India is a land of many colours, stories and experiences, and anyone who enters into this enigmatic land will often pass through the vibrant and historical gateway that is Delhi.
This month we sat down with Polly McGee, author of “Dogs Of India”, a wickedly vivid novel that looks into the complex, chaotic and exciting city of Dehli. In her novel, lead character Lola Wedd experiences a delightful journey as she “finds herself” in an adventure like no other. The novel is brimming with eccentric and charming characters, featuring all of the colour, craziness and intrigue that stirs the heart and makes India the addictive and exotic place that it is.
This month we sat down with Polly to find out her inspiration on “Dogs Of India” and hear more about the "My India" trip she is leading to Delhi in January 2017 – an intimate and engaging experience that relives heroine Lola’s footsteps and brings the subcontinent alive! Plus, find out how YOU can meet Polly in the flesh at her Sydney speaking event on August 4th. Reserve your FREE spot here.
Is Polly McGee your real name? What’s the story behind the name, “Polly McGee”?
Polly is a shortening of Leopoldyna, and of course there is a story behind that! I changed my name to Leopoldyna from Kimberley as I was never comfortable with my birth name. I loved the name Polly, but didn’t want it to come from Pollyanna, I was reading Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate and one of her female characters was called Polly, from Leopoldyna – perfect I thought! My mother’s maiden name is Leopold, and so I could honour her in the feminization of that, and get the name I liked! I love the idea of choosing identity and names are so critical to who we are, so I encourage people to act if they don’t love their birth name, and create a name they love to inhabit. McGee is my husbands surname, and I know a feminist controversy rages about whether to change your surname or not. I really like the sound of Polly McGee, so just before we got married when I was changing my first name, I did it all at once. We got married as a McGee to a McGee which was pretty funny, and so I felt I hadn’t really let the sisterhood down too badly.
You are an author yet you are also a mentor, MC, teacher, speaker, entrepreneur, and facilitator of debates and events. Where did you pick up all these skills?
I’ve definitely been a wanderer in terms of careers and experiences, and I follow my heart and my gut when an opportunity comes along, which has taken me to all kinds of places. When someone asks me to do something, I try and say yes to it, and then backfill the actual doing and skills! What drives most of my endeavor is engagement with people, and so most of the roles I have at some point intersect with people and their transformation, which of course is my own transformation and learning as the role of every teacher is to simultaneously be a student. Saying yes even if you aren’t sure of what will happen means you just surrender to what you don’t know, and invariably it delivers so much more than you could have imagined. I like to speak publically and not everyone has that gift or inclination, so I see it as a real service to the community and often assist by being that person willing to take over the MC role. I think the key to doing that well is empathy with your audience, so I use it as an opportunity to hone my skills in reading group dynamics, and making sure that I deliver a session, whatever it is, that leaves everyone feeling that their needs have been met, and they have been heard.
It’s certainly been an incredibly diverse and varied career so far. In terms of your writing, have you always wanted to be an author?
Yes and no. When I was a young child I wanted to be a writer. My mum bound up my first illustrated book when I was about 4 which was a couple of very small pages long and involved a dog that had a tongue made of bacon – I was totally ahead of that bacon worship curve as a kid. So I had this strong feeling of being a writer, which then fell away as I grew into a world where I believed I had to have a big stable career, then went off chasing what I wanted to do when I grew up through all the careers I tried. If I had been smart, I would have stayed still and thought about what motivated me before I was dosed up with the aspirations and anxieties of adult world, as I think when we are little we clearly know what our dharma is, and then we forget and spend our lives trying to find that meaningful journey again. When I wrote “Dogs of India”, that story found me, and it was relentless in insisting that I write the story. It was like a tap on the shoulder when I was in India that said ‘HEY! You have to tell this story.’ I kept finding reasons that I wasn’t a writer and couldn’t write a book, and that inner voice kept shouting until I thought well why not give it a go. Again, I didn’t know why, but I knew better than to shut down the voice and the idea, even though I wasn’t chasing adding author to my awkwardly long CV.
What advice would you give to anyone considering a writing career (especially young adults)?
I would reiterate the words of many authors that have gone before me: just write. Like most things worth doing, writing is a practice, and it is not always good, but it always gets better. Write every day, about everything, and don’t let rejection define you. Asking for help, getting a great mentor, getting involved in your local writing community, this is all important in creating your own identity as a writer. If you want to read a book that perfectly sums up the way to become writer, I think Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic” really does justice to the experience of being born writer, and how to honor the creative process. Following the creative moment is important too, in the example of “Dogs of India”, that story was literally rolled out in front of me as an idea. I didn’t know what was going to happen, or even why, but I just started to write and the meat flew onto the bones of my idea of what would happen if dogs were elevated to an heroic status in a country where they are a low class animal. That’s the kernel of the book, and I didn’t have all the answers when I started. So begin the story and let it write with you, co-create with that great, unscientific, undefinable thing that is the spark of genius that sometimes falls into your lap.
Of course there is work and toil around that, but that in itself if a joyful process as you are finding out what happens in your narrative as you write. I had many a hand clapping moment when I happened upon a solution to what would come next for my characters, and the next chapter would unravel. It’s a beautiful madness! My yoga training really instilled in me the importance of practice as being just that – an ongoing deepening of skills where you experience greater and greater levels of awareness. In the West we are so inculturated to get things fast and get instant gratification, but managing the mind through yoga and meditation is a lifelong (ok, many lifetimes) practice, so you begin it knowing it won’t be fast, but it will be immensely gratifying. It isn’t easy to get up early, to get on the mat or to sit and meditate, especially in the cold, or just those days you want to stay under the doona, but the act of doing is discipline and builds skill and resilience. Some days you may think you have nothing at all to say, but you have to push through that critical self talk, and work constructively. As my very non-yogi mother would, and still says to me, if a job's worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Writing practice is like that. Do it well, and often, and keep you eye and ear open to the stories that are begging to be told.
Your book “Dogs Of India” beautifully captures life in vivid detail in New Delhi. Was travel a big part of your research? What were your thoughts of New Delhi when you were there?
Travel and reading and love were a critical part of my research. I have a deep love for India, and not just India as a geographical place, but the holistic India and the incredible richness of its history. For me, a total immersion in culture is necessary to see ‘under the skin’ of a place, it involves sitting and watching people, events, street scenes, what happens in the day to day of life by the householders going about their business. For “Dogs of India”, so much of the richness comes from including small things like knowing what flowers bloom where in what seasons, little minute details about food and place that give you the keys to being there, it is a really fine brush, and it comes from being a keen observer. So my travel there was initially what sparked the book, then mid writing I went back to just soak up the details, and of course I talked to locals and hung out and people told me crazy stories that found their way into the narrative.
India is teeming with stories, you can’t lift your eyes without seeing something mind blowing, so there is no shortage of material to work with. New Delhi is just a fascinating and amazing city. You almost feel like you are watching it growing and the pains that entails as the culture shifts gear as a powerful economy, and traditions are starting to be very impacted by western mores and values. Dogs of India really took a look at that in an very observational way, as it is fascinating to see that existential struggle. It was important to me as a writer and a foreigner to not write (another) book about India that was a binary comparison between my own experience of growing up in the West. I very carefully wanted to walk the line of telling a story as an impartial narrator, that illustrated the complexity of a country, which is of course a big ask, and there is a deep responsibility to a faithful representation without too much embellishment and subjective judgement.
Dogs of India evokes a variety of experiences in India, from spiritual epics of Hindus, cast, corruption, marginalisation, abuse and redemption. Where did you take your inspiration from?
I am an avid reader of India’s Sanskrit classics, and a student and scholar of the broader Vedic canon. These are some of the oldest texts in the world, with Sanskrit as one of the oldest and most sophisticated languages in the world, so we have much to learn from them. Texts like the Ramayana, the Mahabarata, the Bhagavad Gita and the Srimad Bhagavatam are thousands of slokas or verses long, and people of all casts would memorise them and pass on the oral tradition of those ways of living and being, this was the foundation of how values and behaviour was understood and much of Indian culture has this as its underpinning. The pantheon of Gods and deities that inhabit Hinduism and Buddhism, they are a source of great fascination to me, and so much of my inspiration came from reading those texts and commentaries on them and trying to find away to take that complexity and philosophy and weave it into a simple story that was emotionally appealing and a rollicking good time for the reader, as not everyone shares my love of spiritual classics.
Of course as mentioned in the previous response, India is a vast, wildly diverse country undergoing significant economic and cultural change in a global context, this raises a lot of questions and brings situations to the fore that are fascinating and challenging. When I was in India there had been a major revolt by the people against corruption in the bureaucracy, and the peoples will and voice was making a difference to some very entrenched practices. Jyoti Singh had just been raped and murdered which caused heartache and outrage amongst women and men globally, and this was very much front of mind when I was thinking about women and sexualized violence (which is endemic is all cultures and in no way a feature of India.) These are issues that are important to me, and that need discussion in a broader context – how do we as people allow these acts to occur to one another, what can we do to make change as individuals to marginalisation and oppression, these are questions we all struggle to make sense of as we navigate our human existence, they are the essence of the Buddhist quest to understand and nullify suffering, and I am asking those questions of myself as much as of my readers.
Your book has been adapted to a trip into Delhi in 2017 called “My India”, where travellers embark on a journey not too dissimilar from the main character Lola’s journey. Any hints for readers about what they can expect from the journey?
I’m beyond excited about this tour, and experiencing my India with some amazing new travel companions. What I wanted to do was to, again, lift the skin on Indian travel. India can be, and often is overwhelming for first time visitors, and it is hard to know how to access an authentic Indian experience. I was so lucky to have met Shalini Shamnath, the proprietor of the hotel I stayed in, who the character Poona was based on in terms of her amazing presence and capacity bring the real India to you. The trip gives you a doorway to step through that takes you into a slice of Indian life. There will be all the bells and whistles you want in India like sunrise at the Taj Mahal, teeming markets and amazing food, but there will also be experiences you would never find in a guide book, which bring union to old and new India. I think this will be a unique and incredibly special way to see a chapter of India.
India is a country for a traveller that invariably changes you, it holds you somehow in a mesmeric embrace, and I want for people who come on the tour to see the magic and the beauty in a country of epic proportions, which is going to be the heart of this tour. I especially think this tour is perfect for women travellers who are a bit nervous of going, but feel that call. This way you get your social insurance and a buffer from the overwhelm of it all, with like-minded travellers who are seeking the same experiences you are. I definitely feel that there will be a perfect collision of participants who will go in one end as strangers and leave India as family. OMG – I cannot wait!
You have described this book as “chicklit with a bit of Bollywood thrown in”. How will you bring elements of the novel to life through this journey, and why do you want travellers to experience India the way Polly did?
It’s no secret I’m a Bollywood tragic and what I love about Bollywood is the colour, the movement, the complex narratives of love and revenge and more love, and the absurdity of the timing of those dance routines! Which is really what India is – complex, colourful, unexpected, and always delightful and surprising, and all good holiday experiences in countries that are there to invigorate the senses like India should have this excitement, wonder and joy. The tour is about showing people the different experiences, with a little colour and movement thrown in. They say yoga is a journey to the self through the self, and I like to think this tour will have a little bit of that yogic flavor that the experience in India will reveal elements of ourselves that have yet to be discovered as we all discover the place – what is more exciting than that? The mix of monuments, history and culture with some sweet homely experiences like cooking lessons in an Indian kitchen, doing gentle Hatha yoga, dressing up in saris and having menindhi, and being part of an Indian experience as an insider, this is a union of the experience of travel as an outsider in a country, and the inner journey of not being separate from the culture.
You can see how influenced by my yogi lifestyle I am! Yoga (not just the postures, but the full expression of yoga) is all about union, and feeling connected and part of something bigger than our singular selves. If ever you want to actually feel what that means, India gives you that in full glory. As one of our heroines, Lola, in “Dogs of India” starts her Indian journey as a real outsider, and eventually surrenders to India and all its charms and dramas, the tour invites us to do the same, but without the crazy of her narrative arc! Having the Jaipur Writer’s Festival as part of the tour is going to be mindblowing for anyone that loves books, reading and/writing. It is one of the biggest writer’s festivals in the world, in a city that is breathtakingly beautiful, so that will be an unmissable highlight of the tour, plus the mystic intrigue of Rishikesh and the ashrams, bringing that critical spiritual element to the experience of India. Rishikesh is magic, and home of so many of the great yogis, babas and ashrams, you need to stand on the edge of the Ganges and watch the sunset aarti to get those shivers down your spine of something so ancient and divine it is beyond words. I think chicklit is contemporary code for writing that allows emotions, and India, and this tour, will allow and celebrate the full range of emotions along the way.
The proceeds of your novel “Dogs of India” are entirely donated to Vets Beyond Borders. Do you have a history with this charity, or particular affinity to animals and why this charity?
The first edition of “Dogs of India” before I began working with The Author People as my publishers, I crowdfunded and donated all of the profits to Vets Beyond Borders. The whole story of “Dogs of India” began when I went with Shalini and fed the local puppies in a park in New Delhi that she and a bunch of other dog loving volunteers cared for. There is a big need for support for native dogs in India, and it seemed perfect to give all the money that my initial book edition raised to an organization like VBB. They send Australian vets to India and Nepal and work with local vets to vaccinate, desex and do triage on native dog populations, they do such amazing work, and our dollar goes an enormously long way in India and Nepal. I love dogs, and animals generally, but dogs are such beautiful creatures, they truly know the expression of unconditional love, and the Pariah dogs of India and Asia are noble beasts. Part of my work ethic always involves a philanthropic element and I look to donate my time and money where I can to organisations and social enterprises that do good in the world, and I build that in to my income. I also support an incredible organization in India called Food for Life Vrindavan that educates girls and supports them to go all the way through school by supporting their family and community so they aren’t married young for their dowries. The difference this will make for a whole generation of women is amazing, so they are often the recipients of funding from my various activities. Giving back, living a yogic lifestyle through service to others is key to my earning and my feeling that I’m living in my purpose, and you can be sure that whatever revenue I generate, it will be funneled back into my various charities and social enterprises I support here and overseas.
What’s next for Polly McGee?
So much! I’m taking a lot of deep breaths as the opportunities are so amazing. I’m working on a new book right now which is a non fiction text called Bhakti Business – The Yoga of Business. This is part of the work that I do as an entrepreneur educator, and the realization I had that there are so many women wanting to run heart centred and values based businesses and social enterprises, that there was a real need for a ‘how to’ that joined the ancient wisdoms of the yoga sutras, and the contemporary business methods of lean startups together. That will be out in early 2017 and there will be an accompanying workshop and retreat series in Australia and overseas to help people get their business ideas off the ground.
Of course the amazing Polly McGee ‘My India’ tour is happening in January with World Expeditions and I suspect there will be more demand than can be filled in the first tour, so I’ll be planning more Indian adventures and collborations. I’m starting a a new novel in 2017 which I am VERY excited about, but I’m trying to keep a lid on it as there are so many other things to do right now that have priority in my too packed brain! That is a story that again will be set in India and Australia, very different to “Dogs of India”, I’m keeping that narrative close to my chest right now but I can reveal it’s a drama with some pretty epic twists! “Dogs of India” has just been optioned for a film by a Sydney based producer, so we are all keeping our fingers crossed that the funding gods are smiling on that little story and it makes it’s way onto the big screen. My bigger picture is pointed towards growing my philanthropic projects into a social enterprise that will fund training and seed entrepreneurial education for girls in India, and especially in rural and regional areas, as well as some local projects in Australia, keeping on giving and using my resources to support others is my focus and that is where I see the work I do come to fruition. I’ll keep carving out the time to go on retreat and build my yoga and meditation practice. And of course it is a total priority making sure that my sweet husband and dogs get the time and care they deserve, they are my biggest champions and I absolutely couldn’t do what I do without knowing they have my back.
Plenty coming up and who knows what idea will tap me on the shoulder next and send me off on another adventure! I hope to see you on the Polly McGee “My India” Tour, it is going to be a very special journey and I look forward to sharing it with you.
Experience India with Polly McGee
We’re pleased to announce that Polly McGee will be leading a special trip to India with World Expeditions, following in the footsteps of her Dogs of India heroine, Lola Wedd, in October 2017.
This 12-day trip will be a chance to explore the India that Polly discovered while travelling, researching and writing her debut novel. From hidden design gems and tasty treats in the back streets of old and new Delhi, to the ancient wonder of the Red Fort and Taj Mahal, to the mystic sadhus and ashrams of Rishikesh as well as an immersion in the great Literary Festival in Jaipur. Polly will bring the stories of the subcontinent alive, share her own journey, and become part of yours. You might just discover your own novel as the trip unfolds. Book now!