Last evening, I had been contemplating writing a commentary on friendship and I saw two ladies walking briskly towards each other in black velvet overcoats. As I came within earshot, they were hugging and rocking one another vigorously. I waited for their joyous greeting to end and asked, “ Are you best friends?” They broke free of their embrace and turned towards me. It was the beautiful Stephanie Walker and her friend. I burst out laughing at the serendipity of the process. Stephanie is well known in the Alabama arts community as a children’s author and currently works at WLRH where this commentary could air! My thoughts had found these friends and I could already envision them as the opening act of my story.
“Do you have one?,” Stephanie asked me. “What, a story?,” I responded. Stephanie shook her head, “No… a best friend?” I winked and said, “Well, for that you will have to read my story”.
I reached the restaurant I was heading to, musing about my eight year old grandson, Ayush, in Jaipur; He often talks about a classmate, maybe Noel or Anshuman, as his in-today-out-tomorrow best friend. Together they share a bench in class, participate in frivolous boyish acts like rolling pencils, singing slightly off-key, having lunch, and maybe inviting each other to birthdays. For the past few days Ayush has been sitting alone. I want to fly over, be his friend in class, and share gossip with him at lunch. I guess friendships at that age are less stable. Your table mate can be your best friend and when your seats change, so does your friendship.
Back in Huntsville,Alabama, I sipped my cucumber martini alone and I found myself surrounded by groups of friends, some celebrating birthdays, others meeting for dinner. I remember my kindergarten days, there was no dearth of friends then. The green-eyed monster had not reared her ugly head! We hugged, tumbled, twirled and hugged some more. Life was all play. In middle school, my best friend was Shiwani, or as I liked to call her, Juju. We climbed mango trees and got into scrapes together. By high school I had moved on and become close friends with Ganga and Mukta. Together we were known as the “Three Musketeers” and we were inseparable. We did homework together, shared food during intermission, talked about our first crushes, laughed over classroom drama, and made concrete plans on living in the same city once we were older . We are still close though we all currently live in different countries. Perhaps one day we will be together…
I have met wonderful, talented people in the Tennessee valley. I know artists, poets, engineers, nurses, doctors, researchers, bankers, librarians, journalists, musicians, herbalists and I share their virtuous company with joy. But the naked truth is that, although I wear my heart on my sleeve, I do not have someone I consider a friend. I have to confess that I don’t relish the “so-so” company of women in cliques . They dress to match, carry designer purses, have perfected their eye rolls and dissolve in mirth together at those who are in a pickle. They have no qualms about whispering under bated breath like pepper merchants in Thailand. Their makeup is flawless, as though their faces were hand dipped in porcelain, but when no one is watching their features settle into a shapeless gelatin mass that shudders with every breath. I try a joke or two to break the ice but their responses often set my teeth on edge.
So I seek my redemption in my place of worship: a bookstore. Viola! As soon as I pick up a new book, the world is my oyster again. I immerse myself in the lyrical prose of Towles, Doerr, Patchett, Dalai Lama, Tolstoy, Tagore, Twain, and Shakespeare. As I sink into the arms of a comfortable well used sofa, I realize that I have come full circle to my true best friends. They don’t mock my Boheme mismatched socks. They could care less. All ennui vanishes into thin air and I am in their heart of hearts. All of them take turns in sharing their life lessons with an urgent candor. Suddenly I have uncovered the light I could not see. My trepidations vanish into thin air and I am surrounded by my familiar best friends with hearts of gold. All’s well that ends well. What do you say William?
Oh little Ayush, you will settle down into the social norms of being in school. Being an only child, I know you hanker for a regular companion but you are a resilient young man. You read stories of Pinocchio and Red Riding Hood to me on FaceTime and I feel we are the same. So I’m not worried. I hope you find someone who will enjoy reading stories with you, till then you can find new friends in books.
With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. Monita has published two books, My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart.
A little girl stands in the balcony of her home, watching the world come alive slowly around her. Flocks of bright green parrots take flight as one from the mango trees. Rabari tribeswomen in their brightly hued clothing spill onto the street below her. The sounds of their voices… the rainbow hues of their skirts… each image tells stories and the visuals etch themselves firmly on her impressionable mind.
Many years later, the girl, now a woman, walks into a store. She sees an amazing rainbow coat and wants it for her own! The coat is made a quilt of many hues, worked over with care. To her, it feels like the many parts within her that make her whole. She buys the coat and travels back in time to that long ago colorful memory on her balcony. This is the story of her passion.
“We all have a story inside of us. We only have to want to tell it”, saysJyoti Yelagalawadi – Exec. Director of Lekha Ink Corp. Jyoti has traveled miles since she was that little girl standing on a balcony. She feels that Lekha’s story began one such morning, when she started to write down her impressions of her world. “I was always a bookworm…and then I found writing”, she admits with a laugh!
Her love of books took her to New York City, where she studied Creative writing at Lehman College. Along the way, she fashioned a career as a technical writer, managing the publication department in a software company. And as it often happens, she found her path circling around to the beginning – and to her twin passions – writing for pleasure, and working with children.
In 2001 Jyoti was searching for a name to fit her business model – a small, independent publishing house. The standard advice she received was that she should stick with names that fit the tried and tested ‘feel.’ Eventually she settled on the name ‘Lekha’ – a Sanskrit term which means ‘to write’ .“Saraswati – is my favorite goddess. The embodiment of knowledge,” she says. For a person who considers words, and writing as ‘sacred,’ it felt like the perfect fit.
Lekha Ink, Corp started as an independent publishing company in 2002, with the intention of publishing books written BY and FOR children. Jyoti’s work as a mentor to middle and high school students gave her great pleasure. She led the Write On program through YMCA Citizen school for the middle school level. When a friend asked her to guide her daughter in the art of writing, the germ of another idea took hold. In 2006, she began Lekha Writing Centeras a summer experiment, and ended up running it as a subsidiary of the publishing house. The workshop was a success eventually growing into after-school classes, and seasonal camps.
Lekha initially offered Creative Writing classes through enrichment camps and after-school programs. With growing demand, academic writing classes also came to be a part of the Lekha Writing Center. Lekha classes are being offered through schools, public library spaces and also through city community centers as well as some independent locations, in different cities in the Bay Area.
Today, Lekha offers seasonal as well as year-round camps through several cities in the S. F Bay Area. Enrollments are either through the cities’ Parks & Recreation website, or directly through the Lekha website. “Over the years we have seen a positive response from various communities when it comes to Creative Writing,” says Jyoti. Class enrollments have grown and the number of book titles published under the Lekha banner.
Lekha’s mission is to ‘create the next generation of Young Wordsmiths’. Lekha Writing Center is committed to developing a generation of children who think beyond the book. “Our emphasis is on creative writing using tools that develops their imagination,” says Jyoti.
Lekha instructors receive specific training in writing instruction – The Lekha Way – which places great value on teaching different modes of writing, in addition to standard conventional methods. Students demonstrate their knowledge through creative work like poetry, stories, essays etc. which the instructors believe already resides within their minds. They are encouraged to use their own personal experiences, education and knowledge to shape their writing. While making sure the traditional tenets of writing are maintained, Lekha instructors guide and facilitate the students in polishing their own work by reworking their pieces. The result is a more expressive style of writing.
Sometimes young writers might develop fears about their writing which is quite common. Using visualization and verbalization techniques, illustration, creative play etc, Lekha instructors help them overcome such fears or writers’ block.
Providing a fun and nonthreatening learning environment helps foster their passion for writing that builds over time.
Lekha student Aashka Pandyahas published a novella titled ‘The Price of being Ashley Rich’. Aashka is currently enrolled at U.C Santa Barbara with a double major in Communications and Film. She credits her Lekha experience with nurturing her love of creative writing and building her confidence. Aashka writes original stories and screenplay for short films. Her story for the film ‘(in)dependent Spouse’ has been awarded ‘Best Original Story’ award from TopShorts film festival in June 2018. She has set her sights on being a professional screenplay writer for TV shows in the future!
Aashka’s mother Deepal Pandya discovered Lekha through an online search for creative writing classes. “I have no words to describe how much I appreciate Lekha’s supportive role in grooming my daughter, Aashka’s interest in creative writing. Lekha will always have a special place in my heart for the amazing positive contribution it has made in my daughter’s life”, says Deepal.
“Most great ideas start as dreams”, says Jyoti. She had a dream in 2015 which featured a child sitting in the back of a car playing, singing and writing using his mother’s phone. That was the germ of the idea for the Lekha App. Workshops were underway, the writing center was functioning as planned, and she felt that it was time to think in a different direction. “A portable Lekha option was important, and felt right”, she says.
Although the publishing wing of Lekha is still cost effective for authors looking for small independent publishers, many might prefer to self publish. That comes with considerable investment in terms of finances and commitment, and can be intimidating to writers. The publishing world has changed immensely with technology, internet and social media platforms bringing a digital revolution to readers of every age range. Jyoti and her Lekha team felt that they would be able to take their mission of helping children cultivate pride in their writing, by adding on another dimension to their arsenal.
What emerged was write4joy– the Best Mobile App Award for 2018! While still in the BETA stage, write4joy was awarded the prestigious Gold in the Best Educational App category.
Currently available for iPads, write4joy will be made available for Android and desktop environments in the next phase. The app educates and provides prompts, tips, examples and activities to help writers understand the creative writing process. It also helps formulate writing strategies, drafts, revisions and formatting the stories. Experienced and trained instructors help guide and review the project using the in-built message board. Once completed, the writer has the option of publishing the work online, or in print.
Lekha instructor Sara Mithra shared the enthusiastic response to the write4joy App when she introduced it to her class, “Confident in the power of their own words, students zeroed in on the profit-making potential when they realized that they would have a contract with a real publisher. They began fantasizing about how their covers would look.”
Instructor Julianne Daniell credits the App for bringing the right mix of original imagination and technology into the writing process. “Students love using the write4joy App. It motivates them to create their own writing projects, while providing them with technology that makes the process interesting and fun. It gives them the ability to create stories and add technological details, including pictures, backgrounds, and textures. Most importantly, the app is easy and fun for students to use, whether they are in the classroom or at home.”
Jyoti is excited to offer this option to writers, “The write4joy App is possibly the cheapest way anyone can publish! And it shows you that Anyone Can Publish! Whether you are 7 or 70 years old, if you have an idea ready, you can publish using the app!”. Through write4joy, Lekha hopes to inspire young authors to create stories using their imaginative original artwork. The App makes it easy to share their published work on social media sites like Facebook etc. Lekha’s in-house editors are available to the young authors for help during the writing process. Once finalized, they can choose to publish online through the Apple Bookstore or Amazon etc. Should they prefer to publish their work as a Lekha publication, they are free to do so.
In 2018, Lekha decided to revive its Young Wordsmithsplatform as a quarterly online magazine, which will feature both archived as well as newly published works from their young authors. Material submitted via the write4joy app will be considered for publication as well in the magazine.
“Storytelling is a joy! Each of us has the innate ability to tell our story from the heart. There is no right or wrong!”, Jyoti is proud of the fact that write4joy is the crowning glory of the four parts of Lekha Ink Corp.
A fitting feather in the cap for the little girl who managed to turn her passion for books and writing into a reality!
Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. Her new avatar requires creative juggling with the pen and the brush.