Acclaimed writer Dipika Mukherjee shares her deep love for travel and Asia in new book

Her latest collection of essays is part-travelogue, part-memoir and part-commentary.

Writer’s Postcards is a collection of essays that examine imagination and culture through the lens of geography (All photos: Dipika Mukherjee)

Options: Congratulations on Writer’s Postcards. But tell us what first birthed this love of travel and seeing the world?
Dipika Mukherjee: My love for travel started almost with my birth; my father was a diplomat and, when I was six months old, we moved to Geneva, Switzerland, for three years. I was as fluent in French lullabies as in Bengali. As a child, I travelled in ships and planes at a time when there was still a lot of glamour and excitement in the journey. When I recently visited the TWA hotel/museum at JFK Airport in New York, it felt magical to be transported again to a time when everyone really dressed up for travel, without having to worry about taking off shoes and throwing away their liquids and makeup in the process! I have never outgrown this love for travel, and this may also be due to the fact that Bengalis claim to have mustard seeds, or payer tolai shorshe, as they call it, under their feet — a genetic aberration plaguing the entire race — which keeps us on a roll.

Which of the stories did you find most difficult to write?
‘Dance of the Flyers’. It is a braided essay that compares the situation of the Voladores in Mexico forbidding their women from ritual dance to the gender discrimination in my own family. I write from a position of immense privilege, and it is important to acknowledge that not all women in my community, or even in my own family, have had the same freedom to choose their own path in life.

Writing about family — about people who are still alive to read your words and whom you do not want to hurt — is a huge challenge. To really interrogate the status quo requires an honest appraisal of the scabs and fissures, and that is problematic in multiple ways. There is also the question of Truth with a capital ‘T’; Truth can have many versions and many interpretations, and as a writer I can only be true to my own lived experience.

And which touched your heart most and makes you smile when recalling it?
‘A Journey to the Dalai Lama’. This is an older essay, written when I was so filled with hubris that I thought I’d meet the Dalai Lama easily, when Tibetans wait an entire lifetime for an audience with His Holiness. This journey taught me so much about what I still needed to learn as a solo traveller, a writer and a seeker of spirituality. It was an incredibly eventful trip!


Dipika with Dalai Lama

Do you think writers see the world differently? They definitely document it differently.
Yes, I think so. One is attuned to the extraordinary in the familiar, and often it makes life delightful. It rains every day in Kuala Lumpur, and today I sat on the balcony watching the rain slow to a stop, yet the drops kept beading the balcony rails, rather like how snow melts into droplets on my Chicago balcony as the sun comes up. There is such a connection in disparate things and so much sheer beauty in the world, no matter what the season or geographical landscape.

You mentioned another book is in the offing. What can you tell us about it?
I have been working on my third novel for more years than I care to count now. In the meantime, I have published a book of essays, a collection of poetry, and a number of short stories and essays … while this novel continues to resist completion. Writing a novel is very much like wrestling an alligator; just when you think you have it pinned, the scaly tail knocks you senseless. No one should wrestle an alligator and I still do not know what compels me to do it.

What are you reading right now?
I’ve just finished Tan Twan Eng’s The House of Doors and Saras Manickam’s My Mother Pattu. We should all read more local literature, certainly more Asian literature. There is so much talent!


Tan and his book 'The House of Doors'

And what books do you always reread?

My To-Be-Read pile is always so high that I really don’t reread much, unless I am teaching it. An essay on travel writing that bears rereading multiple times (I teach it, so I have read it often) is ‘The Crane Wife’, by C J Hauser. It is in the Paris Review and can be easily found on Google. This piece combines travel and memoir and science and myth into one delicious package.

What book(s) would you advise every budding travel writer to read?
Malaysians should read Beth Yahp’s Eat First Talk Later, published in 2015. And although V S Naipaul may have been a terrible human being, his books demonstrate how the best travel writers can hold multiple perspectives, and not tell the reader what to think or even enrage the audience into action or argument. India: A Million Mutinies Now or A Bend in the River are good places to start.

What are your upcoming travels looking like?
I am currently on a book tour with Writer’s Postcards. So, after Malaysia, I go on to Singapore and then , Lucknow and Bhubaneshwar for literary events in India before ending in Europe with events in Amsterdam and Geneva.


Kolkata in India

Describe your idea of a perfect weekend.
Waking up late followed by brunch with the family, then a really good movie. Ending the day with a few invigorating laps in the pool or a meandering walk without a destination. Writing is hard work and does not feature in my idea of a perfect weekend, but ideas are always marinating, cross-pollinating from movies and TV shows, or blooming into being during meditative walks.   


Writer’s Postcards is available at MPH online at RM59.95. See here

This article first appeared on Dec 18, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia. 



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