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'India has been part of my love'
Arthur J Pais

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August 25, 2006

Maura Moynihan, who says she would like to be born an Indian life after life, has come out with her first novel, Covergirl: Confessions of a Flawed Hedonist (following the successful short story collection, Yoga Hotel) which blends reality and fiction, drawing liberally from her life as Andy Warhol's friend and from her many years of working with Tibetan refugees in Asia.

The only daughter of New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who died a few years ago, 46-year-old Maura Moynihan says the turning point in her life was when her father was named American ambassador to India over three decades ago.

As a high school student in India in the 1970s, Maura was immediately drawn to yoga, Urdu poetry and "everything else about India."   

In an interview to Arthur J Pais, the writer answers questions about the influences on her writing and her abiding love affair with India.

When did you first think of writing?

I have always loved telling stories, right from my childhood. I have Irish blood, you know. I think I was writing even before I turned six.

Who was the most influential person in your early writing years?

My parents encouraged me the most. But my father had a special influence. He got me to read world literature, he got me to understand the precise meanings of words and he got me to appreciate the beauty of literature more than anyone else.

But somehow, till I turned 40 I did not think of putting together a collection of stories. I had kept on postponing my dreams of writing a novel because I was also doing many exciting things including running a business in Nepal (to produce fashion accessories for the American markets) and working with the Tibetan refugees in India.

What have you inherited most from your father?

His deep passion for scholarship and social justice. He wrote 19 books. He felt writing was the highest art. I always wanted to be a writer. He was a great humanist. He used to say there was terrible poverty in India but in America, there was less terrible poverty but more terrible behaviour.

He also had an excellent sense of humour, didn't he?

Oh yes. I remember when the US sold a building that belonged to the American embassy in New Delhi. But the bureaucrats in Washington were not happy with his decision. There were arguments and counter arguments. At one point, my father said: 'They have an edifice complex.'

He also gave interesting advice to young writers, did he not?

My father took writing very seriously and he wrote for many hours every morning. David Stockman, economic adviser in the Reagan administration, worked under my father. When he received a fabulous advance to write a book, he asked my father, 'How do you write a book?'

'In the morning,' my father said.

Can you think of writing a story or a novel without an Indian setting?

I may find it difficult to do so. India has been part of my love more than any other place and that is where my soul is happiest.

What did you tell yourself when you began composing the stories in Yoga Hotel [her previous book]?

Many American and British writers have written about the Raj, about the maharajas, tiger-hunting, snake charmers, and of spiritual seeking. But I wanted to write about the India I know intimately -- the India of expats, seekers, gurus, discos, third-class trains, Delhi cocktail parties with diplomats and World Bankers. The world I have known in India is a place where worlds and people collide, often with unpredictable and complex results.

How do you describe yourself as a religious person?

Hinduism and Buddhism are the two greatest influences on my life. I cherish the broadmindedness in Hinduism and the compassion in Buddhism.

What else do you admire in Buddhism?

That one doesn't have to invoke the name of God to lead a good, ethical and honest life.

When did you get interested in Buddhism?

I think it was around 1989 when I first met with the Dalai Lama. And that was also the time I started getting involved with Tibetan exiles. My father encouraged me a lot. He believed that there should never be another Holocaust, that everyone should have a right to a good life, where they could profess their faith and have their own identity.

Spending many years in India also helped you to become a vegetarian, isn't it?

Yes, but remember that I was born a vegetarian.

Born a vegetarian?

Indeed I was. It was the people around me who made me into a non-vegetarian. But it did not take me too long a time to realise the importance of being a vegetarian, for health and ethical reasons.

But the Dalai Lama [Images] is not a vegetarian and so are most Tibetans, isn't it?

The Dalai Lama has said he ate meat because you could not get good vegetables in the hostile climate of Tibet [Images]. But of late he has been telling people of the importance of having a great amount of vegetables in their meals.

What kind of a vegetarian are you?

See this milk I am drinking, it is soy milk. I avoid animal products. There's no justification for eating meat, is there?

Many Indian vegetarians find it difficult to be vegetarians in America, especially when they travel?

I can understand it was a problem two decades ago but now you find many vegetarian restaurants across the country. But worse comes to worse, one can pick up fresh fruit and raw vegetables from a shop. It is never really difficult to be a vegetarian. 

Talking about health, many foreigners especially Americans hesitate to go to India because they are afraid that they will fall sick.

You take precautions whenever you travel. But I have the feeling that some people fall ill because they constantly worry about it. I have always felt at home wherever I have traveled in India.

Do you believe in reincarnation?

Absolutely, and over the years my belief in rebirth has become stronger. I somehow feel that in all my avatars I have been connected to India.

What do you dislike most about foreigners headed to India?

The kind of people who are convinced that they are going to save Indian masses. On the other hand, there are many people who do good work in India without any big ambitions or the urge to convert the people to their own faiths.

When did you really fall in love with India?

I think it was the moment I stepped out of the plane and touched Indian soil. A very powerful feeling came across me, and I felt I had belonged to that country for ages. It was like I had come home. I was just 13 but I felt I had lived in India for centuries, in various parts of the country and that though I had been born in America, it was my good karma that had brought me back to India.

Do you have an Indian name?

Sometimes when people find it difficult to pronounce my name, I say I am Maya. In Braj, some people called me Madhu. I love that name too. I am very fond of Braj. I believe when I prayed and meditated there Krishna 'lifted the veil of Maya,' as they say. It is difficult to explain, but for an instant I saw everything as illusion, then the insight vanished. The pandit at the ashram told me sometimes Krishna grants this insight to the devotees he favours.

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