From Kolkata with Love: stories about love and travel
Lois Kapila explains how she and her husband Sam Tranum came up with the idea of a writing competition about Love on the Road, now an anthology
Lois Kapila and Sam Tranum: “Sam pointed out that it would be fun to put together an anthology of stories about love and travel, a collection with stories not only from travellers talking about how charming and colourful the country and people are, but from the perspective of locals, too”
One evening, not long after I arrived in Kolkata, I sat on the balcony of The Statesman newspaper office overlooking the city, drinking sweet, thick tea with one of the editors. He was an avuncular, old-school type who smoked strong cigarettes and loved sweets and wished people still played sports for fun, not money, and he would tell colourful tales in florid language.
These stories usually ended with a lesson and that evening was no exception. That evening, it was a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of being a foreign reporter in India. “Whatever you do,” he said, his eyes twinkling, “don’t be like that foreign journalist who followed Mahatma Gandhi around and wrote reverent prose about the transcendence of his farts.”
I promised that I wouldn’t wax lyrical about anybody’s wind, and over the next couple of years, I tried to stick to that promise – in spirit as well as letter. When you’re away from home, though, it can feel like you’re in a constant struggle to see straight.
My husband, Sam Tranum, and I had moved to Kolkata together in 2011. Before that, we’d been living in Washington DC where he’d been covering the uranium industry for a niche business publication, and I’d been interning as an investigator for defence lawyers.
At The Statesman, I was working as a daily newspaper reporter and he was working on the copy-editing desk. I wrote about children in adult jails, and refugees in prison, and corruption in the welfare system, and children in the brickfields. And he edited stories about gang rapes, and political violence, and epidemics of dying babies. And it was bleak and depressing, and endless, and everything had begun to congeal in my mind into black and white, good and evil.
It was after about a year and a half that Sam came up with the idea of the Love on the Road competition. We were hanging out in a sparse bar on the main drag in Kolkata, with a friend who wore hipster blocky glasses and scraggedy t-shirts and had a habit of rubbing policemen up the wrong way and getting arrested.
As we chatted over cheap whiskey, he told us about how, when they were bored, he and a curious friend would hang out in the tourist district in Delhi to try to woo “white girls”, with varying degrees of success. We all laughed more than we had for a while and as we strolled home through central Kolkata, Sam pointed out that it would be fun to put together an anthology of stories about love and travel, a collection with stories not only from travellers talking about how charming and colourful the country and people are, but from the perspective of locals, too.
We’d been looking for a new side-project, something to provide light relief from the day job, jolt us out of the pattern we’d fallen in to. So we set up a website, and pulled together a panel of judges, and spread the word, reaching out to writing circles and competition listings and spamming our favourite authors. (If you’re out there, Hanif Kureishi, there’s still next year.)
As the deadline ticked nearer, the applications came streaming in. From Australia, the US, Nigeria, the UK, India and all across the globe. Some were fiction, some non-fiction.
There was the whimsical, anti-romantic tale of a man’s journey into the Caucasus mountains in search of a woman. There was the lonesome story of an elderly woman who never realised what her neighbour and travelling companion really meant to her, until it was too late. They weren’t all tales of exotic locales and friendly natives. They weren’t all stories of poverty and grime and darkness. They were funny and sad and complicated and moving.
Now in its second year, there have been some unlikely spin-offs from the competition. One couple posted us a photo of themselves from Australia, and thanked us for giving them the chance to share the tale of how they met. Two of the judges – one in New York and one in Delhi – now work together on poetry. One of the authors came out to her parents through her story.
And a few days after we moved to Ireland in the summer of 2013, we were shell-shocked and dazed and worried, and we met the one person we knew in the country. She’d been a judge on the panel for Love on the Road, and over coffee on Dawson Street under a bright-blue June sky, she told us everything was going to be alright.
Love on the Road is published by Liberties Press, €12.99