The Secret of the Zipacna Dragons is my first novel set in the fiction world, Adijari. I reworked it countless times to make it a seamless and enjoyable read. It follows the emotional story of a young orphan boy Gradni who wants to eradicate dragons because he is convinced they are the scourge of the earth. Along his journey, he discovers that they are not what he has been told, but he is torn between doing what is right and making a name for himself. All this while caught in a political back and forth of factions that have their own agenda. This world is full of a great variety of dragons, all of which are heavily influenced by my study of global dragon and serpent mythologies.
I grew up in Oman and the U.A.E and caught the writing bug back in high school. My mother gave me a giant blue ledger book and I carried it with me all the time. I just really enjoyed telling stories and knew that that was what I wanted to do with my life.
As a fantasy writer, I’m infatuated with mythology and what these ancient stories can teach us about humanity today. I read Nordic and Persian myths first, and then got into indigenous folklore from America and around the world. Indian Mythology is the one I keep coming back to in between reading up on others. The commonality, uniqueness, and vastness of these different worlds are an infinite well of creativity for me to draw from as I create stories in my own make-believe world of Adijari.
Kirkus Review is calling my book: “An ambitious fantasy tale that builds an enticing world with simple but effective detail.”
Looking ahead, I have a novella coming out sometime this summer and am working on an online project that is more directly inspired by the Mahabharata. This work is also influenced by reader participation. I’m grateful for my imagination and the imagination of creators who have influenced me. I hope that my stories similarly inspire the imagination of others. You can find The Secret of the Zipacna Dragons and more of my writing at www.spjayaraj.com where you can also sign up for my newsletter to receive news on upcoming releases and special offers.
Some 15 years ago I wrote in these pages a review titled “An Omnibus Repast of the Century Past.” Yes, in those distant days, our faithful magazine was printed on paper. And, yes, my review was backward-looking, an appreciation of R. K. Narayan’s two-volume keepsake issued by Everyman’s Library in its centennial year and, serendipitously, in the 100th year of Narayan’s birth.
When Narayan was born in 1906, 89% of Indians lived in villages; when he passed away in 2001, that percentage had dropped to 72. Today, less than 65% of Indians are in rural settings, but given the subcontinent’s population explosion, that’s still 900 million villagers. Imagine nearly all Americans x 3 living in villages. And then imagine all the stories that each of those villagers has to tell us.
Murzban Shroff’s fertile imagination does the imagining for readers open to exploring India’s rural-to-urban transformation. In Third Eye Rising, a compelling collection of stories featured on Esquire’s list of Best Books of 2021, some things in India stay the same, and other things evolve. What stays the same: a pantheon of gods and families. What changes: most everything else and thus a grand displacement.
The displacement suggests that the Rajasthani villages that my parents came from are no longer the sleepy mofussils that R. K. Narayan wrote about so lovingly in the last century. The village has moved to the city and the city has moved to the village; and in all this movement, the modern Western world has seeped into India.
I thought about all this fluidity while reading “The Kitemaker’s Dilemma,” the first story in Shroff’s book. The story opens rather innocently with a too-long sentence that conveys the languid oral tradition of Indian story-telling. It is January in Amrapali, a small North Indian town, ten days before Makar Sankranti, the festival that loosely marks the end of the winter solstice and the beginning of longer, warmer days.
“Schools were shut, shops downed their shutters, adults became children, and children were allowed to scream their hooplas as kite after kite was launched in good-humored, competitive fervor.”
In the midst of this languorous bonhomie, we meet Baba Hanush, a master kitemaker. For a moment, the reader believes that he is back in Malgudi, Narayan’s fictional South Indian town; one can almost hear Malgudi’s make-believe river Sarayu come to life. To be sure, there are low-grade tensions such as mothers negotiating the price of Baba Hanush’s priceless kites. And the tension grows more personal with Shroff outlining the death of Baba Hanush’s wife, a victim of a bamboo pit viper; but even this tragedy passes through a brief paragraph and is resolved with a whisper: “An artist is best in his grief.”
None of these conflicts prepare the reader for what Shroff calls “a dark, liquid unease”: the story of Akash, a lonely boy who lives in a shuttered house on Burrah Gully. The viper’s poison is nothing compared to Akash’s father, a venomous drunk who murders his wife and then frames his chit of a son. The story’s denouement pulls at the heartstrings, but the gentle contract that Narayan had with his readers is clearly not the one that Shroff has with his.
While kites still fly on Makar Sakranti as they have for centuries, India has changed.
People seem more ready to cut each other down the way they once playfully cut down each other’s kites with crushed-glass-laced string. This is the bargain Shroff makes with his readers: I will give you a taste of the Incredible India sold by the Ministry of Tourism, but you will have to swallow the country’s disreputable underbelly as well.
Psychologically, Third Eye Rising has a mature voice without resorting to distasteful language. These are tales for the 21st century nurtured in the masterful hands of a writer who apparently knows India’s rich folk-tale tradition; perhaps this comes from the story collection being “born out of Shroff’s travels to the villages of India” as noted in the author’s bio. But although the ten stories feature numerous gods and goddesses, they are not didactic in the way of some episodes in the Ramayana or Mahabharata; and even though Third Eye Rising anthropomorphizes in “The Temple Cow,” it is not moralizing like the Panchatantra or Hitopadesha.
The societal context here is different from the ancient texts or even the more recent Narayan stories. As Amarveer Rathore, the protagonist in “Diwali Star,” says to his wife after they watch the serialized Ramayana on television, “Different times, different values.” The Rathores contrast the breakup of their extended family, each son going his own way, with the fraternal bond between Rama, Bharata, Shatrughna, and Laxmana.
Just as most Americans – Christian and non-Christian – know about Jesus and the three wise men bearing gifts, just about all Indians – Hindu and non-Hindu – are aware of how Rama, Sita, and Laxmana lived in exile to honor the extorted wish of King Dasharatha. But those were honorable times in perhaps apocryphal history. As celebrated at Diwali, when Rama returns to the kingdom after 14 years in the forest with Sita and Laxmana, his brother Bharata rightfully returns the throne to Rama. Right-minded men, doing the right things, in the right way.
Third Eye Rising doesn’t see its world in quite the same way. While his stories are populated with honorable men like Rama and his brothers, Shroff is just as apt to focus on Sita’s perspective in writing which valorizes a feminist worldview. Dowry is explored, as are sham marriages and a disconcertingly pragmatic concept called a “professional wife.”
If M. K. Gandhi was right that “the soul of India lives in its villages,” then what to make of an Indian soul that is rapidly urbanizing in our neoliberal globalized world?
Shroff writes with a gimlet-eyed view of modern India. Readers may be asked to remove their rose-colored glasses to understand and embrace characters who embody Third Eye Rising’s ever-changing India.
Dr. Raj Oza has written: Globalization, Diaspora, and Work Transformation, Satyalogue / Truthtalk: A Gandhian Guide to (Post)Modern-Day Dilemmas, and P.S., Papa’s Stories. He can be reached at satyalogue.com or amazon.com/author/rajoza.
Oxford-educated Perveen Mistry, Bombay’s first female solicitor, is a clever, spirited young woman working for her father’s respected law firm in 1921 Bombay. Unable to fully practice because a woman can’t earn a law degree, her father relies on her exacting skills with contract law and her nimble mind for additional legal assistance. Introduced to readers inSujata Massey’s 2015 novella,Outnumbered at Oxford,then launched inThe Widows of Malabar Hill (Book 1) of theauthor’s Mystery of 1920s India series, the success of the second and third installments shows no sign of Perveen’s career being dismissed.
October 1921. Despite being supportive of Gandhi, Perveen accepts a one-time case on behalf of the Kohlapur Agency and the British government inThe Satapur Moonstone (Book 2). Like her interaction with thewidows in Book 1, the Agency’s clients live in purdah and cannot speak to male outsiders. Her task is to hear both sides of a contentious debate between two maharanis—the dowager and the mother of the 10-year-old crown prince—and make a recommendation for the prince’s education.
The catch is, however, she must travel to the princely state of Satapur in the isolated Sahyadri mountains where transportation is by palanquin or horseback. Upon arrival at her lodgings, the circuit house, she meets Colin Sandringham, the political agent overseeing the area. Quickly, Perveen feels uncomfortable. Sandringham is a bachelor who recalls meeting her one evening atOxford; she is the only woman at the circuit house; and the environment is breathtaking but treacherous even in daylight. In turn, unnerving details come to light as she undertakes her assignment. She learns the crown prince’s father and older brother recently died; the palace teems with backstabbing personalities; and the royal children are at risk. Consequently, Perveen finds herself trapped in a deadly royal situation and unable to keep from falling for Sandringham against her better judgment.
November 1921. Perveen finds herself caught in an explosive political situation at home in newly-published Book 3,The Bombay Prince. Anti-British sentiments are in the air, andEdward, Prince of Wales, is set to arrive in Bombay. Days before, college student Freny Cuttingmaster asks Perveen for guidance on behalf of an activist group: Would there be consequences for being absent from school in protest on the day of Edward’s arrival? For the parade, Perveen joins her best friend Alice, an instructor at the college, in the school’s viewing area. Following a disruptive protest by another student, Freny’s body is discovered on the college grounds. The supposition is that she had fallen and suffered injuries similar toan incident 30 years prior at another school.
Because Freny sought her counsel, Perveen vows to untangle the reason for Freny’s death. But without eyewitnesses, Perveen faces major hurdles. Her father restricts her movements by booking them in the Taj Hotel because of the increasing violence. There, she is stunned to encounter Colin Sandringham, who is accompanying Edward on his tour. Meanwhile, police are uncooperative, the press is relentless, and the arrested protester’s lawyer is incompetent. Nevertheless, Perveen forges ahead with her own investigation, questioning everyone’s motives, and becoming a target herself.
In all three books,Massey brilliantly sets up challenges, tension, and danger mixed with reasonable doubt about many characters and their possible motives. Those reasonable doubts are the products of Perveen’s questioning mind and focused labor to fit puzzle pieces together. Without modern investigative methods, equipment, or resources,Massey makes certain her legal sleuth remains firmly within all the boundaries of the 1920s.
Around the mysteries,Massey gracefully weaves India’s diverse cultures, religions, and societal expectations into the novels. She recreates 1920s Bombay with precise attention to detail, drawing out the tantalizing smell of foods, the vibrant colors of clothing, the friction caused by political beliefs, the strict Parsi matrimonial laws, the warmth and loyalty between family and friends, the textures and architecture of the city, the lushness of the mountainous jungle inThe SatapurMoonstone,and the Parsi funeral customs in Bombay Prince.Massey’s awareness of time, place, and community results in Bombay a century ago so vividly that the reader is effortlessly transported.
It is Perveen herself that makes this series such delightful reading. She is rendered with great humanness as a caring, generous role model. Occasionally outspoken, she knows when to reveal her anger or maintain the decorum expected of her.
“Two of India’s early women lawyers, barristerMithan Tata Lam and solicitorCornelia Sorabji, were inspirational for my research,”Massey told me. “Both of them fought for the physical safety and property rights of women. Cornelia went through the jungle to meet female clients who lived in seclusion at palaces and similar locations. Mithan was the guiding force in rewriting the punitive divorce law for Parsi people, but it wasn’t accomplished until 1936.”
Massey is writing Book 4 now, about which she revealed, “I’ve explored British-Indian political themes in Books 2 and 3, and Book 4 is very strongly a woman’s rights themed book.”
Although women still face many struggles in 2021, it was a century’s worth more difficult in 1921. For Perveen, she endures immeasurable pressure as an upper-class Parsi woman who is separated from an abusive husband and who is Bombay’s only female lawyer. Perveen is an early 20th-century champion of truth and justice, women’s rights, and equality. In this way, she easily translates to today.
For mystery devotees, this series is unlike any other. For historical fiction aficionados, the author provides a rich representation of the world in which Perveen lives and works. Bombay in the 1920s, the Parsi community, and the recurring and familiar lovable characters all combine to give the reader a complete and enduring experience.
The opening story ‘The Entomologist at the Trial’ is at first glance a courtroom drama. Narrated from the perspective of a nephew recounting the details of an interesting case in the professional life of his lawyer uncle, the story touches on issues of sexual harassment and speaks to our “Me Too” moment. However, as it unfolds, the short story reveals itself to be a trenchant social satire on the moribund justice system lubricated by money and power. The fact that justice is served in this story seems to be a serendipitous anomaly in the general routine of corruption. Kumar’s concern with sexual harassment against women spans across classes.
While in ‘The Entomologist at the Trial’, the victim is a middle-class woman who is a social worker, in ‘All the Way to the Twelfth Floor’, Gauri, a servant, faces domestic violence at home and the predatory advances of her employer, Hasmukh Singh.
Kumar focuses on the everyday oppressions of women in ‘Missing’, another story in which the protagonist is a rural peasant whose husband has gone to serve in the army. When he returns on leave, the trauma of his experiences at war creates an invisible chasm in the marriage. The story ends with her husband’s desertion from the army and a continuation of the precarity of the wife’s life in the village.
The precarity of intimate relationships is a continuing thread in this collection and Kumar explores the implications of marital disharmony in rural subaltern as well as urban elite contexts. In ‘Rekha Crosses a Line’, a wife facing a crisis of identity falls victim to the charms of a godman while being aware of his manipulations.
Marital disharmony leads Malati in ‘Dorothy Cries in the Bus’ to leave her husband, Ashok, and board a bus for another town. It is on the bus she develops a sudden friendship with a Canadian female tourist, Dorothy, who is also experiencing her own romantic travails.
While the oppressions and solidarities between women form a connecting thread between stories, some stories are more directly a critique of the current state of Indian nationalism, the erosion of the founding promises and ideals of Gandhi and other leaders.
In ‘The Man Who Played Gandhi’, the power of Gandhi is symbolically diminished to that of fading actor invited to play Gandhi in village functions, who is mistaken not for the original Gandhi but the actor who resembles Ben Kingsley. The invitations to play Gandhi gradually diminish till the protagonist who has spent a lifetime perfecting the details of Gandhi’s mannerisms is forced to succumb to a magician creating the illusion of Gandhi disappearing on stage. The disappearance of Gandhi is a metaphoric invocation of the disappearance of Gandhian ideals in contemporary India, characterized by the regime of neoliberal globalization and the dilution of his secular vision.
Another story that offers a harrowing comment on the failure of the Indian nation-state is ‘Big Fish’, which also invokes the fragility of life for Indians living in coastal areas increasingly subject to violent cyclones as a result of climate change. In this story, we encounter, a young girl Munni who is an internal refugee as a result of a devastating cyclone. The family rescues a stranger from another cyclone, but the guest remains traumatized and unable to speak of his past. In the end, he is taken away by the police since he has no papers to prove his legitimacy. The story dramatizes the hardening of definitions of citizenship, which leaves refugees of wars and natural disasters, displaced and unaccommodated.
While developing some of these serious themes, Kumar never loses sight of the story as a form that entertains even while it presents complex portraits of society. The title story ‘A Sense of Time’ is an interesting rendition of the genre of the glost story, where the drama is played out on a train in a deserted railway station. Like other stories, it is a telling comment on feudal hierarchies and intrigue over the family fortune, while transporting readers into a supernatural experience on a train moving through a desolate countryside.
Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
As a child growing up in India, I have visited my fair share of temples, partaking in the rituals and the prasad handed out the priests and never quite questioning my parents on why we did what we did. Nevertheless, I did wonder about the role of religion in our lives. So, when I was asked to review Shoba Narayan’sFood and Faith: A Pilgrim’s Journey Through India, I jumped at the chance.
Calling herself a lapsed Hindu, who was first an atheist in her teens, then agnostic in her 20s, she says, “After having two kids, faith was a way of going back to my roots, finding meaning. The journey of writing this book also became a sort of pilgrimage.” Narayan sets about visiting many of India’s iconic places of worship, trying to understand their rituals and make sense of religious polarities. In doing so, she attempts to answer the question that confounds many of us as we seek spirituality: what sustains us?
In India, you can’t separate food from faith. If the 29 diverse varieties of Indian cuisines, each coming from one state in the country are not enough, we also have recipes that the temples and shrines in India dole out. Narayan attempts to spotlight many of them. “I started with a simple calculation. I would visit those temples that had good prasadam or sacred food offerings. These are, literally, foods for the gods, which belong to a time, place, and a specific deity. After offering it to God, the devotees partake of this ‘gracious gift of God’.”
The book is divided into fourteen chapters based on where the author is traveling to, each chapter can be independently read as a short story. Narayan coincides her visits with each region’s most important festival. She travels to Puri during the Kumbh Mela, to a Jewish household in Mumbai during the Passover, and to Haridwar during a time of convergence of yogis.
Accessibility was also one of the criteria in finalizing her list. Shobha also lists “geography, history and the seasons. Going to these temples at the right time, being able to speak to priests and scholars about the food, having some sort of connection with the food so that I could actually write about it, and also ensuring that the multitudes of faiths present in the land that we call Bharat or India” as the other factors she considered. She had wanted to include temples from the Northeast but “ended up not being able to because accessing those temples and interviewing the priests proved to be very difficult.”
In each chapter, Shoba talks not just about the food and history of the temples, but how her faith identifies with the practices and what makes her uncomfortable (like caste segregation). There are lovely little vignettes like the mechanization of Palani panchamritam, how onions were sneaked into the Udupi masala dosa, and why copious amounts of ghee is used in the food at the Kashi Annapurna temple, revealing that no outsider is allowed inside the Jagannath temple kitchen except the 1000 male cooks who make 56 different kinds of offerings called the chappan bhog, that is served to the Gods, six times a day.
I always knew that most traditions at temples always started with a logical reason, which then morphed into ritual. It was interesting to note that Narayan did dig deeper into the root of prasadam. The satvik food served at Udupi is what we tout as local and sustainable farming, the langar at Amritsar develops a feeling of community, that the strict food preparation practice at Puri is a tribute to the area’s tribal food habits, and the practice of drinking small sips of water before food was a way of activating the thyroid gland. A major instance of agriculture and the way it influences temple meals is during the Tamil month of margazhi, when vaishnavite temples serve ven pongal: “Hearty with rice and dal, with complete pepper for our ‘winter’ months and beneficent addition of ghee for heat.”
Apart from Hindu temples, Narayan also talks about experiencing “the layers of tradition” in a Goan Christmas, a dargah in Ajmer, where there was qawwali and kesari bhat, and being part of a Jewish Rosh Hashanah, or New Year with the Bene Israelis in Mumbai. “Each dish had meaning: a bowl of pomegranate signified bounty, there was head of fish and goat…,” she recalls.
Narayan has a narrative, oftentimes self-deprecating style, that draws the reader in, transporting us with her to the Kashi, Ajmer, or Kerala as she explores the cultural heritage that is passed on through religions, especially through their unique practices and cuisines. Most of the book is based on Hindu temples and customs, which she delves into deeply. She stresses that religions in India are inevitably interlinked in many ways, and while she tends to delve deeper in the beginning, Narayan seems to be in a hurry towards the end of the book and glosses over sections in Goan and the Bombay Jewish faiths.
It is refreshing to see Narayan’s candor as she writes about her own spiritual journey, which in turn encourages us to explore our relationship with religion. For some of us, the notion of a God, faith, and prayer might be difficult. But when Narayan talks about her visit to Haridwar, the pomp of the Kumbh Mela, the long line of Naga Babu’s jumping into the Ganga to seek salvation…I see her point. We look at prayer as a way of connecting to nature. Prayer as a way to touch flowers, fruits, stones. By giving thanks to nature and its bounty, by seeing the universe in a grain of and God in a single rock.
We may pray to Jesus, Ram or Allah, “but at the end of the day, we are all children of God. We each have many identities. Religion is one, but there are others. We are each of us son/daughter, spouse, sibling, friend, and professional. I tend to identify myself through my work, and I would suspect that most of my readers are the same way,” concludes Narayan.
Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter and LinkedIn for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor, her experience spans television, cable news, and magazines. An avid traveler and foodie, she loves artisan food and finding hidden gems: restaurants, recipes, destinations. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
“How many times must a performance be repeated before it becomes reality? If a falsehood is enacted enough, does it begin to sound factual? Is a pathway created for lies to become true in the brain? Does the illogical eventually get integrated with the rational?”
Avni Doshi’s acclaimed debut novel Girl in White Cotton (HarperCollins, 2020), a story about a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship, makes for a somewhat beautiful, disturbing read – evocative stories mingled with love-hate emotions. Born in New Jersey, Doshi is an American novelist of Indian origin currently based in Dubai. Equipped with a BA in Art History from Barnard College, New York, and a Masters in History of Art from University College, London, she went on to win the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize in 2013 and the Charles Pick Fellowship at the University of East Anglia the following year.
Having suffered at her hands as a child, Antara is resentful towards her unconventional mother, Tara. Throughout her life, her mother always ran away from anything that felt like oppression – marriage, diets, medical diagnoses. When her mother begins to lose her memory to Alzheimer’s, Antara is faced with the reality of her situation and is forced to confront the truths of her past and present.
As her mother undergoes therapy, Antara traces her tumultuous life – right from her years of teenage rebellion to her unsuccessful marriage, love affair, and subsequent deterioration – seeking to understand what made her do the things she did, and its repercussions on Antara’s perceptions, complexes, and insecurities that she carried into her own adulthood. Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2020, the book is written in Antara’s first-person and reads throughout like an intimate, personal diary. While its tone is mostly easy and conversational, its subject matter is intense, often draining.
For some of her most crucial, formative years, Antara lived with her mother in an ashram, when the latter found her way out of the loneliness and boredom of her marital home by devoting herself to a guru. It was here that she perpetually began wearing a white cotton fabric as the means to her truth: “a blank slate where she could remake herself and find the path to freedom.”
Mental health is on the tip of our tongues these days, and it certainly makes up one of the central themes in this book. The prose is routinely sprinkled with several pearls of wisdom, such as “miscommunications emerge from mislaid certainty,” “intention and reception almost never find each other,” and “caregivers need care too.” In a sense, the story also brings out the significance of good parenting and the fact that painful experiences during one’s impressionable childhood can haunt and scar an individual for life.
The book also has a strong sense of place. The sights, sounds, and smells of Pune make a powerful backdrop to the story and waft right through its pages. Along the way, there are references to well-known city spots such as the historical Shaniwar Wada fortress, MG Road, Boat Club Road, as well as several bars, cafes, and restaurants, such as Kayani Bakery, the Poona Club, and the German Bakery on North Main Road (which was bombed in 2010).
Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer and editor based in New Delhi. She is the author of ‘Wanderlust for the Soul’ and ‘Bombay Memory Box’.
‘An old neem tree extended its gnarled boughs over the roof which was pockmarked by last year’s hail. Hairline cracks on the roof allowed streaks of sunlight to pour into the hall below.’
Apart from the near ripe guava, there was something else that intrigued her. The tree’s peeling bark. Barks of guava trees peeled easily, but this was such a young tree. Besides it was not so much the peeling bark, the patterns it had made. The tree seemed to be full of faces. One in particular, low enough to be at eye level looked like an old man’s face. A smiling and kindly face and when the breeze made the tree sway the face seemed to nod at her and smile like the grandfather she still remembered and thought dimly.
In that instant, a mere split second of a summer disk, when the sun seems to have had too much to drink and simply can’t get up and call it a day, and everything else is bathed in a quiet gold.
The above excerpts are from Indian writer, Shikhandin’s new book Impetuous Women, a collection of short stories. With her evocative imagery, the author paints characters, places, and situations, bringing alive the pages.
Impetuous Womenis pivoted around women. Some stories have been previously published in international and Indian publications. Interestingly, the story ‘It Comes From Uranus’ fetched Shikhandin a second prize at the India Currents’ Katha Fiction Contest (2016) which she wrote under her name, R.K. Biswas.
Impetuous Women opens with ‘Taste’, a story about two friends – Dimple and Sarita. Caught in a game of keeping with the Joneses, their underlying jealousy comes to the fore.
In ‘Just Dessert,’ we meet Liese, a German woman married to an Indian, Dinesh. A perfectionist, Liese is precise in her work especially when it comes to her culinary skills. Chocolate mousse is her signature. Little did I know that this seductive dessert could send a shiver down my spine.
Shikhandin picks situations and people from life to peg her stories making them relatable. A rather mundane subject in ‘Threshold’ and ‘The Amma Who Took French Leave,’ is the housemaid. And, when the maid disappears in ‘Threshold’ it makes the narrator confront a hard truth of her life. ‘The Amma Who Took French Leave’ looks compassionately at the less privileged.
Sometimes lessons on romance are found in the least expected of places. In ‘Missing the Movie’, a young couple – Girish and Seema – on a movie outing get a lesson on love that is far real than the English film they watch in a cinema hall.
What will a commentary be like when a ‘word’ becomes a spectator to a gathering of poets? With characters named she-poet, barely-literate professor-poet; owl-poet; doorknob-head-poet, and Chinny-chin-chin-poet, this story has you in guffaws.
‘The Thirty-third egg,’ laced with wit takes a dig at a tourist who smuggles eggs from the breakfast table of her hotel.
Exploring the interior and exterior worlds, Impetuous Women creates a truly expansive and inclusive feminine narrative. The women are easy to recognize – defined by their quirks, maternal instincts, and a tenacity that comes only to women.
She smiled as she took them, her head uncovered for the entire world to admire her kohled eyes, the dimple on her left cheek and the side locks that she had oiled and curled into stiff upside down question marks lying pat against her cheeks.
The thought lands without warning. Just like Meera’s one-eyed tomcat, which has the habit of dropping soundlessly from the garden wall, casually interrupting the quietness of a day about to curl up for the night. The sun is already sliding down a livid sky and shades of the evening are gathering around her. Ramola drags on the cigar
Sleep at long last does come to them, sauntering slowly into their personal space, catlike in its stealth. This time through, they are ready, even eager to welcome their tardy visitor. The languor that comes after deep physical pleasure melts and merges slowly into tender conversation, both verbal and tactile.
With her sharp observation of people and places, Shikhandin’s brilliant characterization makes the ordinary and the prosaic unforgettable. And in making us invest in them, the twist in the tale is astonishing. Impetuous Women is like quick bites – easy to savor and fun to read.
Mythily Ramachandran is an independent journalist based in Chennai, India with over twenty years of reporting experience. Besides contributing to leading Indian and international publications including Gulf News (UAE), South China Morning Post, and Another Gaze (UK), she is a Rotten Tomatoes critic. Check out her blog – http://romancing-cinema.blogspot.com/
“Stillwater is a great place to raise a family,” is the common refrain I heard from several Indian aunties at the small Holi dinner party I attended the year I moved to Oklahoma. I had gotten married just a few months earlier at a memorable wedding in Delhi, and with great anticipation, I left the familiar surroundings of the San Francisco Bay Area I had called home for almost 30 years to start a new life in a new state, in a small university town nestled in the middle of wide-open fields and country farms.
Within a year, my husband, a marketing professor at Oklahoma State University, and I welcomed our first son, Abhimanyu (Abhi). My parents flew out from the Bay Area for the blessed occasion. As I watched my parents cradle and cuddle their new grandchild, I thought of how they took care of me as a child in Tamil Nadu, how they instilled in me the values of hard work and a good education, and most importantly, how they effortlessly bridged two cultures to educate and raise two daughters in this country. “What kind of mother will I be?” I wondered.
I once read, “We all can dance when we find music we love.”
And for Abhi, that love was for words. You know those magnetic A-Z letters kids put on the fridge? During our annual summer vacations in Meerut (a bustling city outside of Delhi where my in-laws live), Abhi spent hours moving, rotating, and repositioning those letters on the special dhurrie Dadi ma had laid out for him, making a lot of nonsense words and a few real ones. Soon, he started reading, and then, writing his first stories. School programs like the National PTA Reflections Arts-in-Education competition fueled his creative ambitions; starting in 2nd grade, he wrote and submitted a short story every year, advancing through local and state rounds of competition. They were mostly fantastical adventure stories, not unlike the Enid Blyton stories I had read growing up.
When Abhi learned that a fellow student had made a short film for the competition and that it had won at the national level, Abhi was adamant he could do the same. During that summer in India, he taught himself iMovie and figured out how to program a cute robot called Sphero so he could shoot his first five-minute film featuring a “robot detective” called Monsieur Sphero (a mischievous take on Agatha Christie’s famous sleuth, Monsieur Poirot). He was thrilled when his movie was selected for a national award.
When Abhi was 11, we discovered Stone Soup Magazine, a literary magazine for kids 14 years and under, that offers both a monthly print edition as well as an online blog section. Over the next two years, he became a regular blogger, writing book and movie reviews. The countless hours he spent debating his younger brother about the pros and cons of Star Wars helped shape the analytical skills and power of persuasion he needed to structure and write the reviews.
In 2019, Stone Soup announced their first annual book competition, and Abhi decided to go for it. He wanted to write a sci-fi story and started coming up with ideas, determined to write the book during our summer vacation in Meerut. In India, he saw a segment on cable news about the severe drought in Chennai and it piqued his interest. Why not combine science fiction and climate change in a unique way?
That was the spark for his 70-page novella set in the year 2100 called Three Days Till EOC. It is a story of climate scientist Graham Alison, who literally has three days to save civilization before a catastrophic cyclone threatens to destroy the planet. It is also a story about how small choices can lead to big changes – how a positive action we take today to stop climate change can result in a better world for our children, our children’s children, and generations after. We liked the idea, encouraged him to write the first draft, and then gave him feedback so he could continue to revise and improve his story over the next two months. Finally, he submitted it and was surprised and ecstatic when he learned that his book had won 1st place and would be published in September 2020. Since the book’s publication, Abhi has participated in various TV/newspaper interviews and made presentations to youth in the local Indian American community.
Abhi will turn 13 this month, and in a blink of an eye, he will soon be leaving for college. Like all parents, we wonder if we are doing enough to prepare our kids for this increasingly complex, fast-changing world. We hope that by giving them the freedom to play with and pursue their creative passions from a young age, that they will grow up to be hard-working, resilient, confident individuals who will contribute their talents in some way to make this world a better place. As a parent, there’s no greater legacy I can think of leaving behind.
Subhashini Prasad was born Indian, raised Indonesian, educated American and professionally groomed to call the world her oyster. Her debut book, an anthology – Not Really Indian, was published in 2019 and made it to Amazon’s Top 100 Bestsellers in its first month of release. Her first children’s book – Hoo and Hau, has been published on Storyweaver. In 2020, Subhashini won the runner-up Storyteller of the Year Award by Beyond the Box. She shares funny and sincere stories of motherhood on her Instagram page, @dosaiamma. She believes that laughter is an instant vacation and that dancing is the solution to everything. Subhashini currently resides in Gurgaon with her husband and two children.
Here’s a purview into her writing process and her journey on finding inspiration to write her debut novel, Not Really Indian.
What inspired your book ‘Not Really Indian’?
When I was 4, my family moved from Chennai to Jakarta. When I was 18, I moved to America to pursue my Bachelor’s degree and career opportunities. Therefore, from a young age, I have been a cocktail of cultures: sometimes confused, sometimes misplaced but always inquisitive and respectful of diversity. Stories from my own life and those of other third culture women have inspired Not Really Indian. Not Really Indian is a collection of short stories that challenge stereotypes and narrate the tales of women who long to be both Indian and worldly at once.
Are the characters in your book based on people you know?
I am a writer who strongly believes that ‘reality is stranger than fiction’. Not Really Indian therefore takes inspiration from real life and from acquaintances who share experiences of living in India and abroad. Every time I made new friends or encountered incidents that pertain to the theme of Not Really Indian, I had made notes in a journal or on my phone. The notes made over the years came in handy when I crafted each story about women and their journey in India and abroad. The story: Goodbye, My First Love is loosely based on my family’s experience when we moved to Indonesia in the late 1980s. Offshore’d is based on the experience of many of my colleagues who worked round the clock supporting the Western finance world from India. And finally, Not Really Indian takes snippets from my own life, mixed with a pinch of drama and a fistful of twists.
Did you struggle to develop any of your characters?
Surprisingly, the character sketches came naturally. Plotting the story, keeping the character development in mind was more challenging especially because I chose to use the short story format. It was challenging and exhilarating when the idea merged perfectly to reveal a character’s true color or to provide closure to the character’s personality.
If you choose to be one of the characters in your book, who would it be and why?
Niyati Shah from the story Offshore’d is a very brave, young professional who has found the ideal balance of interacting with clients across the globe and still, staying true to her Indian identity. Even when she faces challenges from her boss and colleague as she climbs the corporate ladder, she doesn’t give up and knows how to showcase her Indian team to the rest of the world in a banking world. Niyati, believe it or not, is an embodiment of every young lady that works in the outsourcing or IT sector in India. I would choose to be Niyati for her perseverance, courage, and patriotism she shows for being Indian.
Can you tell us about your writing process?
As a writer, I spend more time planning than in writing. I start with a one-line summary of each story and develop a character or chapter outline, depending on the length of the story. Once the planning is complete, I sit to write without distraction and find the flow. Once I find the flow, it is easier for me to finish chapters or stories at a length.
What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Since I work on planning and finding the flow for the words to occupy my page, it takes me more time to finish writing a large novel. And with the pandemic, with two small children at home, it is very difficult to find a distraction-free time. Also, planning can become very extensive and take time and effort away from creative writing.
I am currently working on my second book, which is a novel in the genre of dark romance. I have also completed my manuscript for two children’s books. If all goes well, all the manuscripts will be taken to publishing.
Divine Blossoms is the kind of book I might have never discovered if I was not the founder and host of a poetry group called the Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley. I am so glad that I agreed to review it and have had it on my bedside table for easy access for the past several weeks.
The poet, Anuradha Gajaraj-Lopez brings wholesomeness to the ordinary life as a householder. As a former journalist, she has a facility with words, using them to reach everyone, regardless of where they might come from. The 134-page book is more than a poetry book. It offers poems that are also prayer, a wide range of ways of worship, and several ancient stories from epics of Hindu mythology, as spiritual fables with lessons for young and old. These are all wrapped and delivered as short poems, with the cadence and essence of a bhajan, a devotional song, in simple English, that makes it accessible to everyone.
The book has two parts: the first called Murmurs from Beyond and the second called Whispers from India. The poems in the first part deal with faith in God and the metaphor of divine love. The latter part has poems in six sessions, on topics of devotees, folklore, epics of Ramayan and Mahabharta, gods Shiva and Krishna, Christ and Yogananda, women in India, and on death. The poems are rich in detail with the pathos of lived life in human form combined with a yearning for the inspiration from the deep faith in the divine, through the references that evoke not just the main characters that are highlighted in the index, but also the poetic traditions, with Kabir, Ramakrishna, Chaitnya Prabhu and others who were seekers in the same vein.
Anuradha invites the reader into her world with an authentic and heartfelt outpouring of the essence of all that she cherishes. The Indian mythological stories have a living oral tradition such that retelling these timeless stories allows for making them relevant in contemporary times. Anuradha’s rendering does that. If you are not familiar with Hindu mythology, she helpfully provides a short introduction before the poem, to make the story be set in the context, and for them to be rendered in a poetic form. The poems are crystalized into the essence of the story, almost like a bhajan, an Indian devotional poetic form.
I will not be surprised if someone reading them decided to set them to music and create a musical or chant form for these in the future. As many of the stories were familiar to me, parts of the book took me on a journey to my childhood when I had first heard these. The poems leave a fragrance, and it makes sense that she called the book Divine Blossoms. While the poems are light reading, they offer comfort, surprise, hope, and the adventure of a story. The moral lessons are conveyed gently like what the poet believes, and not a lecture on morality. Her voice brings the easy access of an Amar Chitra Katha comic book version along with the message with the clarity of her spiritual guru, Yogananda. The deep convictions of the poet are what make this poetry transparent and luminescent. These are conveyed in an easy manner that makes it clear that the poet practices these effortlessly and speaks her mind genuinely, wearing her faith as easily as a well-loved garment, and releasing the poems with trust that they will find their own readers.
The book is self-published and shows care in how symbols and images have been added to enhance the presentation. It will feel different from a professionally edited book since it has its own unique layout. This makes me wish that it will inspire others who are carrying their poems and stories within them to also be willing to create their own books. The creativity and fire of the work are best experienced, rather than described by me, so I have selected one of my favorite poems, reproduced with her permission.
The Stone on the Temple Floor
It is so unfair
I am trodden on by hundreds
Who rush by without a thoughtless care
To seek a glimpse of your form
I was hewn on the same old rock as thee
Here I lie on the temple floor
While you are daily worship
With honey, milk, curd and
Precious gems galore!
“Ha” laughed the divine statue
Standing erect and tall
And gently said,
“Brother, don’t you remember at all?”
The days when we lay on
The stone mason’s yard
With hardly a few blows you were
All set, and proudly carted afar
While, I cried each time,
The choice and hammer
Moved relentlessly on
On every inch of this form
You now see and envy from afar
And so, the Divine sculptor
Deals the hardest blows on those
He holds very close
Not to be discarded on an old temple floor
But to merge with Him and
Reach the coveted destiny that is His alone!
Dr. Jyoti Bachani is on a mission to humanize management using the arts, specifically poetry and improv, as a founding member of the Poetry of Diaspora of Silicon Valley, a co-founder of the US chapter of the International Humanistic Management Association, and an associate professor of business at Saint Mary’s College of California.
(Featured Image: Debotri Dhar and her book, Love Is Not A Word)
“In literature, culture, history, metaphysics, politics, and their interstices, ideas about love abound,” writes Debotri Dhar who teaches Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. The idea led her to thread together a book — Love Is Not a Word: The Culture and Politics of Desire — a unique collection consisting of twelve well-written essays by scholars, critics, storytellers, and journalists. The idea for the book first occurred to Dhar as a graduate student at Oxford University, and then again while teaching at Rutgers University in the US. It was while she was teaching at the University of Michigan that pieces of the book started finally falling in place.
The anthology consists of serious yet engaging essays on love, its many definitions, moods, themes, and interpretations. Each chapter is a detailed account of a different aspect of love—tracing both its historical background and contemporary relevance—making it a deeply researched and truly comprehensive read.
In ancient epics, through the practice of the Swayamvara, women such as Sita and Draupadi would review a number of suitors and select one as her husband. And yet, India is known for its arranged marriages and patriarchal attitudes towards matrimony. Marriage is a kind of business in India — thus, giving rise to a lucrative industry of matchmakers, astrologers, horoscope readers, matrimonial advertising, and wedding planners. What’s interesting is that in the same country, Bollywood dreams of romance and love marriages also thrive. In such a context, the living mythology of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata influences modern lives as much as mobile phones and Netflix, writes Malashri Lal, a retired professor at the Department of English at the University of Delhi.
In contrast to the chaste Ram-Sita and Shiva-Parvati pairings in Indian mythology, there is the secret love couple, Radha and Krishna. Then there is Amrapali, the legendary dancer—the most seductive and powerful courtesan in Pataliputra. While writing in Amrapali’s first-person, academic and museum curator Alka Pande traces the history of the Kamasutra, considered the mother of all erotic writing in India. The essay is enlightening as it debunks the myth of this sexual-yogic manual, giving it a much higher status—that of a handbook to help live life to its fullest.
The city has time and again become the backdrop for many a love story. For instance, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, much of the tale is influenced by Verona’s streets, piazzas, balconies, and dance halls. Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Bordeaux-Montaigne University, Didier Coste writes a literary, cultural, and global exploration of love and the city through space and time. “Only the stereotypes of light romantic comedy can perpetuate indefinitely the wonders of bumping into each other on Times Square or the Champs Elysees, or fighting for a cab and ending up in bed together for the weekend,” he writes.
The ghazal has always associated with love, and ideas of the beloved thrive in the ancient poetry of Urdu poetry’s famous exponent Mirza Ghalib. It is ironic then that in the present-day ideas of love, Jihad have negatively colored and taken over daily realities of interreligious love. Delhi-based print, television, and news media journalist, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay traces the politics of love in the aftermath of various historical movements, such as the Partition, the Babri Masjid demolition, and the 9/11 attacks. “Love and Jihad per se are incompatible words,” he writes.
While the tone of the in-depth essays in the book is mostly academic and scholarly, some are also personal. Through the larger debate around Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, Delhi-based author, Parvati Sharma writes about her personal experiences of being a young gay person in India. “When you love without the trappings that turn private ecstasy into social routine — marriage, family, children — when you insist on ‘living in’ or being flagrantly lesbian, when you harbor the kind of love that depends upon itself to survive, you do, of course, unsettle the world; and that is no bad thing at all,” writes Sharma.
Further, Christina Dhanaraj, a Christian Dalit woman, talks about her peculiar experiences in love as a Dalit woman. She argues that modern-day apps like Tinder only create an illusion of breaking barriers when it comes to caste and that it plays a huge role in one’s romantic relationship. It brings out the idea that love is, after all, a choice that one makes based on who we are and where we come from. “Loving and being loved, in all its glorified beauty, is a matter of privilege,” writes Dhanaraj.
Overall, the book provides some insightful perspectives on various dimensions of love. We can’t wait for Volume 2!
Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer and editor based in New Delhi. She is the author of ‘Wanderlust for the Soul’ and ‘Bombay Memory Box’.
Reena Kapoor’s debut book of poetry, Arrivals & Departures: Journeys in Poems makes this question even more relevant. Consider poetry a result of meditation, of thoughts, ideas, and memories that collect in the mind through observation. Reena grew up crisscrossing India as her father was a doctor in the Indian army. Her educational path is, like her poetry, quite diverse. She earned an undergraduate degree in Engineering from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, a Master’s from Northwestern University, and works as a software product leader in Silicon Valley. Kapoor’s debut poetry collection is thematically divided into sections interspersed with photographs she took. These images seamlessly connect her poetic utterance with passionate understanding. Recently I caught up with Reena Kapoor, a Bay Area resident, over email to pick her brains about her beautiful bouquet of poems and pictures.
IC: Arrivals & Departures is your debut poetry collection. What role did nostalgia play in putting this book together if any and how?
I am an immigrant and a traveler. And grew up as such – my father was a doctor in the Indian army and I grew up living all over India. In fact, I attended about 8 schools through high school, and call myself a “musafir” which is the Hindi/Urdu word for a traveler. Nostalgia plays a big role in my written word both due to my life circumstances and I guess to some extent life stage. Something about middle age and you start to see your life as it has been and how it’s brought you where you are. So looking back becomes much more natural vs. being younger where a solitary focus on the future is more apt and natural. My poems also express a “nostalgia” of sorts for what I don’t actually remember, ironically e.g., “koel” talks about the songbird that reminds me of childhood but the home is my parents’ current home which I did not grow up in but it still feels like mine…
IC:My reading of your collection introduced me to multiple themes, and a speaker addressing different voices. Can you talk about the various themes there are in your work, and how they interact with each other?
The themes in my work are multiple but they tie back to me, my life experiences and my take on life, and how to live a good one. A lot of what I say has to do with how I grew up, (what it was and I guess to some extent IS like) being a girl/ woman in India and then my own very personal attachments to people and interests and objects that hold enduring meaning for me.
IC: I quite like the interdisciplinary play of images and words, where sometimes the image is a poetic utterance itself. What was your process like in putting this unique book together? What do you want your audience to take away from it?
This is perhaps the hardest question for me – one that I get a lot of but one that I am pretty much at a loss to answer i.e., the “how” of writing my poems. The pen moves and I follow. I am led by an inner voice that I can’t turn away. When it arrives, I am compelled by words that spill out. I may polish or refine those words later but the initial and main body of the work almost creates itself. I guess it’s probably a given that I can’t “teach” poetry because the “how” of it is so elusive to me.
These poems have been “coming” to me for over a decade now and I finally found the quiet space to listen and put them down. But it was really my husband who pushed me to publish my work. I was plagued by the usual self-doubt that I guess many writers face – and I still do – as to who would be interested in my words or my ordinary life? The fact that even a few of my friends and loved ones have found some resonance in my poems has been one of my most precious gifts.
IC: You are not just a poet. With degrees from IIT, Northwestern, a keen interest in photography, theatre, and performance as well, did these other aspects of your creativity influence your writing, and if yes how did that come about?
Becoming an engineer was a practical and financial choice. I liked Math and Physics. And I came from a middle-class family in India where my parents emphasized the importance of being financially independent — especially for women. In those days in India, you could choose to be a doctor, or an engineer or a loser. So I ended up in IIT. I was always active in theatre and continued this pursuit through college and my early working years in the US. Photography came to me later with the iPhone 3…and the iPhone has continued to be my camera of choice. And Poetry came about the same time that I started capturing photos. I guess some latent creative impulses were clamoring for expression all along but I could only hear them once I felt a little more “settled”, a little more free, and in some ways liberated from my own expectations of “success”. It’s been a wonderful path and I am still loving every minute of it. My very first play “Art of the Possible” was played online recently and I am actively writing more theatre and literary pieces that will hopefully be produced soon.
IC: Every day before I sit to write, I like to read something that I love, irrespective of the genre. What inspires you to write?
The human condition. Nothing more or less. Why are we this way and what moves us and why? Finding happiness and meaning in the smallest of things is all there really is — yet it is also the human condition to chase so much else for naught; so much prestige, empty adulation, status, endless wealth yet most of which often leaves the traveler feeling alone and empty. Yet the chase becomes a life. Why? Eternal questions and I am not sure I will ever have answers. But the pursuit of such questions moves me and such learning is what I seek.
Dr. Manisha Sharma is a poet, fiction writer, and yoga teacher passionate about social issues in India. Her work is longlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, a finalist for the 2020 Cream City Review Fiction Contest, a semifinalist for the 2019 American Short(er) Fiction Contest. Her publications are in The Madison Review, The Common, Puerto Del Sol, The Bombay Review, and more. Currently, she is a lecturer in English and Yoga at two community colleges in Virginia and Ohio.