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Film still from Freddie's Piano featuring Aakash Prabhakar (left) and Pranav Mylarassu (right).

‘I Have Always Been Obsessed With Telling Stories’ Aakash Prabhakar Tells IC

Aakash Prabhakar’s English-language Indian film Freddie’s Piano recently made it to the official lineup of North America’s oldest and most prestigious film festival, the New York Indian Film Festival 2021.

Actor and Director, Aakash Prabhakar
Actor and Director, Aakash Prabhakar

Shot in idyllic Pondicherry, the film’s screenplay was written by national award-winning filmmaker Batul Mukhtiar. It is produced by New Hampshire-based independent film producers Somasekhar Kovvuri and Lisa Kovvuri and co-directed by Sudharshan Narayanan who studied filmmaking at the Mindscreen Film School in Chennai.

Prabhakar’s maiden venture in cinema is a music lover’s delight. A young adult film, it is a story about two half-brothers Aden and Freddie. Aden wants to give Freddie a piano to fulfill their father’s dream; Freddie wants to give Aden the freedom he dreamed about when their father was alive. In the end, both brothers learn that what they really need is each other. A simple film about what Aden does to get his younger brother Freddie a grand piano for Christmas, Freddie’s Piano was screened virtually at the Scottsdale International Film Festival last year from November 6 to 15, 2020.  

In this exclusive interview, he talks to us among other things about the inspiration behind Freddie’s Piano, his theater background, and star pianist from Rahman’s music conservatory who debuts in the film.

IC: Tell us about the idea/inspiration behind your film Freddie’s Piano.

AP: I always loved listening to classical music as a kid. I started learning keyboards in my early teens. I remember asking my mother to buy me a keyboard, which was way better and expensive than the one I had. She asked me to wait for some time and eventually bought it for me. Later, she told me that she had to take on more work, put in more hours in her business, and save more to get me that keyboard. The incident really stayed with me.  

Freddie’s Piano came from there. I have always enjoyed reading O’Henry. One of his popular stories, Gift of the Magi, is one of my favorites. It was also at the back of my mind when I was writing the story for this film. That’s how this story came together. An elder brother wants to gift his younger brother a piano for Christmas when he can’t even pay for his bus fees. The film is about all that Aden does to buy Freddie a piano for Christmas.

IC: Tell us a little about Pranav Mylarassu, a star pianist from A R Rahman’s KM Music Conservatory, who makes his debut as 12-year-old Freddie in the film.

AP: I wanted a kid who can play the piano well, and the head of the Conservatory introduced me to him. When he started playing, we couldn’t take our eyes off him. He knew all the classics—Beethoven, Mozart—inside out and played them with so much poise. I sent him the script, he had his scenes memorized and was very attentive throughout the workshops and the shoot. 

This was his first time acting on camera, so he was an empty slate. He really did justice to the part, capturing the innocence and honesty I wanted in Freddie. A very intelligent kid, he loves making origami, practices yoga every day, wants to be an aerospace engineer when he grows up and hopes to make space tourism possible. 

Pranav Mylarassu in film, Freddie’s Piano.

IC: Tell us more about your theater background, and some of the plays you have written, acted in, and directed in Mumbai.

AP: I have always been obsessed with telling stories. I acted in plays in school, directed and acted in plays in college. About seven-eight years ago, I started acting in plays professionally. After doing a few workshops, a yearlong course in theater-making, performance arts as well as acting in a lot of plays in Mumbai, I started my own company, Here And Now. My company has produced Crumpled that I co-wrote, directed, and acted in; The Drum Roll that I wrote and directed; Bull by Mike Bartlett that I acted in; and Cock by Mike Bartlett. My latest was Visiting Mr. Green by Jeff Baron, in which M K Raina and I acted.

IC: Which are some of your all-time favorite films? Who or what are your biggest inspirations?

AP: The Shawshank Redemption, Children of Heaven by Majid Majidi, Life is Beautiful by Roberto Benigni, Salaam Bombay! by Mira Nair, Nayakan by Mani Ratnam, Bicycle Thieves, The Pianist, The Marriage Story, and A Separation by Asghar Farhadi.

What are you working on next?

AP: I am probably going to jump back on stage with Visiting Mr. Green and Cock by Mike Bartlett as soon as things open up. I am also working on Stephen Belber’s Tape, a really well-written script that also became a film directed by Richard Linklater.

I am constantly reading and auditioning for parts in films and web series. I am also developing a couple of film and web show projects. One explores relationships, mental health, and complicated love stories in urban cities and the other is a feature about the labor migration crisis that happened last year due to Covid.

View the film from June 4-13 here: https://www.moviesaints.com/movie/freddies-piano


Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. 


 

Dr. Sadaf Jaffer's swearing-in for her first term as Mayor (Image provided by Fatima Naqvi)

Dr. Sadaf Jaffer is the First Muslim Woman to Serve as Mayor in the US

Dr. Sadaf Jaffer became the first South Asian woman to serve as mayor of a municipality in New Jersey, and the first Muslim woman to serve as a mayor of a municipality in the United States. Jaffer is a Postdoctoral Research Associate of South Asian Studies at Princeton University where she teaches courses on South Asian, Islamic, and Asian American studies. She got her start in politics when she ran for local office in 2017 and won, becoming the first and only Democrat on the local government in Montgomery, NJ, in many years. In the following year, the Democratic Party won two more seats and Jaffer became the Mayor. She is now running for New Jersey State Assembly in Legislative District 16. 

Mayor Sadaf F. Jaffar (Image provided by Fatima Naqvi)

Can you tell me a little bit about your background: where you were born and raised? 

SJ: I was born and raised in Chicago. My parents had immigrated from Pakistan and Yemen. I went to college in Washington D.C. at Georgetown University, and then I lived in India for two years studying Urdu in Lucknow. I did a Ph.D. at Harvard University in South Asian Studies. Later, I moved to New Jersey after I met my husband and we both ended up getting a position at Princeton University. We have a 6-year-old daughter. 

As a South Asian Muslim woman in politics who belongs to an immigrant family, how do you define your identity? How has that translated into your work as Mayor so far? 

SJ: My goal is to try to make a positive change and be a caring member of my family and my community. I want to advocate for people to have the rights that they deserve. That drives me in all of the work that I do, whether it’s teaching my students about Islam in South Asia or South Asian American literature and film; leading my community during a pandemic; leading them by having conversations and discussions about racial injustice, and how we can address it; or by serving as a candidate and trying to learn about what people in my district want. I would definitely say that my South Asian identity is very important to me and it manifests itself in lots of different ways. A really important thing to me is that we see South Asian American culture as an integral part of American culture – that there isn’t necessarily a dichotomy. If I want to wear a Saari to my swearing-in – which is what I did for my second term as mayor – that should just be me representing a part of my identity that is important to me. 

You recently completed two terms as mayor of Montgomery Township, New Jersey. What was it that made you want to get into politics? 

SJ: I had considered myself an activist for many years and specifically as someone who cared deeply about human rights issues. Over time, I started to feel like advocacy was having its limits. I felt like ultimately the elected officials were making the decisions that they thought were the right ones. That’s when I started thinking that I should advocate for people who shared my values to be in those elected roles, or that I should eventually run myself.

I participated in a candidate training program for women from the Democratic Party who are interested in running for office, called Emerge New Jersey. It was through that program that I learned about the nitty-gritty of connecting with the State Party, County Party, and the Municipal Party. After that, I was campaigning for someone who was running for Congress when I was asked to run for office. In Emerge, I learned that the United States ranked 75th in the world in terms of women’s representation in politics and if I want other women to participate then I believed that I should also step up and do it myself. Ultimately, it was because I wanted to see the values that I hold dear reflected in the policies of my government. 

What has your experience as a representational figure in politics been like so far? Has it been what you expected it to be? 

SJ: I don’t think I really knew what to expect. Being thrust into a role as a representational figure, I definitely feel a sense of responsibility to speak to the broader community, and to be the example that there’s such a hunger to see political engagement from our communities. It mostly comes down to mentoring and advising people on how to get involved – that is also one of the reasons why I got into politics. I had never known anyone who had run for office before. I want to open up the process to more people. I want them to feel empowered, so I’m very happy to help encourage individuals from diverse communities to get involved in the political process. I see that as a responsibility that I am very proud to fulfill. 

You are now seeking a Democratic nomination for the NJ General Assembly. If elected, what are some key issues you plan to focus on as a legislator? 

SJ: My platform is basically focused on prosperity and justice for all. I believe that the government can be a source of good. The first thing that I would want to focus on is investing in green jobs and sustainable recovery. Our economy has shifted dramatically over the course of the pandemic and now we have an opportunity, as we get things restarted, to do so in a sustainable manner. 

The second would be civil and human rights which is a passion of mine and is really why I got involved in activism to begin with. There are a lot of things that can be put in place to ensure that we are diversifying our police department; that we’re acknowledging indigenous rights; that we are providing maternal healthcare. Those are some of the things that I would be very passionate about advocating for when I get into the State Assembly. 

Lastly, what is the one factor you feel is necessary for anyone to run and get elected to office? 

SJ: Go for it. Women and minorities win elections at the same rate as white men, but we just don’t run as often. So, you’ll just have to jump in and you’ll learn as you go. If you’re interested in politics, I would say the best thing for you to do is to connect with your party and start campaigning for candidates you believe in. Through their experience, you will learn. There is a hunger and a need for people with new perspectives, dynamics, ideas, and a strong work ethic. 


Fatima Naqvi is a Rutgers University graduate who currently works as a Legislative Liaison at the New Jersey Department of Education.


 

Not Really Indian: Subhashini Prasad’s Book Compiles Global Narratives

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.

Cover of book, 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?

Author, Subhashini Prasad.

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. 

Who are your favorite authors?

Khalid Husseini and Jhumpa Lahiri have always been my favorite authors. Recently, I have enjoyed reading Elif Shafak and Indian women writers like Anuradha Roy, Madhuri Vijay, and Kiran Manral

Tell us about your future projects

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. 


Surabhi Kaushik is a writer from the heart and finds joy and comfort in her words. You can find all her published work on her blog: https://surabhiwritersmind.blogspot.com 


 

Reliving Scam 1992 Successfully: Hansal Mehta and Pratik Gandhi

As Abhishek Bachhan-starrer The Big Bull got released in April 2021, viewers were compelled to compare its content with the enthralling Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story (2020). Armed with the copyrights of using the real names and places, backed with intricate details of how one of the world’s biggest financial market functions, the latter clearly wins over. India Currents connected with Scam’s lead actor and director to know what went behind making it so.  

Mumbai is known as much for its local trains as its Jaguars, Lamborghinis, and Porsches. Finding cars like Premiere Padmini, Maruti 1000, Lexus Starlet, and Toyota Sera of the early-90s was a challenge here in the making of the hit web series, Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story

Pratik Gandhi in film, Scam 1992.

“In one particular scene, a fleet of 15 of these high-end beauties of the 1990s are being flaunted by Harshad Mehta to his guests. It took the research team 2.5 years to get to those facts and bring them to life for the series,” shares actor Pratik Gandhi, who plays the role of Mehta in Scam

Within days of premiering on October 9, Scam rose to be the highest ever rated web series in the world on IMDB. “What matters is, in the absence of a benchmark to measure the success of a show, these tell you that your show is doing well. It is heartening. But one should not get carried away,” says soft-spoken Scam Director, Hansal Mehta about the unprecedented ratings ever received by a show/movie – Indian or otherwise. 

Scam is based on Sucheta Dala and Debashis Basu’s book The Scam: Who Won, Who Lost, and Who Got Away (1993). Mehta describes it as a deeply investigative and technical non-fiction book which he had wanted to make into a feature film when he read it somewhere around 2004-05.

Hansal Mehta, Director of the movie Scam 1992.

“A web series, and especially stories like that of Harshad Mehta, require a certain magnitude of storytelling. It’s more challenging and satisfying for me,” Mehta explains. Thus, the script of Scam runs 550 pages and is shot in 85 days spread over 6 months. “This size of the on-floor script is huge. It’s a thesis. If it’s anything to go by, the size of an average movie script is 70-90 pages and is shot in 20-30 days for regional cinema,” says Gandhi. Interestingly, the Scam shoot got over in March of last year, days before the country went into complete lockdown of two months.  

Though Gandhi put on 18kgs of weight for the role, he was instructed by the Director to imbibe Harshad’s traits more deeply than the looks. Apart from extensive reading sessions of the book, he watched available online videos of Harshad and met people from the share market and outside to know how he treated people and behaved. 

“For example, Harshad was a restless man who wanted to make it big and grow fast. So there was a constant movement in his body. If you watch the frames closely, either his thumb or hand or foot is moving; his smirk appears ever so swiftly portraying his arrogance, ego, and competence all at once – there is energy in the character,” shares Gandhi on how he got into the skin of the protagonist.    

The 10-part series takes you on the journey of how a poor Harshad from Gujarat, India, made his way through the Bombay Stock Exchange and got glorified as ‘The Big Bull’ and ‘Bachchan of the stock market’ through the late 1980s and early 1990s until he was exposed by Dalal of committing frauds against banks and BSE that ran into millions of dollars. 

“The visual detailing was a challenge – recreating old Bombay, finding the luxury cars, explaining how the stock exchange worked before it was computerized, meeting jobbers to understand how they worked then, to create the offices of those times complete with landline phones…The research team used a book that has the entire history of BSE. We used some hand gestures mentioned in there,” speaks Mehta of ways in which they delved beyond the book.

It was the “big life” of Harshad that intrigues the director the most. “My decision to tell a story or a character is guided by how much it impacts the world we live in. Scam is a story of India at the cusp of liberalization, a story of greed, of a system in rot.” 

Scam endears its viewers with simplified jargon of the trade market. Hansal says he guided his writers while they worked on creating engaging dialogue. “Scripting is an interesting process. And this series required a lot of it to be done. With an eye on facts and a book to follow, one can easily lose the emotional connect,” feels Gandhi.

Though Hansal has explored diverse biographical characters with actor Rajkummar Rao in his five critically acclaimed previous works, and his next Chalaang is again with him, why did he chose Gandhi to play Harshad Mehta? 

“Pratik Gandhi was an instinctive choice to play the role. I had seen his work in theatre and two of his Gujrati films – Bey Yaar (2014) and Wrong Side Raju (2016). Both Mukesh Chhabra and I zeroed in on him,” says Mehta. On the sets, Hansal told Gandhi that he didn’t even go through the audition given by the actor for this role.

Scam’s tagline ‘Risk hai toh ishq hai’ has struck a chord with many. Did this series take any risks?

“I think the biggest risk the makers of this series took was an unusual cast, to take me as the lead protagonist instead of a well-known face. This is my biggest ever and first mainstream project though I have done a lot of work in the film and theatre industry for over 15 years now,” says Gandhi, who holds an entry in the Limca Book of Records for his 90-minute monologue on Mahatma Gandhi. 

“He (Hansal Mehta) is a very calm and composed person. On the first day of the shoot, he told me that all he wanted from me was to create this character with honesty. ‘When you say it’s not feeling right, I would stop.’ You don’t find this kind of faith and freedom,” says Gandhi. 

And evidently, the faith is reaping its fruits. “Before this series, I had only heard about the stock exchange. Now I have got intrigued about it and learning it. But I haven’t ever invested!” says Gandhi. Any level at which he could relate himself to Harshad? “Of a lot of things, one thing is, I am a complete family man like him.”


Suruchi Tulsyan, a freelance journalist based in Kolkata, spends most of her time tending to her children and her plants.


 

New York to Kerala, American Actress India Jarvis Makes a Malayalam Film Debut

The first time Director, Jeo Baby mentioned her name, I thought I had heard him wrong. It was prior to the release of his film, Kilometers and Kilometers. Requesting him to repeat the actress’s name, I heard him say India Jarvis again. Now I was convinced of my hearing. 

Actress, India Jarvis

India Jarvis might be an unusual name for this New York-raised American actress. And, clearly, her mother had no inkling while christening her daughter India, that one day her little girl would cross the shores to work in the eponymous country. 

Jarvis traveled in 2019 to India on her first visit for the filming of the Malayalam film, ‘Kilometers and Kilometers.’

“My mother named me after one of the characters in ‘Gone With the Wind,’ says Jarvis over email. “She found the name beautiful.”

Jarvis’s love for acting goes back to her childhood when as a 9-year-old, she joined a community theater. And, with a BFA from the Academy of Art University (San Francisco), she moved to New York. She worked there in Off-Broadway shows and short films.

Kilometers and Kilometers is her first Indian feature film where she essays the lead role of Cathy- an American tourist in India. Cathy after winning at a casino is keen on touring the country, but not in chauffeured cars. She is eager on exploring India while riding pillion on a motorcycle.

When the offer to do this Malayalam film came her way, Jarvis despite being unaware of the industry, took it up.

“I have watched Indian films,” she says. “My favorite is ‘Black’ – the Amitabh Bachchan starrer. As an actor, you’re always looking for scripts with interesting stories and characters.”

Like her character, it was her first experience traveling to India. 

“I’ve never worked on anything like this before. I knew it would be a challenge from an acting perspective.”

Talking about her director, Jarvis says, “Jeo had a great vision for this film. I knew it was in great hands.”

In Kilometers and Kilometers, she is paired opposite Kerala’s heartthrob –Tovino Thomas. Thomas plays Josemo, a motorbike mechanic who takes on the work opportunity to drive Cathy around on his motorbike. Being the only son, he supports his widowed mother and younger sister and hopes to clear his family debts with the money thus earned. 

Jarvis was at ease working with Tovino Thomas. 

“While shooting, I found myself lost at times due to the language barrier. Tovino was always helpful,” she recalls.  “There’s one scene where Josemon and Cathy are sitting on the edge of a cliff. We were secured by a rope around our waists. It was terrifying, but I put on a brave face to get through the scene. Pillion riding on a motorcycle was a blast. Despite a hectic schedule, it was almost therapeutic.”

Kilometers and Kilometers is a feel-good film now streaming on Netflix.

Following its release, Jarvis has been flooded with messages on social media. Though she has received offers to work in India, she is unable to travel in the existing pandemic times.


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/ 


 

‘I Want My Work to Encourage People to Stop & Think’ Says Michelle Poonawalla

(Featured Image: Michelle Poonwalla and Circle of Life Artwork)

Artist, businesswoman, philanthropist, and socialite Michelle Poonawalla recently showcased a series of her new artworks at the Tao Art Gallery’s exhibition The Tangible Imaginative for the Mumbai Gallery Weekend. Michelle’s four oil on canvas works—Blue Wave, Desert Rose, Forest Flutter and Flutter Fly—come from the artist’s Butterfly Series, and feature three-dimensional, sculptural elements affixed to the canvas. Painted in bold colors, the works feature gold-effect butterflies.

Futter Fly

Poonawalla lives and works between London and Pune. Her practice combines cutting-edge technology and traditional artistic mediums, often utilizing sound, video mapping, projection, motion sensors, and other techniques. She has previously exhibited her work at the Saatchi Gallery, London; Alserkal Avenue, Dubai; and as a collateral project at the Kochi Biennale, India. More recently, Poonawalla has also begun exploring work with shorter digital format films.

In this exclusive interview, she spoke to us among other things about her earliest artistic influences, nature as inspiration, her favorite art medium, and the butterfly symbol in her works.

Tell us a little about your oil-on-canvas works at the Tao Art Gallery’s exhibition The Tangible Imaginative for the Mumbai Gallery Weekend.

MP: The four works come from my Butterfly Series which evolves beyond traditional 2D painting, incorporating sculptural elements that bring the artworks off the canvas and into the viewer’s space. A lot of my work features the butterfly symbol which for me represents both beauty and freedom–an ephemeral creature that is the result of a metamorphosis.

What was the idea, inspiration behind them?

MP: The works all have different inspirations and stories behind them. For example, Blue Wave is inspired by Mumbai and references the city through its free-flowing language and color. Desert Rose, which also features butterflies, represents the inherent beauty in nature’s patterns as I allowed the butterfly sculptures to fall naturally on the work before affixing each one where they landed.

A theme often addressed in my work is the strength and beauty of nature and the importance of preserving it. This is perhaps most obvious in Forrest Flutter. Painted in dark earthy hues and greens, the work celebrates the forest. 

You are the granddaughter of the iconic south Mumbai architect Jehangir Vazifdar. Tell us about some of your earliest artistic influences.

MP: From an early age, I was taken to some of the greatest museums and galleries in the world. I have always loved art and painted throughout my life and studied Interior Design at university. I was perhaps most inspired by my grandfather, Jehangir Vazifdar, a renowned painter and architect. My grandfather had a very special technique in oil painting with a ruler which he shared only with me, and it is important for me to carry on his legacy.

Your work is known to explore universal, socially engaged topics. Tell our readers about some of these themes.

MP: Art is a universal language with a powerful voice, and I’m conscious my work is used to spread a positive message. For example, I have recently produced a series of video works that explore environmental change and other issues around us today. I want my work to encourage people to stop, think, and introspect. Be it climate change, water scarcity, or violence in our world, people should always stop and think.

Desert Rose

Which is your favorite art medium? Do you feel that digital art is the future of art?

MP: I enjoy acrylic and work in acrylic for my butterfly paintings. However, I wouldn’t say I have one favorite medium. I’ve worked in oils a lot and I am looking forward to exhibiting some drawings at the 079 Stories gallery in Ahmedabad soon.

Digital art is certainly something we are seeing more of but I think physical painting will always have a place – it is important to be able to physically engage with artwork in person. I’ve always been interested in combining cutting-edge technology and traditional art forms, and digital art has allowed me to create huge immersive installations where the viewer is completely emerged in the visual image. Technology gives an artist the freedom to explore endless possibilities; it allows a greater feeling. I also think digital art speaks the language of the younger generation, and it keeps their interest in art growing.  

What are you working on next?

MP: I’ve got several projects coming up, including showing work in a drawings exhibition at the beautiful 079 Stories in Ahmedabad in February. Later in the year, I will also be showing work in a group exhibition in Delhi. Alongside this, I am exhibiting work online with several platforms including digital work with SeditionArt.com and several new works I have just produced for House of Culture. Hopefully, there are a few international projects on the cards which I will be able to announce later in the year. 


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’.

India’s Shooting Star: In Talks With Deepika Kumari

With the changed dates of the Tokyo Olympics to July 23, 2021 – August 8, 2021, the livelihood of Olympians is in question. During this month of women’s empowerment, let’s underscore one of India’s most prominent female athletes.

Ranked World No. 1 archer at the tender age of 18 and at number 9 currently, India’s Deepika Kumari is an inspiration to thousands out there who dream to participate in the world championships but have practically no social or financial backing. If one breaks the mold and steps up to carry the baton of grit, determination, and achievements, many others are bound to follow. 

Kumari, on whom the award-winning documentary Ladies First was based, believes a calm mind is an archer’s biggest asset. Training at the national camp in Pune, India, with an eye on Gold at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, she shares the sweat and toil that goes behind shooting each arrow. Excerpts of a conversation:

IC: What were your first thoughts when the nationwide lockdown happened in March 2020?

DK: I didn’t think much about it initially. About two months later, the Olympics were postponed, which was good in a way as we were unable to do much while at home. But slowly, the uncertainty of when normal life would resume started getting to me. Our first training camp started on October 1. It was a long gap. 

IC: Did you continue training during the lockdown? 

DK: In the first few weeks, I practiced at home with the portable accessories which we use. These allow a shooting range of 3-4 meters. As an outdoor shooter, my range is 70 meters. Our physical exercises and yoga continued throughout though, alongside eating a whole lot of delicious home food. I also got married (to fellow archer Atanu Das) during this period. Lockdown had both good and bad.

IC: What are your most important assets as an archer – do you have a collection of bows and arrows? 

DK: I have two sets of these: two bows and arrows. One set is for daily practice; the second for competitions. In either case, one set I’m using, the second is in reserve. We keep around 6-7 dozen arrows with us made of carbon and wood. That apart, we have accessories/equipment for saving us – helmet, arm guard for elbow, chest guard for half chest, finger tab to protect our fingers from cutting against the thin string, sling so that the bow doesn’t fall, quiver for arrows. 

Atanu (my husband) has made my finger tab in leather – our desi jugaad. The string used on our bows is prepared by us in about 35 minutes using thread and wax. 

One bow lasts for about 1.5 years. It has various parts – the grip, arrow rest, clicker, limb (refer to picture attached) – which we purchase and assemble as per requirement. Different parts have varying lifespan. Limb lasts 6 months, string for 3 months, etc. We thus keep spares for replacement. Once used completely, we give the bow to other needy kids, sell it or throw it. 

We shoot about 450-500 arrows everyday during practice. We cut these arrows ourselves and assemble its various parts – fletch, feather, large and small points and nock. Each and every part of my gear is thus dear to me. 

Archer, Deepika Kumari

IC: Tell us something about your daily routine – what kind of workout and training you are undergoing daily before the Olympics? 

DK: We have our physical (exercises) from 6.30-7.30 every morning. And from 8.30 am-12 noon we practice shooting. We shoot anything between 350-450 arrows in this time and then it’s rest time. Again in the evening, we do physical from 6-7.30 pm, followed by short practice. We take complete rest on Wednesdays and Sundays. I watch movies, listen to songs, sleep, clean my room, wash clothes, and at times play cricket too!    

IC: Does the number of arrows you shoot in a day matter? 

DK: No, especially before competition, as quality matters more than quantity. We have to control the bow, draw the string as many times as the number of arrows shot. It needs physical power, called poundage. It’s significant to maintain that else you wouldn’t be able to shoot that big a distance in windy outdoor conditions. Continuous practice without long breaks is also critical in maintaining the poundage – something that didn’t happen during lockdown.

IC: Which parts of the body do you work on most rigorously? 

DK: The shoulder, since we have to pull a lot. But we require the whole body in archery. Your core should be stable to draw the string. You need energy to breathe through a match/session without gasping. Focusing with one eye is integral to this sport. Thus staying away from eye straining activities like smartphones is a prerequisite in daily life. And finally, mental training. 

IC: Concentration on the target – at what age did you first start this and how do you attain it day in day out? 

(Starts laughing) I am still a baby in this respect. I started mental training only three years ago. I strongly recommend kids should start focus and concentration exercises early in life. It is paradoxical: we run to sports for fun. And now, when as athletes or commoners we are given focus training, we find it challenging/boring. As a child, no one realizes that they are concentrating while playing. You are given a target; you use your gear, hit, and win! But now, as a competitive player, when your experience and expectations have increased tremendously and you are playing for long hours daily, there is pressure from family, media and even your own self to perform, you don’t know how to handle it all. Now I am learning this technique – mental training. Not allowing the mind to jump around like a monkey with hits and misses requires mental training. 

IC: Which skills matter the most in archery according to you? 

DK: You gain skills as a sportsperson, but get drained mentally. The skill that matters the most is being calm.  

IC: Do you think Indian archers need sports psychologists?

DK: Definitely. I started playing 12 years ago. Had I got this support at that time, I would have perhaps achieved much more… now, Olympic Gold Quest (a not-for-profit organization) is giving us mental training. 

IC: Tokyo Olympics would be your first big game since your wedding and you are participating as a couple in it. Excited?

It’s a rare happening for sure. And, perhaps, the first time in the history of Olympics archery at least! I am happy about it. We are each other’s pillar of strength. We want the team to win. 

IC: Which is your favorite match so far in your career? 

DK: I played (and won gold at) the Delhi Commonwealth Games (2010) when I was just starting out in my career. When I went to play the match, I was not aware of how significant a platform it was. My opponent in the finals Alison Williamson had already played six Olympics. It was an electrifying setting. People were cheering for me and there was wind too. The commentary was in perfect Hindi and with every arrow, my morale was getting higher. I had enjoyed it a lot. And I didn’t know or care that time about winning. But I did.

We look forward to a safe and successful 2021 Summer Olympics and send our best to Deepika Kumari on her upcoming competitions!


Suruchi Tulsyan is an experienced Features Writer. She has been on a break for the past few years since the birth of her kids.

Image by Bill Hails and under the Creative Commons License.

 

 

Aki Kumar Fuses Blues With Hindi and Makes It Familiar

Aki Kumar is a blues musician and artist from the Bay Area. Over the years he has developed his identity as a musician and what it means to be Indian in a traditional Blues world. Now as a well-established musician and artist, redefining and breaking the barriers of genre, I chat with him to understand his growth and work as an artist. 

“Toxic masculinity is the biggest hurdle in my world. It’s the ‘macho bravado’ that I needed to get out of myself.” 

He elaborated on the importance of getting out of the man box and how the presence of toxic masculinity has affected many women in the Blues world. He details his understanding of appreciation vs appropriation, the importance of the Indian community and the barriers of toxic masculinity in the blues world, and how he overcame the divide in the music world, to create a fusion of those worlds. 

IC: Where do you feel you stand in music right now and going ahead? Where are you headed? 

AK: I’m headed towards running away from the label of ‘genre authenticity’ which is really what caused me to first try to not represent my Indianness and then go completely the other way. Blues has been heavily appropriated in the US by the white audience that consumes it. When I was starting out in the Blues scene, I played and performed with my white peers, following their tastes and catering to a white audience. But even they know in the back of their heads that they’re not the authentic torchbearers of this genre. It’s always been Black music and in fact, black musicians have been denied their rightful ownership for several decades. I realized I was chasing an authenticity that these guys (white musicians) were not going to find. What’s authentic for a Desi boy is to be Desi as best as you can. But moving forward I’m going to try and break away even more from these predefined notions of what is authentic and what isn’t. The only authentic thing to me is just me and if a song comes to my head I’m gonna represent it my way. 

IC: What message do you have for the people that look up to you? 

AK: I hope someone is inspired by what I’m doing. The thing I would like to tell people is to really find yourself in your art. I myself didn’t realize this when I was starting out because I came from a traditional standpoint. But despite that, you have to find your voice. It’s a journey and when you find it is up to your circumstances but it is the most important aspect of artistry, otherwise you’re just reduced to an authentic mimic of something that already exists. 

IC: As an Indian immigrant in the States, how important is it to speak from an Indian perspective, in your music?

AK: It has been a journey to be honest because the first ten years of existing in the US was just ‘hey do I have my visa? Where’s my visa? Is everything stamped? I don’t want to get a drunk driving ticket cause then I’ll get deported.’ Until I realize that there are more people here (in the States) and there’s a history here. It’s a process of growth and I think everyone goes through it. 

One of the things I find with the Indian community is that we can be caught on the fence. A lot of folks are not sure about how to thread this needle where they want to be nationalistic in the Indian sense but they can’t embrace American nationalism cause that’s toxic to them. So they end up being liberal in the United States in many ways and embracing the freedom they enjoy here and then being rigidly conservative in India. This is a liberalism of convenience where you’re saying ‘oh I’m going to embrace the aspects of a democracy or being liberal when they benefit me but if they’d not benefit someone else I don’t care’. This is something I would like to address because they need to be aware of this. If you care about inequality it has to be in all aspects. 

IC: Where do you think the rise in fusion music puts India in the global music market?

AK: I think India is going to be a powerhouse, it already is. There is so much variety and talent in India and the consumer market is also in India. If all the music was made in India and listened to in India, it would be a powerhouse even if no one knew about it. The next century belongs to India culturally speaking. There’s so much regional music and so much potential for fusion, which has already been happening. Bollywood, for example, is fusion music. We are a masala of cultures. Everything gets blended in and we make something good out of it. However, it is important that we don’t appropriate cultures in fusion. If you’re going to bring cultures together through music, be aware of what you’re doing and educate yourself on the genres and history behind styles of music. If you want to do fusion, be a master of your domain.

IC: You explore a lot of genres and with fusion, there is bound to be criticism from both communities of Bollywood and traditional blues. How do you deal with that?

AK: There has been a lot of support, which I was really worried about in the beginning but a lot of folks got what was going on primarily because musically what I did with the fusion, worked. Most people who listened to it without prejudice found it smooth. The criticism comes from people who are so fixated on genre-centric music that they have established rules for what is and what isn’t fitting of blues music. In fact, all of the criticism has been from white people. Black people typically won’t go that way because they themselves have been oppressed in the ownership of the genre they created. So I don’t pay much attention to that part. In Bollywood music, it’s mostly people who say ‘oh that’s Kishore Kumar and he’s my favorite artist, but you don’t sound like him.’ I’m not Kishore Kumar that’s why I don’t sing like him. Nobody has really criticized me in a way that has stuck and after five years, if no one has found a way to give you truly insightful criticism, then maybe you’ve done something right. 

IC: Your track Zindagi that you released this year, is extremely comforting and hopeful, what made you release such a song during this time?

AK: I wrote the track a year before I actually did a video. I’m very proud to say that I wrote it in Hindi which has been a bit of a tricky thing for me because I don’t speak Hindi fluently. But it was part of the process of trying to write something more positive because typically I write cleverly worded attack songs to express my frustrations with the political or social climate. But then I thought that as an artist I need to find myself a more positive form of expression. Given the pandemic and how we landed last year, I had a feeling that if I put something positive right now it’s gonna seem lame cause people are not feeling positive right now. But there was hope of vaccines and the administration changing. Everything was building up to a more positive year. So I feel now is a time to put zindagi out there to help people feel hopeful. 

IC: The song was more reggae than blues, was there a reason for that?

AK: I’ve been on this old school Ska and Rocksteady journey which are precursors to reggae, and I’m the kind of person that steadily listens to one genre of music in extreme depth to really find its roots. I realized the things that appealed to me about the blues— the core nature of the rhythm being in place and this tonal vocality that just cuts through with a message, all of that is in ska and rocksteady because that’s the foundation of black music. I know reggae has kind of been a part of my musical listening even before I moved to the US like A.R Rahman’s Dil Hai Chota Sa’ is complete reggae, so I knew the genre and I just thought it would be perfect for the song.


Swati Ramaswamy is a recent graduate from UC Davis and is an aspiring creative writer who loathes speaking in the third person. 

Help Your South Asian Community Respond to DV

We need to pay attention to domestic violence in the South Asian community.

Providing support, resources, and intervention to those experiencing abuse is incredibly necessary, but what do we need to do to get to the point where fewer and fewer South Asian people experience domestic abuse?

Working towards a culture where we begin to acknowledge and break down the hegemonic structures that have shaped our community requires active engagement from all of us, regardless of if our lives have been directly affected by domestic violence or not. In one of the few notable studies on the topic, survivors emphasized the need for community empowerment and education to address gender-based violence in South Asian communities.

This summer, Narika, in collaboration with researchers from Harvard, is conducting a study in order to change this status quo. By collecting this data, we will be able to communicate the prevalence and severity of this issue through statistics, which is essential in engaging the community. 

If you would like to participate in our ongoing research project and help us begin to make this change, you can take the anonymous five-minute survey here, and sign up for an anonymous 10-minute interview here. Participating will also enter you in a raffle for up to $100 in gift cards to a Black-owned business of your choice.

Data shows that South Asians experience domestic violence at higher rates than other groups in America. Information is skewed due to the reality of underreporting in our community –– the variety of social and cultural barriers that South Asian survivors face to even report their abuse, from immigration to familial stigma. 

In one study, 42% of the 160 women surveyed reported that they had been physically and/or sexually abused in some way by their current male partners in their lifetime; 36.9% reported having been victimized in the past year. However, only 11% of those South Asian women indicated receiving counseling support services for domestic abuse.

Organizations like Narika begin to fill this gap of support services by providing culturally-informed counseling and programming for South Asian women and families. But one of the most significant obstacles of this work is how in the dark it is: there is very little academic research on gender-based violence in South Asian communities, despite the unique barriers and situations this community faces. 

This lack of data and statistics to support the necessity of their work prevents us from understanding this issue completely and, by extension, doing all that we can in order to build a culture of empowerment and allyship to address domestic abuse at its root. 

If you have any questions, concerns, or would like to learn more about this work, please contact bhargavi@narika.org.

Bhargavi Garimella is a sophomore at Harvard College studying Neuroscience. This summer, she is interning at Narika where she is conducting research on gender-based violence in South Asian communities.

IC Interviews Abhishek Bachchan on New Prime Show

As a prelease to Breathe: Into the Shadows on Amazon Prime, India Currents’ writer, Monita Soni, had the privilege of exclusively interviewing Abhishek Bachchan via Media House. The actor shared his personal insights about the series:

Monita Soni: Hi Abhishek, we are all eagerly awaiting your digital debut in Breathe: Into the Shadows. The trailer looks stunning and very edgy! Please tell us a little about this series?

Abhishek Bachchan: Thank you! Well, we are about to release an Amazon Prime original series which drops later tonight in India! It is the story of my character, Avinash Sabharwal, his wife Abha, and their young six-year-old daughter who sadly gets kidnapped. And the kidnapper, instead of money for ransom, asks and makes Avinash commit murder in order to save his daughter. So the basic theme is how far are you willing to go for your family and for your loved ones. It’s a wonderful, emotional story. Although it has been built as a psychological thriller, I like to think of it as a family drama. I really enjoyed playing this fantastic complex and nuanced role. I’m very anxious to know what people are going to think about it. 

MK: Tell me one thing, how did you prepare for this particular role, it is a very challenging role. You have to commit a murder to save your daughter’s life. How did you get into the skin of your character?

AB: Well, there was an extensive prep that went into this role. Because, what was really nice, Monitaji, is that as compared to film, in which we get 2-3 hours to tell our story and justify it, over here we get almost 12 hours (because there are 12 episodes). So you get that much more material that you get to work on and that is very exciting for me. This is the first time you have been given the liberty of time (as an actor).

MK: Did you have to change your physical look for the role?

AB: No, thankfully I didn’t. I had to get rid of my famous beard look that I have had. 

MK: Well that suits you! Do you think playing this role has changed you emotionally, or do you look at life a little differently now?

AB: Well, you know, like I told you, the basic theme of the show is such that it does beg you to ask certain questions of yourself. For example, how far would you go for your loved ones? It’s a very nice question to ask on face value, but it is very difficult to put in practice, that’s when the problem starts seeping in.

MK: I think the kind of bonds we share in India with our family/children are special and (this role) would put a lot of emphasis on that aspect when we see this streaming. I think it’s our roots and love which make us think in a particular manner.

AB: Yes. Very possible! And I will agree with you on that.

We have admired his talent in numerous Bollywood hits for the last 20 years and we get to see him once more in a very different role. I am partial to his light-hearted roles with his own unique, heart-warming, comedic timing. But after talking to him, I could not wait to binge-watch this series and see him perform in this distinctive genre.

The trailer of Breathe: Into the Shadows, has a Quentin Tarantino like feel and the series delivers cyclic, edgy, cinematography. There is a fragile backstory about family bonds and the meaning of love and nurture is emphasized. After binging, I have replayed the interview in my mind, and now am even more impressed by Abhishek’s deep interpretation of a complex and flawed character. I can see why having more time in filming this series helped with character development which can be seen through his facial expressions and mannerisms. Abhishek admitted to reading a lot of plays at a young age and this series pulls from theater as a nod to Hamlet’s revenge.

The script tackles a myriad of awkward human behaviors linked to developmental psychology. And as a physician, I like the interplay between characters and their unscripted awkwardness. Nithya Menen’s performance as a young mother whose child has been kidnapped for several months is heart-wrenching and Amit Sadh’s performance as a poker-faced police officer, Kabir Sawant, is noteworthy. I also liked Hrishikesh Joshi’s character, as Kamble with a ”b”! 

The last episode promises that the story is to be continued…To take slight liberty as a fan, I misquote: “Breathe is like money and I can’t wait to spend it!

Wishing Abhishek Bachchan a quick recovery from COVID and the entire team of Breathe: Into the Shadows a resounding success.

Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Decatur Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.

Diksha Basu: ‘Immigrant ExPat Is a Spectrum, Not a Binary’

“It was easy for my parents. They wanted to live in America when America was the clear choice, they wanted to get married when marriage was the only acceptable option, and then they wanted to get divorced right around when divorce became socially acceptable. The times rolled with them. Now there are no rules. I can do whatever I want, be whoever I want, and I don’t know if I want that freedom.”

– ‘Destination Wedding’ by Diksha Basu

Internationally bestselling author and actor, Diksha Basu is originally from New Delhi and currently based between New York City and Mumbai. She holds a BA in Economics from Cornell University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. In a phone interview, Neha Kirpal recently spoke with Basu about her experience writing about immigrants in a globalized world, the great Indian middle class, and using humor as a tool to explore contemporary India.

Diksha Basu

Neha Kirpal (NK): Your new book Destination Wedding is all about “family, careers, and belonging.” Tell us how you came up with the idea for the story.

Diksha Basu (DB): One of my points of inspiration was my own big wedding in New Delhi a few years ago, which was such a wonderful and mad experience with all my loved ones from all around the world for one week in one place where I had grown up. It was such a whirlwind in a way, and this book was a way for me to relive parts of that. I didn’t quite get to live in the moment, because the bride and the groom never really get to enjoy their wedding the way their guests do. This book gave me the chance to go back and experience it all over again. 

NK: Tell our readers about how you use humor as a tool to explore contemporary India.

DB: I live in Bombay most of the time. A lot about India can be so frustrating, and I think that if I didn’t write about it with humor, it might be easier to get angry or annoyed. That said, I feel a deep and great affection for the country and all my characters. And I think my humor comes from affection and never through mockery. I write about my characters with a big heart. I love my characters, cities, and settings. I’ve always felt like I’ve belonged in both India and America—I split my time now between New York and Mumbai. I understand now that home is an idea, not a place. My feeling of home comes from my family. That also allows for humor and comedy.  

NK: Your book The Windfall reportedly started off as a collection of short stories that you were writing during your master of fine arts (MFA) at Columbia University. How did the structure change to a novel? What elements of the story collection do you think remain in the final book?

DB: Yes, that’s right. The book started off as a collection of short stories that I was writing during my MFA and it slowly became a novel in the year and a half after I graduated. From the original story, hardly any of them remain. But that’s when I discovered my characters. I needed to write the stories in order to understand, know, and love my characters as deeply as I now do. But the structure of the novel changed completely.

NK: The Windfall is about the changing aspirations of an average Indian couple. How did you come up with the story?

DB: Before I started working on The Windfall, I was stuck in the void of writing about twenty-something women, because everyone says “write what you know.” Twenty-something women were just not interesting to me, and other writers had done it much better than I ever could anyway. I handed one of the first short stories from this collection very nervously to my professor Gary Shteyngart. Not a lot of people at Columbia were writing through humor but Gary came back to me a week later saying that he read it on a flight to China and found himself laughing out loud on the plane. I am so deeply indebted and forever grateful to Gary for reading and giving me the encouragement—and the permission, really—to write from the perspective of a middle-aged Indian man. His feedback gave me the confidence to keep writing these characters and to keep using humor as a tool to explore contemporary India. Later, I am forever grateful to my agent Adam Eaglin for reining in some of my attempts at humor. The book, I hope, is very different from a lot of the work coming out of the subcontinent right now. 

NK: How do you think your books speak to the current moment in India? What worlds, or collision of worlds, are they invoking?

DB: We live in a globalized world where the terms “immigrant” and “ex-pat” are quickly losing meaning. Indians in America no longer live afraid. They’re not on the peripheries, and non-Indians visiting or living in India are doing so for reasons other than tourism or volunteerism. There are a large number of immigrants that now defy definition and stereotype. There are people from all over the world who choose to live in countries different from those of their birth, but they still carry within themselves a sense of self-identity that isn’t necessarily tied to a nation or a race—and even if it is, it’s a source of confidence rather than a reason to apologize. 

There’s a global tongue emerging that goes beyond language. While parts of the world are also getting increasingly divided and frightening, some boundaries are also dissolving. The points of reference for a certain wealthy global elite are all the same. We live in the era of global citizens and that is a world that I really like to explore, which is what I do in my books. I know I’m making heavy generalizations here, and of course, I know there’s a worrying global refugee crisis on, there’s a lot of racism that the world is being forced to confront and contend with, and the luxuries of global citizenship feel so indulgent to speak about—but that is the world that I happen to write about. Fortunately, there’s room for all stories. Immigrant ex-pat is a spectrum, it’s not a binary.

NK: In a sense, your books bring out the plight of the great Indian middle class—neither rich nor poor. Please elaborate more on this “middle ground”, one that is “too confusing to explain to an outsider”.

DB: I write about a cross-section of society. My characters are never sitting in ivory towers. They live, breathe, and interact with the cacophony of the cities where it’s impossible to stay separate. The reason I like to write about and am currently living in a very urban Indian city like Bombay is that you have to be a part of the complicated fabric of the city—you can’t avoid it. The crossroads of property and wealth, the haves and the have-nots, the blurred line where the marginalized meet the mainstream—this is what I’m most drawn to in my work. There are so many windows through which one can look at the world, and this is the one that I choose. I love exploring how people from different worlds connect with each other, what humans have in common when there seems to be nothing at all in common. Do we surround ourselves with people who are mirrors or windows? How does that change how we see the world around us? I don’t have an answer for that. But it’s something I like to explore and keep coming back to in my work.

NK: One of the characters who is featured in both your books, Mrs. Ray, is a young widow who defies the stereotypes of widowhood. As someone independent and unconventional outside of social norms, what was your inspiration behind her character?

DB: Oh, I love Mrs. Ray! The idea of widowhood, and especially young widowhood, fascinates me. Women of Mrs. Ray generation in India are so often defined in terms of their relationships with other males—their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons. What happens if you end up without any of those? Who are you? Who gets to define you? And what if it happens to you when you’re still young enough to have more years ahead of you than behind you? It’s almost as if Mrs. Ray has to keep it a secret that she is okay being widowed, that she’s happy living life alone, that she has her own sense of self that she doesn’t want to apologize for, and that she enjoys drinking whiskey!  

NK: Your father, Kaushik Basu, was India’s Chief Economic Advisor. You also studied economics at Cornell University. In a sense, was it inevitable for you to write books about Delhi’s explosion of extreme wealth?

DB: My father and I are very close. I’m very inspired by him when it comes to making things accessible. My father is a very technical economist. When he writes for newspapers or gives talks, he has the ability to engage people who have no background or interest in economics, and I’ve always admired his ability to do that. He’s an economist while also being a storyteller. Growing up, he often helped me with my math homework, and I developed a real love for math while studying it with him. He doesn’t allow his own breadth of knowledge to make it boring for others. So, I suppose I have grown up thinking about and discussing economics at home—but more on a micro-level, not on a macro level. So, I don’t know if the stories of my books are necessarily because of my conversations at home but definitely the fact that I am a writer is very much because of my parents who are also storytellers and readers. 

NK: Apart from being a prolific writer, you are also an occasional actor who has reportedly acted in two plays, a TV show titled Mumbai Calling, and a film called A Decent Arrangement. Does your acting help your writing, or the other way round?

DB: I love writing dialogue. I love the space between what people say and what they think they are saying and what they actually want to say. That space is where the stories are. In mainstream Bollywood, the stories are not in the space between the lines—and there’s no room for subtlety. I really like the television and film industry and I think the entrance of streaming networks like Netflix and Amazon are changing the kind of television and films being produced and consumed.

The Windfall is currently in pre-production with anonymous content in Los Angeles to be turned into a TV show, and I’ve also just signed a development deal with a very exciting team for Destination Wedding. I am going to play a more active role in the screenplay of Destination Wedding, because I think that’s a very obvious progression for me—combining both my career in acting and fiction.

Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. 

“As a Small Brown Woman With an Arabic Name” – Ramiza Koya

The Royal Abduls depicts the cost of the anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, through the lens of an Indian-American family in post 9/11 America. The novel tells the story of eleven-year-old Omar and his aunt Amina, an evolutionary biologist who moves near her brother’s family in Washington, D.C.after years of working on the West Coast. As Omar tries on an exaggerated Indian accent to impress his schoolmates, Amina struggles to focus on her study of hybrid zones while working in a male-dominated lab. Omar cycles through outlets for his vast curiosity and gets in trouble at school. His parents’ disintegrating relationship leaves only independent, career-minded Amina to look out for him. The Royal Abduls engages with the struggles of women in the workplace and the difficulties of maintaining relationships in a fragmented America.

Ramiza Shamoun Koya tackles subjects such as racism, misogyny and being other in America, having faced some of that herself. I had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy of this wonderful novel, and it really resonated with me. My debut novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues, addressed similar topics and I felt equipped for our dialogue. Her book is set to publish on May 12, 2020 and can be pre-ordered online. Here I am in conversation with the talented Ramiza Shamoun Koya. 

Devi: What led you to start this book? Did it start out as a short story?

Ramiza: It started out as a short story called “The Hybrid Zone”; I intended for it to be the lead story in a story collection. But then I was blessed with a two-week residency at MacDowell Colony.  The first day I sat in Wood Studio, looking out a huge window into the forest, I typed the words “Omar was happy” almost without thinking. And then I knew I had a novel on my hands.

Devi: As I read your book, I was struck by its realism. I felt there was an autobiography in this book. And yet it is a novel and not a memoir. 

Ramiza: I never intended for this to be autobiographical per se.  There is autobiographical feeling in the search for identity, in some of the experiences that Amina and Omar and their family have. But my own personal autobiography is much more complicated than anyone in The Royal Abduls!  And to be honest, I had never been interested in writing memoir until very recently – I see myself as a fiction writer and always did.   

Devi: I loved that Amina had her say and that at times Omar had his say in the book. I was particularly struck by the child’s POV in the post-9/11 world and the contrast to Amina’s and Mo’s experience. Can you discuss your choices there? 

Ramiza: Omar became very important to me. I think young Muslims were real victims of this shift towards anti-Muslim sentiment. And Omar is very much second-generation; that interested me as well.  There is so much writing on the immigrant experience. I wanted to focus on someone who was born here and feels it’s natural that they should be treated as other Americans are. When he is denied that, it’s not just confusing; it’s nonsensical.  His struggle is so very common among brown people in America, and facing up to that means facing up the essentially racist structures we live under. As I wrote the initial short story, I did not foresee that Omar would become a major character in a novel; but his voice, once I started writing in it, became so absorbing, so easy to slip into, and each new reader told me that they had fallen in love with him. So he earned his place!

Devi: I felt as though your novel was in conversation with my novel, especially as it addresses the immigrant experience one generation removed, and also by having children who were mixed-race. 

Ramiza: As I’ve gotten older, I am convinced that if we write about women, we have to write about misogyny.  To leave it out is to leave out something essential to all female experience. I wanted to have Amina face that and struggle with that and live it down.  I wanted her to find her way in spite of it. When we underplay this essential difference between male and female experience, we’re enabling it to continue.  I wanted to write authentically about sexual politics in the workplace, but I also wanted to connect some of that misogyny to Amina’s brown skin. As a small brown woman with an Arabic name, I have felt how connected misogyny and racism are.

Devi:What books have influenced you, make you want to write? What books propelled you to finish The Royal Abduls? What books have you read recently that have excited you? 

Ramiza: Books that influenced me when I was younger were by Richard Wright, Malcolm X, James Baldwin: coming of age stories by African-American writers moved me deeply.  I related to them; they made me feel like I had a story too. Then I was all about Indian literature: Midnight’s Children and Sacred Games and books by Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh; these helped me understand my own identity, my origins a bit more, and inspired me to travel in India.  More recently, I have loved Elena Ferrante, Min Jin Lee, Jesmyn Ward, Ruth Ozeki, Julie Otsuka, William Dalrymple, Hillary Mantel. The poets Ocean Vuong and Ilya Kaminsky have deeply influenced me this year. 

Devi: Did you find your book cathartic to write? I personally don’t believe in catharsis. I think I changed as a writer in the intervening years, and what I felt was relief it was to be able to write at all.

Ramiza: Yeah, no catharsis!  It’s hard work and then you never know if it’s good or bad or if it will ever be read.   

Devi:And tell me about your next book, a short story collection. Right? How has the experience of putting that together differed from writing a novel?

Ramiza:The short story collection includes my very first publication (“Night Duty” in Washington Square Review) to my latest attempts, many of which are unpublished. I’ve been building it over many years, and it’s nice because unlike a novel you can play with the order easily.  It does need an editor, however.

Devi:What is the one thing you want readers to take away after finishing The Royal Abduls?

Ramiza: I think the change in perspective, the ability to imagine life in someone else’s shoes, is one of the greatest gifts of fiction; I hope that any reader feels like they lived along with this family and gained insight into their experiences.

Devi S. Laskar is a native of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and holds an MFA from Columbia University. The Atlas of Reds and Blueswinner of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and the Crook’s Corner Book Prize—is her first novel. A former newspaper reporter, Laskar is now a poet, photographer, essayist, and novelist. She now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.


KOYA, RAMIZA SHAMOUN. ROYAL ABDULS. FOREST AVENUE PR, 2020.