Cross-posted on Goodreads Jenny Feldon is not My People - far from it. I hang out at the rougher end of adventure travel and have been privileged to meet a full-spectrum rainbow of global citizens en voyage, but am yet to bump into an Upper West Side corporate wife. That said, Jenny has the chops to see my backpack, raise me a Samsonite Silhouette wheeled and to take all the chips on the table: Karma Gone Bad is a standout 2013 travel read and well-worth your time and money.
We open with Jenny 27, newly married and mellow in Manhattan, "living by Zagat, not Lonely Planet", when husband Jay is "asked*" to go to India for two years (*American corporate speak. Translation: "Go, or find a new job".) Marital vows echoing softly, our author takes one for Team Feldon and so off to Hyderabad we switch, complete with husband and (almost) more importantly, beloved dog Tucker.
As someone who doesn't actually want to travel, let alone to go and live in India, our author is utterly unprepared for Andhra Pradesh, and ticks off the signature experiences one by one. First solo escape from the cultural fallout shelter that is their apartment (without Indian Rupees but with useless Amex) - check! First scary rickshaw ride (NCAP rating: zero) - check! First night spent communing with a toilet bowl, post-Indian food - wholly unwanted check...
It's all light, frothy amusing stuff and if Karma Gone Bad were simply to continue in the same vein, this would still be a quick, fun read, particularly for those who have never experienced the all-consuming simultaneous good/bad overload that is the sub-continent. But, as the book opens out, Jenny starts to first circle around, and then focus in on how India exposes some deeper truths about her, her new life and her marriage.
Even simple pleasures are thwarted - an enjoyable day trip to a historical fort is ruined by a group of boys constantly brushing the edge of her personal space - "a tense, threatening vibration, just short of danger". Or, discovering that even a gated mansion lifestyle means either no water one day (halfway through a shower, in true karma-gone-bad style) then flooding the next.
On top of these day-to-day challenges, Karma Gone Bad doesn't shy away from bigger picture questions of self-worth and personal growth. Husband all but absent, consumed by corporate demands, Jenny struggles to take on either of the roles she imagined for herself, becoming neither the dutiful corporate wife -"a parasitic extension of my husband", nor a savvy expat travel blogger. It's to the author's credit then that her problems never sound whiny or excessively self-pitying, and her descriptions are always pithy - her new home becoming little more than a "marble cage."
Even at the nadir of Jenny's Indian experience and the pressures it puts on her marriage, neat black humour keeps the reader engaged. After a particularly brutal sub-continental haircare experience - "he made his first cut ... half my hair hit the floor" - Jenny returns home in floods of tears, for her driver to deadpan "hospital, madam?"
What I wasn't expecting from Karma Gone Bad was to be transported back to Business Studies 101, and Mazlow's Hierarchy of Needs: from the immediate (food, shelter), through to the more complex (love, happiness, community). It's a theme Jenny returns to throughout her book, whether consciously or not, most clearly in an audacious scene with a bold comparison between herself and a slum family as to who is ultimately happier. It's a very Mazlow moment - whoever we are, wherever we are, whether we possess the protective force field of a corporate credit card or just a hidden tin with a few thousand rupees, we are all alike - once there's a little food in the belly and a roof over the head, our higher needs must be addressed. You can argue the chutzpah of such a comparison, but there's a literary bravery here which deserves due respect.
As Jenny negotiates the contact sport that is her Hyderabadi life, bruising frequently, this reviewer was occasionally frustrated - why not just push through the difficulties through pure force of will? But then I realised how I was missing the point, and by a very long way.
I've been lucky enough to travel quite widely and, by chance, I'm writing this review sitting in a Warung on Nusa Lembongan off the coast of Bali, after a great 18-day trip through Java, Indonesia. As well as some amazing travel experiences, I've also been hacked off, annoyed by scammers and angry at the wider stresses of the open road. I'll get home in a few days utterly exhausted, both physically and emotionally, which is the beauty of short-term travel - life lived jacked-up on adrenaline and the pure lust for a road never travelled.
This though is exactly the OPPOSITE of Jenny Feldon's experience. She's there for the long haul and can't afford to keep blowing out her emotional reserves "vacay style" as I do. How she negotiates this problem and the other complications of life in India sets up a satisfyingly complex denouement by the close of Karma Gone Bad.
Clearly then, I found this a great read. But there is the odd rough edge which jars. I'm far from the politically correct camp, but even so, found the repeated use of the phrase "third world" somewhat grating - it's a tired phrase now and a shame it is still prevalent in so much, largely American, writing.
But, this is a minor point. In Karma Gone Bad, Jenny Feldon has created both an amusing portait of a reluctant traveller in a strange land, and also a moving and emotionally naked portrait of a life and a marriage facing challenges never expected. Well worth a read - this reviewer is just sad that, with the author now happily settled on the West Coast, a sequel probably won't be forthcoming. Ever been to Africa Jenny? Go on...