Tulika Mehrotra: I would be cheating readers if I censored the raw truth
Tulika Mehrotra is an author and a journalist, based in Chicago. She studied finance at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and fashion at the European Institute of Design in Milan, Italy. Tulika has been privy to the workings of Manhattan's fashion industry after which she came to India to study the fashion industry here. Her first book, Delhi Stopover explores the world of fashion in India, from a global perspective. She is currently working on her second novel, Crashing B-Town which is inspired by the Hindi Film industry, also known as Bollywood.
Tulika also writes for magazines like Elle, Vogue, Grazia and India Today Magazine and has interviewed several international celebrities and designers.
1. Tell us about your childhood. Were you a bookworm?
I was an artistic kid, always drawing, painting, making crafts out of household junk. I was a MAJOR bookworm and devoured all types of books until high school when I somehow stopped reading for pleasure (this continued throughout college). I was a good student but I rarely studied, doing best only with last minute cramming. (This strategy didn't work as well at university level when I nearly failed chemistry and accounting).
I was terrible at sports but I had so much strength and aggression that my parents put me in martial arts until high school. I played the violin since the age of six but never enjoyed practicing. I finally quit before college but I can still read music and am so grateful for the ability to think "musically." I have a younger brother and we grew up with a Cocker Spaniel named Toby.
2. What was Tulika like in college? Can you recount some memorable incidents from your days at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and the European Institute of Design in Milan, Italy.
Restless. I kept looking ahead hoping for something more exciting to happen. I was stupidly oblivious to the concept of living in the moment.
At the University of Illinois, I changed my major twice before finally settling on Finance. I dabbled with creative courses such as story telling and theater and was cast as the vampish villain in a Hindi film spoof for an annual India function. I finished my degree one semester early and chose to study abroad in the UK instead of accepting my diploma in that final semester.
I joined the ICMA Business School at the University of Reading. The college was about an hour's train ride from London and my friends and I would regularly take weekend trips to the city. I loved the funny British English and quickly picked up random words like "bloody" or "innit" and ended sentences with a questioning "yeh". By the time I returned to the States, I had learned how to eat pizza with a knife and fork and had destroyed my American accent, into something hilarious that no one could place but I (incorrectly) thought sounded very sophisticated. My year in Milan was transformative. I was alone in a foreign country where I didn't speak the language, studying art and fashion and visiting the different cities in Europe. Every two hours on a train would bring me into a whole new culture.
I had become very independent since living in the UK and wanted to milk every moment out of my experience in Europe. When fashion week came to the city and people flocked from every corner of the world, I decided I couldn't miss the action. I arrived at the fashion show venues wearing the most posh dress I could afford as a student. I printed cards that said I was a journalist for some vague American magazine and talked my way into nearly every major fashion show in the city. Some were so impressed by my character's confidence that I was seated in the front rows. This was key learning in my fashion education and I pulled heavily from these memories as I wrote Delhi Stopover.
The Cannes Film Festival also became a part of my European experience. It was impossible to live so close to France and ignore the fact that the festival was going on. Two friends and I decided we would take a road trip from Milan to Cannes with no agenda of what we would do when we got there. We rented a car that none of us knew how to drive and somehow between the Australian and two Americans, we managed to figure out the stick shift car. It was a team effort. We stayed in a hotel in Monaco (a hilarious experience in itself).
The Cannes Film Festival is an invite only event. I believe in serendipity and the power of will (mine is made of iron). In a random turn of events, I managed to receive a standby pass to a film one evening. I remember looking at the red carpet that went up the stairs to the theater with photographers taking pictures of the celebrities. There was no turning back at that point. I barged forward in my sundress and heels and vividly remember the camera flashes. In all truth, I cannot remember what film I watched.
3. How did Delhi Stopover happen? Was the character of Lila inspired by a real person?
I was very unhappy with my career. I worked on the business side of fashion and media and also flirted with a bit of entrepreneurship after college. I had received a wonderful education and my family had given me the freedom to try whatever professional direction I chose. Yet at every career turn, I realized 'I'm miserable. I hate this. What am I doing here?'
Writing became a form of emotional venting. I had been a journalist in college and had always written in a diary since I was a child. I used a fictional character who was initially loosely based on me, an amateur writing mistake that was corrected before Delhi Stopover went to print. Lila is not based on any one person. I tried to make her unique, both flawed and strong enough to survive everything I threw at her in the story.
When I started writing, I was living in Los Angeles, the epitome of hope and broken dreams. I had friends who were struggling actors and directors and I saw how their lives were full of daily uncertainty and constant rejection.
It seemed to be the perfect parallel for this generation's struggle in finding balance in our professional and personal lives. It became very obvious that it was up to me to create my own happiness and steer the direction of my life, that if I didn't, no one else would come to the rescue. The book became my outlet and something I could control completely.
4. Delhi Stopover includes subjects like racism and drug abuse. Were you concerned about how the book would be received in India?
I was terrified. My earlier drafts of the book flirted with these subjects in a more shy, less blunt narrative. It was over coffee in New York, when my agent said to me, "This is not good enough. If you really want to write, you have to go there. You have to get totally naked... or else what's the point?" (*naked, metaphorically speaking)
It took my mother's further encouragement that I "write with integrity" that I realized, I would be cheating the readers and insulting their intelligence if I censored the raw truth.
At that point, I threw away all inhibitions and wrote with abandon. I was shocked at how well the writing flowed when I wasn't hiding behind the words. I hoped that readers would recognize that I did my best without any negative agenda.