace, along with the fun,” Pizzati answers.
A particularly amusing passage in Mapillai has him musing in his own, wry humour about the country’s traditionally crazy traffic — with its vehicle size hierarchy and institution of bribery, the Aadhar framework, all of which Pizzati has not only made peace with, but effortlessly slipped into. The tone here and in rest of the book reminds one of the dry, detached humour of Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari.
“My memoir is a serious book in funny clothes. I was elated when I discovered the right tone for Mappillai. I think what often has been missing from outsiders’ points of view about India is how this country affected them, the nuances of how it impacted their nervous system or values. Either you have the British, detached scientific approach or the German or Italian philosophical approach, where the Indian experience alters exceedingly the perception of reality. I take a different stance, perhaps more contemporary,” Pizzati explains the process behind how he discovered the right tone to talk as an ‘immigrant with white privilege’ about the dynamics of a largely ‘alien’ culture.
People from the West coming to India and Southeast Asia for spiritual fulfilment, academic exploration and experiential travel is not new. And Pizzati believes more are on their way to settling in India like immigrants and not expats — to live among the rats, snakes and dogs.
“It is already a phenomenon. I know several velle mappillai — whitey sons-in-law — or daughters-in-law who live in India. Many have written or told me in person that they identify with this book. Not so sure about them settling among stray dogs, snakes and rats….mostly they prefer cities. But I find my rural village more comfortable than the pollution, traffic and stress of the city,” says Pizzati, who, along with wife Tishani, has named their part of the beach where they live in rural Paramankeni, Bagheera, after their adopted stray canine who shares her age with that of the house.
Pizzati divides his time between his in-laws in urban Chennai and his wife in rural Paramankeni, Tamil Nadu. “Whenever we think our adopted dogs at the beach house are starting to talk back to us, we realise it’s time to go back to Chennai and stay with my in-laws. We go catch a movie, have a dinner with friends and, you know, do things like wear shoes, for example,” says Pizzati, adding that his [other] favourite city is Mumbai.
“It reminds me of a cross between the New York City of my 20s and the Rio de Janeiro of my 30s with a touch of my top Italian metropolis, Naples. I also love the Northeast states, like Meghalaya, Assam and Sikkim. And I’m very eager to discover my father in-law’s Gujarati roots in the Rann of Kutch.”
Okay, randomly — how much of India’s love for films does this mapillai who is also a screenwriter, share? “[I don’t watch them] as much as I’d like. We don’t have a TV at the beach house, but that’s just an excuse. I have written about the Tamil film Madras (2014) in Mappillai because I find that certain contemporary Kollywood movies are better than documentaries in revealing the dark side of life here. I also like Anurag Kashyap’s filmmaking. He’s got a special touch, a depth which reveals his passion for classic Italian cinema, which I can really relate to.”
Next up on the cliched table is the prequel to Mapillai. “It narrates the series of fortunate events that brought me to India through a picaresque search around the world for a cure to a chronic backache. I’m also working on a special collection of short stories and on my next memoir, which will bring me to investigate all the mistakes I made as a teenager in America in the ‘80s,” he shares.
We shall wait. The story hasn’t ended, nor has Pizzati left the shore.