Breaking

Spolier Alert: If you haven't watched last night's episode of Breaking Bad, don't read this. If you haven't watched last night's episode and think it will be OK to read ahead anyway, you're no fan and I don't know how you've come this far. And, if you haven't ever watched Breaking Bad and think you never will, don't read this, because you will, one day, watch it. And then you'll hate yourself for knowing even the most overt plot twist from last night, that, well, Hank dies.

Last night's episode, we can all agree, was masterful. It was also, arguably, the best episode ever since the show began. And, in my opinion, last night's episode was the best storytelling on television, ever.  Those who teach the craft of storytelling, especially of character construction, will hereafter hand out chapters on Walter White.

Let's just cut to that killer scene in which W.W. makes a phone call to Skyler. I dare you to tell me that you didn't say to yourself, a few seconds into that conversation, "That doesn't make sense. Walter would know that the police are listen..." Ah, yes. And then you sit bolt upright. And then you start to shake.

If this sounds like an exaggeration for you, it doesn't for me. I am putty in the hands of good writers. I especially let you mess with my head if you respect my intelligence. And Breaking Bad respected its audiences last night. There were no easy cues in that scene. You could walk away thinking of Walter as an abusive, misogynistic jerk. You could even walk away knowing he knew, that he was doing this for Skyler, giving her an 'out' with the police, for the sake of Holly and Walt Jr. (I dare you to tell me you didn't fall to your floor last night begging the adults to stop, reaching for your television so you could just hug Walt Jr. and take baby Holly away from it all. The best tweet on that whole business last night was from D. J. Qualls: "Really hate to say this, but I think that the people who write #BreakingBad should maybe have their kids taken away." Hilarious. Brilliant.) 

But the best part about that scene was its sub-text. If you have ever walked away from someone knowing that it's the best thing for them, knowing that there's no going back from here, knowing, like a shaking Walter did, that you stand to lose everything and that you will now be on the run, that you are staring in the face the prospect that they will come for you (or, for those of us that aren't in trouble with the police for cooking meth, that IT - despair, abandonment, loneliness - will come for you), if you have ever been in the vicinity of this sort of experience, if, perhaps, you have lived any complexity in life, I dare you to tell me you didn't wake up this morning wanting to call your therapist and hope that their training required them to have watched last night's episode of Breaking Bad.

So, yes, the best storytelling ever. Complex, layered, unforgettable. When readers tell me that they finished the last page of my novel but couldn't leave that world of those characters for a couple of days thereafter, I feel a quiver of the deepest gratitude. And then, I recall my teenaged boy telling me a couple of years ago to drop everything I thought was important and just watch this show called "Breaking Bad." I smirked and asked him why he thought I would ever like a show about a chemistry teacher cooking meth in New Mexico. "Because," he said, "you are writing a novel."

 

Reading in the skies

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What does one read when flying in the skies between homeland and home? As I pack my bags at the end of what has inarguably been the most charmed trip to India since I left this country in 1997, I am careful in my choice of in-flight reading. Go wrong with something like this and you could end up actually wanting to make conversation with that man in the seat next to yours who watches your every move with pointed interest as he settles his elbow on your armrest (and his shoulder in your armrest zone), coincidentally picks the same movies as you from the in-flight movie menu and synchronizes it with your viewing. Yes, it's practically date-night on your very own magic carpet ride.

So, you see the urgency. I was delighted to keep the witty company of Helene Hanff through her 'The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street' on my way to India from the U.S. I had no idea when I got it that it was a book about her own book tour after the release of her mighty '84 Charring Cross Road.' Since I slept a lot on the way over, Ms. Hanff's accounts in London were perfect little snippets of reading while flying over the skies of the four cities of my own tour in India. Pure serendipity yielded pure pleasure.

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On the way home to Seattle, I plan to read bits of Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen's acclaimed new book, 'An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions.' As if the promise of the book's contents were not enough, I am propelled also by the sobering controversy surrounding Sen's remarks on Narendra Modi being a poor choice for India's next Prime Minister. Take away Sen's awards for expressing such an opinion, an Indian intellectual has said. Really? In a democracy? Ahem. Ergo, the irony of the title of the book.

 

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If the uncertainties of India's glories begin to make my heart (or my eyes) heavy, I will punctuate my reading with David Sedaris. Naturally, I expect a perfect landing. 

At a university in my hometown...

I was invited to deliver a talk at the University of Mumbai yesterday, but I was warned not to expect the audience to participate the way they do in the United States. Hmmmm. The talk was scheduled for an hour but went on for two, with not a single person leaving the auditorium. Students and researchers had read my book, followed it up with their independent research, and had question after question on the issue, on the craft of storytelling, and on the ways they could get involved. My presence wasn't even needed anymore. Students in Seattle, be warned. I am coming back with a heck of a lot of expectations.

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Alone and Known

The fourth and final stop on my book tour was Amritsar, Punjab. I arrived alone. A friend in Seattle had asked me which part of my book tour I was most looking forward to, and I said without hesitation that it was Amritsar. I said what I have known for years - I love traveling alone in India. Because, to really know India, you must travel alone. India shows itself in all its complexities especially to women who travel alone.

As my book tour progressed, it was as if I was gradually and systematically shedding all that was known. At the Mumbai launch of 'Foreign,' I could spot in the audience my immediate family and dear friends from school, college, work. In Bangalore, I had extended family, former Times of India colleagues, friends from post-graduation and from my early days of marriage and motherhood. In Delhi, I had old friends and a handful of new friends with whom I connected on social media and was delighted to meet for the first time in person.

In Amritsar, I had no one. In the quiet of the hotel room, I felt that familiar feeling of calm, the exhilaration of solitude, the thrill of setting my own agenda and breaking it at will. I felt excitement for the next morning, for heading into the streets of a new town, looking like an outsider, appearing to others as lost, strange, foreign. Many will tell you that India isn't a safe place for women to travel in alone. I have done much of such travel and I am here to tell you otherwise. I have never once had an ugly situation develop when I travel alone in this country. And, no, I haven't traveled just by air and air-conditioned taxi alone. I roamed in small town buses, hitched rides on strangers' motorcycles, walked on foot asking for directions, clambered onto bullock carts. 

All this is not to take away from my outrage and shame at the recent reports of the rapes and murders of tourists and citizens alike in my country. I carry these reports as wounds and sores on my heart. But I want you to know that the contrary is also true, that this is a beautiful land in which a MeeraBai roamed in a trance and a Sonora can unhesitatingly say 'Yes' to an invitation from a library-bookstore in a city that she had lost all hope of ever having a reason to visit. 

Before I am 'known' at my book event, I head alone into a crowd of unknown people at The Golden Temple in Amritsar.  This is a picture of us reflected in the mirror above our heads.

Before I am 'known' at my book event, I head alone into a crowd of unknown people at The Golden Temple in Amritsar.  This is a picture of us reflected in the mirror above our heads.

When a woman travels alone here, people step up and make themselves known. So, a young woman in Amritsar's Golden Temple unhesitatingly steps up in a crush of crowds to adjust the mandatory head scarf that's fallen to your shoulders, puts her hand in yours and doesn't let it go for the next 45 minutes. So, you fumble around with a language you can't speak and are told that you actually speak it quite well (although this might be because Punjabis are notoriously liberal with their compliments). So, you stand in the middle of a crowded marketplace and get stared at until the stares fall away from boredom. Now, you fit in.

And, lest I forget, you get the unparalleled pleasure of a total stranger walk up to you and say, "What a beautiful book you have written. I know exactly what you meant in that line about...." I hope I am never too cool to blush at that. I hope I am never among so many friends that a stranger cannot take the seat next to mine. I hope I am never so familiar that I am not known.

Detours on a book tour

On the Pichola Lake in Udaipur, on which I last sailed in 1991, on a very different journey from today's. 

On the Pichola Lake in Udaipur, on which I last sailed in 1991, on a very different journey from today's. 

I am glad I agreed to take a detour on my book tour and join my son and mother on a little family trip to the magnificent cities of Jaipur and Udaipur in Rajasthan. This was my mother's treat, for her grandson, who is headed out to college. For me, it was a time to halt words, get over the fanfare of the book tour (which can go to your head, I must say), and take in some spectacular majesty, brought to us by the 18th century. What a feast of imagery, stories, presence. Of course, while the words may have been halted these past few days, there's no way all this isn't finding its way to my next book, which I will throw myself into as soon as I return to Seattle. I may have slowed down...but now, I can't wait.

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