Interview: In 'Karma Gone Bad', Jenny Feldon Explores Passion, Perspective, and Pizza
At 27, newly married and living in her dream city, New York, Jenny Feldon appears to have it all. But when her husband is transferred to India for work, she packs up her life and hauls it overseas, only to encounter an experience entirely less glamorous than that she was expecting. Battling food poisoning, marital woes and persistent plumbing disasters, Jenny's sense of self begins to unravel. What she ultimately learns, however, worlds away from home that through embracing India and all of its chaos, are the many life lessons she hadn't known she'd missed — and she documents it all in her memoir, Karma Gone Bad: How I Learned to Love Mangos, Bollywood and Water Buffalo (Sourcebooks).
BUSTLE: There is a wonderfully sarcastic slant to your tone, particularly at the beginning of the book, which then mellows (but is no less funny) as the book progresses. Have you always incorporated humor into your written work, or was it more a symptom of self-reflection?
JENNY FELDON: The first half of the book is in the tone I had always used when writing my blog: very sarcastic, very focused on the material. That tone is what I used when I was my worst version of myself. It conveys the immaturity and naivety that I went to India with. I changed and grew a great deal during my time there and so, as the story progresses, so too does the tone. I hope that the shift in perspective displays a growing maturity that I was experiencing at the time.
Ultimately you were able to find a sense of beauty in the chaos that is India. What do you chalk that up to — the passing of time? The people? Did you ever encounter the kind of glamorous ex-pat persona you had anticipated becoming while you were in India?
I went to India with some rather jaded and strange views of the kinds of people I’d be meeting there. I never did meet the kind of expat persona I’d been expecting — the people I met were far better. A lot of our time there isn’t recorded in the book. We did a great deal of traveling, to Rajasthan, for example, and discovered much of that “Old World” India that I had been looking for — the colors, the smells, the sounds and spices. We also went to a friend’s wedding in India, which is perhaps one of the most magical experiences I’ve ever had. Indian weddings truly live up to expectations.
It is incredibly refreshing to read a memoir of this sort that makes no pretense that the entire experience was one of enlightened bliss. You emerge at the end of the novel still accessible, still human, still with struggles, but with a new appreciation for “balance” in your life. Does it make you wonder what life might have been like had you never made the trip? Are you the same person or do glimpses of the old Jenny ever return?
I do think about that all the time, what if I had never gone to India. I don’t know who I’d be and if I’d like that person very much. I'm so grateful that I got that opportunity as it changed me enormously, my perspective and my passions. I’d say that where some of the old Jenny remains is in my writing. On occasion, my Dad will read one of my blog posts and call me up to say “That was like the old you! Very funny!” I’ve definitely held onto some of that humor from before. I’ve learnt that being mindful and being funny aren’t mutually exclusive.
How did you record your experiences in Hyderabad? Was much of the book written in reflection or did you compose your thoughts as you went — did you imagine this would turn into a book?
I kept up with my blog while I was in Hyderabad which helped keep the feeling of the moment and was extremely useful when writing the book. Ultimately 90 percent of the narrative for Karma Gone Bad is new, but that example of how I would spend my Sundays is one drawn directly from a blog post. In New York, Sunday acts as a break from the chaos of the week — in India, it’s completely different.
What was your experience of yoga while you were abroad?
I feel very fortunate to have studied under true yoga masters both here, in the United States and in India. They are certainly very different approaches to yoga. I came from a Bikram background in New York, where yoga is something to check of one’s to-do list. In India, yoga isn’t going to a class, it isn’t a practice, it is part or who you are. The philosophy there is that it is something you do every moment you are alive. I find that mindset so empowering and meaningful — I do now try to “live” yoga rather than just practice it. On the other hand, I do love the group setting offered in Western yoga practice and sense of community that a class can bring. I try to incorporate both philosophies.
Which authors do you admire or draw inspiration from?
I love reading fiction — Ann Patchett and Sarah Macdonald are two of my favorite authors. I learned a great deal from reading Holy Cow, one of the first books I dug into when reading up on India. I loved that she made me feel less terrible about the way I was feeling when I initially arrived. Her honesty made me feel as if I weren’t alone and compelled me to incorporate a similar honesty in my own writing.
What is next for you? Is another book on the horizon?
I have many stories to tell. I find that at the end of each story is the beginning of a new one. As I was returning from India, I was pregnant with my daughter. Shortly after she was born, my husband was transferred abroad once more, which brought about a whole new journey. I was still learning the ins and out of Los Angeles and starting all over again. I’ve considered writing something along the lines of Baby Karma as a follow-up to Karma Gone Bad about the challenges we faced raising a child in two separate countries. Beyond that, I would love to write a novel.
On India, will you go back? And, if so, when?
We definitely have plans to go back to India. I want to take my kids back there, for them to meet the people that we met. I don’t want them to be like I was, thinking I knew everything there was to know. I can’t think of a better way to show them how very fortunate I was to have had this wonderful experience and met these incredible people. It really did become home for me towards the end of my trip. They kids are a little too young to appreciate it all just yet, so we’ll hold off on a return for a couple more years. We’ve built a sister school there with my daughter’s school, so I’m excited for her to see it in person someday.
Is Los Angeles home for good now? Any itching for another adventure?
We moved to Los Angeles almost immediately after we returned from India, but I think about New York every day. I do miss it. I love my life here, my friends and my community, but my heart and soul is in New York
I have to ask — after returning from the Pizza Corner that served as your staple those first few months — where is your go to spot for a slice when you’re in the big apple?
Oh, no contest. Joe’s in the village. Every time.