Upon first whiff, former NPR reporter Miranda Kennedy's memoir, Sideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in India (Random House, 352 pages, $26), reeks of Eat, Pray, Love regurgitated. Disappointed by her life's lack of "transcendent, transformative experiences," Kennedy answers the call of white privilege by relocating to India in hopes of becoming the adventuress her parents want her to be. Seventy-five years after her great-aunt traveled to India as a Christian missionary, Kennedy forges a morally murky pilgrimage of her own as a journalist freelancing overseas.
As with most Westerners stumbling through the East, Kennedy's self-absorption dampens the first few chapters with wet-blanket naiveté. She expected an exhilarating reporter's life and received, quite literally, the slap of a dung-crusted cow tail across the face. Kennedy quickly awakens from the reverie and cuts the bullshit with razor-sharp wit. Once she stops complaining and starts reporting, the memoir seamlessly weaves engaging personal experiences with enlightening historical context. In the comic chapter "Any Issue?," Kennedy links an appointment with her gynecologist—a woman who prescribes photos of her children in place of birth control—with details of the Indian vasectomy camps of the 1970s.
In contrast to suburban spiritual seekers like Elizabeth Gilbert, Kennedy doesn't waste time fondling her inner self. She doesn't sample her way through a foreign country—she eats the whole damn thing and kindly puts the pen down when diarrhea ensues. Most importantly, Kennedy doesn't pretend to drop her life in the name of enlightenment. Her reasons for moving to India are glaringly flawed, but she spares her readers a quest for greater meaning. She hires servants—that's weird. But Kennedy's decision not to parade around India like a born-again hippie allows her to provide authentic insight into the complexity of the caste system. It also makes her different from every other schmuck with a travel book.
After a couple years of ignored story pitches and less-than-regular assignments, Kennedy lands a contract with a radio station covering major news stories. She crouches under the damp sheets of moldy mattresses to report on the Indian Ocean tsunami and pursues a war-zone fling with an Indian reporter in Kabul. But Kennedy sidelines her more heroic moments and instead chooses to chronicle her friendships with her neighbors and maids. By doing so, she exposes her readers to an unparalleled insider's view of life for women in India, from helping a friend navigate matrimonial websites to witnessing her maid become a widowed slave to a dead husband.
After a half-decade in Delhi, Kennedy leaves India feeling emptier than a dinner plate during Ramadan. But, in her epilogue, she doesn't rationalize her confusion with clichéd revelations. Instead she intentionally spills the bottle of her experiences, saying that she never wanted to imprint herself on India nor claim it as her own. And because of that, she has written a travel memoir well worth its ink.
GO: Miranda Kennedy reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Sunday, July 10. Free.