Author Sharell Cook on adopting India

Author Sharell Cook
Author Sharell Cook

As you can see from my review that I enjoyed reading the book by Sharell Cook.

Author Sharell Cook Interview

Were you writing this book as it was happening or did you sit and write once you decided to do so?

Sharell Cook: I wrote it afterward when the opportunity came along.  Initially, I had no idea that I would end up writing a book. However, I did keep journals throughout, to try and make sense of all the experiences I was having. I then referred to them to write the book. The book came about after a publisher read my blog, thought it was an interesting story, and asked me if I had a manuscript in the bottom of my draw or had considered writing one. So, it seems like I was destined to write the book.  I didn’t have to go through the awful process of searching for a publisher and dealing with rejection like many writers.

Were you inspired by Eat, Pray, Love? As a reader one can see an uncanny resemblance in the beginning of both the books, though Eat, Pray, Love was a commissioned work and yours seems like a personal memoir.

Sharell Cook: Yes, I was inspired by Eat Pray Love. It was quite interesting actually. I came across Eat Pray Love by accident when I was in Delhi, visiting the Ministry of Home Affairs to get my tourist visa converted to a residential visa after marriage. I walked past a bookstore in Paharganj (backpacker area) and I felt drawn to have a look. And I found a second-hand copy of  Eat Pray Love sitting on a table and felt compelled to buy it, simply because I could relate to it. While I was reading it, I thought – I could write something like this! However, as you know, my story is a little different because I actually end up staying in India and I didn’t visit any ashrams.

Why did you choose to learn Hindi while you lived in non-Hindi speaking areas during your first stint? This is a trend that I have seen with a lot of expats who live in south India but when they have to choose a language to learn, they invariably choose Hindi.

I started off learning Bengali in Kolkata but ended up moving on to Hindi for a couple of reasons. The main one was that Malayalam (the language of Kerala, where I was living) is impossible! It has over 50 letters in its alphabet alone, and the tongue positions for pronunciation are difficult even for other Indians who don’t speak south Indian languages. The other reason is that I wanted to learn a language that my husband spoke so that I could chat with him in it. He speaks around 5 languages but after English, he’s best at Hindi (albeit, Mumbai Hindi). I think most people choose to learn Hindi because it is the most widely understood language (apart from English) in India – not that it will be very useful in south India though!

What was the most important factor apart from Love that made you leave the comforts of the first world and settle for India?

Sharell Cook: The most important factor was the opportunity. I was very dissatisfied with my career as an accountant as I didn’t find it inspiring. I had the chance to reinvent my life and try to find my purpose, and I decided to take it. It just so happened that I kept getting presented with opportunity after opportunity to try different things in India. Then when I got my current job writing and managing’s India travel website, I felt that I’d finally found what I was looking for – it combined my passion for India travel with my passion for writing. There were so many times during my first year in Mumbai that I wanted to go back home because settling in was really difficult.

However, I didn’t want to give up my dream job! Many people, particularly expats who just come to India to earn money, are confused about why I can happily live here without my western comforts. The reason is that I’m really fulfilled doing what I’m doing. When you feel fulfilled and inspired internally, the external factors don’t matter as much.

At what point in time did you feel that now you are an Indian, and can be a part of this mad country?

I think it was after my first year in Mumbai when I resolved to stop struggling and fighting against the way things are in India and be more accepting. I realized that India doesn’t change for anyone, so I’d have to change my mind if I was ever going to have a shot at being happy here. However, I really began to feel more comfortable in India when we moved to a cosmopolitan area in Mumbai. It makes a huge difference to be around progressive, broadminded Indians who are used to seeing/interacting with white people! In my previous middle-class neighborhood in Mumbai, the neighbors – who’d clearly never interacted with white people – treated me like I’d come from another planet! They were obsessed with me and what I was doing, and really intruded into my personal space.

In my new neighborhood, I go shopping with my Indian neighbors, have dinner with them, drink a glass of wine. It’s just like socializing with people back home. This really helped me feel that yes, I can fit in here and be a part of India. Not everyone is going to treat me like I’m different.

Why do you think most expats try to be more Indian than the Indians around them? A lot of expats or the non-Indian half of the Indian couples try to be more Indian than urban Indians like they try to speak Hindi, they dress up more conventionally, even perform rituals more religiously. Is there a constant need to prove that you are a part of this society now by doing all this? Or is it the mystery of all the rituals and customs that draws you to them?

Sharell Cook: That’s a really good question! I think that the answer is both, at least it was for me. I felt very conscious of the fact that I wasn’t Indian. So I put a huge amount of pressure on myself to act and dress as Indian as possible. I didn’t want to be looked upon and treated like I’m a foreigner, especially being married to an Indian. I didn’t want to give anyone cause for complaint about me. In addition, I was very interested in Indian rituals and customs, so that was a big attraction for me too. However, there is also another peculiar answer to the question that you didn’t touch on. Many expats actually want to outdo other expats in regards to how Indian they are! They get satisfaction from showing that they are more integrated into Indian culture/society than others.

There is actually unspoken competition between many expats about this. The reason being is that expats often like to think that they are doing something amazing and unique in coming to India. They don’t like to see other expats here doing the same thing because they realize that they’re not so unique after all. So in order to feel superior, they become as Indian as possible. It’s like a way of showing off and making a statement that “I have been in India longer than you and know more about India than you, my experience is more authentic than yours”. This is also sometimes the case for foreigner wives of Indians. Many feel competition between each other to show how much a part of their husband’s culture they’ve become.

What would you advice to someone who wants to move from western world to India? Two things that they must be aware of before making that big decision.

Sharell Cook: I always tell people that if they want to move to India and be happy here, they actually need to have a genuine interest in India – not just love or money (in the case of many expats) for example. This will sustain them through all the times that day to day life gets challenging and frustrating – because living in India is actually very different to traveling in India. People who move to India also need to be adaptable. Rigid and opinionated people, who don’t want to deviate from their beliefs and principles, will struggle in India. Many expats ask me how I cope here, and my response is that I’ve learned to detach. Yes, there are plenty of things that bother me, or that go against my beliefs, but I just choose to look past them.

Two things that people must be aware of before making the decision to move to India:

1) People do not behave the same way in India as they do in the west. I’ve found Indian behavior and western behavior to be quite opposite in most cases. Indians are intrusive, loud, communal, and have little regard for the time. Westerners value quiet, space, privacy, good manners, punctuality.

2) Systems/processes do not function the same way in India as they do in the west. In the west, we’re used to rules and regulations that work. There are transparency and accountability. In India, there’s corruption, bureaucracy, inefficiencies, difficulties in obtaining accurate information, difficulties in getting things done. It can be tiring and maddening.

India really requires a lot of adjustment in many ways! Anyone who moves here needs to be prepared for it.

How difficult is it to share the story of your life in the public domain? Do you feel exposed when people you do not know, know so much about you?

Sharell Cook: For me, it’s very difficult and has been the most confronting thing about writing a book. I’ve revealed so many things in the book that I would rather people not know. However, to make a book real and authentic, it’s, unfortunately, necessary to be honest and upfront. It’s taken a huge amount of mental work to push through the resistance. However, part of the reason why I wrote the book was for personal growth – to get to that point where I can say, this is me and my life, think of it what you will. I’ve wanted to get over my fear of people’s judgments and what better way to do that than to put my life out in the public domain for everyone to judge.

Interestingly, I actually find I feel most exposed when people I know read my book. Only my closest friends and some of my family actually know that I’ve written the book.  I haven’t made a big announcement of it, for the simple reason that I feel uncomfortable about people who I know reading it. Not everyone knows everything that’s in it. It doesn’t bother me much about strangers reading it because they don’t know me and I don’t know them. I’m probably never going to meet them.

Writers today have to struggle to choose the level of explanation that they have to give for use of local lingo or description of local events/rituals/festivals etc. The global audience needs a lot of explanation while the same can bore the local audience. What was the prime audience for you when you were writing this? How do you think you can attain a balance so that none of your audience is alienated?

Sharell Cook: My publisher is in Australia. So I had to primarily write for an audience outside India. During the editing process, I was actually asked to elaborate on many India-related things in my book. So that an audience not familiar with India could understand them better. Hence, I may bore Indian readers with detailed descriptions of things they are familiar with. However, at the time I wrote the book,  I had no idea that it would be released in India. That all came later when the Indian branch of my publisher decided to import the book to India. Publishing is a complicated business, in that publishers are restricted to their own territory, which is usually their own country.

When a book is released in another country, it can either be done so by an import agreement. Or by another publisher acquiring the rights and republishing it. If the book is republished by a publisher in another country, it will be edited for the local audience. Hence, if my book had been republished in India. The detailed descriptions that may bore an Indian audience would’ve been shortened or removed. However, since my book was imported, it remains exactly as it was published in Australia.

You seem to enjoy your life as a travel writer, tell us the best and worst part of being a travel writer. Most travel writing courses focus on the selling the story aspect, do you think that sometimes becomes more important than the creative part of writing the story.

The best part, not surprisingly, is getting to see and experience lots of different places while getting paid for it. The worst part is that all the traveling can actually become very tiring. People think that travel writers get to relax and just have a good time. However, it’s usually not the case as it’s necessary to take notes about everything that you do and experience. I can’t remember the last time I went on a holiday where I didn’t work. Even if it’s a personal trip to India, I’ll be going around investigating and taking notes and photos to write about it later. Selling the story is obviously very important. You need to have a marketable angle. So, that does mean that creativity does sometimes fall by the wayside. But it’s still a creative process of bringing a destination to life for the reader and igniting their interest.

What can we the readers expect from you next…?

Sharell Cook: I actually really need a break. This whole book process has been incredibly exhausting. I’ve thought about writing a sequel to motherhood in Mumbai. But would need to have a baby first!  🙂

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