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.
“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.
Samantha Rajaram’s debut novel The Company Daughters transports readers to the Dutch Renaissance with the rise in its national power as a seafaring nation, the growth of a new urban bourgeoisie with its patronage for visual arts like portraiture, new styles of urban architecture, gardening, flower arrangement, and cuisine, but beneath this façade of beauty and refinement lurks the seamier underbelly of mercantile capitalism: colonization, slave trade and overt and covert forms of human trafficking. Rajaram, a California Bay Area native, a former lawyer, and an English professor plumbs this rich material for her accomplished fictional debut.
The novel is narrated from the first-person perspective of the protagonist Jana Beil. It follows a tripartite structure with the first part opening in Amsterdam where a hungry and desperate Jana is seeking work as a servant in the prosperous sections of Amsterdam as a house servant after, we will be told later, having escaped a childhood of parental neglect and violence and a horrific period of sexual slavery in Amsterdam’s newly emerging brothels. A wealthy young woman Sontje Reynst hires her, and this marks the beginning of a life-long relationship between these two women from very disparate social strata.
For Jana, employment in the Reynst household provides a modicum of stability and comfort, which is quickly lost when Master Reynst’s fortune is lost in a shipwreck. Jana is quite resilient and secures employment in another rich household, the De Graf family. Sontje’s life is more dramatically overturned by her father’s financial losses and her coveted engagement is called off by her suitor Hans. She cannot find a way out of her mounting debts to creditors and the potential loss of her home. It is at this juncture that she comes across the Dutch East India Company’s advertisement for single women to make the voyage to Batavia, present-day Indonesia, to become wives of Dutch settlers there. She signs up for her arduous year-long voyage and Jana decides to accompany her.
The second part of the novel is set on the ship, Leyden, and captures the hardships and dangers of this arduous voyage. Jana and Sontje, along with the other Company daughters face diseases like scurvy which affects many sailors and eventually kills one of the daughters. As the voyage reaches its final stages there is a shortage of food and drinking water. Sontje is also subjected to sexual violence in this journey, and it is Jana’s loving care that brings her back from the brink of death. It is in the Leyden that the girls establish a romantic intimacy, proclaiming their hearts and bodies as autonomous of the cogs of the capitalist patriarchal Company that is trading them as wives to settlers.
When they reach Batavia, Sontje is married off to Willhelm, a settler of ill repute, who is abusive towards her. Jana is married to Mattheus, an older, though kinder man. Jana feels no attraction for her husband and spends her days waiting for some sporadic contact with Sontje. After the hiatus of their marriages and Sontje giving birth to a son, the two girls renew their intimacy. Both are acutely uncomfortable with the operations of the settler society which relies on various kinds of slave labor. Jana’s tenuous autonomy and marital harmony are again disrupted by Mattheus’s death in an accident. Somehow, when all seems lost until two of her native slaves come to her rescue by offering to sell their native dyed fabrics. The novel closes with the prospect of renewal.
Samantha Rajaram deserves kudos for her historical research in uncovering this material: the Dutch East India Company procuring wives for settlers. She presents a very accurate picture of Renaissance Amsterdam with its class and religious disparities. The depiction of the long sea voyage is powerful in its harrowing detail. The lesbian love story is also presented with great tenderness and serves as a space of feminist defiance against multiple gendered oppressions.
However, the presentation of feminist solidarity between Jana, the Dutch protagonist, and her native Indonesian slaves, Aini and Candra, does not seem to be historically accurate. It is perhaps more of a utopian aspiration of the author. But it feels like Dues Ex Machina in a novel, which is otherwise unsentimental in its representation of colonial history and seductive in its ability to capture and preserve the reader’s interest in this violent and inhumane era.
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.
The Company Daughters by Samantha Rajaram. Bookouture, October 2000
In 1892, parts of India are under direct British direct rule and Bombay is the center of British India. Captain James Agnihotri, an Anglo-Indian, is recuperating in a Poona military hospital after a skirmish in Karachi, the still unvanquished North-West Frontier. Agnihotri is granted an honorable discharge from the army because of his injuries. For one year he is reinventing his life as an investigative journalist by browsing daily newspapers and committing Sherlock Holmes detective methods to memory.
Meanwhile, a sordid crime grabs his attention: Two Parsi women fall from the busy Bombay University’s Rajabai Clock Tower in broad daylight! Certain that this mishap was not a suicide and touched by the understandable grief of the young widower Adi Framji, Captain Jim approaches the family to investigate this heinous crime and bring the culprits to justice. Being ex-Army, Captain Jim is well equipped to deal with treachery, roadblocks, dead ends, and deceit but there is more subterfuge to this plot than meets the eye! The warmth of the Parsi family is endearing to Jim and he approaches the task at hand with selfless sincerity. But there are no apparent clues and danger lurks in shadows of the guise of tall men with sloping shoulders, and possible monkeys on the roof. After interviewing local witnesses Jim travels to Lahore and to the state of Ranjpoot in search of the murderer. Armed with motley disguises this “Sherlockian” detective unmasks several miscreants and has close encounters with death himself much to the perturbation of Adi Framji and Jim’s self-appointed “Watson”.
This award-winning lyrical narrative is a delightful multilayered treat that lays bare the lonely childhood and yearning for a family of several young children of that tumultuous time. Jim Agnihotri was fortunate because he was brought up in a convent by a priest with “kind” eyes but what was the fate of the brave little girl “Chutki” who calls Jim “Bao-di”? Jim’s gentle nature and his loyalty to the task at hand has “ Sir Galahad” strokes! The reader empathizes with his post-traumatic stress disorder, boxing induced head injuries, and subsequent memory lapse. We also root for the success of the romance that brews between Captain James and the Framji debutante, lady Diana! But will the extremely exclusive Parsi elders accept this unlikely alliance between a Parsi princess and a “half-bred” man. Will Jim uncover the real motive behind the “fatal fall” or will this inquisition unravel another unimaginably evil plot to amass money for priceless merchandise?
I particularly enjoyed Nev March’s lyrical style with a vibrant depiction of the glittering Gatsby-like colorful lifestyle of aristocratic Bombay. Although the splendor of sprawling mansions, refined customs, luxurious soirees ignore the dismal fate of the Indian men and women impoverished by British tyranny, the wealthy sensibility is intoxicating! Formal sit down dinner times with delicious Parsi entrees, (eggs on a bed of Spinach, lamb curry) followed by frothy desserts leave me pining for my mother’s simpler but equally wholesome spread. March effortlessly transports me on a summer breeze to my childhood days spent walking the lanes of old Bombay fringed with Gul-Mohar, Jacaranda, and Pink Trumpet trees. Lady Diana’s inquiring mind and the amorous physicality developing ever so softly between the two lovebirds is pleasing. It recreates a delicate Victorian air of tension: pining eyes, a tilt of the head, delicate fingers, a sharp elbow, a curved clavicle, a soft embrace. I miss that magic and admire the ease with which the author transcends present-day to a mysterious past and solves the mystery to boot. Three cheers not by drib or drab but sheer grit! I absolutely love the cover design and We would be honored to invite Nev March to India Currents for a one on one interview.
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.
I started writing this book nearly ten years ago. I was in the middle of a stressful divorce, raising three kids under the age of five, and I had returned to grad school for a career change from lawyer to English professor. By the Indian standards and expectations I’d grown up with, I felt like an utter failure.
Every morning I forced myself out of bed before my children woke up and wrote at my kitchen table, accompanied by a hot cup of coffee and the familiar scent of the temple incense my father brought back from India. I wanted to write a story that addressed colonialism and other systems of power, and when I found a footnote mentioning a 17th-century picture bride policy of the Dutch East India Company, I couldn’t resist the pull of exploration. I shelved my fear of failure and the persistent feelings of inadequacy that often plague the immigrant offspring navigating community expectations. I plowed on.
I read hundreds of articles. Studied maps. Perused books about 17th-century Dutch furniture, glass bead factories, shipping routes, forest glass blowers, and illnesses of the time. I traveled to Amsterdam, spending hours at the Rijksmuseum examining the furniture collection and still life paintings. I took a boat trip through Amsterdam’s canals and pretended to be my main character, impoverished, hungry Jana, trudging down the city’s narrow, meandering streets hundreds of years ago.
At times, I thought, “How can I, an Indian-American woman in the 21st century, know anything about a 17th-century Dutch woman?”
And then I remembered the books of my childhood, written by white authors who occasionally populated their books with Indian characters, mere props for white narratives. I wanted to know about these peripheral characters, to hear about their lives, their stories.
In writing The Company Daughters, I hoped to give my main character the complexity and humanity I often saw lacking in representations of Indian characters in books and on TV during my childhood. I wanted to avoid the pitfalls of white savior narratives while providing a glimpse into the colonial world and its hierarchies—structures of power that persist today.
And in connecting with people from other time periods, other cultures, other languages, I found shared humanity uniting us across centuries. Common desires for justice, love, freedom, and understanding that persist now. In my efforts to render a 17th-century Dutch woman sent across the world to marry a stranger, I began to recognize my own desire for agency, freedom, and a new life.
I wish I could say that from that point on all went smoothly, but that is the fantasy of every writer, and the reality is much, much messier. Many people told me to give up on this dream. I don’t have an MFA. I didn’t know anything about writing a book or getting an agent. But I loved reading, an act which provided comfort whenever I felt lonely or alienated. And the characters kept “talking” to me. And I kept listening.
Writing saved me. The steadiness of my characters’ voices in my mind alleviated the crushing loneliness of single parenthood. When I could not share my daughter’s newest milestones with anyone, I recorded them in scenes of my book (later excised). And when I was without my children, the insistence of my characters’ stories gave me purpose even as my heart ached with each separation.
Change can be incremental, and other times change comes on like a monsoon—heavy and relentless. In my author’s journey, I had a mix of both. I had the encouragement of my Creative Writing instructor at Stanford, and I had friends and family, worried by the potential for disappointment, who advised me not to get my hopes up, to consign writing to a weekend hobby.
As an Indian-American writer, I was often conflicted with the requirements of my culture and the desires of my hidden self. Shouldn’t I use my time more productively? Shouldn’t I focus on activities with an assured financial return? Was I being a responsible mother?
But that’s not what writers do. We pursue the impractical, the impossible, the incredible, in spite of—perhaps because of—our ongoing dance with self-doubt, inadequacy, and fear. We ferret away moments for writing like squirrels stuffing acorns into knotholes. Waking before the sunrise to write, writing in our cars, committing lines to memory while waiting in checkout queues, eking out moments for creativity from the myriad of mindless routines that comprise a life. Describe the smile on that woman’s face. Observe the shape of that shadow.
In the end, the “monsoon” of my writing career was being selected as a Pitch Wars mentee. I landed my agent soon after and was offered my book deal another year after that.
A book deal sounds so easy when the journey is reduced to a few hundred words. It was anything but. My debut novel is about a young woman hungry for life, love, justice, freedom, and reprieve, as I was. But it was a long journey, with starts and fits, highs and lows–as it should be. Writing is an act of transposition. When we are writing, we are writing our lives onto the page in some way or another. Every paragraph and chapter deleted, expanded, revised, and revised again promises a transformation in our characters. But those same moments open us up to the possibility of transformation in our own lives as well. That process is what made me a writer, and brought me to myself.
Samantha Rajaram is a former attorney, solo mother of three, and English professor in the Bay Area. Her debut novel, The Company Daughters will be published in the US and UK this October.
Empowered” is a gutsy and gritty adjective that some women have the luxury of being heralded with. But do all these women set out to be “empowered” or do circumstances simply tread them along a trailblazing path, which perhaps was the only path available to them, towards something as basic as self-preservation?
Author Veena Rao, in her debut novel Purple Lotus, unravels the journey of one such woman, who embarks on a seemingly normal journey but is forced to summon her inner strength as she plunges into valleys of anguish, to eventually elevate herself to summits of triumph.
Purple Lotus unfolds the life and times of protagonist Tara, much like the title flower that rises from the mud, blooms out of the darkness, and radiates into the world, in a soothing tone of absolute resolve to remain unaffected by the sludge that surrounds her.
The choice of the title plays quite a pronounced role throughout the narrative, both literally and symbolically. Tara, the lotus (literal translation), finds herself in muddy waters right from the get-go, when her beloved doll, Pinky, goes missing during the family’s move to Mangalore. Even as she bears the brunt of missing her friends and her priced doll, she watches in helplessness as her parents move to Dubai in pursuit of a bright future for the family, leaving behind Tara with her aging grandparents and a schizophrenic uncle in Mangalore, while taking her baby brother with them.
Amidst desolation, Tara ironically finds solace from her uncle in his moments of clarity when his mind is not bogged down by the disease. Tara even finds love in its warmest of forms in Cyrus Saldanha, only to be forced to let go when her parents return to Mangalore.
Rao submerges Tara in more of life’s slush in the form of Sanjay. The seed of abandonment seeped into Tara’s being at a tender age reaps its bounty as she is bound in a loveless and abusive marriage with Sanjay, a groom her parents picked for her, mostly because she was getting beyond the “marriageable” age and he was willing to marry without any bridal dowry (gifts). Her trials continue to mount as Sanjay’s indifference gradually turns into violence and Tara is forced to accept the kindness of American strangers to fight Sanjay, only to be pressured by her patriarchal family to make peace with her circumstances.
Tara begins to bloom, when, in a moment of truth, she discovers the prominence of her own esteem and worth, turning towards the light, setting herself free from conforms of her community as she reconnects and eventually marries her childhood love, Cyrus.
The journalist in Rao shines through in the last chapter as she wraps up the novel with a fitting “article” by Tara that confronts a victim-shaming society. “Not all monsters are egregious. Some stay hidden in plain sight,” writes Rao’s Tara, pointing to not just to the perpetrators of crime against women, but also a spiteful society in general and a venomous close circle of the victim, in particular, that crushes the victim’s spirits, driving them into a deeper abyss of despair.
Purple Lotus, an emblem of peace of tranquility, maintains a calm undertone throughout, staying faithful to its symbolic title. The wave of calm is evident in many instances, such as the incident where Tara forgives a friend who intentionally hurt her in childhood, when the friend admits it was her fault, despite the immense pain it had caused her at the time. Rao’s strength in writing is her ability to maintain the mellow milieu even as she powerfully propagates empowerment, confronts social stigmas, and deals with deeply disturbing feelings of dejection, rejection, and desertion with grace and poignance. Rao scores extra brownie points for the character development of Tara and her ensuing transformation. Never rushed or overtly dramatic, the growth is refreshingly organic and effortlessly relatable.
I particularly enjoyed the bonding between women, who, despite their own shortcomings, offer courage, companionship, and care to each other, forging sisterhood far beyond blood and borders.
The streets of Mangalore and Atlanta come alive, as does the food of the regions served up by its inhabitants, sometimes hearty like the abundant love and support she relishes, and sometimes spicy, like their harsh attitude she endures, all of which become companions of Tara’s tumultuous journey.
This charmingly simplistic chronicle explores the many dimensions of the human mind and mindset of society, and the consequences of each, which may turn out to be tragic or triumphant.
“I take heart in the knowledge that the monsters around me do not sully me, because the names they have for me are not the names I have for myself,” Tara writes about herself.
In the age of social media, where kids are bullied, and adults are shamed by nameless cowards who hide behind their firewalls, and sometimes openly, just because they feel entitled to do so, could use the same realization to emerge victorious amidst the very soiled “victimization of victims”, as Rao puts it, and bloom into a glorious, serene lotus, a rare purple lotus even.
Jyothsna Hegde is a City News Editor at NRI Pulse newspaper and an independent software consultant. She holds a master’s degree in Computer Science and has served as faculty at Towson State University. It gives her immense pleasure to share triumphs and tribulations of the indomitable human spirit through her writing.
“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.”
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.
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.
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 sayingthat 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.
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 Kirpalis 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.
Pinky Kumar, the unicorn-haired, unapologetic social justice warrior, is spending the summer at the family place on Cape Cod with her parents, aunt, uncle, and perfect cousin, Dolly. Her mother—a high-profile lawyer whose nickname in West Coast legal circles is The Shark—ironically declares Pinky guilty before proven innocent regarding everything. Plus, Pinky sees her cousin as competition and no wonder. Dolly is known as a wholesome and generous humanitarian who never gives her parents trouble (like Pinky) or makes bad decisions (like Pinky), and Pinky’s mother never fails to freely criticize each of Pinky’s faults.
Meanwhile, Samir Jha’s pathway to becoming exactly the attorney he wants to be is unencumbered by virtue of by-the-book, precise planning. However, when he arrives for Day One of his summer internship at a prestigious D.C. law firm, he learns the internship has been canceled. His life’s plan is shattered in one promising-turned-lousy morning.
Distraught, Samir texts his best friend who in turn, texts his friend Pinky. Samir’s a colossal nerd and Pinky disregards the message. Soon afterward, The Shark accuses Pinky of burning down the shed with some random summer boyfriend, and Pinky impulsively blurts out with her (truthful) denial that she already has a boyfriend (not currently). Trapped by her own lie, Pinky knows she’ll either have to admit the truth or … wait a minute! She realizes Samir may prove to be the answer. Pinky convinces Samir to come to Cape Cod for the summer and pretend to be her boyfriend by promising she’ll get her mother to give him a winter internship.
With Samir’s arrival, myriad obstacles and trials while maintaining the fake relationship around her family propel the story. Pinky also uncovers a secret about Dolly, rescues a baby opossum that she treats as a pet, and finds the fake dating issue to be more than she bargained for. With her signature upbeat writing, Menon has produced yet another enjoyable novel with a strong-willed female protagonist seconded by a likable young man. Plus, this time she has included an applause-worthy subplot concerning positive environmental activism fueled by Pinky, accompanied by Samir and Dolly.
Like all of Menon’s young adult offerings, the happy ending is suitably earned. Her characters, each striving to solidify their place in the world, their families, and their relationships, experience the gamut of victories and failures required to shoulder the weight of responsibility as they mature into adulthood. They also embrace the sheer joy of youth as well as the angsty bits that are often seated in misconception, withheld information, and internalized competition where none truly exists.
Despite being the third book in the “Dimpleverse,” each book stands alone on its own merits. Fans of Menon’s earlier books will love10 Things I Hate About Pinky and discover there are 10 times as many things to love about her.
Megha Majumdar’s novel, A Burning, released on June 2 is a highly anticipated debut by an Indian American writer this year. Majumdar grew up in Kolkata, India, and then attended Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University where she pursued graduate studies in sociology. She is currently an editor with the online magazine Catapult.
I approached Majumdar’s novel with a bit of trepidation. Advance praise from acclaimed authors like Amitav Ghosh and Tommy Orange made me feel that perhaps my expectations had been primed to an unreasonable high which the experience of reading the book would not be able to fulfill.
However, this novel actually captured me from its opening pages and kept me in its spell till the end. Its appeal stems from its taut narrative structure resembling the plot of detective fiction or courtroom drama, albeit without the typical resolution of such popular genres. This novel’s purpose is not so much to uncover who committed a heinous act of terrorism but to expose the ways in which the Indian state has failed its most marginalized communities.
The novel unfolds through the point of view of its three major characters: Jivan a young Muslim woman who finds herself accused of terrorism on the basis of a thoughtless comment she writes on Facebook; Lovely, a member of the transgender Hijra community who takes English lessons from Jivan and aspires to become a film star; and PT Sir, a physical education teacher who was once a mentor for Jivan but who, in his quest for political power, quickly abandons any moral compunctions.
The two female characters’ narratives are offered in first person while PT Sir’s sections of the novel are rendered in the third person. This parallels the greater intimacy that readers are invited to forge with the two female characters.
In the very first chapter, we are informed through Jivan’s voice that a train has been torched at a station near her house. She sees the burning train but just rushes home to safety. In the shanty home that she occupies with her parents, she follows a Facebook thread on the train burning incident and writes the reckless comment accusing the police and the government of inaction towards the victims and equating them with terrorists. Her comment goes viral and soon she is accused of being friends with a well-known terrorist recruiter. She is arrested and becomes an inmate of a women’s prison.
In the sections which follow in her voice, we hear of her family’s history of eviction from lands considered to be rich in minerals, the brutalization of her father by the police, the tenuous efforts to start a new life in Kolabagan driven by her searing ambition to step into the middle-class and rescue her parents from destitution.
Like Jivan, Lovely, too, is struggling to enter middle-class, overcoming the obstacles of poverty and the ostracism she faces as a member of the transgender/intersex Hijra community.
While we have seen representations of Hijras in Indian fiction, Anjum in Arundhati Roy’sThe Ministry of Utmost Happiness being a notable example, Majumdar offers a fully developed and complex emotional life of Lovely. She faces constant humiliation but never loses faith in her ability as an actress. Yet, traditional expectations of patriarchal society prompt her to push away Azad, the love of her life, and drive him to a traditional marriage that will give him children, even though he had resisted the idea before.
PT Sir is already a member of the middle class, unlike the two other protagonists. But he aspires for more power and more of a sense of importance beyond the humble borders of a teacher’s life. His ambitions lead him to seek refuge in the culture of political sycophancy, paying obeisance to the nationalist party leader, carrying out petty acts of subterfuge, and gradually dispensing with the last vestiges of moral conscience.
In depicting contemporary India under a neoliberal regime that on the one hand ushers in a consumerist urban culture, Majumdar is fearless in exposing its underbelly with its total disregard for the lives of the poor and the destitute, and the myriad ways in which the nation betrays them. To this, she adds an astute understanding of the role of social media platforms in exacerbating the dangers of disenfranchised citizens.
Everyone, including Jivan, can have a cellphone and a Facebook account, these platforms make her more vulnerable to becoming a target of social media outrage and scapegoating. Her impulsive comment on Facebook exposes her to being branded as a terrorist in the court of public opinion well before her actual trial. While social media provides Lovely the opportunity to disseminate her acting video and finally command the attention of a serious producer, it covertly censors her from expressing support for her friend Jivan, as the culture of fandom is fickle and aspiring stars have to carefully calibrate their personal and political comments to retain popularity.
Social media is depicted as a source of power and currency, all other institutions of a democratic society seem to be crumbling. The media, the police, the justice system are all shown to be mired in corruption. In an era of beef lynchings, attacks on journalists, police brutality on students in various universities, and scapegoating of individuals as anti-national, there is an uncanny correspondence between the fictional and the real events.
Currently, mass protests against police brutality on minorities in the U.S instigate a fight for global criminal justice reform and support for Black Lives; this novel and its concerns resonate with dreams of justice by oppressed people across continents.
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.
InSeeing Ceremony, Meera Ekkanath Klein’s sequel to her 2017 debut novel,My Mother’s Kitchen, the narrator, Meena, is now ready for college and continues to rebuff her mother’s need to subject her to seeing ceremonies in advance of formally arranging her marriage. The continuing obstacle is that Meena refuses to think about marriage until she returns home to Mahagiri, degree in hand, ready to begin her own life as an adult.
Her confidante and neighbor Mac, an elderly Scotsman who owns a tea plantation, is always ready to lend an ear and offer sage advice. However, reality enters Meena’s life when he reveals a friend is interested in purchasing Meena’s late father’s spice plantation. With the express understanding that the transaction will honor Meena’s father’s legacy, the money exchanged is Meena’s ticket to a college in California where her uncle is a professor.
During the brief pages devoted to Meena’s time at school, she studies agriculture, discovers Chinese tea, and embraces the calming concepts of the Japanese and Chinese tea ceremonies. It is then, in a flash of brilliance, that she understands creating a tearoom in which a variety of teas could be sampled and tea ceremonies would be held, maybe the answer to bolstering her mother’s remaining business.
On her journey home following graduation, Meena meets Raj Kumar, a young Indian businessman. They take an immediate liking to each other, and while at the airport in Singapore, they spend their layover time dining and chatting. As expected, neither can get the other out of their minds after going their own ways. Later, in a convenient twist, Meena and Raj come face to face again.
The bones of the story are good and hold promise, but much of the plot isn’t new. The seeing ceremony, arranged marriage, traditional vs. modern attitudes, and going to college in the U.S. are overused. Nevertheless, the elements of agriculture, introducing new crops, rotating crops, and bringing concepts from overseas are fresh enough to bring balance to the novel.
That said, this book should be a massive celebration of the senses, yet the ubiquitous spices, the meals prepared, the visit to a tribal village, and the vistas Meena experiences both at home and at her father’s plantation exist with an assumption that the reader is familiar with all of those essentials when sensual imagery would have enhanced Meena’s narrative and assisted in building her world. Instead, that part of the storytelling was incomplete, like a coloring book with pages half colored and abandoned.
On the plus side,Seeing Ceremony can be read as a standalone novel. It isn’t necessary to readMy Mother’s Kitchen to enjoy this succeeding story. However, since the books are billed as novels with recipes, you may want to see what’s cooking in both. In “Kitchen,” the recipes are found at the end of chapters which, unfortunately, impede the reader’s flow. In “Ceremony,” the recipes are conveniently gathered at the end of the book.
If you’re in the market for a quick read that may take you away, introduce you to some interesting characters, tell a story of finding one’s way back home, and offer some recipes to spice up your next meal, this may be the book for you.
And then of course, like numerous other events, it was canceled. As March began, it became increasingly clear that life as we know it was changing.
With this cloud hanging over all our heads, I welcomed the opportunity to pick up The Henna Artist. The image on the cover is attractive and inviting. A woman walking under some decorated arches in what may be a palace in Rajasthan, with ornate chandeliers visible above. In the inner flap, the picture of the author is lovely – a striking composition of gray, red, and blue.
This eloquent, engaging novel is the story of Lakshmi Shastri, a strong woman who seizes her independence out of an abusive marriage and a life of poverty, by slowly climbing the ladder of security with rungs built by hard work, creativity, and determination.
Born in a village in Uttar Pradesh to an educated father turned alcoholic after being slighted by the British and a helpless mother, Lakshmi reluctantly leaves her home when her marriage is arranged to an abusive and violent man. She grows to love his mother, her Saasuji, who teaches her how to heal with herbs.
Eventually, she cannot bear it anymore and runs away, bringing shame upon her parents and the village where she grew up. Joshi has an eloquent passage on this concept of family honor.
From UP to Agra to Jaipur, Lakshmi finally settles and is embraced by Samir Singh, an architect, and his wife, Parvati, who become patrons of her art (henna) and healing. Through Parvati’s introductions, Lakshmi meets members of the royal family – two maharanis. Lakshmi’s success with herb treatments also captures the attention of Samir’s friend Dr. Jay Kumar, a doctor trained in Western medicine.
One day, a 14-year old girl, Radha, arrives at her doorstep – a sister she never knew she had. Radha’s arrival complicates Lakshmi’s carefully constructed world. As with any teenager, Radha’s eagerness to absorb all the new experiences combined with her innocence leads to complicated circumstances.
All through the book, Joshi’s detailed descriptions of the characters, their appearance, surroundings, and their state of mind are evocative and paint an engaging portrait. The high points in Lakshmi’s timeline bore captivating descriptions of lavish lifestyles, elegant homes, palaces, and extravagant parties. When her luck turns, the places she frequents are increasingly dreary, with poignant descriptions.
Here are a few lines of what she sees on her way to the palace for the first time.
The descriptions of nature, birds, and their movements are quite lovely.
Motherhood is a theme that permeates the book. There are many mothers in the story. Lakshmi’s helpless mother in her village. Her mother-in-law, Saasuji, whom she loves and reveres, having learned about healing from her. Once discovering that Lakshmi has run away, Saasuji checks her money and herbs, and discovers that they are gone. “Shabash,” she exclaims. “Well done,” capturing in a word her wishes and aspirations for her daughter-in-law, to build her own life.
There are women longing for motherhood, who seek Lakshmi’s help following one miscarriage after another. There are women who wish to avoid motherhood, using Lakshmi’s herbs to prevent conception or terminate a pregnancy. There are women who become pregnant by choice or by accident, unintentional/accidental mothers, whose circumstances make it impossible for them to keep the child. There is a mother whose child has been removed from her due to the father’s superstitious fear that the child would cause his death. All the characters are portrayed with compassion and varied as their circumstances and choices are, nobody is demonized. Not even Hari, the abusive husband.
The book is sprinkled with quotes and references to English literature. Lakshmi’s father was an English teacher and both his daughters, Lakshmi and Radha, have absorbed his love of books. We interact with Shakespeare, poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Jane Eyre, and even Lady Chatterley’slover. Dr. Jay Kumar quotes Dickens in one of his letters to Lakshmi, from the opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities: “…it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness.” Perhaps the Anglophilia is representative of the post-Independence era in which the book is set; it was, after all, only a few decades later that Salman Rushdie would burst into the literary world and plop Indian writing in English firmly on the literary map.
I was thrown off by the transliteration of some Indian words. The words for daughter and son are ordinarily written as Beti and Beta, but here they are written as Behti and Behta. The core of Hindu philosophy is the Bhagavad Gita; oddly, here it is spelled as the Bahagvad Gita. Twice. In my experience transliteration is tied closely to pronunciation in the original script. These transliterations are not drawn from the Devanagari script with which I am most familiar. For me, these were odd choices of spelling and gave me pause. I wondered if they were typos but they appear a few times throughout the book.
This is a story of two worlds: one of the immensely wealthy, who move in clubs and palaces, with numerous staff to cook, clean, shop; and one of the service class, the ones who cook, clean, shop, apply henna, dye hair, offer herbal home remedies. The Henna Artist brings both worlds to life, allowing the reader to move between them and glimpse into both with ease.
There are a few interesting, informative, and even amusing sections provided as appendices – henna and its history, a henna recipe from Radha, and a Rabri recipe from the royal palace.
There is also a section on caste. While the characters are described as belonging to various castes, the daily injustices and injuries of which Joshi writes, struck me more as socio-economic. The difference between the haves and the have-nots. Except for a passing mention of caste regarding the installation of WCs (water closets/toilets), it isn’t woven into the narrative.
Also, while the story is set in the 1950s, post-independence Jaipur with historical touches add flourishes to the story, it is not a historical account. The strength of its book lies not as much on historical accuracy or any in-depth portrayal of caste differences, but in the engaging story and the well-developed characters.
Joshi thanks her parents in the Acknowledgments section, and notes that her mother, married at 18 and a mother of two by 22, inspired the story. A beautiful tribute indeed. I’m sure her mother is proud.
When we get out of this COVID-19 crisis, I hope Alka Joshi and The Henna Artist get the book tour they deserve. I sure look forward to seeing her at Kepler’s someday.
In the meantime, Kepler’s of Menlo Park is hosting an online event with writer Alka Joshi on her book “The Henna Artist” on Wednesday, May 27th at 7:00pm. Learn more about the event and sign up here to listen to Alka Joshi in conversation with journalist, Angie Coiro.
Raji Pillai lives in the SF Bay Area, and writes at www.rajiwrites.com where this article was originally published.
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?
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.