Richa Gupta’s stories in Slices of Life intend to offer a glimpse into the experiences of women who find themselves in a variety of situations. The author talks to The Daily Guardian about her new book. Excerpts:
Q. Slices of Life is about women from various walks of life, much like your previous work, Skeins. Tell us what draws you to write narratives about women and their lives.
A. My narratives explore the lives of women and their personalities and related themes since women are multifaceted, deeply invested in living and have a high intellectual and emotional quotient. Also, they face a slew of challenges since male chauvinism is so deeply entrenched in our society that it is second nature for even well-educated and so-called progressive families to consider males a worthy heir and a female child a financial burden.
Q. The book not only has a multiplicity of voices, but also literary styles and themes. How did you juggle with writing in such different genres?
A. I like to vary the narrative style, which is why Slices of Life includes stories narrated by an omniscient third-person narrator and a first-person narrative in “Knots”. Given my fertile imagination, any of several themes around me can spark off a tale: An urban housewife looking for a suitable cook, a thieving maid, a bride-to-be planning her marriage, an adulterous husband, a young girl awaiting love, a professional with a flaw, a woman whose talent has been buried and a marginalised family affected by the lockdown.
As an avid reader and a student of English Literature, I have read a variety of genres and traced their historical development from Chaucer to currentday voices in Indian fiction like Amitav Ghosh. I want to experiment with various genres like social satire, whodunits, multi-generational sagas, comedy, biography and even science-fiction. However, though inspired by illustrious works in various genres, I try to find my individual voice while writing. To best portray the plurality of life, I feel a writer should transit between genres like a chameleon and use the genre best suited to the theme. I don’t feel the need to confine myself to a single genre.
Q. Your previous books have been in the form of a novel. What differences, if any, did you experience in your creative process while writing short stories for Slices of Life?
A. It is interesting why I changed the format of my creative writing. After publishing my novel Skeins in September, 2018, I started writing “Knots”, a thriller that was originally intended to be a novel. But I got busy with family matters and gave “Knots” an early conclusion and changed it from a novel into a short story. I discovered it was easier to write short stories as I could start afresh after each story and did not need to ensure continuity across chapters.
Writing a short story is a totally different creative process from writing a novel. The focus has to be on one theme, and the plot and character development have to be swift. However, it is easier to draw in readers into the story, hold their interest and build it up to the climax or anti-climax. I grew to love this medium of creative writing since I could write ‘on the go’ in the gaps between my other activities. Also, it gave me a chance to explore different themes and genres. So, I wrote several more stories, the last one “Dusk” being written in April 2020 during the lockdown.
Q. The story “Dusk” is set against the recent migrant labour crisis and touches upon the intersection of class and gender. What moved you to draw a character like Bhanu? Is there a sort of social responsibility you feel as a writer of fiction?
A. I was affected greatly by the recent migrant crisis. Suddenly, this unseen section of our society that serviced our homes, built the city infrastructure, enabled factory production and asked for alms at traffic intersections came into focus as they voiced to television crews their hardships and longing to return to their home states. I developed the character of Bhanu based on the visual of a migrant woman I saw on television and by imagining her plight based on newspaper reports.
I depicted her plight, because as a writer I do feel a sense of social responsibility, as you say, and also because I want to portray women characters across all sections of society. For writers to be relevant, they have to portray the effect of important events on the lives of common people.
Q. The dynamics between women in the book shift from one story to the other, with “Bridal Wear” presenting a case of petty rivalry and the next one, “Watershed”, depicting strong empowering friendships. What made you decide to portray such varying relationships between women in the book?
A. That is true in life as well: While there are petty rivalries between women, there are also empowering friendships between them. Not all women empower other women; some do compete with and undermine other women in order to show themselves in a better light. While most women are loving and supportive, a few are selfish and manipulative. Just because I talk about a gender bias doesn’t mean that I cannot see their negative traits or their plurality of character.
The book ‘Slices of Life’, written by Richa Gupta, is published by Hesten, an imprint of Blue Rose Publishers.
Books to look out for this week
Akkitham: A Pictorial Autobiography
Rupa, Rs 2,500
This is perhaps the first-of-its-kind book culled and created entirely from an author’s writings, interviews and private conversations. The text has been translated into English by Bhaskaramenon Krishnakumar, alias Atmaraman. It’s the journey of a village boy who went on to become a profound poet. His contribution to literature is summed up beautifully in the statement that was issued with the Jnanpith award 2019: ‘Akkitham’s poetry reflects unfathomable compassion and imprints of Indian philosophical and moral values, delving deep into human emotions in a fast changing social space.’
Pan Macmillan UK, Rs 450
In this spellbinding tale from Danielle Steel, a princess is sent away to safety during World War II, where she falls in love, and is lost forever. As the war rages on in the summer of 1943, causing massive destruction and widespread fear, the King and Queen choose to quietly send their youngest daughter, Princess Charlotte, to live with a trusted noble family in the Yorkshire countryside. A fascinating story of family and royalty, Royal is an exhilarating work from Danielle Steel, one of the world’s favourite storytellers of our times.
The Science of Mind Management
Westland, Rs 35
The quality of our mind determines the quality of the life we lead. It can be our greatest ally or our worst adversary. A mind that runs amok could steal our inner peace and undermine every productive endeavour. Yet, with proper knowledge, training and discipline, it is possible to unleash the mind’s infinite potential. In The Science of Mind Management, Swami Mukundananda charts the four different aspects of the human mind and lays down a clear path towards mastering it. He gently guides readers on the road to winning their inner battle
The Art of Leading in a Borderless World
C. Panduranga Bhatta
Bloomsbury India, Rs 699
The Art of Leading in a Borderless World is a reflective journey on the significant instances of leadership-when leaders were considerate and conscientious about heterogeneity through their focus on what they exclude when including, such that the excluded became the vantage point of their focus. An attempt is made here to retrace the global instincts long before globalisation was coined as an economic functionality. The combinations of texts, philosophies and events are uncanny and generate food for thought.
The Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa helped me look at world differently: Tenzin Priyadarshi
The fascinating encounters and learnings from teachers, from His Holiness Dalai Lama to former Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu and Mother Teresa, have been carefully preserved in the book, Running Toward Mystery, by venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi. Published by Penguin India, this exemplary work encompasses his views on spiritual disillusionment, science and technology, meditation and the link between Buddhism and the modern world. In an exclusive interview, Priyadarshi talks about his inspiration behind this book. Excerpts: Q: What influenced you to write this extraordinary book with Buddhism and spirituality at the core? A:My students were asking me to write something for almost a decade and initially, people were hoping for a straightforward memoir, but I am too young for that. My work highlights my spiritual learnings from various interactions with teachers.
Q: You have said that spirituality should be approached as a seeker and not as a teacher. What has been the role of the powerful teachers in your life — from the Dalai Lama to Mother Teresa? A:They helped me look at the world differently. What spiritual teachers do at times is give you a different lens for looking at the situation and the world around you. One of the learnings from my experience is that they help us refine our questions so that we ask better and more relevant questions about life and the world. Observing Mother Teresa’s day-to-day work in Kolkata and how she balanced her spiritual life with the ability to manifest a tremendous sense of compassion, was a learning in itself. She could make a slum in Kolkata or a room filled with people suffering from diseases a sacred place where people can learn about compassion. She could transform even the most ordinary of spaces into the most sacred space. With His Holiness Dalai Lama, the key learning was not to take anything at faith. He would always, and continues even to this day, encourage people to ask questions and enquire.
Q: How have you explored spiritual disillusionment in the book?
A: It includes disillusionment with the institutions sometimes that we built around spirituality or religion; such systems can become constraining and confining. There are useful aspects to those systems but we need to promote more in the sense of seeking and curiosity. And not try to utilise building institutions to control how people think or behave and so on. Another aspect of it is the disillusionment when religious or spiritual systems polarise our behavioural patterns, where we adhere to a certain sense of belonging and it poses a kind of animosity towards people who don’t think like us, or believe in the same things and that does violence to our sense of thinking. I witness disillusionment in the fact that everybody wants to be a teacher and nobody wants to be a student; everybody wants to be a guru and not a disciple. The sense that we are not exploring the spiritual world, sheer yearning to learn and grow, but with shallow desires of becoming gurus, influencers or authoritative figures.
Q: How would you describe the relationship between Buddhism and the modern world?
A: The modern world has progressed quite a bit in terms of its scientific and material pursuits and so on. But if you look at how humanity has evolved, then we have not overcome or evolved so much in our emotional experience of the world; the emotions that we experience are the similar kinds of emotions that our ancestors 10,000 years ago experienced, including fear, greed, jealousy and envy. As long as we are trying to regulate emotional states, Buddhism becomes highly relevant as the tools that it provides hold relevance amidst the struggles of the contemporary world. Also, I believe that as long as humans are seeking a deeper sense of meaning, joy and happiness in their life Buddhism will continue to help give them a kind of perspective on what is invaluable. The tools, techniques and the lessons that were given 2,500 years ago have become much more relevant in today’s world. That’s why you see resurgence in mindfulness and meditation techniques in the last 10-15 years.
Q: What are the biographical elements in this book?
A: Such elements are throughout the book. However, the teachings are not just abstract teachings but from encounters and first-hand interactions with certain individuals. It comprises my struggles and journey and is deeply biographical in that manner but I did not want it to be about me. I wanted this comprehensive work to be about the spiritual processes that one experiences. I have talked about how all humans are contemplative by nature, whenever we ponder the meaning of life. Also, whenever we ponder a greater sense of joy and a deeper sense of happiness, we are being contemplative. We don’t need to be religious or even spiritual to ponder such questions. Running Toward Mystery highlights that particular process of pondering, but it is also a process of contemplating one’s journey while being open to the idea of lessons learnt and unpredictable meetings with teachers.
Q: What are the core principles at the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT?
A: The centre was founded almost 10 years ago with the simple but audacious idea of nurturing and promoting ethical imagination in our world. Ethical imagination implies that we need more critical thinking and tools to learn about ethics and compassion in our education system, governance system and financial system. Therefore, much of our work and programmes are directed towards this direction to recognise the relevance of promoting such learnings and tools. We have been focusing on developing innovative tools and innovative programmes in promoting conversations around ethical learning.
A novelist who never wanted a career in writing
Traversing through the realms of writing, publishing and bookselling, Anuradha Roy has done them all. The celebrated author talks about keeping her distance from social media and the writings which have inspired her.
A writer, editor, publisher, bookstore manager, storekeeper… you name it and Anuradha Roy has done it all. She has also inspired thousands of others in the process and reminded us that the quality of writing can never be compromised on. Each of her books is not just amazing reads but pieces of literary art, to be part of a prized collection at home and read again and again.
Anuradha Roy’s debut novel, An Atlas of Impossible Longing, has been translated into 18 languages. It was named one of the ‘60 Essential English Language Works of Modern Indian Literature’ by World Literature Today. Her second novel, The Folded Earth, won the Economist Crossword Prize and has been widely translated. Sleeping on Jupiter, her third novel, won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was nominated for the Man Booker Prize too. Her fourth novel, All the Lives We Never Lived, won the Tata Book of the Year Award for Fiction 2018 and was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2018. It has now been shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award for 2020.
The International Dublin Literary Award shortlist is drawn from a longlist of 156 novels submitted by library systems in 119 cities in 40 countries. The statement from the judges says:
“Set in the 1930s, Anuradha Roy’s new novel is like an Indian raga that continues to resonate long after you have finished the last chapter. Myshkin is the nine year-old protagonist, and the central event in his life is revealed in the novel’s opening sentence: ‘I was known as the boy whose mother had run off with an Englishman.’ The Englishman turned out to be Walter, a German, who had to leave British India in a hurry, taking Myshkin’s beloved mother with him, triggering a memorable saga of love, memory, kindness, human frailty and the devastating loneliness of a boy.”
Despite being such a celebrated writer, Anuradha Roy is not in the social media or literature festival race. It’s comforting to see that there is still a breed of writers who let their works speak for themselves. “Prizes are partly a matter of chance and I feel honoured and lucky when I do make it to shortlists or win anything. The euphoria lasts a day or two and then you have to get back to the real grind of revising and writing. Prizes do end up influencing perception. I try and limit the number of events and festivals because I need quiet time at home to be able to write. That way the whole business of prizes and reviews is kept at a distance. If you can’t disconnect once a book is out, it is crippling,” says Roy.
Writing is a habit that one cultivates throughout their lives. However, when it comes to publishing, some begin early while some are late bloomers. Either way, publishing a book is serious business because a book stays forever, and one is often judged by the book written. Says Roy on her career as a writer and publisher, “I’ve written stories from my childhood but had never felt the need to write a novel. I never wanted a career in writing, only wanted one in publishing. It was only when we were struggling to set up Permanent Black and things were really tough that somehow the space opened up for a novel. And at that point it was something I just had to do. I wrote it over a period of two or three years and by the time it was published (which took ages), I was forty.”
While Roy worked in book publishing, she was the acquisitions editor for literature at OUP, and then in 2000, together with her husband Rukun Advani, started Permanent Black. “Once I began writing fiction, I found it hard to edit, difficult to carry two or more books in my head simultaneously, so I stopped and focused on design, which is what I still do for our press. I do all our cover designs. I think working with visuals rather than words uses a totally different part of the brain, that is how it feels,” she says. Book production and selling have been a part of Anuradha’s life. The iconic Ram Advani Booksellers belonged to her late father-in-law where she did counter duty whenever she was in town, and when she was in college in Calcutta, she did a summer job with an independent press, Stree, where she was taught the ropes by her cousin, Mandira Sen, who runs it still. “The first thing she made me do was an inventory of all the books in the storeroom, just to show me publishing wasn’t a glamour job about meeting famous authors. Much of it is drudge work, and that was useful to know early on,” Roy says.
Even though India is one of the biggest markets in the world, our reading population for literary novels remains dismally low. A big reason for that could be the way our education system has been, following Macaulayism, where we read only to answer questions. And it is a fact that good readers are often able to become great writers. Anuradha Roy has been inspired by many writings that she has read throughout her life. “The books I read as a child are still with me: Sukumar Roy’s Nonsense Verse, Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s The Golden Goblet, Gone with the Wind, books by Nevil Shute, Dickens, Hardy and Austen. Cheap translations of Dostoevsky and Chekhov used to be all over when I was growing up, and their writing had a huge impact on me. Later in life, I came to know Pather Panchali by Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhaya, a book I first read in translation and then relearned the Bengali script in order to read it in the original. I love the enigmatic, beautiful short stories of Alice Munro, the mingling of fact and fiction in the nonfiction of Ryszard Kapuscinski,” she adds.
We may categorise books into several genres, but the truth remains that a majority of stories are taken from personal experiences and influences. In All The Lives We Never Lived, there are several historical characters, including Walter Spies, Rabindranath, Percy Lancaster, Beryl de Zoete and Begum Akhtar. Anuradha says, “The book began with a boy’s immersion in paintings — and the magical thing was how the historical interconnections became apparent to me during the research. I started out with a boy; then as I stood in a museum in Bali before the paintings of Walter Spies, I discovered he died on 19th January, the very day my beloved old dog had died, only a few months earlier. I know this sounds whimsical, but instantly it felt as if my life, the novel and one real life character were all connected. Spies became the painter who would enter the life of the boy. Slowly, these ripples of connectedness spread wider — via Tagore, writer Maitreyi Debi, Beryl de Zoete, who wrote a book with Spies — and it became even clearer that this world which we think of as the past is close to ours and very present even in mundane ways: travel, hopes and dreams, health, the discovery of new countries, unlikely friendships. Where there is a striving for happiness in hostile surroundings, and where overwhelming forces of history can sweep everything aside.”
With so much acclaim and such brilliant works that are being read globally, one wonders why there have been no translations of her writings into Indian languages. Hopefully, with NEP 2020, the focus will be back on creativity and overall skill development, which will develop our interest in the rich and vast realm of Indian regional literatures, besides reading and writing in English. We hope to see this soon so that such a large and diverse market does not remain deprived of the best stories ever written.
Books to look out for this week
The Buddhist on Death Row
HarperCollins India, Rs 350
With uncanny clarity, David Sheff describes Jarvis Jay Masters’ gradual but profound transformation from a man dedicated to hurting others to one who has prevented violence on the prison yard, counselled high school kids by mail, and helped prisoners – and even guards – find meaning in their lives. Along the way, Masters becomes drawn to the Buddhist principles – compassion, sacrifice, and living in the moment -and gains the admiration of Buddhists worldwide. And while he is still in San Quentin and still on death row, he shows us all how to ease our everyday suffering, relish the light that surrounds us, and endure the tragedies that befall us all.
CAPITAL CONTEST: How AAP and Kejriwal Won Delhi
Deepak Bajpai, Sidharth Pandey
Rupa Publications, Rs 195
Capital Contest tells us the story of how the political disruptor man- aged to disrupt once again and win the capital contest. It also gives deep insights into how the AAP has grown as a political entity. Weaving in candid accounts from the party’s key decision-makers and strategists, this book is an essential read not only for those who keenly track politics and sociology, but also for all those who are interested in understanding how India has changed and continues to change and how its politicians must continuously monitor the pulse of the people so as to be in sync with a fast-changing nation.
Doing Business in India
LID Publishing, Rs 1392
More and more businesses world- wide are looking to do business in India, but its unique business environment, culture and traditions make it a challenging market for most foreigners. Doing Business in India is designed to make anyone exploring, starting or already doing business in India better aware of the cultural and business etiquette necessary to succeed in this market. This book is a one-stop guide that aims to shed light on the intricacies and complexities of doing business in India. It will help inspire and remove the fear of doing business in India from entrepreneurs and business owners who may find it overwhelming, confusing and even intimidating.
Understanding world of boys is first step to understand men: Vaidyanathan
Journalist-turned-author Siddhartha Vaidyanathan tells why he decided to take a journey inside the adolescent minds through his new book, What’s Wrong with You, Karthik? (Picador India, Rs 599).
Q: At a time when most authors are using heavy topics like gender equality, racism, violence, etc, you chose to explore an adolescent mind with humour. Why?
A: I am drawn to fiction that engages with serious topics through the medium of storytelling. The writing needs to sustain the reader’s interest. The heavier themes can then glide below the surface. Humour, when done well, can bring the reader onto your side. It is like you are telling her: Trust me, I can make you laugh. You then go about subtly weaving in serious themes like the lasting effects of bullying, the profound relationship kids have with gods, the unreasonable academic pressures that are placed on children, and an education system that tends to reward memory over creativity.
Q. Does comedy come naturally to you?
A: As paradoxical as it sounds, I take comedy seriously. So I am never entirely satisfied with the parts meant to be funny. The challenge is to spring the humour when the reader least expects it. And to make sure the joke is calibrated to fit with the mood of the scene.
Q: The story also talks about hyper-masculinity which is a less discussed yet important side, especially in boys. Why did you feel is it important to talk about this?
A: Many men are at their most relaxed when in the company of male friends. They swear without inhibition, make inappropriate jokes, and talk about their sexual experiences. Teenage boys are similar, though some don’t stay within their limits, especially when fuelled by the male energy around them. Stronger boys dominate the weaker ones, confident boys gang up on those who are struggling to fit in, and there is an obsession with muscularity and other physical attributes. Going deep into this world helps us see why bullies act in certain ways and how the victims try, and often fail, to cope. We hear intimate conversations and realise how sexism and homophobia are easily normalised. To understand the world of boys is the first step in understanding men.
Q: The book also talks about the school system and how the rat race impacts a young mind. Was this angle explored intentionally?
A: Karthik has spent six years in alternative schooling and has only now joined the academic rat race. As an outsider, he sees the contrast. He is also clueless about how to prepare for exams. It is obvious that your grades don’t reveal your intelligence or account for your innovativeness, creativity and sensitivity, but it takes time for a child to come to terms with this. Especially a child whose
parents are as demanding as Karthik’s. Each of us will know someone who has been left broken by the system simply because they didn’t figure out how to cram textbooks and crack exams. I felt it is important to highlight the debilitating effects these exams have on many students.
Q: While reading the novel, one gets a touch of R.K. Naryan’s ‘Malgudi Days’. Who are your favourite authors and why?
A: That is the highest compliment anyone can give this book. R.K. Narayan is one of my inspirations and Swami and Friends was the first book I fell in love with. That book is full of such insights from a child’s vantage. I am delighted to read it even as an adult. I love V.S. Naipaul’s early works. Miguel Street is a rare gem. It taught me that even the best writers have drawn on their childhood experiences in their fiction. And one can never tire of how masterfully Naipaul crafts his sentences. Every word, punctuation mark does its job. And guides the reader along, one step at a time
The magic of Himalayas
On a rather sultry day, while I was grappling with back-to-back official meetings, Haunting Himalayas — a collection of short stories by Rajni Sekhri Sibal, a former career bureaucrat and a poetess — arrived on my desk. Dreadfully searching for a distraction more than a reprieve, I took a quick look and chanced upon these lines from the author’s note: “There is a fuzzy realm that separates the here and the now from what is ethereal…” Maybe it was because of how I was feeling then, or perhaps because there was a realm of insight in the “Author’s Note”, but even though writing is often idiosyncratic and subjective, it seemed as though the words spoke to me. Me alone.
Haunting Himalayas is fantasy and fiction rolled into one. Flipping through the pages of this book is like breathing in a lungful of pine and deodar-scented Himalayan air. Just like the Himalayan air, the author’s writing style is fresh and crisp. The book is a collection of eight short stories. Every story has an element of veracity behind it. The author, however, has taken the creative license to let her imagination run wild and sprinkle a dash of fiction on the narrative.
Truth be told, the mysterious occurrences in these stories are true incidences that people have experienced firsthand. Even the most indiscernible reader might find it difficult to rubbish these freak instances in the hills as mere fiction. True, these stories may baffle the average reader, but every plot promises to fascinate, enchant and bewilder. Take, for instance, the opening story, which is titled, “Ishmiley Mem Saab”. Trekkers have spotted the ‘lady in white’ near the River Bhagirathi at Harsil in the Garhwal mountains and also near River Parvati in the Parvati Valley beyond Manikaran. That’s not all. The last story, “Headless Soldier”, is based on an actual sighting by a lady back in the late 1930s and the instance has been narrated to the author by the lady’s daughter-in-law. The story titled “Mulberry House Magnet” is also based on a true episode that happened with a Parsi family.
Usually, short story collections are disconnected in time and space. Their characters are unrelated and the plots often change tracks between myriad themes. However, the common thread that shines through this book is the backdrop of the mystic Himalayas, which lends the volume a sense of gravity. Each story takes the reader through the varied landscapes of the Himalayas — be it in Mussoorie,
Chamba, Shimla, Lahaul-Spiti or Nainital. The author, like an ace story-teller, does complete justice as she un- ravels the mysteries hidden deep inside the folds of these glorious mountain ranges. It is reminiscent of the pleasures of long solitary walks in the hills and brings out the author’s unsophisticated yet deep love for the natural world — mountains, rivers and the seasons. Rajni Sekhri Sibal understands the Himalayas like no one else. Although she hails from the heart of Punjab, she’s spent a great deal of her life in the hills: first, as a student at the Welham Girls’ School and later, as an IAS probationer at the academy in Mussoorie. In fact, in the short story “Tinkling Anklets”, the author makes a passing reference to her alma mater.
Haunting Himalayas might not sparkle with the brilliance of a thriller, but it is an open invitation for the reader into the supernatural and transcendental world of the hills, as the author lets the reader into her imaginative and creative mind. Delving into the pages of Rajni Sekhri’s book is like sipping unspiced, clear, hot chicken broth at the end of an extremely rough day at work — it does not excite your taste buds but soothes them — and you are grateful for that.
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