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Craft of Writing: Interiors and Interiorities

One of the things that has always daunted me in writing is the description of ordinary spaces, and how to use them effectively without being bogged down by unnecessary detail. A love story on a deserted island with coconut palms and roaring seas (excuse the cliché) would be a thrill to describe, but those aren’t the scenarios in which daily life plays out. An office cubicle, a playground, a dining table where a child eats her cereal on a school morning, the restaurant at the heart of a small mid-western town—the sort with the clapboard exterior, the rows of tables with faux-wood veneer borders, the cushioned chairs, the perky waitress, the laminated menu. Ordinary as these are, they can become dramatic spaces in the hands of a careful writer. Elizabeth Strout juxtaposes the mundane locations of Crosby, Maine, the small town where her stories unfold, with the restless interiorities of her characters. In “Olive Kitteridge”, her Pulitzer prize winning collection of short stories, Strout describes the nondescript interiors—of the restaurants, churches, hospitals and neighborhoods that American readers are all too familiar with and which sometimes suffer from a heightened sameness, by introducing particulars of a location into the scattered thoughts of a character, so that a single image evokes a known world. We have all read stories where the mood of a place underlines the mood of the characters occupying it—either by echoing it, or opposing it. Strout does this particularly well. She embroiders epiphanies, doubts and musings—the revelatory aspects of character—with the most mundane details of routine and locale.

Patty Howe poured coffee unto two white mugs, placed them on the counter, said quietly, “You’re welcome,” and moved back to arrange corn muffins that had just been passed through the opening from the kitchen. She had seen the man sitting in the car—he’d been there well over an hour—but people did that sometimes, drove out of town just to gaze at the water. Still, there was something about him that was troubling her. “They’re perfect,” she said to the cook, because the tops of muffins were crispy at the edges, yellow as rising suns. The fact that their newly baked scent did not touch off a queasiness in her, as they had two times in the past year, made her sad…

The screen door opened, banged shut. Through the large window, Patty saw that the man in the car still sat looking at the water, and as Patty poured coffee for an elderly couple that had seated themselves slowly into a booth, as she asked how they were this nice morning, she suddenly knew who the man was, and something passed over her, like a shadow crossing in front of the sun. “There you go,” she said to the couple, and didn’t glance out the window again.

(From the short story “Incoming Tide”, in the collection, Olive Kitteridge.)

These paragraphs introduce us to the character and her setting—a breakfast joint in Crosby, Maine. Where an average writer might waste words creating the sense of space that Patty occupies internally (in her mind), and externally (at her job as a waitress), Strout captures her in the act of pouring coffee into two white mugs. We, the readers. know white mugs and coffee, and corn muffins. With three simple and ubiquitous images, we know where she is, and what she might be employed as. We return now, nudged gently by Strout, to Patty’s mind. The man in the car is unknown to her, and to us, so what is there to do, but have her make a comment to the cook, about the beauty of the muffins—yellow as rising suns—a nod to the time of day (morning), and the goodness of the food, and the woman, Patty, who is handling it. She is sad, which makes her sympathetic, and this heightens the dramatic tension of her being troubled by the man in the car.

The scene consists of a screen door, a large window and a booth—three objects that signify again, the kind of restaurant. It serves breakfast, and is not upscale. And just as she greets her customers, the realization dawns. She recognizes the man and it is not a happy recognition. In two paragraphs, Strout not only delves into the character’s mind, but makes her eminently human (she is kind, she is sad about something, she is frightened from having recognized the man). Most importantly though, she drives the story forward by piquing our curiosity and our concern. Who is this man, and what is he to Patty Howe?

All it took was some deft and brilliant interweaving of a state of mind with telling details of space and gestures, for a new character, Patty Howe, to unfold and shine through.

– Mary Ann Koruth

Tete-a-tete with Gayathri Krishna of Bhoomija

Bhoomija meaning ‘born of the earth’ is a Bengaluru based Performing Arts trust that was started in Aug 2012 with a clear mandate of making the finest performing arts accessible to all audiences. It is the brainchild of Gayathri Krishna and is a trust that includes Anjali Joshi and Archana Prasad. In a span of 5 years, Bhoomija has become a well-known name in Bengaluru and has exceeded expectations in its mission of showcasing the rich heritage and variety of performing arts from around the world in India, and taking Indian music and dance to world venues and festivals. They have done close to 125 shows with maestros like Padma Vibhushana Umayalpuram K Sivaraman, Padma Bhushana Vikku Vinayakram, Padma Bhushana Prabha Atre, Bombay Jayashri, TM Krishna, Roysten Abel, Aruna Sairam, Malavika Sarukkai, Ranjani-Gayatri, Abhishek Raghuram etc.

I caught up with Gayathri recently and she passionately spoke about, what she calls her daughter, Bhoomija. Here are some snippets of our conversation.

Swapna: I have seen you in corporate meeting rooms, then in the corridors of Ranga Shankara as Arundhati Nag’s able right hand, and now as the torch bearer of Bhoomija. You seem to have come a long way. What drove you to walk this unique, and largely unheard of path?

Gayathri: Well, it is a journey that began long back. I have always an attentive and appreciative audience. Right from a young age, I used to go and attend all possible plays and theatre shows that happened in Bengaluru. My career at that time was largely based outside India. But whenever I was in in India, I ensured I caught up on plays. And, I have this habit to go back stage after the play and appreciate the performers.

This was the time when the play Nagamandala was staged by Arundhati Nag and Shankar Nag and as always, I went up backstage and met them too.

A few years later, after Shankar Nag had passed away, I read an article by Sowmya Aji which said Arundhati Nag’s dream is crying for funds. Excited that such an initiative had been thought of for the cultural scene of my city, and appalled that the dream may not materialize because of lack of funds, I immediately reached out to Arundhati, made a little contribution and requested her to make me a part of the team. To give credit to her, she remembered me from those backstage interactions. Though my contribution was quite small to her overall vision, it was well appreciated by her. And that began my journey with Ranga Shankara.

Things eventually changed at my end and I moved back to Bengaluru for good and got further involved with Ranga Shankara. Today Ranga Shankara is the one of the leading theatres in India hosting both national and international plays of repute.

Bhoomija, on the other hand, focusses on the performing arts space. It all began with one of the children shows that we had curated at Ranga Shankara. The show was over and I had just stepped out in the lobby where I saw a few young children exclaiming in joy while interacting with artists. Those children never knew about the concept of live shows and were mesmerized by the artists and were touching and feeling them to make sure they were for real! That was my moment of truth. It dawned on me that, if let go, the roots will get uprooted and we will completely lose touch with the performing arts heritage of our country!

So, that sowed the seeds for coming up with a platform that makes the finest performing arts accessible to all audiences, remunerative for artistes and sustainable for the organizers. And Bhoomija was born to showcase the rich heritage and variety of performing arts from around the world in India, and taking Indian music and dance to world venues and festivals.

And today, I am so glad to share that we have done close to 125+ shows in a span of 5 years and all of them were very well received and appreciated.

Swapna: Apart from the diminishing focus on our culture, the passion for performing arts also seems to be the core driver for you. So where were those seeds sown? How was your childhood? Was it spent entirely in the lap of art, music, and theatre?

Gayathri: Well, yes. I hail from a family of musicians. My father, Vidwaan HN Krishna, was a musician who used to regularly perform. He would be someone who would be constantly singing and hence music ran in our lives. My home used to constantly resonate with discussions on swara, tala, shruti, raga, kriti etc. and thus music became an intrinsic part of my life. While I did not take to music as a profession, I did become a discerning listener.

Swapna: Performing arts is fairly well defined in our country, especially in the south of India. Yet Bhoomija, since its inception has made a mark. Your first show with Bombay Jayashri was a super hit. Subsequently you have done many shows. What differentiates Bhoomija?

Gayathri: My vision is to bring the best to the masses. I want best of the artists to perform for the widest of the masses, so that the art form seeps in and gets entrenched into our society and does not run the risk of uprooting! Our culture must sustain for generations to come.

That said, I also want people to listen/see, what I call in common terms – superstar artists – at an affordable price. All our shows were priced at Rs.300 per seat. While I am constantly advised that I should increase the ticket price for stalwarts who perform for Bhoomija, I do not believe in that. I cannot deny the sustenance pressures, but for them I work harder. And with now GST in play, we have further reduced our ticket price to Rs.249, but that is fine.

Another differentiator is that contrary to the normal shows, our shows always have a narration by the artist. This narrative ensures the show is holistic and the audience is involved and connected. We have experimented with unique formats that have worked very well. For example, a show titled – Different Tongues, One Heart Beat – was done by Ranjani Gayatri that had songs from 13 different languages. And the show was well received and highly appreciated. Artists like to perform for a receptive audience, and we want the audiences to experience the lyrics, story, melody, music or visuals all in a format that appeals and connects.

And finally, all the costumes used in our show are stitched in Khadi. I strongly insist on using khadi and organic textiles. Going back to the roots, back to where we all come from, back to our earth.

Swapna: Children, and motivating them to take up performing arts, seem to be another critical core in your vision for Bhoomija. Motivating children to take up classical music/art forms has never been an easy task. More so in today’s times, where gadgets take more precedence and western forms of music are more influential. At times like these, you managed to set up initiatives like JackFruit, Manganiyar, Carnatic Choir, Youth Carnatic Orchestra etc. curated by stalwarts like Jayanti Kumaresh, Bombay Jayashri, Vikku Vinayaka Ram etc. Tell us something more about it.

Gayathri: Children are my core motivators. They are the key to continue with our traditional art forms and it is our responsibility to make them aware, appreciate, experience these and eventually engrain it within their own core beings. Jackruit series, Manganiyar Class Room, Youth Orchestra are all group initiatives where artists put up a show with the children.

So now we have a largely solo pursuit, now transformed into an ensemble that is enabling the students to get a different feel of the art form. Students are generally attached very closely to their gurus, and they rarely get a chance to perform with other gurus.

Our idea is to see if we can, while the musicians are young enough to be able to, get together for an ensemble show, with a maestro who is willing to work with them. Also, we give these productions a theatre director who brings in the aesthetic and fun elements, to make the concert into a proper show.

And it also has a few more significant advantages – a) Artists are enthusiastic about a format like this. They are game and they love this format of imparting and sharing. b) We are able to identify the child prodigies. Quite a few of these kids have found pedestals to further grow. c) The children get a taste of the art form presented differently that their own guru. They also get to interact with other students of classical music, make new friends, have fun and collectively learn. Their music awareness goes beyond what they knew all the while and opens the world for them. d) Last, but not the least, the sheer joy of seeing these children perform is immeasurable.

Not to forget the fun that, I and the artists, have in teaching them, making them rehearse, planning their costumes, keeping them interested and eventually seeing them perform. Each of our performances have been highly successful and has left an impact.

Swapna: Bhoomija has just completed 5 years. We have seen a diverse set of musicians, performances, and collaborations on stage and each one of them have been successful, wonderful and most importantly mesmerizing. And our Bengaluru audience seems to be lapping it all up! Whether it is individual performances by superstar artists or collaborative shows like SamMohanam, Rajasthani Folk by Roysten Abel, or the recent Karnataka Sufi songs Manteswamy Kavya, each of them seems to be hand-picked and curated with a purpose. What is the purpose, or in corporate terms – the strategy, behind it?

Gayathri: Couple of things that have driven us at Bhoomija so far – senior artists, well thought out performances, unique themes, and wonderful collaborations. And audiences enjoy these collaborations that are deep rooted yet differently presented.

And let me also tell you, artists love to collaborate. They love to interact with other artists and work together to create beautiful pieces that not only bring out the best of both the art forms but also give an enthralling experience for the audience. Very similar to the Crème da le Crème or Hot Chocolate Fudge ice cream. While Vanilla is the core, you enjoy the add-ons to feel sheer bliss.

Each of these shows that you talk about, whether it is SamMohanam, Shabad Dhun Lagi, Rajasthani Manganiyar or Manteswamy Kavya –are all either unique collaborations or delightful rooted flavors of our country and people must listen, enjoy and revel in their beauty.

Swapna: Going global is always the mantra for all things Indian. You opened the world for Bhoomija and took it to Syndey, U.S. and even China. What have been your experiences there? Have you been able to paint an Indian narrative that is based on our rich culture and heritage to the world? And what next in the global arena?

Gayathri: We wanted to take Indian classical music to world music centres. So, the concerts in the main venues of Sydney Opera House and Carnegie Hall. The diaspora enjoyed these experiences immensely.
But what still holds us in awe at Bhoomija is our China experience. Bombay Jayashri was just nominated for the Academy Awards and we tied up with a festival presenter in China for a six-city tour concert tour with workshops. We ended up with 4 workshops with each workshop having about 300 participants. It is a significant feat that so many people wanted to learn the nuances of Indian Classical Music and were willing to invest that kind of time to get oriented to it. I find something like this so beautiful and touching – the fact that people are keen and lap up an opportunity that comes their way to learn about something so alien to them. And the power our music must enable something like this.

Now, we are on a mission of bringing the best of the world to Bengaluru. We are planning to build a performing arts centre that will bring together some great talent from around the world in its design and execution. Hopefully, we will be able to pull this together soon. The centre will be named after MS Subbulakshmi, as our tribute to the best known trailblazing performers of India. So, till then, enjoy our shows, and motivate Bhoomija to work towards its two-faced purpose of reconnecting with our roots, and building a world class theatre here.

Swapna Narayanan is an author of short stories and poems currently based in Bengaluru, India.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories – A fantastic tribute to a son.

I was introduced to Salman Rushdie in 1981 via his second novel Midnight’s Children and recall mistaking it for a children’s book. After 7 years in 1988, I heard that Salman Rushdie had written another novel called Satanic Verses and the President of Iran had issued a fatwa, calling for Rushdie’s head. Apparently, the author had written some stuff that hurt the religious sentiments of some people, and as such Rushdie was condemned and judgment passed for that ‘crime’.  Rushdie went into hiding for a few lines he had written, and his life was never the same again. I longed to read the book, but I think it was banned in India at that time.

Years later, when I chanced upon a slim volume of his book Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I picked it up mistakenly thinking that it was a book of Short Stories. It turned out to be a book that Rushdie had apparently written for his 9-year-old son, Zafar whom he used to narrate bedtime stories to. I guess he realized that the made-up stories were quite amazing, and he decided to write the novel incorporating all the elements of a bedtime story and much more!

The novel starts off with an adorable dedication from Dad Rushdie to Son Rushdie:

               Z embla, Zenda Xanadu 

              A ll our dream-worlds may come true.

              F airy lands are fearsome too.

              A s I wander far from view

              R ead, and bring me home to you.

Fairy lands are fearsome too, warns Rushdie and goes on to prove just that with this book.

The story is quite simple. Young Haroun’s Dad Rashid Khalifa is a story teller who lives in a sad city(everyone who lives here apparently has sadness engulfing them and their lives). He brings cheerfulness to the city by making up extraordinary stories and narrating them to it’s inhabitants, diminishing their sadness for a short time. For this reason he is pretty famous in the city and is almost always center stage narrating his fantastic stories. He lives with his wife Soraya and son Haroun. Everything seems hunky dory in the Khalifa household and little Haroun is happy as a lark in the sad city. However, unbeknownst to him and his father, his mother gives in to the sadness of the city and decides that she’s had enough of the Khalifa men and runs away with their neighbor Mr.Sengupta leaving behind a letter where she explains that she prefers his unimaginative reality to her husband’s imaginary make-believe world. After that incident Rashid is unable to weave stories anymore. He goes from being the ‘Shah of Blah’ and ‘Ocean of Notions’ to being unable to proceed beyond – “Ark!Ark!Ark!”

A pretty sad tale till this point in time it looks like. I thought it would be a mop fest from this point onwards with the child blaming himself and the father falling into a depression. But then, you are suddenly plunged into a land of fantasy and imagination as Haroun chances upon a water genie who has come to cut the supply of stories to Rashid. I re-read the part again to make sure that it was a genie and not a technician from the cable company that Haroun chanced upon! You see, I am not a very big fan of Sci-Fi or Fantasy fiction. I like realism and stick mostly with memoirs and realistic fiction. But I really wanted to finish my first Rushdie novel and continued reading. Am I glad I did!

Haroun blames himself for his dad’s misfortune and decides to help his dad out of the predicament. The story proceeds as he comes to know from the water genie Iff, that Rashid has unsubscribed from their service and the genie had come to take care of the cancellation. From then onwards, we are treated to a fantastic spectacle as Haroun takes a trip to the Land of Gup and the Land of Chup to clear the error of being unsubscribed from the Sea of Stories. The choice to name the lands with Gup (conversation) and Chup(silence) seemed like pure genius to me.  No wonder Rushdie is considered a genius, because he is!

Haroun is taken to the land of Gup where all stories originate. There are the seas around the island of Gup. But we have the land of Chup whose leader Khattam-Shud (The End, nothing but the End) is hell bent on destroying the sea of stories – the sea of stories from where storytellers get their goods from. Quite a neat concept, right? I was enthralled by this book. Though it is targeted towards children as young as 9, there are many, many layers to this book. There’s politics, there’s indirect references to the fatwa, there’s philosophy so deep that I had to take a couple of minutes for it to absorb in my psyche. Consider for example the following:

“Haroun was Lucky; but luck has a way of running out without the slightest warning. One minute you’ve got a lucky star watching over you and the next instant it’s done a bunk.”

This to me represents Rushdie’s life before and after the Fatwa. I can imagine the red carpet being pulled off your legs as you are getting ready to receive your award.

There are also references to the modern world which I find applicable even in 2017. I firmly believe that some writers can foretell future, Rushdie seems to me to be one of them when he writes in the book that came out in 1988 –

“In the sad city, people mostly had big families; but the poor children got sick and starved, while the rich kids overate and quarreled over their parents’ money.”

Rushdie manages to keep the story very interesting and the flow rapid by incorporating humor and introducing unique and likable characters with regularity. The characters include a mechanical bird called Butt, who Haroun picks to be flown to the land of Gup with Iff the water genie. So basically, Iff and Butt are Haroun’s companions. I am sure the children would find that quite enthralling.

There’s a horde of lovable and not so lovable characters in the book who keep on making appearances and disappearances. One of them is Bolo, the Prince of Gup land. He is a young man who is in love with Princess Batcheat, who had managed to get herself kidnapped by Khatam-Shud. He is quite comical and stupid and does not hesitate to lead his people to war for his own selfish purpose. He reminds me of our leaders today, especially one who do it for far less honorable things than love. I leave it to your imagination to figure out who Rushdie might have been referring to so many years ago as he writes –

“What’s that you say?” shouted Bolo, leaping to his feet and striking a dashing and slightly foolish pose. “Why have you waited so long to tell us? Zounds! Proceed; for pity’s sake, proceed” (When Bolo spoke like this, the other Dignitaries all looked vaguely embarrassed and averted their eyes).

Continuing in the vein of addressing today’s issues, Rushdie does touch briefly on the concept of women’s issues as he writes –

“You think it’s easy for a girl to get a job like this? Don’t you know girls have to fool people every day of their lives if they wanted to get anywhere?”

That’s the heroine of the novel Blabbermouth who disguises herself as a man to join the army of pages of Gup land. She delivers some brilliant lines during which Haroun develops a crush for her. Lines such as:

“You think a place has to be miserable and dull as ditch water before you believe it’s real?”

There is dissent in the army of pages when war is declared against Chupwalas to rescue Batcheat. The Gupees are quite relieved that Princess Batcheat is not around to bother them with her continuous talk and worse still, her signing. They grumble among themselves as to why Prince Bolo must rescue Batcheat and Mali the gardener who helps Haroun says –

“It (the reason) is Love. It is all for Love. Which is a very wonderful and dashing matter. But which can also be a very foolish thing.”

The book is not however, relegated to only fantasies and dashing characters. A good writer not only piques and exercises your emotion, but also makes you think and Rushdie manages to do that quite wonderfully even in a book meant for young kids.

It is interesting how Rushdie tackles Khattam-Shud, the villain in the story. His description shows what sort of contempt the author held for attempts to silence him. I wish political leaders, dictators, presidents, CEOs etc. do not pick fights with writers because the writers can do much more with their words than these powerful people can do with their power.

Rushdie describes Khatam-Shud as –

“He is the Arch-Enemy of all Stories, even of Language itself. He is the prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech.”

Khatam-Shud never makes an appearance until towards the end of the story, but his brooding presence is felt in every page. It is like he is hidden between each page you turn. One builds up this image of him being magnificently and monstrously menacing. But it is an anti-climax when the cult master as he is referred to makes an appearance. In his first meeting with Khatam-Shud Haroun’s thoughts are as follows –

“That’s him? That’s him?” Haroun thought, with a kind of disappointment. “This little mingling fellow? What an anti-climax.”

Haroun asks Khatam-Shud why he is trying to take the fun out of the world by trying to put an end to story-telling. The reply he gets is haunting.

“The world, however, is not for Fun. The world is for controlling. Your world, my world, all worlds. They are all there to be Ruled. And inside every single story, inside every Stream in the Ocean, there lies a world, a story-world that I cannot Rule at all. And that is the reason why.”

Rushdie intersperses these strong and profound statements with some flippant ones to keep the pretense of this being a children’s book going. For instance, there’s stuff like

P2C2E – Process to complicated to explain, which is used generously in the book.

Dull Lake – Reference to Dal Lake in Koch-Mar (play on the word Kashmir) which apparently means nightmare in local language!

A poster is support of candidate Buttoo that goes something like

“WHO’S THE ONE FOR YOU? – NOT JUST ONE, BUTTOO!’

I can imagine the children going into peals of laughter at things like these though they might have glazed over at some of the things earlier. And a child’s laughter is one of the better things about the world and Rushdie manages to bring that out a lot with this book.

I loved the book. I loved how Rushdie used some words from the Hindi Language to cleverly bring out the intrinsic peculiarities of his characters. I loved the pace of the book which sometimes left you breathless and overwhelmed with its huge repertoire of characters and its speed. But as Rushdie says:

‘Speed, most Necessary of Qualities! In any Emergency – fire, auto, marine – what is required above all things? Of course, Speed.’

I would recommend everyone to read this book. It is wonderfully descriptive and manages to draw a picture of the fantasy land with its Plentimaw (Plenty Mouth) fishes, pure blue sea of stories polluted by dark viscous liquid manufactured in Chupland, Mudra the Shadow Warrior and of course the lovable amongst them all, the heroic son Haroun. I would highly recommend the book for the simple but evocative language throughout the novel. But I would mostly recommend it for you to understand the genius of Salman Rushdie without the aid of a Midnight’s Children or The Satanic verses. It is also wonderful that Rushdie borrows heavily from Hindi to name almost everything in the book and I loved the play of the words. Each time a new character or place was introduced, it would bring a smile to my lips.

The real reason however I would exhort you to read the book is to understand that there are many ways of telling a story. Rushdie does not resort to maudlin tales to bring across the bond between a father and his son. Even though the foundation is built on a shaky start, he demonstrates that a fantasy tale can build emotions and sentimentality without the help of drama and tears. I particularly got misty eyed, every time that Rashid discovers that Haroun is going above and beyond the duties of a son and says to him whenever he finds him helping out bravely in a precarious situation:

“Young Haroun. You surely are the most unexpected of boys!”

What a wonderful tribute from Rushdie to his son. Truly, remarkable.

This Winter’s Warmth: Pashmina


Nidhi Chanani’s debut graphic novel Pashmina released last month and it is not just a “must-read”. It’s a must-experience. The story revolves around a second generation Indian American, Priyanka “Pri” Das and her unique coming of age journey, one that is not familiar in the current narrative. Even though it is aimed at younger readers, Pashmina resonates with older readers as well.

From learning to drive with her mom to spending time with her aunt and uncle to traveling around an imagined India (with Pri’s guides: an elephant named Kanta and a peacock named Mayur) are just the start to Pri’s adventures. As Pri travels to present day India and reunites with her Mausi and Mausa, questions about her own identity are answered. Goddess Shakti, as a character, is subtly present at the beginning and prominently towards the final pages. The presence of a desi dialog and other cultural markers (especially food) make Pashmina a part of the familiar for South Asian audiences.

An automatic favorite line, “Have you ever eaten a mango off a tree?”

Pashmina captures vividly through its diasporic threads what matters: family (blood and chosen), community, longing for homeland, faith, true independence, and mother-daughter relationships. Chanani’s art, especially the pages in color, is powerful. Bright color combinations and the artistic choices present in the illustrations all contribute to a magical, happy, and overall, positive piece.

Pashmina, in terms of representation of South Asian art and literature in the U.S., is a wonderful addition.

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You can order a copy online or at any major bookseller.

Follow Nidhi’s art on Instagram @nidhiart or on her website: https://everydayloveart.com/

 

“I do not think that one can plan a creative transition, it just happens..” says Sunayana Kachroo, poet, lyricist, dialogue writer

Born and brought up in the idyllic Kashmir, Sunayana Kachroo is one of those poets and creative artists of the Indian Diaspora whose poems, lyrics and stories are replete with the tenderness and nostalgia of an emotionally fraught Kashmir. Her first poem was published at the age of 15, and since then, through her poetic journey she has explored different forms of poetic expressions like Kavita, English Poems, Nazms and Dohe. Through heavily influenced by the lyrical microcosm of Gulzar Saab, she has created her own niche, endorsed by celebrities, filmmakers and theater personalities. Her oeuvre has been vast and impressive, encompassing poetry and lyrics, dialogue writing for films, collaboration with musicians et al. Sunayana’s short film “In search of America – Inshallah” was selected for the Short Film Corner at Cannes 2015. She has also been featured as a poet and panelist for prestigious events, including the Bangalore Literature Festival 2014, Harvard University’s Annual Poetry Reading event sponsored by South Asia Institute, South Asian Women’s Conference, Waltham, MA, among other places. In a tete-a-tete with Sunayana, we talk about her journey as a poet, lyricist and creative artist. 

Lopa Banerjee:  Hello Sunayana, it feels great to have you here. From your first poetry collection titled Waqt Se Pare [Beyond Time] to being chosen as the Star Performer for the upcoming New England Choice Awards, it surely has been a heady journey for you! Carl Sandburg had once famously said: “Poetry is an echo, asking for a shadow to dance.” How did you get the calling of that echo, that muse, and how do you perceive this shadow dance of yours, evolving and gaining momentum year after year?

Sunayana Kachroo: When we sow a seed, we do not see the sapling for a while and then one fine day, it fights the gravity enough to come out. For someone who doesn’t understand this process they may feel that it happened overnight but we know that is not the case. Although, I did publish my book in 2013, I have been writing on and off for a while. My father had a huge library of books and I had “A Tale of two cities” in my hand even before I could walk. There was a lot of music in the house, that I feel must have been marinating somewhere in my subconscious. Music also helped me escape the pain that I saw all around me when the migration of Kashmiri Pandits happened in 1990. Most of my memories have songs attached to them. I have been a big fan of Jagjit Singh ji, Madam Mohan ji’s compositions, RD Burman-With Gulzar Saab and Gulzar Saab’s poetry.

 

Lopa Banerjee: Whatever much I know about your journey from the idyllic valleys of Kashmir to Boston, the cultural epicenter of the east coast of America, it is about dramatic transitions. With a computer science degree from the Pune University, India, the transition as a software analyst in the US might still be considered as a known and expected trajectory. However, I must say that your transition from a software professional to a poet and creative writer, a lyricist with the mission to promote poetry is a unique and exceptional once. When would you say you felt this transition from within, and how did you go about it?

Sunayana Kachroo: I do not think that one can plan a creative transition, it just happens. I moved to the United States in 2000, hoping to work here for a couple of years and then move back to India.  Life had other plans and here I am 17 years later, telling you that I never feel settled anywhere. Home is no longer a place, it is in this moment of transition. In the year 2010, a couple of months after my son was born, I was waiting in the parking lot of a restaurant and I wrote my first few lines, I shared those on Facebook. A few of my very generous friends appreciated and encouraged me to write more. I think I have to thank Mark Zuckerberg a lot.

 

Lopa Banerjee: If I am not wrong, your journey as a featured poet in literary festivals began with Bangalore Literature Festival 2014, after your debut collection of poetry was brought out. Thereafter, you have been part of many literary congregations in India, and also in the US. The general perception about most popular book and literature festivals is that they are red carpet events for established and celebrity authors/poets. Would you say they generally give adequate support to underrepresented writers, or creative artists with an impressive body of work? Or is it all only about the glitterati among the literati with strategized events which are more ‘saleable’ than anything else?

Sunayana Kachroo:  My journey as a featured poet started here in the US, with an organization called Hindi Manch, that got the ball rolling for me, I am honored to have been given the opportunity to recite at BLF 2014 alongside famous Punjabi poet Nirupama Dutt. However, I agree with you that the big literature festivals look beyond your LQ (Literary Quotient) and probably feature poets who can bring audience as well. It is sad and discouraging for the upcoming poets like me because I feel that they need to create a platform to launch new voices too, not just those who have already made their name in this field.  There are many publication houses that come to these events and it would be great to have a program for the first-time writers as well. Not everyone who writes well can afford to self-publish.

 

Lopa Banerjee: From writing poetry to writing lyrics for celebrity singers including Sonu Nigam, Jasraj Joshi, Anuradha Palakurthi, and Hrishikesh Ranade, how did this journey evolve? Did the ‘musicality’ or lyricism in your poetry provide you the impetus to pen down the lyrics of the songs, as a conscious exercise, or was it yet another ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions’, in Wordsworth’s words, that eventually shaped your journey as a lyricist? How do you envision your journey as a poet writing books as a solitary journey, vis-à-vis, a lyricist writing songs to be performed for a much wider platform?

Sunayana Kachroo: Lopa, to tell you the truth, When I first started writing, I never thought that we could actually create songs out of it. At the insistence of my husband’s cousin Suchitra, I decided to approach music director trio-Jasraj, Hrishikesh, Saurabh. They took two songs out of my book and composed two amazing songs “Tera Haath” and “Pyar mein nadaan”. In fact, they didn’t ask me to even change one word in these poems. When I heard the songs for the very first time, I realized the power of music and how words and music together can create a soulful experience.  

Sonu ji’s song was for a movie and again I had written the lyrics first and then he composed and sang it. Director Danish always gives me the freedom to think about the lyrics while we are at the inception of writing for the movie, so I am involved with the character from the very beginning.

My experience with Anuradha ji has been very interesting because we created different pieces every time, starting from a poem converted into song to a tune on which I wrote lyrics, so in that sense I learnt a lot too. We recorded at Yash Raj studios as well, which was a dream come true for me.

 

Lopa Banerjee: Your feelings as an expatriate Kashmiri, the turmoil, the yearnings and the Sufi spirituality comes across in your poems and lyrics very spontaneously. How would you say Kashmir is invoked in your creative writings as your muse, and how has your poetic persona and emotions been shaped by the physical and political landscape of Kashmir, your homeland?

Sunayana Kachroo: Distance makes heart grow fonder- I guess that is how I can describe my love for Kashmir. When it was all available to me and all around me, I didn’t even care to talk in Kashmiri. English was a much “cooler” language and an equalizer in many ways. You talk in English …you have arrived.  However, when I moved to the USA, I started craving for Hindi/Urdu and Kashmiri as well. I would hunt for every ounce of Kashmiri that was available anywhere. I forced myself to speak to Kashmiris in Kashmiri and try to speak in Hindi and Urdu as much as possible. “Hindi Kavita” channel has been helping a lot too, bringing classic poems and poets back in “fashion”.  Sufi or spirituality is a mindset, either you have it or you don’t ..I have never thought of myself as a Sufi writer, I write what comes to me. In fact, I would love to write item songs, I recently penned one for Anuradha ji and realized that it is easy to write about sky but very hard to write about eyes.  Gulzar saab’s abstract writing has been of great influence to me, in fact I owe a lot to his poetry. There is a certain kind of motion in his words, even in his most still poems, there is a promise of movement. There is talent but most importantly there is a lot of craft…hand picking and pruning of words too. “ bahut din ho gaye teri aawaz ki bacuhaar main bheega nahi hoon main” how beautiful is this verse. That is the magic of Gulzar saab, “woh nabz pakad letein hain..baaqi ke jism tatoltein rehtein hain”.

 

Lopa Banerjee: From writing poetry to dabbling in lyrics to meandering in film writing, has your journey been an organic one, you would say, or did just one pursuit make way for the other and you listened to your gut feelings when you ventured into each of them? Can you share with us how it feels to be at this nonstop crescendo of creating words, images, characters and their inner sojourns?

With Gulzar Saab, her inspiration

Sunayana Kachroo: One word would be- Chaos…lots of it. I live in a world of constant chaos, there is unfortunately no set pattern for writing. The only thing I have been able to do is that I have promised myself that I will treat writing as I used to treat my job-Show up. So sometimes I wait ….and wait…..and not a word comes out, but I try to keep my promise.

 

Lopa Banerjee: When it comes to your foray into scriptwriting/dialogue writing for films, I would definitely want you to share some words about your association with Renzu Films, based in Los Angeles, and director Danish Renzu, about which you have spoken briefly in your other interviews. Did the Kashmir connections between you both work as the bridge, resonating your thoughts with his in terms of storytelling, which explores the pangs and struggles of Kashmiri people?

Sunayana Kachroo: Kashmir connection definitely works as a bridge. Language, food, locations– all these have great influence on your life. We are the artists that are born out of Kashmir’s womb and pain, we understand life in a different way.  Danish has been more like a mentor and a collaborator. I had never seen a movie set, had never seen how a script looks like, what is a dialogue, character, scenes. He has groomed directed my creativity in the right direction, he is a professional and we do not let our political and personal influences impact our professional association.

Lopa Banerjee: In context of your association with Renzu films, we must talk about the much-awaited film Half Widow under their banner for which you have written the dialogues and the song lyrics. I have already read that the film has been inspired by Parveena Ahangar, the Iron Lady of Kashmir, an advocate for heartbroken women of Kashmir throughout the political conflict that the state has witnessed. Can you share with us the connotation of its title and how was the idea of the story expanded in its screenplay?

Sunayana Kachroo: Half Widow was definitely inspired by the journey of Parveena ji. However, there are half widows in Bangladesh, Baluchistan and many other conflict zones around the world. Neela happens to be in Kashmir. I have written dialogues and the song for this movie, however the real challenge for me was when we decided to write a lot of Kashmiri poetry. I had to really read a lot and consult Kashmiri scholars to make sure what we are presenting makes sense. I hope our effort is appreciated. 

 

Lopa Banerjee: How has your experience been like, in the sets of the film under production in Los Angeles? While looking at the story developed through the lens of the female protagonist Neela, what were the emotions triggered in you as an expatriate Kashmiri and also a sensitive poet and lyricist? I would quote a few lines here from an article ‘The Half Widows in Kashmir’ published in ‘The WVoice’. “While men in conflict zones are celebrated, decorated, and revered for their heroism, women and children are often just referred to as the bystanders of the discord.” How does the protagonist’s journey illustrate it in the film?

Sunayana Kachroo:  I do not see Neela just as a Kashmiri woman, I see her as a human being experiencing loss and tragedy, in despair, lonely, hopelessness and her journey to self-realization and then to empowerment. There are instances where I cried even when I was writing the dialogues…her love for her younger brother is almost motherly or probably greater, I relate to that in my own life.

Neela’s struggle is education, my struggle is probably something else…However we all are looking for personal remedies to universal pains…Our source of pain may be different but our songs of overcoming are universal.

Lopa Banerjee: You are also working on producing an anthology of stories on Kashmir, chronicling the tragedy, turmoil, angst and also, I believe, the nostalgia of being a part of an idyllic landscape, now war-torn and striving to pick up its broken pieces. Can you share a few words about your experience with this anthology, and what would it offer its readers?

Sunayana Kachroo: Lal Ded, Arnimaal, Habba Khatoon, Roop Bhawani, Kashmir has been very blessed to have some many bhakti , sufi and mystic poetesses.  After the political unrest and the displacement of pandits, I felt that we needed to bring that ethos back. ‘Pottalav- Echoes of Kashmir’ aims to be that medium. I am coediting this with a renowned poet and mentor to many -Dr Santosh Bakaya ji. It is an honor to work with her.

Lopa Banerjee: Thank you so much for your time and really enjoyed your insightful answers, Sunayana! Wish you all the very best in this journey of yours.

Lopa Banerjee is a poet, author, translator and editor currently based in Dallas, TX.

Patricia McCormick, the Crusading Journalist and Writer for Young Adults

“There is probably a dim spot in all of our memories when we come to think of the Cambodian war of the 1970s that destabilized the country with an extremist communist regime.”

The words of Patricia McCormick, the National Book Award finalist, addressed to her audience at the Criss Library, University of Nebraska at Omaha a couple of years back still ring in my ears. All this while, whenever I have opened the pages of her novel ‘Never Fall Down’ based on the Cambodian Revolution, I have been touched not only by her craft and her power of intimate storytelling, but also by her intent in writing the achingly raw and engrossing novel, to empower the voices of the abused, the marginalized, through the narrative of the survivor of the sadistic Khmer Rouge, Arn Chorn Pond.

‘Never Fall Down’ is a haunting, hopeful piece of fiction that largely draws on the life of Arn Chorn Pond, the brave, spirited survivor of the late ’70s Cambodian Revolution. In the book, McCormick provides some vivid accounts of the atrocities, the tragic separation of children and families trapped by the tyranny of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. In the same breath, she talks about the protagonist Arn, the courageous survivor whom she met through a neighbor in New York. The storytelling is simple yet captivating, tracing his quest to find ultimate redemption from the gruesome torture he was subject to.

The narrative of the book is an account of an 11-year-old boy filled with confusion and bewilderment; so the language, fragmented and sporadic, had been deliberately chosen to maintain the point of reference of the protagonist. “It is the language of the young adult,” she added in her talk about the novel, as the war was taking over the country, as children were being brutally pulled out of the fields and handed weapons.

It has never been an easy task to talk to a traumatized war victim who could never tell the story of his life in a linear fashion. For the purpose of her book, it had been important to pose a series of questions to the protagonist at random and then work toward attaining a chronology of the events in a diary format.

However, even with such a real, gripping human story, her book ‘Never Fall Down’ is not devoid of light-hearted humor, with sections recounting some of Arn’s delightful childhood experiences in Cambodia, his hometown where he remembers his earliest memories of dancing to rock ’n’ roll, of selling ice cream along with his brother. Today, though Arn has found a new lease on life by being adopted by a family in the United States, and also being an activist, musician and speaker, he is still trapped as the surviving child of 1970s Cambodia, remembering graphic details of the torment he was subject to by joining a band in the prison camp. The book, McCormick says, is an account of his voyage, where he gradually discovers music to be his savior in the midst of the incredible cruelty and inhumanity around him. The purpose of the book, like all of her previous works of fiction, is to save the soul and culture of the people she portrays, with an emphasis on the courage of the human mind, with an ultimate goal to make the world a better place for all.

For a writer whose tryst with the written world began with her foraying into journalism, writing for the print media had served as a passport to her curiosity. However, as she waded through the path of newspapers and magazines for years, the epiphany of being an author struck her gradually as she discovered how fiction was ultimately more powerful and true. “It’s the relationship with the characters I portray that makes fiction so unique, and with it, you have the best of both worlds, and the liberty with your imagination to expand the story,” I remember her immensely engaging words in my brief conversation with her during her book reading.

Her words resonate with those who have come across the repertoire of her fiction, which includes the National Book Award finalist ‘SOLD’ (2007), ‘Purple Heart’ (voted by “Publishers Weekly” as the best book of 2009) and ‘CUT’ (described by the Boston Globe as “one of the best young-adult novels in years”). Looking into the gripping, intense, true-life stories that inspire her works of fiction, the roles of literary journalism and of extensive research shine through. “It is important that you saturate your memory and senses with the details you absorb from newspaper stories, chance meetings and from daily life,” she commented, as she talked about the themes, the inspiration behind her stories and the techniques of her writing.

As for “SOLD,” the novel which gave her national acclaim, she was passionate to expose the seething reality of sex trafficking in India and Nepal, to convey the horrific details of the girls and their families who forced them into prostitution. The book, replete with rich details of the protagonist Laxmi’s village in Nepal, her voyage to India, her experiences with the flesh trade in a brothel in Kolkata, gave the readers a slice of the daunting, hopeless world of the young girls where they are perceived as sex commodities. Talking about the inspiration behind the book, she mentioned the organizations in Nepal and India that helped her develop the human story and also spoke about the unassuming village in Nepal that gave her the stimulus to take in every minute detail, while turning it into an extensive research for her book.

The uniqueness of McCormick’s narrative lies in her implementation of the techniques of literary journalism and research. While she follows multiple situations, she eventually consolidates them all in her stories. She does it in ‘SOLD’, where she frames a composite character based on the bits and pieces of research collected from the individual stories of the girls she interviewed. Through the narrative of ‘SOLD’, McCormick seeks to break the taboo and unfold the history behind the blemished identities of the girls victimized by sex trafficking. In writing the book, her goal has been to “outrage the dream readers of the book” to the extent that they would desperately look to get involved in rescuing and rehabilitating those hapless girls. McCormick’s fiction largely revolves around some of the most gripping stories of terror, abuse, vulnerability and survival of the protagonists. It is the magic of narrating these gruesome tales with the precision of language, the minute details of research, that draws the readers to the books. The narratives in her fiction primarily focus on the young adults as her principal readers. For example, the narratives in her fiction, including ‘Never Fall Down’, ‘SOLD’, ‘Purple Heart’ and ‘CUT’ are often the narratives of young people, used as innocent frames of reference. It is the terror and vulnerability of these young voices as well as their ultimate strength to fight back their precarious situations that stimulate her as a writer.

“While as the human, I was totally sad and devastated to know their stories, as the writer, I was the vulture, the crusading journalist collecting the details.” She said.

It is this very subtle, real interplay of compassion, intuition and research that forms the essence of her identity as a writer combining facts with fiction. In the near future, when she thinks teenagers in the nation should be increasingly aware of whatever is happening to other teenagers across the globe, her novels will hopefully continue to influence young minds with her bold, truthful rendering of human stories.

Lopa Banerjee is a poet, author, translator and editor currently based in Dallas, TX.

Nurturing our Roots

 

‘…Parda nahin jab koi khuda se, bandon se parda karna kya…’

sang a young woman passionately in love, yet strong in her head, and shook an entire sultanate with her courage, conviction and, of course, sheer love for her beloved.

Loosely translated, the verse means when there is no veil with the Supreme Lord, where does the need arise to veil up myself (my thoughts/feelings) in front of humans.

The classic love story of the beautiful courtesan Anarkali and Prince Salim, Emperor Akbar’s son, is making inroads back into our lives, in the form of a musical! A theatre production brought to life by Feroze Abbas Khan, a well-known theatre director, this musical is a live rendition of one of the iconic Hindi movies of Indian Cinema – Mughal-E-Azam.

Art and culture form the core root of our society. And any, and all, attempts to strengthen it, nurture it, and, in today’s times, reinforce it, is welcome and needs an applause.

Let me pause here and take readers back into history. Mughal-E-Azam was an all-time hit movie that was known for its magnificent sets, extravagant decor, beautiful costumes, melodious music, outstanding star cast, and memorable dialogues. It was also a writing masterpiece, with seamless dialogues and classic conversations depicting the social fabric of the times as well as giving a mesmerizing insight into the passionate love, prevalent social dogmas, unyielding elders, staunch lovers, and positions of power. Though a black and white movie, the costume, cinematography, characters, scenes, and many such aspects were thought through with great attention while making this film. The film took close to a decade to complete and cost the filmmaker an unimaginable sum of money, and resulted in a spectacular classic.

And now this iconic film is running full houses as a musical show in live theatre to great applause and appreciation! 

It is highly gratifying to see that this form of theatre is coming to life at a time when technology is sweeping across our lives and alienating us from our core roots. Ask any 20-year-old today about 3D, VR (Virtual Reality) or AI (Artificial Intelligence),  you may very well receive an instant answer from them. But prod them on Kudiyattam, Bhavai or Jatra forms of theatre, you are going to see them staring back at you.

Street plays, stage performance, puppet shows, folk plays, short skits etc. are turning alien to too many millennials. While they were once, to use a contemporary term, ‘talent base’ of actors for the Indian Cinema, today you see them moving into oblivion. Great actors like Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Farooq Sheikh have their roots in theatre from where they went on to become successful actors. Down south, actors like Rajkumar or NTR started their careers in street theatre and went on to become successful actors. They not only acted, but also directed and sang their own musical plays.

Coming back to Mughal-E-Azam, why a musical?

In 2004, a colored version of Mughal-E-Azam was released. And somewhere at that time the roots of watching a musical were sown in his mind, says the director. All for love, he adds. To quote his words, ‘Love stories are bigger when sacrifices are big. Anarkali knew the consequences of loving Salim. She was ready to die for love.’

Driven by the firm belief that a theatre is more befitting for this classic, the makers have used a cast of over 350 people and created a play that runs for about 2 hours and 15 minutes and holds a strong contemporary sensibility. The grand set, the costumes, trained dancers and more importantly the live singing on stage brings to life the immortal movie for us, and makes us relive the historical fiction. The play has already run 50+ shows in Mumbai and New Delhi and intends to go global next year. So, all you lovers of this form of art, do take your families, especially the younger ones, and see this musical when it comes to your city.

I hope this endeavour of Feroze Abbas Khan ignites other creative minds, sets the tune for more such plays, nurtures our core art forms, revives them to their full glory and enables younger generations to connect back to our roots. Not only will it enable them to get a hold on our rich culture and heritage but also empower them to connect with their own selves, and the people around through a theatrical depiction of various emotions of life like trust, love, betrayal, anger, friendship, remorse, forgiveness etc.

After all, certain things like love and happy relationships cannot be downloaded using an App on a mobile phone!

 

Swapna Narayanan is an author of short stories and poems currently based in Bengaluru, India.