Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Hawa Mahal Murders

It's happening. My book titled The Hawa Mahal Murders will be launched at the inauguration of the Pune International Literary Festival (PILF) on the 20th of September 2019. Now everyone is going to be able to read it. That's madly exciting, yes, but also frightening.

People ask: Why Hawa Mahal?

One of the characters in my story has grandiose dreams. He wants to build a modern building on the lines of an ancient castle. And when it came to ancient castles, Hawa Mahal just popped into my head. At the time I hadn't thought of it becoming the title of the book.

The actual Hawa Mahal is an ancient palace in Jaipur, Rajasthan, and the name literally means "Palace of Winds." This is probably because of its 953 windows.

It was designed in such a way that the ladies inside the palace could watch the world go by and yet remain hidden behind the latticework screens. The ladies must have also kept comfortably cool because of the breeze flowing in from the numerous windows.

That there is a radio program of the same name (Hawa Mahal) was something I discovered lately. According to Wikipedia,
Hawa Mahal is a popular nightly radio show in India broadcast on the Vividh Bharati service. It has a skit-format, where stories from various writers were dramatized into plays...
Apparently, this radio program still exists and has been around for years, as a cousin of mine informed me. It says here:

Hawa Mahal is 15 min radio program broadcasted by All India Radio’s (run by Indian government) channel Vividh Bharti. These days there is a FM channel 102.9 MHz where this program is played at 8PM (Mon – Saturday)

Hawa Mahal can mean many things. A literal Hindi translation of "Hawa" means "air" but this word can be used in a sentence akin to saying "castles in the air". Or perhaps it can mean the Palace of Dreams.

Both these meanings fit in perfectly well with my story in The Hawa Mahal Murders. When the man in my story imagined himself to be a king, he was certainly building castles in the air.

(Both photographs published here are by me) 

Monday, August 5, 2019

My writing journey

Now that my first novel is to be published next month, it's time to look back on my writing journey.

I am not one of those geniuses who published a book at a young age. It's taken time.

For me, writing began with a diary. I was all of ten years old. The diary had nothing to do with the events in my life. It was an outpouring of emotion. Rambling thoughts. Conversations. It was the best writing practice. Diary writing went on for over a decade and I still have a trunk-full of my old diaries.

Writing long letters to friends was something I did with regularity. My dad was in the Army and we moved so often that friends were left behind. The inland letter was not a favourite tool although it was something I used on off and on. Mostly I wrote on reams and reams of paper stuffed into envelopes which wouldn't close properly. Now when I look back, I guess it was writing practice.

There wasn't a day that passed that I didn't write. I guess I was introverted. I read voraciously and I wrote, wrote and wrote. Read everything under the sun. Thrillers, westerns, classics and non-fiction. Biographies, philosophy, literature. I read Lin Yutang when I was 15. I read James Hadley Chase too.

I wrote fan fiction when I was about 11 years old. We lived in Kaduna, Nigeria and I was hooked onto television serials like the Invaders and Mod Squad and Hawai Five-O. I used to hum the tunes, imitate the voiceovers and write short screenplays. I guess they were silly but I was just enjoying myself. Didn't think of myself as a writer. I wanted to be a doctor or engineer.

At the age of 13, I was in the USA for a few months with relatives. I was there for so long that I attended school for a few days (was it that long?) with a girl called Betsy. She was the daughter of a very good friend of my uncle's. They all lived in Seaford, Delaware. Betsy liked a screenplay I wrote for Hawai-Five-O and insisted that I show it to her English teacher. I did. He read it and smiled. I don't remember him saying anything about it. But for some reason, I felt very proud.

Back in school in India, in my mid-teens, I used to take 200-page notebooks and write one novella per notebook. It was either Action, Sci-Fi or Romance. I remember passing around one of these notebook novels to my class-mates in school. My uncle used to read all my novellas. He said I was a born writer. It gave me confidence.

By then, of course, I knew I wanted to be a writer. But was I good enough to be published? I didn't think so.

I studied English Literature but instead of doing an MA in Literature I did Management. It was a fad in the eighties. A craze. And I went into advertising. Followed the herd. And no, I wasn't a copywriter. I was an executive. Suddenly it was all about some fancy career. Writing took a backseat.

I hated my job. And switched several before I gladly gave it up in the pursuit of writing. It started with middles and short stories (my kids were small and I worked from home) and I found that editors liked my work. I was getting published in mainstream newspapers. But could I write a full-length novel?

I took up work as a journalist. Freelanced at first, and then worked as a stringer, part-time and even full-time. I liked my job but not the politics. I worked as a business journalist and my management background helped. It was a relief that it wasn't a total waste but my dream was to write a novel. But I was keeping myself so busy that I had no time to even think about it.

I wrote a draft of a novel and then abandoned it. Well, not totally because I sent it to a renowned publisher (Penguin) and got a rejection letter. That made me feel like I wasn't cut out to be a novelist. I went back to journalism with a ferocity I didn't know I had.

One day my elder daughter, Aditi, told me to finish that novel I had started. Re-write if I felt it was necessary. And she laughed when I told her that I had got one rejection. One publisher? She was incredulous that I had sent it to just one publisher. People got rejected scores of times she said, and eventually, they get a publisher.

I had been so terrified of rejection that I had kept aside my dream. I didn't want to self publish. Self-publishing was becoming common, so common that everyone thought they were good. I didn't want to be one of them.

I re-wrote my novel. I certainly made it better, much better. I liked it so much that I decided I would self-publish if I didn't get a proper publisher. Self-publishing wasn't a bad word anymore. It was all about getting my writing out there.

But I didn't have to self-publish. I won a novel-writing competition and got a traditional publisher. I didn't know why I had doubted myself. But I guess all writers are insecure at heart.

I am now busy writing my second novel. And if there one thing I am sure about it's that I was always a writer and always will be.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Teenage Sex: It's always existed in India

Dating, love affairs...and even pre-marital sex is no longer taboo amongst today’s teenagers. Not even in conservative cities. True, one may not see many boys and girls openly holding hands on the main roads or kissing in parked cars but many affairs are conducted on the sly...without the knowledge of parents. Parental disapproval and society’s contempt often drives friendship and romance with the opposite sex underground! Boys and girls from even traditional families are dating but secrecy is the name of the game.

 Rohit, 18, is having a secret love affair. He comes from a conservative Gujarati family as does his 16-year old girlfriend. ‘No one knows,’ he confesses, ‘but we think that’s exciting.’ They usually seek out deserted move halls or unknown cafes while both their parents’ are under the impression that they are out in a group. Their group covers for them. Love letters and cards are exchanged through common friends, and calls are made from cells.

If there are any guilt pangs for this elaborate deceit, they are suppressed by the overwhelming needs of these youngsters, needs which are no longer considered immoral. ‘I slept with my husband before marriage,’ admits Neelima, ‘we couldn’t stop ourselves.’ She even admits that she had to have an abortion once. ‘It was an accident and I don’t think I did anything wrong. There is no point bringing an unwanted baby into this world.’ Neelima’s attitude towards pre-marital sex does not reflect her background, as she was brought up in an extremely conservative Marwari family with plenty of restrictions. This perhaps alienated her from her parents. ‘I was not close to either of them,’ she says.

This lack of closeness, of belonging and warmth, often pushes teenagers into the warmth of sexual relationships. Dr S.K. Som, a psychiatrist, says, ‘First of all, there is nothing wrong or abnormal in teenagers having love affairs or going steady. In fact, love is natural, given the circumstances.’ However, less time is devoted to children than before and in nuclear families, there are often no substitute parents either. Further, there is a lot about sex in the media today. All this tempts teens to experiment. Sometimes it can go very wrong. ‘It is only when romantic relationships lead to problems like unwanted pregnancies, early marriages, eloping or emotional disturbances, that it can become problematic. Mostly I have seen parents worry far more than necessary,’ he says. Dr Som has counselled both boys and girls disturbed by broken love affairs.

In contrast, Dr Jayant Kumar Chakravarty, a child specialist, advocates greater restriction on free mixing. ‘Teenagers want to experiment without thinking of the consequences,’ he says. If parents are worried about their kids, then they should make sure that the lines of communication with their child is kept open.

Take the case of Mahesh. Sixteen years old and desperately in love with a girl, he completely changed his attitude after a chat with his girlfriend's mother. She called him over and explained to him the futility of his love and the fact that there was no future in the relationship. What she did not do however was ridicule his desires which she felt were quite normal for his age. After a long chat with the broadminded lady, Mahesh decided to stop pressurising the girl to commit herself to him and he left the house a much happier person. He admits that he could never have had a talk with his own parents.

As far as teenage ethics go (at least amongst middle and upper classes) dating and being in love are acceptable, even desirable behaviour. Holding hands, kissing, petting is accepted too. In fact, teenagers with boyfriends and girlfriends are the butt of envy. If a teenager does not have either romance or sex in his or her life, there could be many reasons for it - but it is certainly not peer pressure. He or she may be introverted, afraid of being caught, lack opportunity or may be busy with studies. It is also a mistake for parents to think that sexual maturing has not taken place - that teenagers are not ready physically. In fact, girls are conscious of their sexuality from the age of 12. They inspect themselves intently in mirrors, taken pains over their appearance, and observe boys with interest. Boy look at girl’s bodies and become conscious of their own.

We have to remember that in ancient times children married early. While this is not desirable, possible or practical now, we cannot halt the sexual rebellion amongst the young. No matter how much parents rave and rant about the evils of western influences, and the decline of Indian culture, the facts are that the desire to interact and romance the opposite sex is natural and has always existed in India! By denying the existence of such natural feelings parents are alienating their children.

(The above article was published in The Telegraph, Calcutta.)

Note: Although the names of the teenagers are pseudonyms (the Telegraph allowed me that leeway for this piece) all the statements and backgrounds of the people interviewed are true.

I did not include an important interview due to a lack of space (restrictions of the number of words in a newspaper article) - that of an eighty-year-old gentleman. He told me that too much fuss was being made about premarital sex. It was not a modern affliction, he said, it existed in his day and age too. He lost his virginity at age 17 he said, several years before marriage and it wasn't with a prostitute. This was the first time he was confessing it to anyone though. The only change now (he told me) is that sex has been dragged out into the open and youngsters do not pretend its wrong. This is a good thing according to him because it could be the beginning of the end of hypocrisy.

I interviewed many more families, but all of them could not be accommodated here (and in any case many said the similar things as the others). 

The photo used is a free photo.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Driving Made Easy

This is a short humorous piece I wrote for Deccan Herald, Bangalore. It can be called a slice of life piece, maybe.

There is no doubt that some men have a ‘thing’ about cars. Call it a fetish if you will. It comes close to being emotionally involved with cars. They actually "care". They listen intently to her engine and are tuned in to her every dysfunction.

‘Something’s wrong,’ my husband often said, stopping a perfectly running car on a lonely road at high noon and disappearing under the hood. It would be half an hour before he would emerge, a satisfied look on his face, oblivious to my impatience.

‘She is fine now,’ he would mutter after a while as if that explained everything.

I am not ashamed to say that to me at least, a car is a car is a car. It will always be. That is precisely why my better half was uncomfortable with the idea of teaching me to drive. I understood his concerns: his dearest possession would slip out of his hands, meaning his car of course. So when he said he had no time to teach me, I let it go.

I enrolled in a driving school instead. Thank heavens I did. My driving instructor, Stephen, had no hang-ups about cars. His was a healthy attitude which I could relate to. To start with, it did not matter to him if the car made funny noises, if the door did not shut properly or if the wipers squeaked. Stephen's only concern was that the car should move, preferably without a jerk. Period. So used was I to obsessive perfection that after I got over my initial uneasiness, I started to enjoy this tension-free method of driving, and the lessons progressed smoothly.

Lesson number one: Left foot on the clutch. Lesson number two: right foot on the accelerator. The way to proceed was: Brake, then hit the accelerator, then brake again, followed by the accelerator and brake! And preferably, keep just one hand on the steering wheel. The other was needed to constantly change the gears. If one lived in India, one-hand driving had to be mastered, my instructor explained. Considering the state of Bangalore traffic, I trusted that his way was the best.

I had a lot to learn. My greatest driving weakness, according to Stephen, was my nervousness at the wheel. Seeing me panic at the sight of a double-decker bus was upsetting to him.

‘Drive straight into it Ma’am,’ he admonished. ‘Nothing will happen and you’ll lose your fear! Try it!’

Inexperienced as I was, I obeyed blindly, reassured by the fact that he had a set of pedals on his side of the car. To my surprise, he didn’t need to use them. The bus screeched out of the way. If anybody had panicked then, it was the bus-driver!

Stephen’s reassuring words, nothing will happen, ma’am, held me in good stead through the lessons which followed. Those words could instil confidence in the meekest driver. In fact, his casual manner at the wheel, right elbow jutting out, his eyes admiring his filmi hairstyle in the wrongly positioned rear-view mirror, was a sure fire way of getting rid of anyone’s nervousness. Driving seemed a lark.

These were his other nuggets of gold: Always drive in the centre of the road, don’t ever get bullied. And Don’t let anyone overtake, ever, it will slow you down.

It was not long before I became the perfect driver, in Stephen’s eyes. ‘She is one of my best students,’ he raved to my disbelieving husband. ‘You should see how much control she has over the car, watch her blast through the marketplace, observe her overtaking techniques…’

After demonstrating the above-mentioned techniques to my husband, I was a little surprised when he wasn't impressed. He suggested that now he was ready to teach me because my driving needed a few ‘finishing touches' before he would let me drive our car. All of a sudden he had plenty of time to teach me!

(Published in the Deccan Herald as a "middle")

Pictures are from Pixabay.

Friday, June 7, 2019

The Two Women

They were two women. Who would have thought of comparing them if they were not living in the same house, eating the same food, breathing in the same air?

The younger one was prettier. Wasn't it always so? Besides, she had style, an air of sophistication. Long-limbed and graceful, her dancing eyes and gay laughter filled the house. She had not a care in the world.

The older woman was the serious one. She had a boniness about her which was etched into her very personality...as if it were going to haunt her for the rest of her life, no matter if she decided to gorge on sweets and cream (as if she would).

The eyes were deeper-set and the hollows in her cheeks lent her...what was it? A hidden depth, perhaps? Surely, her lack of good looks gave her an individuality that she would never have had if she had been pretty? Perhaps the responsibilities weighed her down and made her that way.

Photo from Pixabay
It was certainly not the baby. The baby, in fact, seemed to lift her spirits, carrying her into a different world. Caring for him was hard work, what with the countless nappies to be changed, innumerable feeds and nights of disturbed sleep. Yet, she seemed to enjoy it all. I could see that when I visited their house. It was she who let me in, the baby clinging to her, both very much a part of each other. Like a mother and her baby should be.

I went there to meet the younger one. She was out so I sat in the hall and waited. As I waited, I could not help watching the woman and the child. They laughed together, speaking a language I could not understand. Their words, gestures and expressions seemed perfectly synchronised. She responded to every inflection in the baby's voice, every cry, every smile. Surely, this was love. The baby was secure, free from fears and anxieties.

Lucky baby, I thought, as I gave him my key-chain to play with. The baby looked up at me with his trusting eyes and said 'Dadaada.' The woman smiled proudly at this achievement.

At that moment the key turned in the lock. The younger woman stepped in, her presence filling the room, changing it. The baby looked up briefly from the key-chain in his hand before becoming engrossed in it again.

'I've been admiring your baby, Sheila,' I said to the newcomer. 'He's such a happy baby. You are lucky to have such a good helper.'

(This was published in Deccan Herald, Bangalore)

Related Reading: A Real Lady (Flash Fiction).

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Why Blogger is better than Wordpress for people like me

Image from Pixabay
The web is bursting at the seams with positive reviews of Wordpress, many of which compare WP with Blogger. But Blogger is more suitable for people like me.

I still have four blogs at WP (free ones), although only one is being updated currently, as of June 2019. Two of these used to have paid hosting at WP with bought domain names. I went for it because everyone said WP is the best. Now I work with blogger custom domains. But that's another story.

I wrote my first blog (nitawriter.wordpress.com) from Sep 2006 to Jan 2010. It did great, probably because there was less competition then. I have almost 1000 posts there, and scores of comments on each post, at times hundreds. I had followers in thousands. I stopped blogging because it was becoming a full-time job with zero revenue. Despite working so hard, with thousands of page views per day (684,047 views in 2010, although I stopped blogging in January of that year!), I was unable to monetize the blog on a free WordPress platform. It was too late to switch to a paid version because I would have lost my page rank.

That's a lot of views I think, although they were probably from feeds. The views continued to be quite good for several years although I abandoned the blog.

Wordpress did publish ads on my site but I got nothing. Later Wordpress started paying bloggers but it was too late for me. I had moved on.