Manjula Padmanabhan had decided very young that she was going to die by the age of 30, when she would have aged just enough, and also her family would not feel that she had died tragically young. This decision lies at the centre of Getting There and spreads its tendrils through all the moments, conversations and connections that you find within.
When the memoir begins, the author is 25 and living in Bombay with five more years to go till her deadline. She then sets out on a risky, sexual but not romantic, and an ostensibly spiritual journey, following these two young men she meets first in Bombay and then later ends up with in the Netherlands. Piet and Japp are unusual vectors for a journey of discovery, but perhaps this is helped by a useful tidbit that Manjula shares in the beginning, that Piet looked like Jon Voight and Japp, like Donald Sutherland.
If you’re like me you might first think of Jon Voight as a staid old man, but Google his young photos, or just recollect his pretty face from Midnight Cowboy.
Many of the steps taken during the course of her journey would probably seem very familiar – there is the scheming against family and friends to do what we want, the outright and outrageous lying, the adept side-stepping of feminist or moral questions when it comes to monogamy, and then there is a final solitary moment that is both revelatory and very ordinary.
The young woman is perhaps a far more difficult person to encounter in today’s world than earlier. She starts off with going to a weight-loss clinic, encountering and smoothly ignoring a slightly creepy doctor, and then later swapping her restricted diet in Bombay for a diet of butter and burgers and milkshakes as she travels. She holds up feminist placards in Munich only to slink away from a take-back-the-night rally in Utrecht. She fights with all the Indians she meets and doesn’t argue with Japp when he cutely calls her a “liddle brown rat”. She overstays her welcome in other people’s homes and falls out of bed naked when her lover finds her with someone else.
Yet what is compelling is that she does all this with heady clarity and knowingness. Manjula is “watching the cobra” far more keenly than the cobra is watching her. She also makes friends, finds lovers, does some work, gets high and wasted, argues a lot, sinks into depression and anxiety, and finally gets out.
The central question of Getting There is deceptively simple – do we continue with an average Indian boyfriend aka Prashant, a reasonably exciting job and entertaining life, or do we get the fuck out without even having a plan, ending up in a multicultural Jules et Jim triangle (two white men, one brown woman) in a town in Netherlands?
I regret not having read Getting There when I was younger, especially when I would have been the same age as the protagonist. The book offers actual directions to getting there, almost like a recipe or a Google map, while also showing that at some point you have to free-fall, or, as Manjula describes it, get on the carousel ride without the option of getting off before its done.
In this interview, she looks back to writing the book and why it was important for her, and also talks about the people she met during her trip.
Why did you want to write Getting There? What drove you to it?
Because I made a promise to myself that the first book I wrote would be an account of my journey. That was also the reason that I refused to let the book be defined as “a novel”. My editor felt very differently. I believe she thought it was frankly ridiculous for an unknown author in her forties to be writing a “memoir”. Typically, such books are written by famous people, once they’ve built up a loyal readership.
The unfortunate compromise was a book that looked like a novel but sounded like nonfiction. I think the result was damaging for Getting There. It may never really throw off that damage.
In hindsight what do you think of these two men (called Piet and Japp) and many of the others that you met?
An astonishing late-life development: I am in touch with “Simon” [Simon is one of the many seemingly incidental and important friends that populate the story of Getting There]. So I know “what happened next” in some ways. I sent him a copy of the book and we’ve talked about it (on email) and he says he enjoyed it! It’s amazing.
At the same time, it may be a surprise to hear that I have not asked questions about either Japp or Piet. I don’t know what their lives have been like. I look back at my confused and unhappy self with wry smiles. I don’t feel any animosity towards either of them. Everything that happened was as a result of my actions. I take responsibility for all of it.
Do you think now looking back that it was a story about being in love? Basically, were they in love with you (laughs)?
Haha! But no. I don’t inspire love. Something in my stance, in the way that I occupy space, makes it unlikely for me to be offered love. I lean away from dependent relationships. I am perfectly happy with extremely warm and talky friendships. I have a lot of those.
I need hardly add that the vast river of time between the events of Getting There and today have involved much stumbling around in the murk of romance, near-romance, not-romance, disaster-romance and all the variations thereof. The only permanent position through it all was/is that I’ve never had the slightest interest in reproduction. I don’t even want to own any pets, even though I’m very fond of animals. No plants either.
There are quite a few films mentioned in the book and a lot of cinematic moments as well. I already said it reminded me of Jules et Jim, and I remain hugely hurt that there wasn’t a scene with you, Piet and Japp running through a museum corridor.
I watched Jules et Jim in Holland! With “Piet”. I felt the presence of hidden cameras all the time. It was like watching the film of my life while I was living it. But isn’t that true of everyone? Especially in this era, with security cameras everywhere and the sheer mass of cell-phone cameras? We’re all living in the Camera Age (ie, Stone Age, Iron Age…Camera Age) whether we like it or not.
I love the idea of a Getting There film list! I am sure there are more, but these are the ones I remember (including a couple of obscure ones that I can confirm really exist, I googled their names).
- Saturday Night Fever
- Star Wars
- Looking for Mister Goodbar
- Jules et Jim
- The Clockwork Orange
- The Groove Tube
Would you change anything about the trip now? Taken more money? Not left Piet’s relatively comfortable house for the squat? Packed a really good jacket? Fed the hamster? Stayed on longer?
I look back on the entire trip as a package deal from Fate. It started and ended in a pre-ordained fashion: no part could have been changed without changing the whole. Until I got to Holland, I was following an invisible map, created in my brain but also, in some corny faux-mystical way, pre-written. Having got there, there was no map – but that too was part of the original map, because I wanted to break away from paths and rules.
There’s no question of adding or subtracting anything from the trip. The logic of magical thinking meant that I didn’t have to take responsibility for my actions, whilst also, always, being mindful of “no experience without desire”.
On a more rational plane, I can just as easily say: my bourgeois upbringing guaranteed that I made sensible choices even while I was attempting to undo my conditioning. I gravitated towards Simon, who was and continues to be a deeply good and kind person. I connected with Jinni and her husband, who entrusted me with their shop full of valuables, and their equally well-stocked home. I was able to produce drawings that I could sell. I didn’t get pregnant or catch VD or get arrested. All of this comes out of the kitbag of someone who was more resilient than she realised at the time.
And maybe that’s true of all of us. That’s the lesson at the heart of the Wizard of Oz. The Wizard is us and Oz wherever we want to find it.
Piet and Japp’s probably foolhardy spiritual quest looking for their guru, which led them to come to Bombay in the first place, perhaps opened up something for you. Was it meaningful beyond what it led to in the book?
Oddly enough … I’m going to disappoint you, maybe … the journey was a reminder that I’d had an earlier spiritual self – an extreme belief in god the father, specifically the Catholic interpretation, including a fascination with the occult. But it was shattered in my mid-teens. Meanwhile, in the course of my childhood, I was exposed to many faiths. We lived in two Christian nations (Sweden and Switzerland), two Muslim countries (Pakistan and Iran) and one Buddhist (Thailand). The neutral backdrop to all of this was my interest in European mythology (Scandinavian, Greek, Roman) and my parents’ extremely laid-back Hinduism (non-orthodox). In the foreground were my eight years in Catholic schools, with all the bells and whistles that implies.
The result of all this is surely part of the reason that I felt the powerful need to follow P&J. Chasing after them was entirely in the spirit of a classic hero quest. I’ll cut to the chase and say this: I have no faith, I worship at no temples but atheism is, in my view, just another kind of faith. In my view, reality is magical. We just happen to call it electricity, magnetism and whatever else.
In many moments, and especially in USA you have really sticky encounters with other Indians and Indophiles. Many things come up – religion, Islamophobia in India, caste. There are these political, almost radical gestures on your part – not as acts of protest on the street, but even so, quite confrontational. This maybe isn’t a question, but just curiosity about what these moments mean.
There are annoying fanatics in every culture. Indians who try to squeeze me into the box of their beliefs are just like all other fanatics. I am sympathetic, these days, towards fanatics. Because? I realise that they’re people who believe there’s a safety net under their tight-ropes, as they run light-heartedly back and forth. If I were to tell them there’s nothing there, they would almost certainly fall to their deaths (smiles). It would be extremely unkind to do that. I pity them and they pity me.
Getting There is at times a deeply funny book. So I’m curious about whom you find funny (anywhere, doesn’t have to be India specifically)? Whom did you read when you wrote this book? And whom do you read now?
Manjula: My go-to authors for humour are Mark Twain and James Thurber. But they’re just the ones I think of first. There are dozens of others who cause interior chuckles when I think of their names. There are also some novels whose humour is non-obvious. For instance, I found –Moby Dick weirdly funny – yes, it’s not famous for humour but if one enters the novel at an oblique angle it’s…well…funny. I mean, it starts with several pages of “References to The Whale” in history and literature, starting with the Bible’s Jonah…
I read the book in the immediate aftermath of the Onassis Prize. I was in an odd suspended state, sort of floating above the normal flow of my life. It’s very peculiar to have an event like that (Onassis) occur in one’s life. I don’t read much when I’m writing, so I don’t remember any specific books while I was writing Getting There.
I was also in the grip of my Myst obsession. Myst is/was a video game – a glorious, mind-expanding video-game, very different to what’s available now. There’s practically no action in Myst. It’s wholly about discovering clues and solving a gradually unfolding mystery. I was lost to it and its sequels for years.
Before Myst, an earlier parallel universe had opened up in the form of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – not the book, but the DOS text game (ie, no pictures, only text commands). There was also the Starship Titanic (related to but distinct from Hitchhiker’s) that followed Myst. For a period of about ten years, starting in 1994, I was either just entering or just exiting one of these parallel worlds.
Then, just as suddenly, I lost interest.
You can still find the Hitchhiker’s game online if you want to play it. But they have had to gussy it up. It’s fake DOS of course.
I can tell you what to do first if you do try. The first sentence you see is – “You wake up, the room is spinning very gently around your head.” And there is a blinking cursor. You can look at it for the whole of eternity and nothing will happen. But you have to say, Get up. If you say anything else, then its Abort/Fail. So it is played through these very brief commands. To find a door or exit, you have to say something like – Look up or move north. And then you realise, oh god, that’s where it is.
[As Manjula describes herself playing Myst and the Hitchhiker’s DOS text games, I’m struck by how it is weirdly a parallel for the book, decisions must be taken on your own, even tricky ones.]
It is a very mentally messed-up way of thinking, but I got to the end of that game and I just felt like I had conquered the universe.
Take my word, and you don’t have to play it. So much of your life.