KARMA GONE BAD: How I Learned to Love Mangos, Bollywood, and Water Buffalo by Jenny Feldon. Sourcebooks, Inc.: Naperville, IL. $14.99. 336 pages. sourcebooks.com, jennyfeldon.com, karmacontinued.com. Available as a trade paperback and for digital readers.
When Jenny Feldon learns she and her new husband would be moving to India for two years, her imagination runs wild. Exotic locales! Fabulous food! Colorful experiences perfect for posting on her blog, Karma in the City! Her life’s rhythm emanated from the non-stop energy of Manhattan, draped head to toe in designer labels, and she imagines that lifestyle will continue forever. But that’s not how it turned out. With as much self-deprecating and honest humor as hard-learned realizations, her travel memoir, Karma Gone Bad, candidly chronicles her valiant fight as a corporate wife trying to survive life and marriage in India.
When she steps out of the airport in Hyderabad, she is knocked over by the heat, smells, and thick damp air. As she and Jay await their contact, they encounter a sea of brightly-colored fabric and brown skinned faces staring at them. That’s the moment when she realizes everything is wrong about her: her skin, her hair, her clothing, her inability to keep the shock off her face.
Once in their temporary apartment and equipped with life-saving PB&J for sandwiches, Jenny recognizes how ill-prepared she is for this move. Passing the days in a fog-laden bewilderment, trying to find something familiar or relatable, she experiences disappointments and obstacles such as bad coffee, “Delhi Belly,” shopping trips during which expats battle over a black-market bag of Doritos, unannounced electricity outages, more stares, and a thorough lack of privacy. Worst of all, she suffers a debilitating loneliness in one of the most heavily-populated places on earth.
“Without a job to go to or classes to attend (and having failed at my attempts to get a work visa), I felt like I was spinning in space for a long time,” she told me in an e-interview. “In the beginning, [Jay came] home full of new stories to tell and experiences to share, and the most I’d have done was brave a trip to the vegetable stand or managed to hang a load of laundry on a clothesline. I felt useless and irrelevant, especially at work functions when every conversation went right over my head.”
Feldon lays her life wide open with her easy storytelling and comic wit. After countless desperate (and, yes, entertaining) attempts to navigate her new life, Jenny sees that her marriage is failing and finds herself on the brink of despair. A visit home, awkward husband-wife heart-to-hearts, and the specter of divorce propel Jenny into action. Determined to make both her marriage and India work, she returns to Hyderabad armed with big goals, new hopes, a pile of Us Magazines, and bags of Cape Cod potato chips. She falls in love with Bollywood. She hires a man who cooks for her, and a cleaning woman who some might avoid. She visits local sites with a new perspective and begins Hindi lessons.
The biggest surprise for her happens when, through her blog—then renamed Karma in the (Indian) City—she meets Anjali, a young Hyderabadi woman who puts Jenny on the simple path to enlightenment, telling her to love India for what it is: the mangos, the sunshine, the festivals, the colors, the whatever.
“Anjali’s advice … really hit home hard for me,” Feldon admits. “Choosing to celebrate rather than despair, choosing to search for things in my new life that made me happy instead of fixating on why I missed my old one was how I began to crawl back from the hole I’d dug myself into.”
Better than five years have passed since Jenny and Jay returned to the United States, and they’ve welcomed two children into their family. I was curious how her experiences in India impacted her life for the long haul.
“India fundamentally changed who I was as a person. Not in every way, but in some big ways,” she says. “My life now is based on gratitude, on feeling thankful for every moment I’ve been given, on finding ways to pay that gratitude forward and teaching my children to see beauty and wonder in everything around them. Believing in the universe and focusing more on what I put into the world and less on what I take out is also a big part of who I’ve become thanks to my experiences there.”
So based on her experiences as an expat living in India, I asked what advice she would give someone who is about to move to a different country with a vastly different culture.
“Don’t fight it. It will be different, and it will be scary, and it will be hard. But I learned the hard way that holding on to your old life with a death grip will only increase the misery. Love wherever you are for the things it is and try not to hate it for the things it isn’t. Also, figure out what your most essential “creature comforts” from home are and try to bring some with you.”
Karma Gone Bad is an enjoyable read overflowing with angst, humor, the intricacies of culture shock and loveable characters. From the neighborhood expats to her driver Venkat and his charm; from the mâitre d’ at the local restaurant to the landlord who enters the apartment at will; from the family who lives on Feldon’s front porch to Anjali, Feldon provides us with the diversity that ultimately made her fall in love all over again. There are lessons to be learned from her journey, and those lessons would serve us well no matter what our destinations may be.
“In the book, I’m the true villain—and I think for many of us that’s the case regardless of our circumstances. We stand in the way of our own happiness, become blind to what’s real and honest and beautiful,” Feldon says. “I had to learn to trust the universe more, to be mindful of the energy I was putting into the world and how my own expectations were ultimately causing my failure. If there’s one thing I’d like readers to take away from the book, it’s that the way we see the world is directly linked to the kind of life we live in it…and that we have the power to change our perspectives, and our lives along with it. Love life for the mangos and live in the small moments. Be grateful every single day, even for the bad ones.”
Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where she freelances in advertising and public relations. Between assignments, she writes fiction, enjoys wine, and heads to the beach as often as she can.