Interview | Neither our homes, nor hearts, are confined to our cozy cocoons

Travel makes us better people, and the world a better place, says Shreya Sen-Handley

The talented Shreya Sen-Handley is the author of the award-winning Memoirs of My Body and the eclectic and compelling Strange: Stories. Her latest offering comes in the form of a travel memoir titled Handle with Care (HarperCollins India). Travel shapes women, usually for the better, says Sen-Handley. While excessive travel has become problematic because of the carbon footprint it leaves behind, it is her belief that neither our homes, nor our hearts, are restricted to the tiny corner of the world we each live in. Here are excerpts from an interview with Sucheta Dasgupta.

Aside from leading to your third book, how has travel influenced and/or impacted your writing?

I come from a nomadic family, who travelled the world for generations before me. I myself have been in and out of India most of my life, spending a part of my childhood in Southeast Asia, and most of my adult years in Britain, so travel has shaped who I am inherently. Naturally, it has shaped my writing, too, which is such a large part of my identity.

You have travelled alone, and with your parents, partner, friends and your own family to countless destinations. You have said that you like travelling with your spouse and children best, and I do believe that we are lucky ones to genuinely feel this way. So many women have confided in me that they would like to travel alone but have been restricted by their families from doing so. What is your message to these women?

Women need all the freedom allowed men. Women influence the world as much as men though in less obvious ways sometimes, but more profoundly, because so many of us are engaged in shaping the next generation. Travel, in turn, shapes us, usually for the better. Therefore, the world must see, as must families, that women have to be allowed to travel without restrictions. Just like all the other experiences they must have the freedom to pursue. I love travelling with my family because, having experienced much else, find that I like this best.

For the daring and the adventurous, what is the one activity that you would recommend when they are in Amsterdam?

The legally-available hash brownies certainly make for a surreal experience, as readers will discover in my book. But the best of Amsterdam is really its gorgeous art and distinctive architecture. Its cosmopolitan cuisine is not to be missed either.

You never told the reader what it was like going to school in the Philippines.

I enjoyed the greater freedom I found in schools there, and the greater range of activities too, with less of the insistence on swotting that we all encountered in Indian schools of our era. But in my school in Manila, I also had a terrible experience with a knife-wielding bully. So like anything else, especially anything new, it was an experience of two halves; fun and frightening at once.

As a Bengali, what is it that you cherish the most about Kolkata, and is there anything that you would like to change about the city?

Loads is probably the answer to both. I love my annual homecoming to Kolkata. In a good year I try to squeeze in further trips. My parents live there, and many relatives, as well as old and new friends. I go back to see them all, but also to keep my half-English children’s ties with their Bengali/Indian heritage strong. I also adore Bengali food, and Indian fabrics and trinkets, and where better to indulge in these than in my childhood home? I would love to see a cleaner city though, less congested and chaotic, so that its beauty shines through.

Frumpy but resilient, your picture of moribund Sheffield nevertheless conveys a lot of character. Tell us about some of your ruminations while eating your daily baguette in Tudor Square of industrial Sheffield.

In those years, in my spare time, I must have read more books than since or before, and day-dreamed more too, perhaps because my real life was so disastrous. Of course that changed, and I spend more time in the real world now, albeit the little one of my own making in our Sherwood Forest home. My thoughts and dreams were of fantastical ways of rising from the ashes of my ruined life which I was able to make happen. But I also thought of the entertaining and inconsequential; delicious food, dashing men, what book to read next, what historic quarters to explore.

Why did you choose Nottingham as your next and current home? Did it have something to do with the mysteries of Sherwood Forest?

The prosaic answer would be that it was a convenient base in the middle of England from which both my partner and I could commute to work. But we also fell in love with a house on its wild outskirts, in which we knew we wanted to bring up our then-unborn children. The romance of Sherwood Forest had plenty to do with the house we chose. At the bottom of its garden was a thousand-year-old wall which could easily have been a sanctuary for Robin Hood from the Sheriff of Nottingham’s guards. Not only Robin, but Lord Byron has a connection to our ancient wall. He is thought to have fought a duel in the orchard beyond. All in all, there were reasons both romantic and practical that brought me to Nottingham.

What is your most exciting, and exotic, Halloween memory?

Halloween continues to be an inventive time for us because we often celebrate it in Kolkata, making up our own costumes, trimmings, and observances, and calling it Kumroween! One of my favourite destinations for Halloween is the Yorkshire town of Whitby on the North Sea, where Bram Stoker conceived Dracula, for the scale and creativity of their celebrations, to which I’ve returned more than once. To these Indian eyes that is exotic enough, but the truly exotic Halloween-style celebration I hope to see one day is the Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos in Mexico, with its different traditions and atmosphere.

Do you think the colour of the light changes with the latitudes?

Yes! And not just latitudes but different parts of the world. Obviously this has a lot to do with climate, air purity, greenery, and more, but that change in light is a living presence for me, an ever-changing companion.

You mentioned drinking Ouzo in Corfu. Does it taste anything close to absinthe? What is your favourite tipple?

I honestly can’t remember, as it wasn’t an important facet of my Greek trip. And absinthe I don’t believe I’ve ever tried. I am a very occasional drinker, for reasons of taste and not morality. My only hangover story, hilarious though I’m told it is, is in my first book Memoirs of My Body. When I do have a drink, it’s good old gin and tonic, redolent with history, and occasionally Bailey’s chocolate liqueur.

Having travelled so widely, your musical tastes must be truly eclectic, and you have mentioned English sea shanties and the Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli in your essays. Share with us some of your favourite tunes and compositions.

Do you have all day? Because that’s how long I can discuss the effect music has on me. I worked for famous music channels as a young woman in the late nineties, and made music videos for them, and now that I write opera for the Welsh National Opera, I feel I’ve come full circle. What I really, really love is Western rock/pop — especially from the 1980s and 90s — by Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., Sting, Dire Straits, Bon Jovi, Queen and many more!

Since your book is so rich in historical information, why not include a glossary or some endnotes in the next edition?

Fingers crossed that the book sells, then additional elements can be added. As it stands though, you stumble serendipitously upon the many historical gems, just like we do on our actual travels, and they are doubly delightful because you don’t expect them.

You narrate the encounter in Corfu with an airports official who did not recognise an Indian passport. In what year was this taking place? You also describe with tongue firmly in your cheek the antics of sanctimonious customs officers in Bangkok airport. What do you think is the secret behind this rather lowly status of the Indian passport?

We travelled to Corfu in 2007, which gave Corfu customs officials plenty of time to have heard of a country called India! Not recognising the Indian passport is rare, disliking us is endemic however. There are many factors behind this; immigrants, as we know, are not welcome anywhere, but there isn’t a corner of the globe Indians haven’t made their home. That we often prosper in the countries we settle in (just look at the number of Indian-origin ministers in the British government!) can also cause resentment.

Based on the account of your travails in the airport and beyond, is New York the rudest city you have travelled in? What is the rudest country?

My trip to the USA was by far the holiday I have enjoyed the least, and that was in part due to the unfriendliness of the people, who were wounded by, and lashing out, after the events of 9/11, which had happened the very year before our visit. Their anger engulfed everyone who wasn’t White or Western. But New York did have its redeeming moments, and I might even go back one day…

You had once posited a theory about multinationality in one of your articles. You also hold that home is where there is present the company of your loved ones. So is it your philosophy or the activity of travelling that holds out a message of hope in this hubristic world?

Travel, in as much as it involves opening our minds and embracing the world, is the antidote to the insularity and aggression that marks our times. But excessive travel has also become problematic because of the carbon footprint it leaves behind, and the climate disaster staring us in the face. A balance has to be struck clearly. One should travel judiciously, continuing to learn from the world as best as we can, never shutting our minds and hearts to diverse influences. So, my philosophy, in life as in travel, is that home is indeed where the heart is, but that neither our homes, nor our hearts, are restricted to the tiny corner of the world we each live in.

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