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Dispatches from the Moth · Posted On: Jul 30, 2019

The MOTHerview with Storyteller Ritija Gupta

by Suzanne Rust

Tija Mittal

"My grandmother just wanted to make sure I had my share of naps and sweets."

How did you know that this was the Moth story you had to tell?

I felt honored that this story of longing and connection, both to romantic love and familial love, had some real value to others. Wherever there is space to connect with people, especially about something that encourages me to be vulnerable and introspective, I feel really drawn to it, and the Moth team and audience are absolutely amazing at creating that space. 

It sounds like you had beautiful relationship with your grandmother. Tell me a little more about her and her biggest influence on you.

I do miss her, and in developing this story, I had some rough moments processing my loss while also trying to do our relationship justice. In my story, I describe her the way she was to me--very warm, loving, encouraging. She just wanted to make sure I had my share of naps and sweets. But, I appreciate this question because it allows me to share the fact that she was also a fighter, incredibly scrappy, and pretty complex. She accomplished so many things that should have been impossible, especially for a young woman from a humble family in India. She got her PhD while raising three kids, and then went on to become a renowned history professor. She did what she did largely because she had resilience and grit, and could just plain ignore the world telling her, "no."

I have a little of that in me, both from my grandmother and my mother--this drive to become mentally strong and invest in my education and intelligence so that I could advocate for myself. Thinking of her reminds me of that reality show, Survivor, where the motto was Outwit, Outplay, Outlast, and that absolutely could have been my grandmother's motto. She would have killed on Survivor!

You mention in your story that you are not Hindu. Did you grow up with any other religion or spiritual sense?

My mother was extremely supportive of me finding my own way in terms of my beliefs. Hinduism had a presence in the household, but my mother felt a real draw towards Christianity, so I had a lot of exposure to those traditions.  I read the Bible cover to cover before I was 10 years old out of sheer curiosity: however, it didn't call to me quite the way it called my mom. I always felt limited by committing to just one team, and didn't want the obligation to choose. I grew up feeling as though I wanted God to exist and, if it did, then I'd imagine it probably wanted me to be here and be happy. As I became an adult, I've been very fortunate to have traveled to many, many religious cities and sites and often seek them out to commune with whatever is out there. I also feel the joy of communing with people from those traditions, taking care to be respectful and thoughtful. 

My most profound religious moment, when I felt so close to God it still brings tears to my eyes, is when I accidentally ended up at a service at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston not long after it had been attacked, and I felt so much joy in my heart from the sermon that I just openly cried. The pastor at that service described God exactly as it made the most sense to me--someone who truly wanted to see his children joyful and full of self-love and community. 

Maybe your grandmother was onto something with her rituals. Have you created any of your own?

I think she absolutely was, whether or not it created a direct line to God, or whether it empowered something in me, she was right on. I don't have a ton of my own rituals, so thank you for the motivation to start thinking about that! I have found that rituals, or just maintaining consistent behaviors and patterns, tend to help me achieve my goals more quickly, so you've really given me some food for thought here.

What is your relationship with the color yellow these days?

So, nothing is ever going to make yellow look good on me, unfortunately! But, you know, the more I tell this story and think about it--it's a really cheery color! There's a good amount of yellow strategically placed throughout my home too, because it's an unbeatable brightener. I'm very pro-yellow.   

Plus, I'm very much into lemons, bananas, and pineapples and, of course, pumpkin pie. 

Who are your favorite storytellers and why? 

I'm a little surprised to say this, but I think Dave Chappelle is my favorite storyteller at the moment, and I fully acknowledge that he has some problematic language around gender identity and don’t want to minimize that. However, I keep going back to his recent specials, particularly the moment where he's talking about Emmett Till, whom many of us are familiar with and remember as an absolutely devastating chapter in this country's history. How masterful was he in talking through that story, though? I love people who are able to take audiences through an emotional journey instead of being afraid of the quiet moments, or playing with humor, playing with sadness. I like being surprised, and Dave Chappelle constantly surprises me. 

I’m also going to include the team behind the TV show, Pose. What they've been able to bring to screen, a really beautiful show that gives so much dignity, life, and joy to a group of people who are otherwise unseen or vilified by too many --is incredible. The show makes a kind of niche world very accessible to a large group of people while staying very authentic. I'm in love with it. 

Is there anything else about your story that you would like to share? 

Yes. There are two people who need to be acknowledged to fully resolve this story. The first is my mother, who played a very important role parallel to this story. Despite her own traditional upbringing, she was determined to let me find my own happiness my own way, never once pressuring me to find someone, or making me feel as though I was less than for being single. One of her best contributions to my life was helping me learn that the world is so full, and to go and experience as much as I could instead of feeling tied to a specific path or person before I even knew myself. She was definitely in favor my being settled and secure, but really helped me believe that my happiness was self-determined. This was empowering and helped me get through the tough times when dating got so demoralizing. So, my grandmother and my mother were an exceptional tag team in my life--believing I could find love, and also making sure I really knew and loved myself.  

Secondly, but no less important, a few months ago I was thrilled to marry the man of my dreams, Andrew Rice. I met Andrew just one week after tellling this story at the Apollo Theater with the Moth, so, you know, draw your own conclusions. My mother adores him and has said, very accurately, that my grandmother would have completely fallen for him--I can just imagine him opening his mouth to speak and my grandmother popping a sweet in his mouth before he'd get the words out. I would have fasted every Monday for the rest of my life to find and keep Andrew, but fortunately, I don't have to. And I’m lucky-- he's a better cook than me and makes sure I'm very well fed, just the way my grandmother would have wanted. 

Please finish this sentence: Storytelling is important because….

It is how we connect with each other; there is virtually no better way. But it’s also how we connect with ourselves. When I’m working out a story, I really think through what happened, what it meant to me, why I felt certain things. Was I being too hard on myself? Do I really understand that person’s motivations, or am I being unfair? Storytelling motivates us to fully process what happened, and that may mean reckoning with our shortcomings and frequently, with pain and loss. It forces us to be a little more courageous, to trust in the value of our vulnerability, and to believe that our very human experiences will be embraced by others, because they will be. 

For more on Ritija, go to

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Like a Prayer

by Ritija Gupta

Ritija Gupta follows her grandmother's recommended all-yellow diet in the name of love.

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