When speaking of her time in India, Maura Moynihan, daughter of the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), likes to invoke the word “ananda.”
Hindi for bliss, it is the word that perfectly captures the essence of her encounters with the world’s most populous democracy, Moynihan says.
The year the love affair began, she was just a 10th grader. It was 1973, and then-President Richard Nixon had recently appointed her father U.S. ambassador to India. When the Moynihan family arrived on the South Asian subcontinent, it had been nearly three years since the United States had dispatched an ambassador to the nation. Prevailing Cold War geopolitical dynamics precipitated a U.S. tilt toward India’s arch-enemy Pakistan, and U.S.-Indian relations were “frosty” at best, she recalls.
But for the 15-year-old Moynihan, the very air seemed to pullulate with magic.
“The moment the plane door opened when I landed … and I smelled the wonderful mixture of smoke and cooking oil and incense, that was it,” Moynihan says. “I fell in love.”
More than three decades later, the impressions Moynihan gleaned during years of working and traveling India have made their way into “Yoga Hotel,” a collection of short stories recently released in the United States.
Moynihan’s debut book, earlier published in India, centers on the clash between Western and Indian culture. Her tales plumb the perspectives of both the native population as it struggles to manage the quotidian poverty of life on the subcontinent and the Western Europeans and Americans who flock to India in the name of spiritual or professional fulfillment.
Fiction, Moynihan says, is the best way “to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth” about her experiences.
“Any writer who says any relation to events real and actual is purely accidental is just covering themselves legally,” she asserts.
Of the characters who appear in “Yoga Hotel,” Moynihan points to Sam in the novella-length “Masterji” and Lila from “In the Heart of Braj” — two American women struggling to come to terms with their place in Indian society — as the most autobiographical in the collection.
“Those two are me: Lila and Sam,” Moynihan admits.
After her graduation from the American International School in New Delhi, or “Hindi High,” as it is known, Moynihan headed to Harvard University, where she majored in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy and English literature.
But India’s siren call reclaimed her, and it wasn’t long before she returned. Over the years, she has worked for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Delhi, advocated on behalf of refugees in Kathmandu and volunteered at one of Mother Teresa’s missions in New Delhi.
“It’s very hard to work at a refugee camp,” Moynihan says. “You confront yourself when you do this kind of work.”
What one discovers does not always augur well for the Westerner’s ability to deal with the exigencies of the Third World — a theme Moynihan explores in the story “High Commissioner for Refugees,” which follows a U.N. official’s conflicted response to a plea for help from a Tibetan monk.
A multifaceted artist who paints, dances, sings and even designs saris, Moynihan earlier released a musical CD, also titled “Yoga Hotel.” Videos from the release won the 2001 All Nepal Video Contest.
Getting started, her artistic shaman was none other than Andy Warhol, whom she met at a New York art opening in 1980.
“He met me and he liked me and he took me under his wing,” she says. (Warhol was a force behind the formation of the short-lived 1980s band “Maura and the Mystics,” and the pop art guru also encouraged her writing bug, Moynihan says.)
“I did all these things to pay for my fiction habit,” explains the 46-year-old Moynihan, who as a small child remembers leaving poems on her parents’ nightstand for their perusal.
An enthusiastic polyglot, Moynihan speaks six languages in addition to English — Hindi, Urdu, Tibetan, Nepali, French and Italian — and recently started studying Chinese.
Still, she says the sharpest difference between herself and her father, the bow-tie wearing former professor, lies in the cerebral sphere.
“He was a genius, I’m not,” she says simply.
Growing up in the shadow of a prominent American political figure, Moynihan credits her passion for India with allowing her the space to carve out an independent identity. “India gave me a place I could just be myself,” she says.
“Just because [government and academia] wasn’t my path doesn’t mean I didn’t want to be part of his world,” she avers, noting that she once cut short an Indian sojourn to return to the States and help her father campaign for Senate.
She concedes playfully: “It would be hard to imagine Daniel Patrick Moynihan in a lungi meditating by the ghats in Benares.”
In the wake of her father’s recent death, Moynihan remains committed to carrying out his political legacy.
“I’m a liberal Democrat from New York. I’m a Moynihan liberal, and I’m very proud to be,” says the younger Moynihan. Along these lines, she plans to help the New York fundraising efforts of Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) presidential bid.
Moynihan also continues to take her cues from dear old dad when it comes to pacing her literary output.
“He wrote 19 books, and he wrote them fast even when he was in the Senate,” she says. “I don’t believe you should work on a book for too long. You gotta get your work out. You gotta get [it] done.”
With that in mind, expect to see Moynihan’s current project, “The Dragon Year,” a novel about the Tibetan refugee experience, out “sooner rather than later.”
For the moment, the mother of one — who divides her time between apartments in New York’s Lower East Side and in the nation’s capital — seems content to keep her feet firmly planted in North America.
“I walk through the streets of Manhattan and I see him [her father] smiling in the sky — I see his influence everywhere,” she says brightly. “Dad used to tell me [of New York], ‘It’s a tough town with nice people.’”
“New York is just like India,” she concludes. “It ruins you for the rest of America.”
Moynihan will read from “Yoga Hotel” at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Olsson’s Metro Center, at 1200 F St. NW.