Sideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in India
by Miranda Kennedy

Random House, 2011. ISBN 978-1-400-06786-2.
Reviewed by Barbara Heming
Posted on 05/16/2011

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: History/Current Events; Nonfiction: Travel/Adventure; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus

If you are looking for another Eat, Pray, Love, this is not the book for you. But if you want to understand today's India and the day-to-day life of most people, particularly the women, you can't do better than Miranda Kennedy's account. I was mesmerized and read late into the night.

When Miranda Kennedy leaves her New York job to move to India and becomes a freelance foreign journalist, she is continuing her family's history. In the 1930s, her great-aunt went to India as a Christian missionary. Later, her parents followed the "hippie trail" there. So when Miranda feels she is becoming too comfortable and normal in her New York job and life, she naturally looks to India. "Going to India was like a rite of passage, entwined with my very idea of myself," she writes. "Although the idea didn't make much sense to my friends, I had an idea that I would become my fullest, most interesting self there."

What Miranda encounters in Delhi is far different from the modern India she anticipated. Her first clue comes when she tries to rent an apartment. No one will rent to a single, unmarried woman because "We don't rent to your type of girl." Miranda discovers that saying she has a boyfriend is equally useless, since the word "boyfriend" is heavy with ugly connotations. Only when she claims that her New York boyfriend Ben is her husband is she able to rent a place.

In the 1950s India adopted one of the most enlightened and progressive constitutions, but it has had negligible impact on the lives of women. Tradition and family still rule women's lives and this is the focus of the book. Once Miranda moves into her apartment, she quickly is drawn into the social customs of the country.

Miranda explores life and love in India through her relationships with four women, two servants, and the two women who become her friends. From Radha and Maneesh she learns that the caste system is still a powerful force, determining occupation, rank and karma. Radha is a widow of the Brahmin caste, which is the source of her pride and importance. Working as a maid is beneath her, but as a widow she needs to support herself and her children. So she draws rigid lines around which tasks are acceptable or unacceptable. Sweeping the floor and cooking are acceptable, but cleaning the bathroom and taking out the garbage are not. Maneesh (from the untouchable or Dalit caste) is a garbage collector. She is grateful for the work and the opportunity to salvage useable items from the trash to sell. Miranda struggles with the fact that by hiring Maneesh to do the tasks Radha refuses to do, she is tacitly agreeing to the system.

Geeta, who lives with the grandmother of a family friend, becomes Miranda's best friend. Geeta is the modern Indian woman who wears the close-fitting clothing—thigh high tunic with tight-fitting leggings—of the student or professional woman. She drives a car and speaks stilted English. Although her father encouraged Geeta to go to college and to take a job at a public relations firm in Delhi, the deadline for marriage is fast approaching. As their friendship develops, Miranda discovers that Geeta has two identities. One is the na´ve, close-minded traditional girl, the other is a savvy, globalized woman—a paradox Geeta struggles with.

Parvati, Miranda's other close friend, is a political reporter who smokes and drinks, one of the few women asked to join the Press Club in Delhi. A Brahmin village girl, Parvati doesn't care what anyone thinks, yet she and her boyfriend maintain separate apartments, since her mother spends six months a year with her. Parvati introduces Miranda to another face of India.

During the five years Miranda Kennedy spends in India, she works as a foreign correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan. She doesn't recount her experiences in those hot spots, but focuses on her life in Delhi, the lives of the Indian women around her, and on how they change her outlook on life. Through them we get a glimpse of the pressure to marry, the importance of the dowry, and the dilemma between a love match and an arranged marriage. Globalized India now has a computer dating website where fathers can find matches for their daughters. She shows us the fitness club where Muslim women can gather and takes us to visit friends in the nearby shanty town. And she introduces us to the magic of Bollywood whose films filled with melodrama, songs and spectacles. These are actually medieval morality plays in which there are only three possible roles for a woman: the pious virgin, the pure wife, and the seductress.

I found myself drawn into the stories of Miranda's two friends as well as the other women she presents. I felt Geeta's pain at having to choose between marrying and fitting in or remaining single and being excluded, and that of Parvati who chooses to live by her own rules and accept the consequences. Two years after moving back to the States, Miranda returns to India and reconnects with her friends. The Epilogue provides a welcome update on their fate and a satisfying closure for the reader.

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. Visit her website.

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