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Travel, Writing and Orientalism: In Conversation with Isabella Tree

An age-old custom, and a curious travel writer come together to create a fascinating book

Isabella Tree tells us about Nepal’s fascinating living goddesses, and of the discipline required in writing a good travelogue

Isabella Tree specializes in well-researched and extremely readable books that delve deep into a subculture, and attempt to shine a light onto them.  Perhaps her greatest gifts as a writer are her empathy and her refusal to judge, both of which can be seen in good measure in her latest work- The Living Goddess – out now on Penguin India.

The Living Goddesses or Kumari are young girls selected from the Newar community, who are worshipped as a manifestation of devi by the Nepalese Hindu and Newar Buddhists. During their ‘reign’ as a goddess, the young girl is trained and housed in a palace, with all her needs taken care of. She is worshipped and revered and believed to be the source of great divine energy

Isabella spent more than a decade researching the customs and history of the Kumari culture, interviewing some of the ‘retired’ Goddesses, and also some of the custodians of this tradition. In the past, Isabella has written for The Observer and Conde Nast Traveller, and is also the author of three other travelogues and biographies of places as diverse as Papua New Guinea and Mexico.

We had a long mail chat with her on life as a travel writer, the traps of orientalism, what prompted her to write this book in the first place, and more.

MBRB: One of the most interesting aspects of your work as a journalist/writer to us was how you’ve managed to immerse yourself so completely in different cultures for research- from Mexico to New Guinea to the Nepali Buddhists. Could you tell us a little bit more about when you became interested in this type of journalism and who some of your inspirations were.

I’ve always loved looking at the world from different angles. Even as a child I loved dressing up and pretending to be someone from the other ends of the earth. I love the challenge of another culture, and the rewards of reaching some understanding of another person’s point of view. In a way, learning about other cultures, teaches me about my own – sadly, more often than not, it’s the deficiencies in my own that I recognise most.

I think the travel writer and foreign correspondent Martha Gellhorn had a big influence, at least on my aspirations in my early twenties when I started as a travel journalist with the Evening Standard and then the Sunday Times, and I love the writing of Sybille Bedford on Mexico – she’s so perceptive and sympathetic, and yet she can be so funny at the same time.

MBRB: When did the idea for The Living Goddess first strike you? What about them in particular led you to research them in such detail?

I first came across the Living Goddess when I was 18, travelling in my gap year in 1983 after finishing school in the UK. I was with three friends – including the guy who eventually became my husband. We ended up in Kathmandu for the summer, renting a couple of rooms at the top of Freak Street overlooking the old royal palace. Quite by accident we found ourselves next-door neighbours of this extraordinary child – the Living Goddess. I became completely intrigued by her. At night we could see a little figure in red flashing past the windows on the second floor. We used to drop into her courtyard almost everyday in the hope that we might see her at her window.

I was longing to find out more about her but it was almost impossible. No one seemed to be able to tell us anything. When I returned to Nepal in 1997 to stay with an English friend who had just moved out to Kathmandu – I tried to find out more.

Eventually I met ex-Kumari Rashmila Shakya, and our meeting formed the basis of an article I wrote for the Sunday Times in the UK. I realised after meeting Rashmila that here was an amazing story, a tradition that few people really knew anything about, even in Nepal. But it was bound up in secrecy. Much of what the Living Goddess is about is connected with Tantra, and you can only learn about tantra if you’re initiated, and only then, through the direct teachings of a guru, and you had to be Nepali – or more specifically, a Newar – to do that. I resigned myself to the fact that this was probably as far as I would ever get.

But then in 2001, the royal family massacre happened, and that changed everything. Suddenly Nepal was in a very precarious place. The Maoists were taking advantage of the country’s instability following the death of the king, and they had pledged to get rid of the Living Goddess. I realised that this might well be my last chance to reconnect with the tradition.

When I went back this time I found, to my surprise, that the custodians of the tradition were much more willing to talk. Perhaps they were fearful of the future, perhaps they felt they could trust me because I wasn’t going down the route so many journalists have in the past of just repeating all the old rumours and misconceptions. Anyhow, now I felt that ex-Living Goddesses, their caretakers, even the tantric priests, were willing to open the door to me – just a crack. I think they wanted to show the outside world the value, at least, of what is they are protecting.

MBRB:  How accessible were the ‘retired’  living goddesses? How easy in your opinion was it for them to lead normal lives after such a ‘rarified experience’?

I had little trouble tracking down ex-Living Goddesses. Contrary to popular belief, they aren’t thrown on the scrap heap after they leave office, or trafficked as prostitutes to Mumbai or Bangkok. Quite the opposite. They all go back to their homes, to loving Buddhist Shakya families, who mostly live in or near the centre of Kathmandu – where they have to learn to become mortal again. This is the difficult part.

How do you get used to living a normal life when you’ve been treated like a goddess for so many years, when every whim was indulged? How do you find your way in the outside world when you’ve never left the palace you grew up in, except to attend festivals in a chariot or be carried in a palanquin? Even walking down the street, negotiating the potholes in the road, dodging all the pedestrians and motorbikes, is daunting when you’ve only ever walked along over the wooden floors of a palace before.

But eventually, with the gentle encouragement of siblings and parents, ex-Living Goddesses find their way – though it may take them a year or more to feel really at home again in the real world. Nowadays the Kumaris are given private tuition for four hours a day while they’re at the palace, so they are up to speed with their peers at school and can simply enter their year group class when they come out.

Rashmila Shakya, the ex-Kumari I know best, and now a delightful young woman in her early 30s, was the first Living Goddess to graduate from University. She is now a highly successful computer software designer. Almost every Kumari older than Rashmila is married and has children – which flies in the face of another prevalent myth that ex-Kumaris can never marry.

And they are still honoured in the community. I have a lovely photograph, taken in 2007 at an event I attended in the old royal palace where all the surviving ex-Living Goddesses were honoured with gifts and prayers. There they are, sitting in a row on a platform, dressed in all their finery – all the stages of womanhood. And they are still remembered as goddesses. It’s a reminder, to everyone, in a sense, of the sacredness of all women; that all women should be respected.

MBRB: You spent a lot of time in Nepal when working on this book. Could you share some of your experiences and impressions of the place with us?

I love Nepal, but it’s really the Kathmandu Valley where I’ve spent the most time. It’s changed a lot since I first went there in the 1980s. We used to bicycle everywhere – I wouldn’t dare to do that now, the roads are so terrifying. And there are concrete buildings flying up all over the place where once there were rice fields and groves of bamboo and quiet tracks with shade for buffalo carts. The pollution can be ghastly and the traffic frustrating, and the lovely Bagmati and Vishnumati rivers are now treacly drains oozing chemicals and stinking to high heaven. From an environmental point of view it’s heart breaking. And yet, beneath this shadow, the most extraordinary things are still going-on. Young Buddhist monks and priests who can make the most incredible mandalas from memory with multi-coloured sand; legends and myths and story-telling; women healers – ‘dyamas’ – communicating with the deities through spirit possession; festivals and rituals and jatras every day of the year; religious painters making the most exquisite ‘paubhas';  bronzecasters forging Buddhas and bodhisattvas in their own back yards; musicians and dancers moved by the spirit of gods and goddesses; people given to devotion and empathy and kindness, and endless generosity to strangers; and Living Goddesses, of course. I always try and tell people who are going to Nepal not to be put off by their first impressions of Kathmandu, but to be patient and dig deeper and what they find will enchant them more than they could ever have imagined.

MBRB: I couldn’t help but notice a blurb from Patrick Leigh Fermor for Islands in the Cloud. He is one of our favourite travel writers, and we had to ask, if you ever had the chance to meet him yourself?

I was lucky enough to meet Paddy Leigh Fermor, a number of times in fact. He was a great friend of my uncle Andrew Devonshire, and he came to stay with my parents once or twice when I was a child. I was bowled over by him. He just exuded adventure, with a constant twinkle in his eye. You just knew he was never going to take the obvious angle or the simple route to anywhere. I was quite naughty at school and he loved that. I grew up on the story of him capturing General Kreipe, the German commander of Crete, during the Second World War. It was easy to imagine him dressed like a Cretan goat herder running around the mountains causing havoc. I took up Latin at school partly because I was so impressed that Paddy and General Kreipe had recited Horace to each other. I was so touched when he offered to read Islands in the Clouds for me – and that he enjoyed it.

MBRB: Your biography mentions that you travelled to Kashmir and Laddakh at an early age? Is there likely to be a book set somewhere there in the future?

Funny you should mention that! I would love to go back there. I think that’s when the travel bug really got its claws into me, when my parents took us to Kashmir when I was about 9 and my sister was 7. We stayed on a houseboat, The Helal, belonging to Sultan Wangnoo, one of the most delightful men I’ve ever met. He felt no day should go by without a surprise – it might be a kingfisher’s nest or a chocolate souffle or fireworks over the lake. We went trekking with him and saw bear tracks and threw snowballs at 16,000 feet. There was no turning back after that. He and my parents continued writing to each other until the day they died. I’m still in touch with his family so I hope one day soon I can take my children there too.

MBRB: As someone who has done so much research and writing about different cultures, what kind of responsibility do you feel about the way you represent them in your writing? Do you worry sometimes about falling into the trap of some kind of ‘Orientalism'; and how do you address it?

I feel a tremendous responsibility about what I write. I feel a lot of writing and journalism is rushed these days and, as a consequence, often unreliable or half-baked. It takes time to research and reflect, especially about deeper, more complex matters, and I think you have to resist being drawn into the world of sound bites and knee-jerk reactions.

I also think one has to be wary of one’s own preconceptions and prejudices, and even the desire to tell a story that, on further investigation, doesn’t exist. Certainly, in the case of the Living Goddess journalists have tended to take the easy route and regurgitated the age-old fallacies. That’s partly because it’s these graphic rumours that are headline-snatchers and partly because the truth is so much harder to explain.

I think V. S. Naipaul was absolutely spot on when he said-  “The greatest writing is a disturbing vision offered from a position of strength – aspire to that… Tell the truth. Don’t prettify it.”

I also try, wherever appropriate, to give drafts of my writing to specialists to read – either academics in the field or people I’ve interviewed during my research or characters who actually feature in the book. It’s a golden standard of practice that was taught me by my first boss, Robert Oakeshott, who had been a journalist on the Financial Times. He said – “if you’re worried about showing your interviewees what you’ve written about them, you have to ask yourself why that is. Often it’s because you haven’t really understood the subject and are trying to hide it, or because you’ve misrepresented them.”

So I think integrity is absolutely key, both in terms of research and in the writing itself – and that often means questioning your own motives and sticking out a foot every now and again to see if you can trip yourself up. I think that’s how one avoids the pitfalls of Orientalism, and of being patronising and simplistic and prettifying things in general.

MBRB: Finally here’s a question we ask everyone at MBRB. If there was one person , you could go back in time and have dinner with, who would it be and why?

Without doubt, Albert Einstein. Not only a genius the like of which this planet has rarely ever seen but a man who seems to have been unbelievably compassionate and tolerant of his fellow human beings – so I think he’d forgive my stupid questions – and often very funny. I think he’d be fantastic company. Above all, what really interests me is how much he valued the role of the imagination and intuition in how he came to an understanding of the laws of the universe. I don’t know what his religious beliefs were – and I would love to ask him (he referred to himself as both a ‘pantheist’ and an ‘agnostic’, and definitely not an ‘atheist’ – so, a man after my own heart) – but there was clearly, to him, no contradiction between the spiritual and the rational – in fact he saw the two as mutually beneficial: “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” I’d love to ask him what he thought about Buddhism.

Having had a particularly chequered school career, and hated most of it, I also love his take on education: “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.” I think meeting him would be like a blast of fresh mountain air.

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