I had no one to blame and I didn’t see myself as a victim,” Manjula Padmanabhan says on the phone from her home in Newport, Rhode Island, in the US. We are talking about her younger self, closely depicted in her memoir, Getting There, which chronicles the long journey through America and Europe that she undertook in the late 1970s. She was in her mid-20s, living as a paying guest at an eccentric household run by a man called Govinda in Mumbai, trying to eke out a living as a cartoonist and illustrator. Since then, Padmanabhan’s life has undergone a sea change, especially after she won the prestigious Onassis Prize for her play Harvest, in 1997. But the themes of her memoir, as gleaned from its subtitle (A Young Woman’s Quest For Love, Truth And Weight-loss), remain fresh and urgent.
Getting There paints a vivid portrait of the artist as a young woman—broke, desperate to shed her extra kilos and find meaning and purpose in life. Every page bristles with accounts of youthful folly and blunder. Ludicrous and comic as these episodes are (the ones at the weight-loss clinic Padmanabhan goes to, for instance), they are also charged with an undercurrent of tragedy. Hers is the story of every smart, brave and adventurous young woman (and man) of all times. “I was trying not to be a 25-year-old bourgeois Indian woman who would, like a sheep, follow the path my family set for me,” Padmanabhan says. “I had to break my emotional dependence on them.”
The decision to flee the nest, even for young Indians in the 21st century, isn’t an easy one. It demands grit and determination to step out of comfort zones, as also a capacity to embrace their inner misfit. In Padmanabhan’s case, her stubborn independence of mind was an innate gift, coupled with her penchant for self-interrogation and openness to people and places, even at the risk of finding herself in painfully awkward situations. “I have a friend who says I am a citizen of a one-person country,” she says with a laugh. “My country.”
Getting There begins with Padmanabhan toying with the idea of visiting her sister in the US with her then boyfriend, Prashant. The plan requires a long gestation period, given her limited and unstable income as a freelancer. In the meantime, the days roll by with their self-same routine: She strives to finish a project to fund the trip, follows the weight-loss regime as best as she can, hangs out with Prashant, and lounges at her brother’s place in the company of her ever-indulgent sister-in-law. But then two Dutch men, Piet and Japp, arrive in Mumbai to meet a spiritual guru and move in as her fellow lodgers. A strange alchemy, all of a sudden, is afoot.
Padmanabhan feels a frisson with Piet that is undoubtedly erotic yet not conventionally romantic. It’s a bond that allows her to ask deep spiritual questions, roam around parts of Mumbai she never ventured into, even attend the guru’s sessions. Most of all, it provokes her to take a plunge into the unknown. She undertakes a reckless detour after her US trip to Holland, with stopovers in London and Germany, determined not to return home till she has earned enough to fund her passage by selling her work. The arc of the narrative may remind you of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love but Padmanabhan doesn’t agree. “My book doesn’t offer simple messages,” she says. Indeed, there is no glib redemption to be found in it. Her struggles with depression and body issues are as real as they get, presented without a tinsel touch or sugar-coating.
Writing a memoir is riddled with apprehensions—of having to confront one’s inner and outer demons, the need to stand in front of the mirror and tell it as it is. Getting There is far from squeamish about looking squarely at the fears and foibles of its subject—but it is also not entirely unmindful of not hurting others. Padmanabhan, who is one of three sisters, invents a brother in the book whose unbridled rage becomes a turning point for her.
“There are writers like David Sedaris who have dreadful relatives they can throw under every bus they want,” she says, “but I didn’t want to openly criticize my family.” This is, she feels, an overwhelming problem for Asian writers, who remain obligated to their families all their lives. “If we write nasty things about them, it doesn’t stop hurting.”
That said, Padmanabhan is clear that Getting There isn’t a novel, nor is it travel writing. Truth is the foundation of its stories—of the growth of a writer’s mind, a young woman’s reckoning with her sexuality, her defiance of labels, her courage in exposing herself to the scrutiny of the world, and her refusal to ignore pain and humiliation, but also not to make them traits that define who she is.