The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Talking with author Dave Prager about his — deliriously unspiritual — expat experience in India

Reading like the work of a hipster Bill Bryson, Delirious Delhi is an account of Dave Prager and his wife Jenny’s move from New York to Delhi — the largest city in India by area and second largest by population — as they become what they term “New Delhi Yankees.” On arrival in their new home they, like so many expats, started a blog: Our Delhi Struggle. Detailing ther occasional bewilderment and occasional delight as two thirtysomethings acclimatizing to life in Delhi, their online musings quickly became popular.

Dave set about expanding Our Delhi Struggle into a book, and Delirious Delhi was the result. Those eagle-eyed among our readers may recall the book being featured under “expat memoirs” in one of the lists ML Awanohara compiled of 2011 books for, by, and about expats.

Earlier this month I spoke with author Dave Prager to discuss his book and his thoughts on Delhi — including the extent to which the expat life he and his wife led in India fits the Displaced Nation’s January theme of spiritual reawakenings.

How did you end up in Delhi and then later on Singapore?
I volunteered. My company needed a copywriter in Delhi. A week later I found myself in the city for the first time. We left Delhi for Singapore because we weren’t ready to return home to the US just yet, but we knew that if we didn’t force ourselves to leave India, then we’d never experience living anywhere else in Asia. So we quit our jobs in the middle of the recession, left Delhi, and flew to Singapore where we were both lucky enough to find work.

What made you decide to write a book telling the story of your transition to living in Delhi?
We had so many growing pains when we first moved to Delhi that we started our blog to share our lessons with everyone who would come after us. It became very popular — not just with expats, as we expected, but with Indians. As we were getting ready to leave, someone suggested we write a book. So I did. Ninety percent of the book is fresh content, never before seen until now. It’s very different from the blog. The blog posts are 500-word essays, where this is a single, 100,000-word narrative.

Delirious Delhi is your second book. Any plans for another one?
I’ve had some ideas I’ve been noodling away at. I have an idea about an American who finds himself living in rural India and doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. Which is how I felt every time we went out to the villages.

No plans to write about your time in Singapore?
There’s no plans for anything about Singapore. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my time there, but it didn’t get my creative juices flowing in the way Delhi did. It didn’t inspire me like India inspired me.

What audience did you have in mind for the book?
When I was writing, I knew exactly who my intended audience was and I pictured them in my head as I wrote. It was two people that I know. The first was an American friend who was back in the US and was curious about India and my experiences; the other was an Indian co-worker who was always fascinated with how I — as an American — found life in his country.

I noticed you did a brief book tour in Delhi. Did you experience any negativity to your views?
Generally the response has been really good. There’s a minority who takes exception to a Westerner writing critically about India. But the book is not a criticism of India, it’s a recollection of the experiences — the good ones and the bad ones. Every country has good and bad, including the US. It’s disingenuous to focus on one and not the other — in both extremes.

This month’s theme for the Displaced Nation is the quest for spiritual enlightenment. At the beginning of the book, you say you would never describe India as “spiritual” as many do. What do you think of writers like Elizabeth Gilbert who present India as the ideal place for spiritual tourism?
It’s not that I wouldn’t describe India as spiritual — it’s that I never found it to be spiritual. Maybe because that wasn’t what I was looking for. In many ways, India is a blank slate, and travelers paint it with the colors they want to see. If you go looking for poverty, you’ll find it. If you go looking for wealth and globalization, you’ll find it. If you want spirituality, you’ll find it. India is the perfect place to find whatever it is you seek. The question is, what else do you have to ignore in order to see only one aspect of the country?

One of the most powerful parts of the book for me was the part where you detailed your wife Jenny’s work for a school that lifts girls out of poverty, and how shocked you were by the poverty. Did you find that after your time in Delhi you more politicized than when you first arrived?
Good question. I certainly arrived in India with a very liberal Western outlook of the world. My approach to the world was one of moral relativism — that everyone can to a certain extent be justified in their views. But the longer I stayed in South Asia, the more I began to believe that they are moral absolutes and that there can be certain aspects of a culture that are simply morally wrong — the treatment of rural girls in India being a case in point. So that really is how I changed politically over those 18 months. I moved from moral relativism to moral absolutism, in certain circumstances.

In the book Delhi reads like the main character in a novel  — with an ever-changing personality that is hard to truly get to know. Is that how you saw it?
One of main points with Delhi is how little you can understand it. It really is what you make it to be. New York, by comparison, is easier to understand. With New York you can find a narrative. Every New Yorker thinks that they are the star of the city, and the city aligns itself around them. Delhi has no overarching narrative; you’re more rooted to your neighborhood rather than the city as a whole and so everyone in Delhi is having different experiences and coming to different conclusions. I don’t think there’s a shared Delhi experience like there is a shared New York experience.

Now that you are back in the US, how do you see Delhi?
I have a sense of wasted opportunity. I think about all the things that we didn’t do when we were there, all those Saturdays when we went to the mall rather than explored different parts of the city. That I didn’t attend a cricket match or that I didn’t travel to a village outside of Delhi that’s famous for its Indian wrestling. And now thinking back on it all, I sometimes have an overwhelming sense of missing Delhi.

And how have you found it as a “repat” in the US? Any reverse culture shock?
What’s struck me is that the US just seems so empty. It’s not that India is always intensely crowded; rather, it’s that India you’re never completely alone. There’s always someone to be seen walking or selling something or cooking chai. Outside of a few select cities in the US, it’s not like that here. We now live in Denver and some mornings I find myself wandering around the middle of the city and I have moments when I stop and notice that I’m alone. I look around me and I just wonder where everyone is. All these tall buildings and nobody around.

Delirious Delhi can be purchased here.

STAY TUNED for Wednesday’s post, an interview with Chicago acupuncturist Jennifer Dubowsky, who believes the West can benefit from importing Eastern concepts of natural healing as an alternative to more invasive medical treatments.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Images: Used with kind permission of Dave Prager

4 responses to “Talking with author Dave Prager about his — deliriously unspiritual — expat experience in India

  1. Miss Footloose | Life in the Expat Lane January 25, 2012 at 10:31 am

    I enjoyed reading this interview and the writer’s observations. I’ve lived in a number of foreign countries and traveled in many more but I’ve never been to India. India seems to me so huge, so overwhelming in every aspect, like I’d never get a grip on it and would wander around in a fog of confusion forever.

    So I probably should go there😉.

  2. ML Awanohara January 25, 2012 at 10:22 pm

    @Anthony
    Thanks to this interview, I can now understand the anecdote once told me by a famous prof of Japanese business. Towards the beginning of his career, after spending a couple of years in Japan, he got an opportunity to go to India and dragged his young family there, only to find he couldn’t stand the place. He couldn’t really articulate why, but I can deduce from what Dave Prager has said, that India wouldn’t appeal very much to a Japanophile. Japan is a “one size fits all” society, where conversations really do go according to what you learn in the textbooks. India, though I’m sure it has its rituals, sounds a great deal less predictable.

    @Miss Footloose
    I can also completely relate to your comment. I’ve always wanted to go to India but have never been. Why? Fear of getting sick, fear of not being able to handle the poverty, and fear of being overwhelmed… To go or not to go?

    @Dave P
    I’m therefore glad that your friends encouraged you to write this book. It seems that some hand-holding is in order!

    I also wonder if you’ve seen this story: “Submit to Mother India,” by Andrew Boyd. He seems to be a kindred spirit, as evidenced by his opening graph:

    “Submit to Mother India,” a veteran traveler advised me before I left New York, and I intended to take her advice to heart. I steeled myself for nothing to go according to plan. I was prepared to get gruesomely ill at some point. I was prepared to let India have its way with me. “You can’t prepare yourself for India,” my well-traveled friend had also said. So I tried to prepare myself not to be prepared. Intellectually I knew what was coming: a full-on visceral assault of chaos and color and excrement; a teeming, pressing madness of too much humanity. But emotionally all I could do was get ready not to be ready for it.

  3. Dave January 27, 2012 at 6:09 pm

    Hi ML — I never saw that story before. I’ll give it a read. Thanks for the tip!

  4. Lynfuchs January 31, 2012 at 5:56 pm

    Dave,
    Having lived in India myself, I so appreciate your comment on the existence of moral absolutes. One of the great things in India is how Indians generally expect to find wisdom in faiths other than their own. The willingness to search beyond one’s own culture and upbringing for spiritual truth is genuine open-mindedness. However, the belief that all such ethics are relative is really closed-mindedness, because where there is nothing to be found, there is little reason to search. People who think everything is black or white tend to annoy me, but people who think everything is gray tend to scare me.

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