Traveller, photographer, writer, artist, chef (?) and many more. We understand that it’s all this and more that make you, you. But to which core do all of these personalities come together? Which role do you find the most fulfilling, the most satisfying?
Traveller, photographer, writer, artist – yes. Chef …NOOOO. I lean more towards eating rather than cooking. But I can cook. It’s the stories revolving around food that interest me much more than the food itself. It is about the memories that food holds for me. I think I have explained that to a certain extent in my NatGeo column, Mango Jar of memories.
Now coming to your question, I think of myself as a storyteller. Photography, words, art…they are all just a medium to tell my stories.
Everyone knows Sudha Pillai the writer and artist. But who is Sudha Pillai, the person? Tell us something about where you grew up and how that place has influenced you.
Hmm…if only I knew the answer to this question, I could’ve claimed to have attained Nirvana. No such luck. Anyway, will tell you what I know about Sudha Pillai. Though I am a native of Kerala, I was born and brought up in Chennai. Moved to Bangalore when I was 22-23. Honestly, no one place has influenced me or rather all the places that I have stayed in, even if it was for just a few days, have influenced me. I am constantly changing, learning and hopefully evolving. The day I stop learning I might as well curl up and die.
One of the books that left a lasting impression on us is Sky Burial by Xinran. It was haunting, to say the least. Is there any such book that has stayed with you? And why?
I read a lot. I mean A LOT. I don’t have kids. I have books. That means half the time I don’t remember the names of the books that I read. And when a book I read stays with me for more than a week then I consider it a good book. All of Maya Angelou’s books and poems, all of Toni Morrison’s, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Chimamanda’s have stayed with me for days on end., I love Kenyan writers a lot. I have a particular affinity towards writers from the African continent. And also Mexican writers. When I read them, I feel the same feeling that I get when I read vernacular writers from India. Vernacular writing, to me, feels like home. In recent times, author Perumal Murugan’s Other Part Woman stayed with me for long. Oh, and I love all that Malcolm Gladwell writes. I really would like to live inside his head for a day and experience his thought process.
However, I have the strangest reading ritual ever; it even borders on the crazy. Every December, I reread The Alchemist, The Atlast Shrugged, Jane Austen, The Grapes of Wrath and the Kamasutra (the unabridged version with no pictures). I doubt whether even Freud would be able to explain the bizarre selection. I have been doing this for more than a decade. And every time I read them, they speak to me differently. Every. Single. Time.
Being a writer or a journalist has always been our dream since childhood. In fact, we were happy to do anything with books! How about you? Was becoming a writer your childhood dream?
Don’t be disappointed, I know a few of them who know me would, but as a child all I ever wanted to do was fall madly, crazily in love with ONE guy, get married and stay married to the same person till I die. And of course, make love, every day, till the end of my life. (Back then, I was too young to know the nitty-gritty of such a wish; or maybe I must’ve subconsciously believed that one day the female blue pill for octogenarians would be a reality). I also wanted to have a large family – two kids of mine, and adopt four. I wanted dogs, cats, goats and chickens. I dreamt of a kitchen garden in the backyard and large tree (of the flowering kind) in the front yard with the perfect tyre swing. My dream was to live this life in a house atop a cliff, overlooking a twinkling city down below and a zillion stars up above. And I wanted to have an antique roll-top desk, stacked against a large window where I wanted to sit and write stories or paint.
This was my primary dream when I was growing up. Of course, there were secondary ones that kept changing constantly, and that ranged from wanting to be an ice-cream vendor, bus conductor, Steffi Graf (with black eyebrows and eye lashes though), farmer and the list go on. The only thing that was constant in my life was, I kept learning, changing, and evolving every day of my life. My dreams changed too. Yes, even the primary one. Now, I have the antique desk, words, art and a mind that can transport me to any world of my creation in a jiffy. However, I should tell you that the only dream that has remained unchanged from my childhood till now is my desire to travel the world. I have a gypsy soul.
In addition to writing, we love travelling. And that’s why we decided to chuck the relative comfort of corporate jobs and plunge into the unpredictable world of startups to follow what we love. What made you leave the steady rhythms of an office and decide to become a freelancer?
After 24 years in mainstream media, I knew I was losing my sensitivity. It is the nature of the job. But, when you lose your sensitivity, you cease to be a writer; you lose the ability to write from some deep place within. Also, working 24/7 (yes, journalists have no life, and we are pathetic creatures) took its toll on my health. It was also during this time that there were a few changes in the paper that I was working and I felt in my gut (over the years, I have saved a lot of money from going to a psychiatrist by listening to my gut instinct) that it was time for a change. I wanted to travel a bit, immerse myself in doing art, read, and just vegetate in front of the telly (big mistake!) for some time. If you ask me, this change was a natural progression in my life.
We saw that you had visited a variety of places, from Rwanda to Orissa. What are some of the things you look forward to on your travels? If you could be transported to one place at one time, what would it be and why?
When I travel, I go with an open mind and heart. I go with the belief that the land will love me and treat me well. And I would do the same to it and its people. There are too many places that I want to be simply because I have a soul that hates to be in one place. However, since you ask, I would like to be transported to Tuscany or Egypt or Ireland. I have never been to these places. But I have always felt a deep-rooted familiarity with these three places. Strange, but true.
How would you define responsible travel and what do you do to be a responsible traveler?
Wherever I go, my make sure I adhere to the rules of the place; respect and do nothing to go against the grain of their culture or the nature of the place. I am a big believer of ‘When-in-Rome…’ Always be mindful of the environment. Eat the locally grown food. Just be mindful and never let go of your common sense.
And now the inevitable question. No, not about boyfriends and husbands. When are you writing a book?
The answer would have been much easier if you had asked about my (non-existent) boyfriends and “husbands” (yeah, I like that you think in plural). But to answer your question…I don’t know. I do not have the discipline to write a book. More often than not, I write entire stories in my head. Once that is done, I rarely feel the need to pen it. But I feel there is one book in me that I would ultimately get written before I bid adieu to the world.
What is your favorite travel memory?
I was on my way to Canada. It was a long-haul flight with a stopover in Frankfurt – my first time in Frankfurt. My friends kept telling me that Frankfurt could be a hostile place, especially the airport. Though I firmly believe a place treats you the way you treat it or the way you want it to treat you, in this case, I was slowly beginning to think, maybe something bad would happen, maybe somebody would be rude to me, or maybe I’d get lost, and no one will know what happened to me – including me (yeah, I do have a vivid imagination).
I land in Frankfurt, alone, tired after a long flight, sleepy, hadn’t even washed my face and completely lost. I head straight to the help desk to find my way to my connecting flight. I reach the help desk and say “Good morning” to the gentleman behind the desk who was bent over some paper work. Hearing my voice, he looks ups and goes, “Oh wow, magical eyes! There’s magic in your eyes.” And I thought,“Ahem, but, that’s last night’s bleeding kajal.” Somehow, I could tell he wasn’t just spinning a line; it was a genuine compliment. He saw something in me that I have never seen in me. I think his words kinda took him also by surprise because he had this bemused look on his face.
That one encounter changed my perception about Frankfurt. To me, it became this lovely place in the world. Once my perception changed, I kept bumping to the some of the kindest people ever and had the most delightful experience in Frankfurt.
Travel is supposed to be a deeply transformative experience. How has travel shaped your life, your understanding, and your outlook?
Travel has taught me a few things and has shaped the way I think and approach life.
95% of the time people always treat you the way you want them to treat you. The other five percent are there to prevent your life from becoming too monotonous and boring.
People, in general, are good, kind and generous. It is just that they have a life to lead and more often than not they just don’t have the time for you. It’s not deliberate.
Pick your battles. And sometimes, walking away is the bravest thing you can do.
You have to live with yourself for the rest of your life. So be good, kind, forgiving and wonderful to yourself. Give yourself the most amazing experiences in life. The rest of the world can suck a lollipop.
Common sense is your Siamese twin. Never separate yourself from it.
Never shut down your instincts. When you feel that feeling of your heart dropping to your stomach, stop and listen to that inner voice. As long as you can hear your inner voice, you will never be alone.
You also have an interest in art. We confess that we are not art aficionados. We might visit the Louvre with love but not with understanding. How can travel and art go together? If you think they do?
Even before there was the written script, there was art. Our ancestors communicated through stick figures, dots, circles, squiggles and waves.
Even if you try your best, you cannot avoid art in your daily life. It is there in architecture, the design of the phone you hold, your coffee cup, in the presentation of the food that you are eating, the packaging it comes in, the way people talk, the slang, the way they walk, the culture, the traditions. Art is everywhere. And when you travel you are just exposed to more art – different kinds of art. So travel and art are inseparable, just like how art and life are. It’s just that we have bought into this myth that art is something elitist. It is not.
What are some of the biggest illusions about travel writing?
That it is luxurious living.
If you could go back in time and tell young Sudha one thing, what would it be?
Let it happen. And when it happens, immerse yourself.
What advice do you have for aspiring travel writers trying to break in? It seems there are fewer paying publications these days and it’s harder to find work.
First, travel. Travel for the sake of traveling. Travel for the benefit of enriching experiences. Don’t travel for the sake of becoming a travel writer. Because only then you will be able to see things that other travel writers don’t. And editors love a different pov, a different angle to the same old story.
We always end our interviews by asking for a favorite, personal travel quote. What’s yours?
I don’t agree with a lot of things that Confucius has said but this one I have imprinted in my heart:
Wherever you go, go with all your heart.
Thank you for this very rousing conversation Sudha and we wish you all the best!
Read some of Sudha Pillai’s blog posts on her personal website A Sunny Square
All pictures courtesy Sudha Pillai.4