This is a story of not doing. Just playing. Not knowing where the road will lead, if anywhere….

The first thing you need to know about me is I am a doer. I make things happen. I gave up my job as a management consultant to publish my first book. It got rejected by every publisher so I set up a publishing company and PR company, gave myself various alter egos, hyped the novel under an alias, got it into the book charts and then signed a three book deal with HarperCollins. This was all whilst putting on a suit and pretending to go to work.

I then went on to set up a company that teaches leaders all over the world how to tell great stories. Seven years into it, I felt I had lost my edge.

I feared stopping. Just stopping. What would happen to the carefully constructed edifice that kept me so busy, kept everything so contained and controlled? Would it crumble and reveal someone who is not what they appeared to be.

So I stopped. I read, I walked. I had time to have lengthy conversations with people.

One day, I heard a story about a 62 year old woman who had created an extraordinary façade of happiness only to reveal that for her entire adult life she lived a parallel life in her imagination. Her story would not leave me so I began writing.

I’m not entirely sure what possessed me to buy a wig and glasses from ebay but one afternoon, I sat with them on and began to fictionalize her story and started to create a character just to see what it would feel like to play.

I’m not denying that there must have been some thought in my goal-oriented self that said, “I will put this play on.” However, at this point, this was not my intention. My intention was merely to give myself an opportunity to play and not feel guilty about it.

I signed up to an acting course which taught using the Meisner technique. It is all about being present and responding to what comes up honestly. After a few months, I asked the course Director if she thought I could play a 62 year old woman. She didn’t really answer the question but told me to just go away and learn the script. I thought, what a discipline to try and learn 50 pages.

Every day for three months I walked and learned lines. I would forget huge chunks and I thought that’s what we do with our lives, edit out the bits we don’t like and construct acceptable versions of ourselves. I would go over and over the lines I had forgotten and sometimes memories that I had long erased, came back to me. It was for me, an exercise in acceptance, presence and in simplicity. What are you doing these days?” People would ask.

“I am learning lines.”

“For what?”

“For learning lines.”

After I knew these lines backwards, I went back to the Director.

“Honestly, I didn’t think you would do it. Let’s put this show on.” She said.

It is an ongoing journey with the destination unknown. The carefully constructed edifice is exposed and I have found rooms in myself that I didn’t even know existed; some have been dark and scary. In others, I have found laughter. All I know is that windows have been opened and doors unlocked.

The show has been put in for festivals and has a life of its own and I have learnt that the places we fear exploring are perhaps the places that hold our greatest gifts.

Preethi Nair is performing her play, “Sari: The Whole Five Yards” at the Tristan Bates Theatre, Covent Garden, London from 7–12th August.


My first ever rejection letter came when I was eight and it was written by Sarah Walker telling me why I could not be in her gang; “you ain’t got no friends ‘ere skinny,” was one of the reasons so eloquently stated. I remember going home, howling inconsolably and then going back to school the next day and setting up my own gang. Granted, it consisted of the rejects who were the last to be picked at games, i.e. Fatima and myself, but at least I had a gang and I learnt that if no one wants you to play by the rules in their gang, you make up your own. It was second nature then, when twenty years later, after being rejected by nearly every major publisher, I set up my own publishing and PR Company to produce and promote my first novel Gypsy Masala.

Gypsy Masala was a story written in my twenties about doing what you really want to do in life and following your dreams. I clearly wasn’t doing either, working as a management consultant in the City. I had always wanted to be a writer but my mum and dad considered it “the hobby”, having sacrificed so much by staying in England just to give my brother and I an education. At every opportunity, the old story came out about my dad having no shoes and having to walk twenty miles to school, together with the fact that when I was about six, my dad had spent an entire three months’ pay package and got into debt buying the Encyclopaedia Britannica so we could have a better start.

So I wrote secretly every morning before going to work and then, after three years, I decided naively to take a leap of faith. I handed in my notice. Just before doing this, I was avidly packing jiffy bags with my manuscript and pre-paid envelope and sending it off to publishers hoping that leaving work would coincide with being snapped up by one of them. It was not to be. The first jiffy bag came back with a “Thank you Preachy but no thank you” note. The fact that they had called me “Preachy” sent niggling doubts as to whether it had ever been read but I tried to remain optimistic as my leaving day loomed.

It was raining the day I left and instead of being elated, I remember crying on the tube home and only to arrive back to more rejections. “Good day at work?” My dad asked, and instead of telling him that I had left to become a bestselling author, I imagined him walking twenty miles with no shoes and replied, “Yes, good, we got a new client.” I went to bed that night in tears. The following day, I pulled myself together, put on a suit and pretended to go to work.

What I actually did was go to the library. I came up with this plan to self-publish and as the week progressed I got more and more excited by this idea and told my friends and family that I was going freelance. Taking the deposit I was saving for my flat, I found a printer and together we sat and designed my novel Gypsy Masala. My publishing company, which was a PO Box faraway in Northampton, was called “NineFish” and I told everyone that I had been signed up by them.

At this stage, I realised that PR was fundamental but having invested £9,000 into my first print run, I had no money left. There was no alternative but to set up my own PR agency. That was how Pru Menon, my alter ego, publicist and Director of the Creative House was born – out of sheer necessity. I got two of everything: email addresses, phone lines, fax numbers – and began hyping myself shamelessly.

It was a nightmare to begin with and my incompetence was evident, what with me stammering all over the place, but somehow I fumbled my way through and by the end of three months’ hyping, it was almost a slick operation. I could even change voices effortlessly, depending upon which phone was ringing. And yes, when I wasn’t busy, there were pangs of guilt at all the deceit but this made me work even harder.

After securing a modest number of interviews, I remember happily driving up to Northampton as I went to collect my books from the printers. My parents had invited a group of friends to our house for the homecoming but as soon as they began congratulating me, this little voice inside my head said, “Look at p.179.”

Chapter 13 began on p.179. It was absolutely blank. I was horrified – you can’t sell a book short of a page, even if it is indicative of the author’s state of mind. I panicked while trying to appear composed, and when the guests had gone, I went upstairs and broke down. The media were waiting for books; it had taken me months to set up and if the books weren’t delivered on time they would move on to someone else’s work. After getting the printer to admit that it was his fault, and being told it would take weeks to rectify, I asked him to courier me 3,000 copies of p.179 so I could “Prit stick” them in, and this is what I did. Coming up with a reason why the house was full of books is difficult I can tell you but looking at the surplus copies gave me yet another idea: I decided to exhibit at the London Book Fair.

But, in the midst of all of this, there was the book launch to organize. Being stopped by two policemen and asked to explain how I came to be driving a blue Fiesta crammed with an African dancer (long story but symbol of a dream – theme of the book), four musicians and a huge drum which was seat belted to me or trying to explain to my mother why her entire wardrobe of saris was hanging from the restaurant ceiling was not easy either.

The stress of it all became too much for me to handle. At breaking point I had to confess the whole story to two of my closest friends. It was an enormous relief and despite thinking it was madness, they offered to be Directors of my PR and Publishing companies on my stand at the London Book Fair. Amazingly, it was at the Book Fair that things really started happening: while the big publishers were giving out leaflets, NineFish were giving out books.

When press articles started to appear, there were no books in shops. I had overlooked the entire distribution network, assuming that copies would magically appear on the shelves. It doesn’t work like that! Publishers’ sales reps go into bookshops six months in advance of publication date to “sell in” their books. Rapidly, I had to learn the art of door-to-door selling, so armed with a travelcard, I pounded round most of the bookshops in London and pleaded with store managers to stock my title. A few of them looked at me with a strange expression and sent me packing. Others actually read it – and placed orders.

When it all came together, when one book shop alone sold over 2,500 copies, when Pru was bizarrely short-listed as Publicist of the Year, when interviews with the press coincided with other bookshops supporting me … there was the oil protest – an oil protest complete with a lorry blockade so that the books could not move from the warehouse as orders came in. Momentum, so hard to capture, had escaped me. Had two years of work come to nothing?

I was left to explain to my dad what I was doing in the Express with a headline saying “The double life of Preethi Nair,” All things considered, he took it surprisingly well.

Due to the press coverage, I thought that every publisher would be clambering at my door – but this was not the case. The phone was not ringing. Not surprisingly Pru and Preethi suffered an equal identity crisis. Exhausted, disheartened, jobless and in debt, I just wanted to give up. Then, at my lowest moment, I got a call from Lynda Logan, one of the original WI Calendar Girls whom I had met at the London Book Fair. I told her the whole story and she invited me to stay with them in the Dales. After getting to know them all, Tricia Stewart another one of the women suggest I contact her agent Diana Holmes.

Diana and I clicked instantly and we spent hours talking. She advised me to put all the Pru stuff behind me and to write about me, my experiences, my story.

I went back to the Dales and began working on my new novel 100 Shades of White. It poured out of me in six weeks and this was because for the first time someone had complete faith in me – Diana was my reader. We spent weeks together getting the manuscript right and then she took it to publishers.

100 Shades of White was sold as part of a three book deal to HarperCollins and the BBC have bought it for a 90 – minute adaptation. The Colour of Love, a fictionalized account of the whole adventure has just been published, along with a revised reissue of Gypsy Masala. The greatest irony probably is that for all the double life business, what worked for me was being me and forging amazing friendships. All these women now join Fatima as being amongst my closest friends.

And so I will end by saying dream big even if you don’t know the rules – and if no one wants to play, devise a different set, keep believing… and your gang will find you.

Life at 30 was published in the Daily Telegraph in three parts.

Part One

“By the time she is 30, she will be having a husband coming from a very good family, I see two boys born within a year of each other and a very big house. Yes, it is almost like a rajah’s palace. One warning though: she must be careful with her weight, for she will be fat, almost unable to move, for the wealth she consumes.”

This is what the astrologer told my parents in a bid to reassure them when they went to consult him as to why I was not married at 25.

I am now 33. None of the above has happened. In Indian terms, I am passed my sell-by date, well and truly consigned to the back shelf of the larder with the old stash of chapatti flour. Relatives have stopped pitying me, focusing instead on young Janaki, who at 23 is bursting with marriage potential and whose biological clock is melodically ticking, as opposed to mine that supposedly exploded on my thirtieth birthday.

“I mean who would even think of having children after thirty?” asked my aunt as I blew out the candles. So the only children that are ever mentioned are the grand children (my brother’s children) and the children born to my contemporaries in Kerala, South India.

Having detonated every single one of my parents’ aspirations (stable career with lots of money, husband and two children), for me, life has truly begun at 30. There are no rules anymore, no expectations. There is no need to put on a suit and pretend to go to work as I did in my 20s (sad but true). I had led a double life for most of my 20s. It is a long story, but basically, I wanted to be a writer and so left my job as a management consultant, thinking that I, too, would be sipping red wine and signing books.

However, things did not go to plan as I got rejected by every publisher. I then took the deposit from the flat I was about to buy and had this crazy idea to set up my own publishing company and PR company. Headed by my alias Pru Menon, she/I hyped my novel, got it into the London book charts and sold it off as part of a three-book deal to HarperCollins – all whilst waving my parents off as I pretended to catch the tube to work and whilst giving them false hope that they, too could soon sent out the wedding invitations.

There is no list system now. The list system is a preferred system of potential suitors. First choice – well-educated, professional Keralan boy; second – preferably of Asian decent; and so forth. But this has been shredded. My mother said to me the other day: “Bring anyone home, if you want to have a baby and are not married, that’s OK by us too.”

Being caught between cultures where 30 is retirement age and 30 is the new 20 is fantastic. It’s like looking in the mirror, knowing you have defied fate and seeing all sorts of possibilities. I’m living in a culture where eggs can be frozen as opposed to curried and fed to husband and children. Knowing that I haven’t stuffed my face with all those ledos and barfis (as predicted by the astrologer), but am happily still doing Cobra, Stretch pose, Downward dog and still defying gravity, gives me a certain sense of satisfaction.

Living in England, the only downside to 30 is choice – latte, mocha, expresso, frappe, cappuccino, decaf, as opposed to your good old Keralan coffee with sugar already added. And secretly, I am fearing what I am going to do now the list system has been scrapped. Before it was, get introduced by your parents (all leg work done by them i.e. dark secrets exposed, major incompatibilities and annoying habits pre-screened) exchange a few embarrassed smiles, decide if you like the look of each other and then get married.

Now, with the whole of the United Nations’ pool of men opened up to me, where do I start? And who can I blame if it all goes horribly wrong?

But with a feeling of total liberation and of course a plethora of self-help books to aid me along my journey, I shall continue full sail, even if haphazardly, through the possibility of adventure that comes from being in my 30s.

Part Two

As auntie Chandelier steps off the plane, my heart begins pounding. She has come from Kerala to help look after my mum. Extended Indian family members – especially aunties – are like members of the mafia with “the family” and marriage being sacrosanct. Innocently sporting the sari/sock/sandal combination, she battles her way through customs, the officer in charge should be made aware that she conceals a weapon deadlier than an AK47- her tongue.

Fearing the matrimonial interrogation, I contemplate whether it’s better to hold up a placard at the arrival’s lounge: “I’m here auntie – yes me, 33, almost 34, and no, still not married.”

A lovely woman with sparkling eyes makes her way towards me. This is not how I remember her. The last time we met, she was drawing diagrams and preparing me for the highs and lows of marriage (I was about 12). She smiles a lot and it lights up her whole face – the kind of glow that says my girls, all three of them, are married and settled with children.

I am trying to reciprocate the beacon thing she does by sending vibes that I am happy, unencumbered, independent and totally carefree. Had it not been for the fact that she was arriving, I could have boarded any number of planes, gone to an unknown destination and begun a whole new adventure. She doesn’t buy any of it and looks to the empty space beside me.

I want to tell her about my friend Claudia, mother of two, who called that very morning, telling me how lucky I was. I try sending out the lucky vibe. This seems to have no effect as she looks to the space beside the space – the one reserved for children. I take the coward’s way out and pretend that I don’t understand Malayalam and start spouting off some pidgin phrases such as “where is the post office?” She carries on regardless, saying that she has come to sort things out.

We stop a moment longer beside my car, just so she can admire it. I’m not into material things but it’s to reinforce the fact that if I were with a husband in Kerala, this would be a moped and I would probably be clutching on to his back with no helmet and she would be in a side car, or worse, clutching onto me and the suitcase. I add in broken Malayalam that I am a homeowner too. She is still not impressed.

Auntie Chandelier is some what silent throughout the journey as I continue asking for directions to the bank, the grocery shop and other local amenities. The thing about being in my thirties is that I have learnt to get myself out of tricky situations much quicker and tend not to make the same mistakes twice. Volunteering too much information is not a good thing: listening twice as much as I speak is my general rule, except on this occasion.

It has been a week since auntie Chandelier arrived and I have horrified her on many occasions. Going out clubbing looks particularly bad especially as the only alcohol she has ever consumed is in the fermented rice pancakes that she prepares. It has become difficult to suddenly break out into full-blown Malayalam and explain that all is not as it seems: at 33, I am more concerned about looking after my skin so now drink water instead.

While I dance, I secretly think that it’s exercise, hence some very odd moves which complement the yoga and running regime. Recently, I have become overly preoccupied with the smoke smell lingering on my clothes, so don’t wear my best. In fact, the highlight of the night is singing loudly to Heart FM as I drive home.

The whole cooking routine is another source of disappointment: at my age, I should theoretically be able to whip up a meal from scratch with no bottles, packets or ready- made sauces. The clubbing and culinary failings have not been the worst thing though. She almost passed out when I ate a bowl of papaya. This week I have learnt that papaya, when eaten in large quantities, makes you infertile.

“Pomegrenades. Maybe still hope,” she says in broken English, handing me a bag of pomegranates. This, along with a bag of chic pea flour which I am supposed to add water to and paste to my face, will bring youthfulness, fertility and a husband with a moped.

Part Three

I was supposed to be in Brazil on Christmas day but a slight change of plan means that I will be in Barnet with the Family. Every year, I say the same: that next year will be different. But it seems impossible to escape them. Auntie J-Lo will be seated at the head of the table, bling in tow – or rather on toe, hand, ankle, arm, neck – and orange paper crown on head.

She will ask me between the starter and the main course to remind her of how old I am. “A year older then last year,” I will respond. “Thirty-four,” she will shout across the table and wait for my Auntie Asha to catch the remark and throw it back, adding the latest family wedding or child birth statistic.

Christmas is not designed for a 34-year-old single person. My family are Hindus our reasons for celebrating Christmas are tenuous, to say the least. Rudolf being brown is one. And my Uncle Ram (J-Lo’s husband) insists that one of the three kings proceeded from Kerala, coconut in hand.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the food was good. Normally, Auntie J-Lo is a fantastic cook but some kind of madness takes over her and cloves are daggered through the turkey, turmeric is dusted on the potatoes and Tabasco added to the gravy. When the meal is finished, there will be that moment where the silence says you can redeem yourself of all your failings if you volunteer.

Volunteering is an unspoken code of conduct. Somewhere in the rule book it says: those with no children or husbands and who do not have to endure 364 days of domestic duties will do the washing-up. The aunties will breathe a hearty sigh of relief as my chair scrapes back and I say: “Don’t worry, this won’t take me long.” I’m often accompanied by a female cousin who is on the shelf or divorced.

Party games are the highlight of the day and I am the first to initiate them. This is wholly for selfish reasons, so my extended family members can see how bright and agile I still am. After I’ve beaten everyone at Trivial Pursuit, I bring out Twister. Before you know it, my little cousins, nieces and nephews are shouting: “Look mummy, daddy, look at Auntie Preethi.”

I am by this stage doing the bridge pose on the Twister mat, desperately willing my body not to let me down. The moment it does, I will be banished to the corner of the room, whiskey in hand, to join the sad uncle who nobody talks to. He, too, at some stage in his life did the Twister routine and now rambles on about it as his crowning moment.

Last year, the older children were not impressed with the bridge move. In fact, some of them looked quite embarrassed. So I tried to impress them with the technological lingo that I’m sure their parents are unfamiliar with. Being unencumbered at 34 means that I have time to acquaint myself with developments across all sectors of society. Though they were only four feet away from me and it took me almost half an hour to do it, I sent them a text message: “All raait! R U havin a gr8 time?”

No sooner had I sent it, one came back straight away. I was amazed by the speed of their nimble fingers.
“Get a life Auntie P.”

In my thirties, I have learnt not to take rejection personally, so I sent another one back: “Sorted.”

Don’t ask me why, but present opening is normally at the end of the day, possibly because mad rambling uncle has fallen asleep and no one except me bothers to get him anything. Year after year, there is the assortment of bizarre gifts. You would think that the range of presents available for a 30- year old someone is vast. But no. Last year, Auntie J-Lo eagerly watched me unwrap a set of His and Hers matching towels.

“Another year gone, we can only hope and pray,” she sighed.

Next year things will be different. On Christmas morning, sipping a Caipirinha, I will send a text: “Merry Christmas. C u L8r.”


This article was originally published in the Sunday Times.

The first time I went back to India, I was four years old. I remember running across a muddy field trying to find my grandmother’s house. Despite it being dark, I managed to find her, sitting on the veranda, rocking in a chair. “I knew you would come back,” she said, wrapping herself around me.

Going back to Kerala was like stepping into a fairy tale – a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by palm trees and paddy fields; an old grandmother who lived in a light-blue-painted house with a farm and a rice mill and lots of interesting characters passing through to gossip with. My grandmother proudly told all who came that I was her granddaughter who had come from London. When my mother came to collect me after the six-week summer holiday, she had to drag me back onto the plane. It was cold and wet in London; I hated it and spent days crying, wishing I was back home.

The next time I went back, I was eight. It was Christmas and I remember feeling reluctant, as I knew Father Christmas would not travel to places like India – I thought it would be too hot for him. I was happy to see my grandparents, but I remember sitting around a lot and wishing for a television, and baked beans. My uncle said that he could make me a doll out of a sweet wrapper, and I watched as he turned one corner of the sweet wrapper and said: “There.” He obviously had no idea what a Barbie looked like.

The last time I went back, I was 13 and filled with dread at the prospect of returning to the village. “India: a hygiene hazard” was my main perspective, and I packed toilet roll as there was no way I was going to employ the bucket-and-mug system. I refused to eat with my hands and spoke only in English, to dissociate myself from a place that I thought was dirty, dusty, polluted, filled with strange insects and disease – carrying mosquitoes. I know I was a complete brat and I wish things had been different, because, six weeks after I returned home, both my grandparents died.

There are a number of reasons why it took me almost 20 years to go back – above all, I think I had been putting off the sadness of seeing an empty house and the guilt of not having said goodbye properly. But a book I was writing needed some first-person research into ayurvedic spa treatments. Kerala is the centre of ayurvedic medicine. It was time to go home.

I landed at Coimbatore and breathed in the smell I remembered so well from childhood – roasted peanuts, humidity and traffic. My village was two hours away, near the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and my uncle (the one that made the Indian version of Barbie) came to meet me at the airport. It was 32C and he was wearing a woolly hat. I held out my arms to hug him and he shook my hand.

He showed me to the car and asked why I wasn’t married. I desperately searched for questions to ask him, but after 10 minutes we both fell silent and the sound of horns and rickshaws dodging errant cows became even louder. I watched a group of people dressed in the brightest colours congregating outside a shop called Bloomingdale’s; as far as I could see, its wares consisted of a few odd shirts and a bucket. An hour later, the road became quiet, and on either side there were paddy fields, palm trees and banana plantations. Across in the distance was the backdrop of purple mountains.

As we drove into the village, the people at the communal pond stopped to stare. Some pointed, and some children ran after us. As I got out of the car, my uncles, aunts and cousins came to meet me. It was strange, I didn’t feel a connection with any of them, and I tried so desperately. I gave them their gifts and they scrambled away. My aunt invited me into her home and a few people followed. She asked me why I had not got married and why I was so thin. Some intelligent cousin made the connection between not being fat and not being married; food was soon being pressed on me from every direction.

After lunch, another aunt commented that perhaps nobody wanted me due to the fact that I had short hair and wore no jewellery. Yet another nodded fervently and said that prospective husbands would think that my family could not afford the dowry. “Is this the case?” she shouted in Malayalam.

I felt strangely alone and sad and wandered off, without anyone really missing me, to my grandmother’s empty house. The mill had been pulled down, there were no cows, but the house had been renovated and whitewashed by my parents. I walked in and went straight to grandmother’s bedroom, the room that she and I had slept in. I looked for the secret hiding place in the wall where she hid the money my mother had saved up to give her. Then I went into the kitchen where we had spent hours cooking together.

My mother had put in a Western-style toilet, hoping that one day I would return. I looked at the bathroom and I was overwhelmed with tears. “I’m so very, very sorry,” I cried, looking at the toilet.

For two nights I stayed in that house, feeling safe and unconcerned about the mosquitoes, the lizards running up the wall and the sound of croaking toads. I stayed there, concentrating hard on trying to remember every conceivable detail of how it used to be.

When it was time to move on to the “real” reason for my visit, my uncle and aunt drove me to Cochin airport. I felt nothing when I left them, except perhaps a sense of sadness at that very lack of emotion. My uncle shook my hand and my aunt said that she would pray for me, and they left me outside the airport because the car was running on a meter.

My room was a little thatched Keralan cottage overlooking Manaltheeram beach; even if there had been no treatments, this would have been restorative enough. But soon I was booked in for a consultation with a young doctor who looked like an Indian version of George Clooney.

“Thirty-one,” he said. “Don’t you want to get married?” “Are you asking?” I wanted to reply, but managed a coy smile instead. He diagnosed me as a kapha/vata type (kaphas have smooth skin, thick hair and are calm, cool and complacent; vatas are tall, have irregular teeth and are inclined to mental illness; nothing to worry about there then) and suggested a 10-day rejuvenation package to restore balance. I was promptly given a dressing gown and led away.

As two technicians started praying over me, I wondered what I had let myself in for. They began massaging me in sync with each other, and then one of them asked me to lie down on the floor. She washed her feet, hoisted herself up on a rope and began sweeping her feet across my body. After that, a stream of warm oil was poured over my forehead to enhance mental stability. Instead, it sent me off to sleep and when I awoke I had a mudpack plastered to my face.

After 10 days of being massaged in this way, I felt I had found my paradise and it was incredibly hard to leave. I’d made friends with various members of the staff, and each felt obliged to impart invaluable advice. The doctor asked me to eat lots of black-eyed peas and, realising they might be hard to get in England, suggested “brusol sprats”. The cleaning lady said that I had changed so much in 10 days that a husband must be on the horizon, as long as I grew my hair, ate more and wore earrings. Maybe I could get hold of some gold jewellery, she suggested. I told her I would try. She wept as I said goodbye and said she wouldn’t eat for three days.

We drove to the airport and the smell of wood smoke and roasted peanuts made me cry. I’d come home looking for the warmth and love of my childhood, and found it gone; but another warmth, a genuine welcome and connection, had taken its place, and when I’d least expected it. The Kerala of my grandmother was a memory now, but something of her tenderness lived on.

As I boarded the plane for London, I found myself surrounded by children. The one behind me must have been about four and she was crying her eyes out, saying she didn’t want to go home; her older sister was pestering their mother for one of the items in the in-flight magazines; and the teenager was scratching her bites, saying that she hated India. I closed my eyes and I wished I had gone back sooner.

This article was originally published in the Sunday Times.

When I was little, my father used to tell me stories about Mexico, where he worked for three years in the 1960s. He had travelled there from India, before settling in London. It was the first time he’d travelled abroad, and the contrast was so stark that it left a lasting impression: he would reminisce about Mexico at every opportunity and dazzle us with a few mouthfuls of broken Spanish.

The Mexico he talked about was the stuff legends are made of: a place where time began, where magical characters lived and transcendental things happened. I have drawn on the sense of mysticism he evoked many times in my writing. This year, finally, I set out to find the places he told us about. My objective was Oaxaca, 500km southeast of Mexico City, but en route I wanted to visit a typical Mexican town, and chose Puebla, an hour east of the capital.

Octavio Paz, the Mexican writer, said: “For Mexicans, colours shout so loudly that you cannot hear the silence of darkness.” This is so true. On every street corner in Mexico City there is some splash of vividness, or the promise of it, whether it’s the green uniforms of the schoolchildren or a sapphire sky painted on a wall. Only on the outskirts does the colour bleed away into an urban sprawl of uniform grey.

I am told by my driver, José, that the poor don’t paint their houses. “The moment they do,” he says, “they will be taxed, for colour is symbolic of wealth.”

This saddens me, because it is the poor who need colour most. Sensing my feeling, José says: “But you should see the inside of their houses.” I imagine the walls splashed defiantly with an explosion of paint, like a child’s finger painting; all the signs so far indicate that it would be this way.

José looks about 50 and is the image of the actor Charles Bronson. He insists on speaking to me in English, “for Spanish is the language of love”. Unsure of how to take this, I let him explain things in English, even though there are times when I feel Spanish might be easier. We head out towards Puebla, set among the mountains, and José points out two snow-clad volcanic peaks. Popocatepetl is tall and supposedly male, while

Iztaccihuatl (White Lady) is much smaller. As we drive, José tells me a Romeo and Juliet kind of story. It is the same one my father told me as a child. Iztaccihuatl is wrongly informed that her lover has been killed in battle, and dies, grief-stricken. When “Popo” returns and finds her body, he lays it out in the open and keeps vigil. Today, he is an angry volcano, ready to erupt at any moment against the inoffensive sunny sky. If you look carefully, José says, Iztaccihuatl has the form of a woman lying down. To please him, I pretend to see it, while hoping that this won’t cause offence to the wounded Popo.

I arrive in Puebla on Sunday. The town has a Spanish colonial feel, with grand churches and a huge cathedral built in the zocalo, or square. The zocalo is vibrant with balloon sellers and craftspeople selling little models of mythical beasts. Children are scattering across the square; musicians play, and couples both young and old dance spontaneously. Waiters bustle in the background, flitting between the customers who are people-watching on the terrazas.

Some of the buildings here have real majesty about them: one house in particular looks like it has been dripped in gold. In a passageway next door, I find an antiques market with rows of crafts, bric-a-brac and records. I pick up a small hand-carved wooden box and set about haggling for it with a toothless old man and his daughter. “If you tell me I’m handsome, I’ll lower the price by five pesos,” the man laughs.

“What if I said that you’re the most charismatic man I’ve met in ages?” I flatter. He smiles and says forget the box, if he were 40 years younger, he would marry me. As a novice barterer, I feel guilty about clawing 25 pesos off the original price and hand him 50 pesos more. Laden with curiosities, I make my way back to my hotel, and a dinner of mole, chicken served with a traditional bittersweet chocolate sauce.

The next day, José takes me to Cholula, 15km from Puebla, to see the largest pyramid ruins in the country. The people here wear much more traditional clothing and the architecture is different again. The churches appear less colonial – next to the Convento de San Gabriel’s mustard door, I notice brown angelic faces carved into the stone as opposed to white ones.

The pyramid, built between 200BC and AD800, is embedded in a hill, on top of which stands a simple, beautiful church. It is possible to walk through the tunnels at the base of the pyramid – an eerie feeling. I manage to find my way out and come upon the open-air excavations of several shrines. It’s truly humbling to think that a civilisation built this with none of our know-how, guided mostly by intuition. I am overwhelmed by feelings of timelessness and peace, but José reminds me there is a five-hour drive ahead of us, to Oaxaca.

As we drive through the Sierra Madre mountains, he points out vegetation in every kind of green. By the end of our journey, the landscape has changed into arid, red desert. We reach Oaxaca, set deep within a valley, and head straight for town.

The zocalo here even outdazzles Puebla. Balloons are everywhere and mariachi singers break into song at even the slightest encouraging smile. The air smells of hot chocolate and freshly baked bread, and the aroma lures me into the most animated market I’ve ever seen. Here, women with braided hair and fine jewellery wrap up their babies in hand-embroidered blankets, resting them on the counters as they sell their goods. There are racks of fruit, spices, chillies, cheeses and other edibles – I’m especially taken by the enormous tortillas and the dried grasshoppers – and there are locally woven rugs and jet-black pots.

The vendors are mostly wise-looking old-timers: the women look as though they hold many secrets. I want to follow these characters home, and ask José if we can visit the villages outside Oaxaca, where all this stuff is made. He looks slightly baffled at first, but we spend the next few days doing exactly that.

In San Bartolo Coyotepec we meet Valente Nieto, the son of Doña Rosa, who became famous throughout Mexico for her perfectly round black pots, made entirely without a wheel. Valente continues the tradition, sharing few secrets. In Teotitlan, the Gonzalez family invite us into their home and demonstrate how they use the cochineal bug to make bright red dye for tapestry work. Señora Gonzalez is probably 80, and despite the many lines etched into her face, there is youthfulness in her eyes.

Each of these families passes down not only heritage, but their passion for fine detail. I find this everywhere in Oaxaca: from the starched white aprons of the waiters, to the embroidered blankets in which babies are wrapped, to the three yellow flowers placed fresh every day in my room.

José says he’s saving the best for last, and on our penultimate day he takes me to Monte Alban. Built high on a flattened mountaintop more than 2,500 years ago, this was the first city in North America. I can only describe it as like a lost city of the gods. As I walk among the temples, shrines and altars, the afternoon sunlight turns everything to shimmering gold. I find some narrow steps overlooking what might have been an observatory. I sit here for hours. The energy of the place is tangible, and I feel completely revived. Fearing I’ve gone missing, José comes to find me.

Having been enveloped by the colour and the culture of the people, I find it incredibly difficult to leave Mexico. It makes perfect sense, now, why my father carried these places with him and transported himself back here whenever he could. He did it without exaggeration.