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I became a student of history all over again, says Ashwini Devare

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The author-journalist’s memoir focusses on the human elements of her nomadic life

By the time she was in her late teens, author and journalist Ashwini Devare had lived in six countries. As the daughter of an IFS officer, Ashwini was witness to life in the Soviet Union, Burma, Sikkim and Seoul.

Her latest book, Lost at 15, Found at 50: Travel, trials and tribulations in foreign lands is a memoir where the Singapore based author reflects on her life and growing up in countries across the world, against the backdrop of major historical events.

“I mulled over the idea of writing a memoir for years, but it remained a distant goal,”Ashwini says. “I knew I had the material, but I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it, how to weave it together. I was daunted by the prospect of writing something so personal. But the memoir kept drawing me towards it. I wanted to relive the past, learn more about watershed historical events of the 70s and 80s that I had lived through; I became a student of history all over again.

“My father was a young foreign service probationer when he was posted to Moscow during the height of the Cold War. I was deeply inspired by my parents, their journey from their comfort zone of Pune into the heart of Communist Russia, soon after the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war. In fact, it is interesting how history is repeating itself.

“Back then, the Russians mediated the peace agreement at Tashkent. At the moment, Putin has offered to facilitate talks between India and Pakistan. Only the backdrop has changed— then it was the geopolitics of Cold War, today it is that of global terrorism.”

I became a student of history all over again, says Ashwini Devare

Ashwini says, “Writing this memoir allowed me to reflect on the restless search for identity that defined much of my life. To understand who I am today, it was essential to understand who I was, and what got me here. I also wanted to share insights about what life in the foreign service was for children growing up in the 70s. In some ways, it deconstructs the glitz and glamour that is often associated with diplomatic life. For children, it came with a hefty price-tag — of displacement and alienation.”

On whether writing a memoir is different from writing a work of fiction, Ashwini says, “In many ways, I approached the memoir just as I would write fiction. It had to be compelling and atmospheric. The characters had to be fleshed out just like you would in fiction. I was writing about my family, but I wanted to keep some distance so I could look at the story from a writer’s lens.

“For example, the first part of my book focuses on my parents — they were youthful, starry-eyed, embarking on an adventure, that took them to distant lands, from the Iron Curtain to the Bamboo Curtain (Burma in the seventies). I wrote about them as two characters, and tried to observe them from an artist’s prism, rather than viewing them in a linear, sequential fashion or as mom and dad.”

She adds, “Condensing the book was easier because as a journalist I am used to paring down words and editing liberally. I tried to trim the geopolitical descriptions because those you can get from history. I focused on how historical events churning the world, were also shaping my personal narrative.”

Talking about her writing process Ashwini says, “There were multiple drafts for this book; the earliest drafts go back to seven or eight years ago, even before I wrote my first book, Batik Rain. Those early drafts were inchoate, just rough ideas that I had put down on paper. Over the years, I meticulously recorded hours of conversations with my parents and the memoir suddenly acquired an immediacy. I was excited by the stories that sprung to life and became immersed in these eras— America in the sixties, Sikkim in the seventies, India and South Korea in the eighties, and my own coming-of-age story set in these turbulent times."

‘Lost at 15, Found at 50: Travel, trials and tribulations in foreign lands’ can be purchased on amazon.com in both Kindle and paperback formats.

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2019 11:40:15 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/i-became-a-student-of-history-all-over-again-ashwini-devare-lost-at-15-found-at-50/article26437692.ece

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