Author Interview: Lost at 15, Found at 50, by Ashwini Devare

Jul 9, 2021 | Writing Life

Lost at 15, Found at 50: Travels, Trials and Tribulations in Foreign Lands

by

Ashwini Devare

The book:

From the Soviet Union’s lron Curtain to Burma’s Bamboo Curtain and Sikkim to Seoul, this memoir follows the journey of a young girl whose life was a cross-continental rollercoaster ride that soared and plunged from one country to another. By the time she was fifteen, Ashwini Devare had lived in six countries. Her globetrotting life continued when she became a career journalist, and her story culminates in the tropical foliage of Singapore.

With a front row seat to political developments and upheavals around the world, Devare chronicles a lifetime of nomadic living: Moscow at the height of the Cold War, a far-right Switzerland pushing to limit immigration, America mired in the Vietnam War, Sikkim in the midst of a pro-democracy movement that would overthrow the monarchy, India during turbulent times and South Korea, where student demonstrations convulsed the country.

Lost at 15, Found at 50 is a vibrant reflection by a singular voice on adventure, identity and courage. An illuminating narrative of a life lived against some of the most important moments in history, beautifully told and rich with detail.

The author:

I was introduced to Ashwini Devare by Kalpana Mohan, author of Daddykins, who was featured last month in this segment. When I read Ashwini’s book, I realised that I had lived in the sam neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Washington DC where she had spent her early years as a broadcast journalist during the early nineties. It really is a very small world, isn’t it?  

My review:

Ashwini Devare’s memoir is a chronicle of her extraordinary life that involved growing up in multiple countries, languages and cultures as she tagged along on her father’s postings across the globe as a member of the Indian Foreign Service. During a time when only extremely wealthy Indians could afford a trip abroad, Ashwini’s story, beginning with her birth in Moscow seems like a fairytale. Yet the difficulties of this peripatetic lifestyle keep mounting as she changes schools, learns new ways of coping and grapples with issues of identity and belonging in exotic places during times of great significance in Indian and world history.

Long before the term ‘third culture kids’ was coined, Ashwini learnt to speak languages as diverse as Nepali and French while traversing the globe from pre-Cold War Russia to pre-Olympic South Korea, via USA, Burma, Switzerland and Sikkim.The family anticipates every move with a combination of excitement and dread not knowing if they will spend the next couple of years in a land of plenty or in a land of scarcity. Ashwini dispels the myth of their presumed glamorous jet-setting lifestyle conjured up by the names of all the exotic places that she has lived in by describing the practical difficulties that her family has to encounter. From lack of basic amenities like heating during winter (in Sikkim) to good quality schooling (in Burma), from finding fresh Indian groceries (in Moscow) to hiring a French tutor (in Switzerland).

Each new posting brings with it unique experiences, both joyful and miserable. Yet the experiences shape Ashwini and push her towards finding her place in the world while being true to herself. Ashwini’s coming of age adventures play out against exotic backdrops but honestly showcase the universal experience of fitting in, finding yourself and defining your identity in a changing world. Her story is a gentle reminder that while our journeys are unique, we are all heading towards the same goal of understanding ourselves in a world that doesn’t always make sense.

Lost at 15, Found at 50 is an interesting personal chronicle that is also a lesson in history and geography, not just the ones described in books and maps, but the experiences that define the  contours of our heart and help define the meaning home. 

The interview:

Question 1:  Do you have formal training in writing or are you self-taught? Please provide a brief introduction to your writing background.

Writing is a habit. If I don’t write, I feel incomplete. I’ve been writing ever since I can remember. As a child, Iwas always writing copious letters, diaries, stories. I had a collection of notebooks and journals which were my most precious possessions.  I grew up in a family of writers- my mom, dad, sister are all published authors. My maternal grandmother wrote poetry. My paternal grandfather wrote a book in the 1940s. I grew up in an ecosystem where everyone was working on a book at any given point in time! So there was always healthy competition in the house- and a lot of inspiration.

When I became a journalist, my hobby became my profession. I studied broadcast journalism in America, where I trained to write for television. This was a big shift from creative writing. I missed flowery prose and big words, because as a reporter, I was trained to write one idea per sentence. Big words were literally banned!

Question 2:  When did you come up with the idea of writing this memoir?  

I mulled over the idea of writing this memoir for many years, but wasn’t quite ready. To pen a memoir felt very personal and daunting. The voices of doubt in my head held me back. I wasn’t a celebrity, so why would anyone care to read my story? So instead, I wrote my collection of short stories- Batik Rain- and kept the memoir for a later time. Which was honestly the best thing I did. To write this memoir, I needed the distance and the reflection. I knew I had the material, but wasn’t quite sure how to weave it together. I even contemplated writing it as fiction.

Honestly, it was the memoir that led me. And once I started to write, I became fully immersed in the eras that I had lived through: the fascinating 60s, 70s & 80s. I learned so much about history, because my life played out against the backdrop of stupendous historical events that changed the world, and in many ways, changed mine too.

Question 3:  How did the idea for this memoir originate?  

One of the main reasons I chose to write this memoir was to give people an insight into the lives of Indian Foreign Service families in the 60s & 70s. It was not an easy life for children, especially. I wanted to deconstruct the glitz and glamour associated with the world of diplomacy. Based on the overwhelming response I have received for this memoir, I think people have appreciated the authenticity and honesty. Back then, IFS was a very tough, disruptive life. In some countries, there were no Indian food provisions like ata and dal. We had to wait for shipments to arrive. As a teenager, to move from one continent to another every two years and have to adjust and fit in, was staggering. Being the only Indian kid in a school where no one spoke English was nerve-wracking. Racism, isolation and a lack of self-esteem were the corollaries to this nomadic life.

The upside was we became a very close-knit family. My parents, my sister and I. The world outside felt hostile and alien, but the world inside the four walls of our home was always warm and comforting.

Question 4: Who/what were your primary motivations for writing this memoir? 

Once I began writing, I was very motivated to complete the book. Long conversations with my parents over several years formed the backbone to the memoir. The early chapters in this book tells their story. I wanted to write this book as a tribute to them. Their free-spiritedness, their optimism and curiosity towards their new environments was a huge source of inspiration. Their enthusiasm played a big role in driving this memoir.

Question 5: Did you take notes or write parts of this book as events transpired or much later? 

While I took notes as events transpired, I did not write in parallel. A lot of times, for me at any rate, it’s a little after an event when I can process what happened. So I observed keenly and wrote down details but I left the writing for later.

Question 6: How did you organise the chapters? Why did you choose this narrative style?  

I kept notes over the years. I recorded conversations with my parents and sisters every time we met. All this documentation was crucial for my memoir. Every little detail was important to paint this canvas. I wrote it chronologically, one country at a time. I found it easier to do it that way.

I tried to approach this memoir like fiction. It is a universal story of a family on the move. I wrote it vividly, as a story. I cast my family as characters, rather than Mom and Dad. That way I could make them more complex and layered, rather than portray them in a linear way.

Question 7: What was the easy part? Wha was the difficult part?

The easier part of writing this memoir was the history, and the factual research. When did Indian PM Lal Bahadur Shastri die in Tashkent? When did South Korea become a democracy? When was Indian PM Indira Gandhi assassinated and where was I at the time? The challenge was to balance the political events with my personal narrative. I didn’t want the geopolitics to dominate the personal story. The idea was that both should complement each other, just the way it happened in my own life.

Question 8:  What was your path to publication? Did you have an agent?

I published this book directly with my publisher Marshall Cavendish. I didn’t use an agent.

Question 9:  Did you learn any lessons – during writing and after publication of our memoir – any surprising or unusual takeaways?

Takeaway is there is no short-cut to writing. There were several drafts to this memoir. I had no choice but to sit down for several hours, for over two years, polishing and perfecting till I felt it was ready.

I was surprised how immersed I became in this book. I lost track of time and place. I really enjoyed the journey of writing this memoir immensely. It was like rediscovering my own past and it was very exciting in many ways. The things I had forgotten, sprang to life during the writing process. Some good memories, but some painful as well.

Question 10:    What is the one thing you want the reader to remember from the book?

I would like to say this, based on my life experiences, change is not always such a bad thing. It is how we cope with change that makes a difference. I learned to step out of my comfort zone from a very early age. While I hated change as a child, it made me resilient. It is only now, as an adult I can appreciate that the travels shaped me into who I am today. Sometimes it is the disruption that builds resilience.

Question 11:  Any words of advice to aspiring memoir writers?

I’d like to say this to aspiring memoir writers: there is no age and stage to write a memoir. Anyone is eligible to tell their story. You don’t have to be a celebrity to tell your tale! As long as you believe in your story, and feel passionate about it, others will too.

More about the author:

Instagram: Ashwini.Devare. https://www.instagram.com/ashwini.devare/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ashwinidevareofficial/

Buy the book here. If you are in India, buy it here.

Photo credit Ranjani Rao

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