“People often associate stability with some kind of physical stability, in whatever way they want to define it. But for me, stability is a constant state of motion. I feel stable when I feel that I have something to look forward to. So, in that sense, stability becomes the opposite of stagnation. When I feel stagnant, in professional life or in personal relationships, that’s when I feel unstable”
Shruthi Baskaran describes herself as a crazy globetrotter – someone who believes in having no regrets in life. She hails from Madras, India, and completed her undergraduate education in America. Currently, she lives in Rome, working for the UN World Food Programme. Shruthi loves food, and has traveled to 30 countries around the globe, exploring the culture and cuisine of countries through vivid travel experiences. During our conversation, Shruthi indulged us with some of her travel stories, and conversed about her personal and professional life at length.
I heard someone called you a magic food fairy because you feed both drunk and poor people.What’s the story?
Food, as a topic, has driven most of the personal and professional decisions in my life. I got involved in the food security space when I was a sophomore in college. Over the course of the next four years, I spent almost all my free time working on social enterprises related to this topic, designing low-cost greenhouses for small-scale farmers in East Africa. And after graduating, I joined the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in the Houston office. At the end of my second year at BCG, I was approved to pursue a social impact ‘leave of absence’. So, I took a year off and moved to Rome to work for the Innovation Division of the United Nations World Food Programme.
On the personal side, I love to cook, and love to feed people even more – you could call it a motherly instinct. I frequently host dinner parties with six course meals. Indian, Ethiopian, Italian, Korean, you name it, I’ve probably cooked it for someone. The person who commented about my “food fairy” status was a close friend and coworker who used to live in the building in Houston. He would often invite himself for dinner, sometimes without informing me, even, and somehow I would have already made a two-person meal. This made me a food fairy in his eyes.
And he’s not the only one – when we’d go out during the weekends with friends, we’d all almost always end up at my place afterwards, sometimes at 3 AM, sometimes later, mainly because my friends knew I’d always have something or will make something to feed them. Fun fact – a few friends from BCG were so in-love with a certain, grandma-made tomato chutney that I would bring back from Madras, that they would eat it with anything and everything – cornflakes included!
So you used to live in Houston, currently work in Rome, but you did your undergrad in Pennsylvania – just how many countries have you have been to, and how many more are you planning to visit?!
I don’t think I’ve counted it – but, I’ve visited 30 countries since 2008? I have plans to visit five more by end of 2015. You know, when I turned 17, I made myself a promise that I’d visit at least one new country each year. I’ve been pretty good about that promise! Last year, when I was working in Nigeria, I got to travel a lot in both the Middle East and Africa, but after moving to Rome, I have traveled extensively in Europe. Guess, I’m hoping to keep up the promise for the rest of my life!
That’s a brave resolution to visit a new country every year at the age of 17. Why?
I firmly believe that the most rewarding life includes a variety of experiences, meeting different kinds of people, and sharing their perspectives on things that are completely different from what you are used to; this is one of the reasons I chose to move to the US, which I suppose is not common for a single girl child in India. But ever since I was a kid, I always wanted to travel, and my parents always supported it. As a kid, we travelled a lot in India because my parents wanted me to understand that India was more than just Madras. When I moved to the US, I wanted to start exploring other countries too, and I think my travel experiences have made me a better-informed, and perhaps, more interesting person.
Like just yesterday, I was on my way to the airport in Houston, when my cab driver, who was from Nigeria, started making small talk with me. When he told me he was from Nigeria, I mentioned that I had just spent four months in Lagos last year. He mentioned that he had just recently been in Lagos and soon, I realized that we were talking about this random building near where I used to live, a building that was under construction when I was in Lagos, but had since been completed! So I suppose I see travel as a way to connect better with people!
You mentioned you’re a single female child. People assume there are difficulties associated with that label. Do you think being away from your parents puts them in a difficult situation, especially since they’re alone in India?
Ah, yes, I anticipated this, somewhat. When my parents get emotional, I tell them that they have each other, while I’m the one who is totally alone. But, while they might have each other, they have probably dedicated one hundred and fifty percent of their life to keeping me happy. So, when I first moved to the US, they got criticized often – people saying, “Oh God!! How could you send your only child away?”
But when I hear things like that, my answer is clear and crisp: My parents loved me enough to send me away, and that was it. It’s the truest and most unconditional form of love. I mean, they could have convinced me to stay in India, and there were a million reasons to do just that, but they knew my heart was set, and supported it.
I left in 2008, and I think the longest I’ve been home since has been, what, 10 days? And it is unbelievably hard. I Skype with my parents almost every day, so they feel plugged in to what I do on a daily basis. Hell, they’re even my friends on Facebook. I post so much on social media because my mom and dad feel connected to my life when they can read about the seemingly mundane things I’m up to – like eating an amazing croissant, or finding a new type of cheese. And they would often text me to ask how the croissant was, or what type of cheese I had found. It’s a small concession to make for all the sacrifices they have made for me.
It seems that you have dedicated your life to learning from travel experiences … but what’s your favorite country so far?
That’s a really, really hard question! I have lived in, say 5 or 6 countries (depending on how you define living in a country) and I have spent roughly seven years, and all my adult life in the US, so it would be difficult for me to pick any other country as my “favorite” – when you spend that much time anywhere, you end up making a lifetime of memories. But if I had to pick a country I have merely visited, I think it would be Turkey. Istanbul is probably my most favorite city in the world, and I always find reasons to go back!
What makes Istanbul so special?
It’s the unique explosion and juxtaposition of Asian and European cultures! Turkey has a long and diverse history; I have amazing friends there who ensure that I get to see best of Istanbul every time I visit; but truthfully? It’s probably because of all the Turkish Delight – Istanbul serves some amazing food.
Speaking of culture, was there ever a moment during your travel experiences when you experienced culture shock?
Hmmmm, yes, and no! The first time I truly felt culture shock was probably in Nigeria, but it wasn’t negative. My experiences clearly don’t speak for an entire country, because I think Nigeria is amazing. But I was working on a very confidential project, and living with my team. Consulting teams are often male-dominated, as was the case with my team. So, I was essentially living with five guys in a house. And our housekeeper once asked me which team member I was married to! He simply could not comprehend why a woman would fly all the way to Nigeria if she was not married to one of them. So yeah, I’d say that was a bit of the culture shock, haha.
Also, every time I passed Passport Control in Nigeria, they would first smile and ask me where I was from – which nationality, that is. Then they’d look at my passport and remark that I couldn’t possibly be Indian! People have assumed that I was from Ethiopia, Jordan, Spain, sometimes even Nigeria, but NEVER India. When I would insist that I was, in fact, very much Indian, they were usually surprised. This was also a culture shock because I think I look VERY Indian. Don’t I?! Talk about an identity crisis!
Why do you think people assume you’re not Indian? Could it have something to do with the stereotype of an Indian woman that people have in their mind?
No, no, probably not! I don’t think it’s a cultural aspect, as much as the fact that I have a “neutral” face (someone told me this once when he thought I was very disturbed about my national identity). People have told me I’m lighter-skinned than other Indians, especially South Indians, or that I am taller. Personally, I know many Indian friends who are lighter-skinned and taller than I am.
That said, a lot of this comes down to how much exposure people have to different cultures. For instance, I’m sure if I brought my best friend, who’s Taiwanese, to India, people would say she’s Chinese, but I’m sure they’d call my Korean friend Chinese too. Not everyone is exposed to the difference between a Chinese national and a Korean national, and I don’t think it’s easy to make that distinction unless you have been consistently exposed to people from those cultures (which is possible in inherently heterogeneous places like America, but maybe not so much in India). I mean, I could probably not tell if you’re Punjabi or Bengali or Tamil by looking at you either!
Moreover, I’ve been told I don’t really speak like an Indian, whatever that means. I don’t think I have an American accent, but I definitely don’t have a very Indian accent either. Can’t have everything in life!
That’s very interesting – I guess you’re truly living up to the identity of a ‘Global Citizen.’ Your travels sound very vivid – was there a moment when you felt scared while travelling?
Oh yeah, definitely. In fact, two incidents jump to mind.
I was traveling to Kenya from Uganda, on a bus from Kampala to Nairobi, the capital cities. The bus I was on was considered safe and reputable, and was recommended to me by a professor. Plus, I was with a group of five girls, and we were all pretty brave … or reckless. Suddenly, the driver informed us that we would have to cross the border by foot; that he couldn’t transport us in the bus due to immigration restrictions.
It was straightforward enough, but it was 2 AM, we were just a group of five girls, and the Border Control office was pretty dimly lit. In the meantime, I looked at my passport and realized my Kenyan visa was labeled ‘single journey’, so I started wondering if I would need a new visa to reenter Kenya. So when I got to the front of the line, I asked a passport control officer if I needed a new visa. But instead of a yes or no answer, I found myself being transported to a separate room. My friends were scared out of their minds, wondering what I must have done to be escorted out. I was trembling, but when I reached the other room, a superior officer came out and asked me if I wanted to make a complaint! They thought I was unhappy with something and wanted to make a complaint! I assured him that I was VERY happy with how things were dealt with, and proceeded to pass through border control without any hitches thereafter. Clearly, there was a misunderstanding but the whole experience was really scary.
The second incident happened when I visited Jordan last year. People often assume it’s unsafe because it’s located in the Middle East, but I disagree, because Jordan is an amazing, amazing country! I flew to Amman, the capital, located in the North. I was planning to do some rock climbing and sandboarding in Wadi Rum, a desert in south Jordan. I think it might have been some 500 to 600 kilometers away, but there was no stopping me once I had set my mind to it.
So, I rented a car in Amman, and drove down to Wadi Rum. I hiked, I climbed, I sandboarded – had a fantastic time! But on the way back to Amman, I realized I had no data on my phone, so I ended up using physical maps to navigate. The entire time I was driving, I could see random cars overtake me, and the folks in the passenger seat would turn around and stare at me. When I finally reached the Amman airport, I called a friend to share this curious behavior I had witnessed on the Jordanian highways… At one point, as I talked about driving from Amman to Wadi Rum, my friend just went silent.
He was using Google Maps to track my route, I think, and he said, ‘Shruthi, I hope you realize that the route you just took? That was a beeline across the country on a road that might have taken you to Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia, with just one wrong turn! What were you thinking, woman?!” – So, I guess it wasn’t really a scary experience WHILE it was happening, more in retrospect though. What was I thinking, indeed, haha!
Well, that’s definitely scary, and your travel experiences are very interesting! Does food factor into your decision on where to travel next? Favorite country based on food?
Of course! I only go to countries where I love the food. That’s an easy answer – Italy! I love Italian food.
I am presuming you eat meat?
Oh, no! I am still vegetarian – in fact, I only started eating eggs when I moved to the US. I was raised vegetarian. My parents remain vegetarian, and you know what, I think my grandmother doesn’t even use onion or garlic in her food. Still delicious!
Wow – it’s hard to accept that a foodie who travels the world for food could remain vegetarian!
Mainstream media makes a big deal out of vegetarianism – you have no idea how many people have told me that I’m missing out on life simply by virtue of being vegetarian. But I disagree! I have never tasted meat in my life, and have no curiosity to do so in the future. I mean, if after 24 years, I start eating meat tomorrow, chances are I will probably not like it.
That’s inspiring for other vegetarians – do you get enough vegetarian options in all the countries you manage to visit?
I make it a point to FIND vegetarian options. But I’ll admit, it has been difficult in a few countries – take Poland, or Germany. The culinary culture of these countries is so intrinsically tied to meat, so it’s bound to be hard to find many vegetarian options. But I’d probably say that China was the hardest! I think I ate steamed spinach and steamed eggplants with rice for about three weeks in a row. This, after telling people I was Buddhist. So, I was definitely not able to FULLY connect with a few cultures because of my beliefs and preferences. But despite that, every single country I have been to, when I tell someone at the restaurant that I am vegetarian, they may first look at me and give me ‘God bless you’ kind of look, but they almost always try to make an effort to prepare something for me; something representative of their culture and meat-free. What more could I possibly ask for?!
Do you eat food to destress?
Oh, when I am stressed, I can’t eat at all. In fact, I think I tend to cook for people when I am stressed. (Laughs)
Ah, so that’s why you cook often … is it?
(Laughs) Oh, no, no! I rarely ever get stressed out about professional issues – academics, work, you put me in whatever situation and I’ll just work until I figure it out. But emotionally, what a mess! Just ask my close friends! The smallest things drive me bonkers, and I have to talk to like, five people, to understand why I was even upset to begin with. And I’ve always been like this, even as a child.
So when you are emotionally stressed you reach out to people … is this to validate your thinking process? Do other opinions really matter to you?
Well, that’s a great question. I don’t think it’s about validation of my thinking process as much as it is about understanding if I was misconstruing something. Like more recently, I was annoyed with this one friend, and I thought I knew WHY I was annoyed with him. But while ranting to a mutual friend, I realized that I was not annoyed because of what my friend had done, but rather, because he laughed when I told this friend I was upset with him, and brushed me off! So, it was more about his flippant attitude, I guess. Talking things through helps me rationalize my perspective, and find the root cause of my emotions, particularly towards other people. And you might laugh, but this entire misunderstanding owed its genesis to the choice of a restaurant for dinner. I know, completely stupid!
As to whether other opinions matter, I think CERTAIN people matter, and their opinions definitely matter. For instance, if my parents feel uncomfortable with something I’m proposing, I will try my best to convince them that it’s a good idea, and if they are still not convinced, I give them a chance to convince me otherwise. I am very, very close to my parents, and they have unconditionally supported me – personally, professionally, whatever. So, sometimes, when they ask me not to do something, I decide against doing it, especially if I cannot convince them otherwise. Similarly I have two or three close friends, people who know me inside out to the extent that sometimes when I am making major decisions in my life, I ask them first before forming a viewpoint myself
You know, you wrote once that you’d rather look back on your life and say, “Wow I can’t believe I did that” rather than say, “I wish I had done that” – can you elaborate?
That’s pretty much the guiding principle behind my life; a fundamental truth, based upon which I live. I believe that there should be no regrets in life, and I always see problems as being ‘current Shruthi’ problems and ‘future Shruthi’ problems (thanks to a friend) and, in any given situation, I try not to forget about future Shruthi. .
Since you mention that you don’t like regretting things –is that mental conditioning? Do you continuously make a conscious effort to not think about these regrets, or do you just not have any regrets?
Ha, I definitely regret lots of things in life, but it’s a phased out thing. For instance, I have been playing piano since I was four years old and the piano used to be my source of salvation. I don’t play the piano in front of anyone; there are maybe three people I’ve played the piano for. The first was the person who taught me to play it. Then, there was a close friend from college. This was during a particularly rough phase of my life when I thought I was heartbroken, and one night during my first year in college, I sat down with this friend and played the piano for maybe, seven, eight hours straight. But after that, I didn’t touch the piano for the next three and a half years. The third was a guy I used to see, a while ago. I used to regret and resent that I couldn’t play the piano, but I’ve since moved on. Another big regret is about never fully studying a new language in college. I started learning Mandarin, Portuguese, and Arabic, but never got around to completing my studies. I get by with a little help from friends though.
Everyone thinks about stability in life and usually connect stability with marriage, perhaps starting a family. What is your definition of being stable? And before that, do you even want to be stable?
I think I am very stable right now. People often associate stability with some kind of physical stability, in whatever way they want to define it. But for me, stability is a constant state of motion. I feel stable when I feel that I have something to look forward to. So, stability to me is the opposite of stagnation. When I feel stagnant, in professional life or in personal relationships, then I feel unstable.
Currently, in terms of both professional and personal life I feel stable because I have so many things to look forward to, and as long as I have something to look forward to, I’ll continue to feel stable. Regarding the more conventional definitions – settling down, getting married, and having children – those things will happen when they will. I realize, and understand, that having a partner to share every instance of your life, and to truly connect on that deep emotional level is a wonderful emotion to experience, and I am sure that if and when I meet such a person, I would be over the moon excited about it.
But I don’t think I have met such a person yet and I am also not going to force myself to find someone like that! I don’t feel the need to bind myself with artificial constraints, or say that I need to be in a committed relationship by the time I am x years old, and I am supposed to have children by the time I am y years old – that’s just pointless.
So you’re saying, if you find that person when you’re 50 years old, you’d be okay with that as long as it was genuine?
Oh well, 50 might be pushing it a little. (laughs) Especially since my parents won’t appreciate that much. But I don’t want to throw a timer or compromise on something like this. My mother once told me that before I try to ‘find’ someone who makes me happy, I need to ‘be’ someone who makes me happy – she’s crazy smart.
So, I always try to push myself to be the best person I can possibly be, and I never compare myself to other people because I think it’s fundamentally very destructive for my personality and psychology to that. The few times I attempted something like that, I ended up miserable. So, I only ask myself if I have done my best. If I have, then I am 100% satisfied with whatever the results turn out to be. Period.
I also have at least three or four extremely close friends with whom I could share any aspect of my life. And I get my emotional stability from these people – like a rock to lean on. That kind of stability doesn’t have to come from a romantic relationship to be meaningful. But I have also truly enjoyed the relationships that I have been in, and even those goodbyes have been very beautiful, you know.
Are you possessive about your friendships, your relationships? Actually, are you a possessive kind of person?
I genuinely don’t think so! I try to involve everybody in everything, and maybe that’s not the best thing to do. In fact, I often try to make everybody happy, which is pretty much the opposite of being possessive. But this has come back to bite me in all the wrong places several times in my life. A friend once told me that I had what he calls ‘The Doormat Syndrome’ and that I should just stop trying to make everyone happy and accept that some people are never going to be happy, no matter what I do. And that’s a great lesson that I have now accepted and worked on, keeping mind that I only have a limited amount of energy and time to invest in relationships, and I want to dedicate that to relationships where people really appreciate it and reciprocate.
So, do you invest in other people, trying to make them happy, even if you have to suffer?
I have done that in the past, yes. But I try to be more conscious about it these days. However, there are some people for whom I would do ANYTHING in my power, anything to keep them happy, even if I have to suffer for it. This list is very short though, mind you!
That reminds me of a challenge you completed – the ‘100 Days of Happiness’ challenge – what is this, and why did you do it?
I have completed it twice, actually. For the challenge, you basically commit to picking or taking a photo of something that made you happy each day, for 100 days in a row. And the idea is that if you can’t even find 5 minutes of your life to find what truly made you happy that day, what else were you doing? The first time I did it because I was in a position in my life when I was starting to feel the monotony. I felt that despite everything that was happening, I couldn’t find myself to be in a happy place. I didn’t feel at peace.
There was pressure from a lot of things happening simultaneously and it started impacting my personal life. I started feeling let-down, losing my general happiness. Actually, when first I came across this challenge, I thought I didn’t have time for something stupid like this! But then later as I was thinking about it, I realized I just kept telling myself I didn’t have time to find what made me happy or even think about what made me happy.
So, when I moved to Nigeria, I threw in the towel, and decided to give this a shot. But after I began the challenge, I realized that I didn’t actually need a reason to be happy. I started noticing the little things in life that constantly made me smile, helped me keep sight of the fact that even when things were not going the way I wanted them to, it wasn’t the end of the world. I had plenty of things to be happy for; amazing incredible parents; the fact that I could eat whatever I wanted; that I could travel whenever I needed to get away; amazing friends, a job that paid me extremely well for doing something that I really liked doing, amazing coworkers – the list was long.
Overall, I think my general happiness level definitely went up at the end of the challenge, so I did it again when I moved to Italy. This time, though, I did it because it was one of the best times in my life – I was going to work for an organization that I had admired for a really long time, I was going to be in a country that I loved for a really long time, and I simply saw no reason to be anything but happy.
Are you a control freak?
Yes and no! I believe in being in control of material things, but I don’t believe in controlling people. I don’t want to bend people to my desires. I think it puts me off a lot when people do things just to please me. But physically, I am extremely OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Everything in my house has to be aligned; even if there was one painting that was half an inch off, I would fix it as soon as I notice it, and trust me, I will notice immediately. I know this because some of my friends used to annoy me by rotating all the paintings in my apartment by half a degree, all the time, and wait to see if I’d noticed. This usually ended with me screaming at them for moving the paintings in the first place! Fond memories, though.
Tell us about an embarrassing moment?
Oh, well, how about the first time I went out with my BCG friends? What an illustrious start, right?! I was apparently in the mood to annoy everyone just a tiny, tiny bit. So, I started walking over to some of my male coworkers, and popping their collars up. This became a routine. And eventually, people started associating me with this awful habit. Like, we would go out, and they would say, “Save your collars, Shruthi is here!” This reputation stands today – but as always, no regrets!
If you are sitting in a room and suddenly someone comes in, a person with a particular personality, and you immediately get irritated. What kind of person would that someone be?
Maybe folks who are only concerned about their physical appearance? –It bothers me when that’s all someone can talk about. If it’s the first time I’m meeting you, and you come across as being one-dimensional, then I might not connect with you, and get irritated, especially if it feels like you’re not even making an effort.
One thing you miss about India a lot?
Everything! No matter what happens, or where I live, Madras is and will always be home. And it cannot be described – it’s the sensation you get when you land at the airport and smell the air and it feels a little salty, it feels a little humid, and it feels a little like home.
What about a childhood memory that has stayed with you?
So, both my parents have always been working parents, so I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, my mom’s parents. You could almost say that I had two sets of parents. There was a time, I must have been 3-4 years old, and recovering from a fever, when it was mango season in India. If you know me, you know I love mangoes more than my right hand. But my mom had told me that I shouldn’t be eating mangoes because they would make me fall sick again, and I don’t know what her reason was.
But my grandmother took me to the kitchen under the pretext of giving me food, and smuggled a full mango. She told me not to tell my mom but one moment, I was eating the mango, and the next, I was out in the dining room, with mango pulp all over my face. I even went and smiled at my mother. And when she asked me if I was eating mangoes, I replied with an innocent, “No, of course not.” – I think there’s a photo of me somewhere in my house, which my parents love – a photo of three year old me with mango all over my face. Good times.
Last Bollywood movie, you have watched: Wow, I can’t even remember. Slumdog Millionaire? (when prompted to think of another) … Jab we Met.
TV personality who irritates you a lot: Arnab Goswami. I can’t stand him.
A book you regret reading: The Captain’s verses by Pablo Neruda. This is probably also my favorite book of poetry, but it had a certain unexpected, profound emotional impact on me and on how I perceived the depth of love. I tend to like a certain dark style of literature and poetry. I think it’s because I was so young when I first read it, so I wish I had waited.
Have you been to a psychiatrist? : No, I have not.
Cheese or alcohol? : Cheese, all day, any day. But if you’re talking about wine, I plead the fifth. I can’t choose between those two – they are like my left and right hands.
One of the most negative comments you’ve heard about yourself: Recently, someone told me I am intimidating, and that guys can’t ask me out because they think I am scary. That was pretty negative.
You are writing your biography, may we know the title? : The Book of Shrooms
Whom will you acknowledge first? : My friend and partner-in-crime, Melody Chen. She is one of my closest friends, and has a way of making me laugh when everything else is, quite literally, going to hell.
If you have to step away from your profession, and choose something from a Liberal arts field, what would it be? : I’d become a writer or photographer. (I already dabble with amateur photography)
One thing from 90s : The music! Backstreet Boys!
If you get to time travel : Right before India’s Independence
One fiction character you want to be, in movies or books : Hermione Granger
If cloning is allowed, who would you want to be with : Tom Hiddleston
Life Mantra : I’d rather always look back on my life and say, “Wow, I can’t believe I did that” than say, “Wow, I wish I had done that”