The Journey is Mightier than the Destination

The first question of the English language paper in school was always a composition. Out of five topics, we had to write any one piece of 350-500 words. While the rest of the class would start scribbling the moment they got the paper, I spent at least twenty minutes of the allotted two hours thinking. I marvelled at how others could write a creative piece without prior thought! Middle school upwards I started scoring the best grades in my favourite subject and was consistently delighted about it. I secretly scorned those who ‘mugged up’ essays in a bid to score high. So deep was my satiety at doing well in English that I seemed to not notice that I was terrible at Math. Once, my composition ‘A House on Fire’ was read out in class and folks hailed it as the next big thing. The same day, the Maths paper revealed that I’d failed to score the minimum forty. I pondered upon what I ought to feel more—elation at the highest or dejection at the red line in the report card. That was Class VII. The thinker was graduating to a philosopher.

I used to take Math tuitions with a neighbour who also taught English to students. He gave me an assignment to write an account on ‘An Uninvited Guest’ once, although English was not what I went to him for. When I took it to him the next day, Bijon Kaku asked me if my mother had written it for me. He was amazed that someone who was so poor with numbers could have a way with words. That convoluted compliment remains one of my best ones so far.

Later, as a university student, I wrote a letter to my professor complaining about my room-mate who had no concern for her health, ate khichdi day after day, distressing me with her Spartan life and spent days poring over books. This girl, Subhalakshmi, was a diligent academic and would attend classes which she had not opted for. For the bindaas in me, this was not acceptable, especially because the professor urged me to ‘look at her, learn something from Subha’ all the time! The letter I sent to him through Subha—who had no inkling about the content of the envelope—as she went to his house after class for extra notes. He read the letter, declared it a mock epic and showed it to all who went to study under him. ‘Fame’ felt euphoric, especially as it came from someone with exacting standards.

In retrospect, all these stray incidents may have portended toward a glorious writing career! Except, I was so content teaching English and writing the odd article for the school journal that I never gave any serious thought to a literary pursuit. Didn’t reclusive people who lived in the mountains or by the sea go on to become famous writers? Surely not a small-town girl with two thick, oily plaits who rode to school on a cycle and thought life was all about Jagdish’ chanachoor, reading Mills and Boon hidden in the Geography book and scraping through the Physics exam! Just that, whenever life happened—and it always did—I found myself wondering how it would read in a book or look in a film were somebody to capture it.

Significant incidents I did capture in a diary, but the task of keeping it in a secret place was so bothersome that the practice discontinued, with the silent hope that someday when I became a writer, I’d write about things from my journal. The ‘someday’ took many years to manifest. And I thank God for making it later rather than never. There are so many people who sleep-walk through life without ever knowing where their heart lies that I live in eternal gratitude for my blessing and the awareness of it.

Love’s Labor came at a time when I was travelling for my husband’s posting and had quit my corporate training job. We were in London, had visited places, tried the local cuisine, seen museums and musicals and had had our fill of the sun and the snow. Gradually, when I’d exhausted my quota of euphoria of being in the land of literary giants, I took to blogging. I wrote about whatever I observed or anything I cooked, about the places we explored and suggested our friends do. The blog was well-received and people wrote in to say they enjoyed it or they missed it when I didn’t post anything. That gave me the shove to write furiously and I did it till I was in London. Blogging put me into the discipline of writing. When Indireads approached me, I knew I could sit for hours and type. The groundwork had been laid under the invisible supervision of The Greats.

There were shockers in store for me, though. After my second round of feedback from Indireads, I gave up all notions about my supposed greatness and felt like a student who is pulled up for every line she writes. The manuscript came back with so many red lines that I had to strain to see the original text. I shelved the book and told myself that blogging was all that I could possibly do, not a full length book. And then, after over a month of a dry spell, I got a call from the publisher urging me to ‘forget all feedback and write what you originally wanted to’! I was too stupefied to remark that by then I’d forgotten that too. This divine intervention made me resolute, though, that if I write just one book in my life, this had to be it. The story had been festering inside me for over a decade and I wanted the catharsis as much as I needed to see myself as a published author.

That’s how Andy Paula, the author, was born. I made my debut with a name my friends had christened me with and the added ‘Paula’ just gave it the right zing. When they ask me why Paula, I ask them why not. Being a published author has brought about changes. There are changes in my dimension for example. Writing is a fattening job and I had to shift to a floor arrangement when the chair shrunk without warning. It belongs to the cat now; I cannot fit into it even if I want to. What hasn’t changed is that when I go for a walk, people still don’t recognise me.

With the dynamic and the static is the realization that there are few other highs than seeing one’s name in print. The book reviews, the interviews, the blog posts—all so heady, so intoxicating. And ten years from now when eBooks are the norm rather than the exception, I’d like to look back and think we’ve been the pioneers. I live for those times.


Excerpt – Love’s Labor

Love's Labor“Life lost its color after Sathya left for Hyderabad. A month felt like years. Pia would call him every day after coming back from school.

“I saw some exotic birds today,” she chirped excitedly after a school trip.

“Did you see some bees as well?” Sathya’s deep-throated laughter made Piali weak-kneed.

“Don’t be vulgar,” Pia said in mock exasperation. “Any good looking females in the office?”

“Loads.” Sathya would pause, giving Pia just enough time to feel the pang of envy. “None as gorgeous as you, honey.” She would breathe easy again.

“What do you do after work?”

“It’s painfully peaceful after work hours. I wish you were here.”

Pia never knew what to say to that. She was waiting for her father to relent.

“What did your ol’ man say about me? Is he showing some sense?”

“Sathya, please.”

“Sathya, please?” he sounded astonished. “You don’t show them enough that you love me, so they think they can pressurize you out of it.” The tone was accusatory.

“That’s not true.” Pia was vehement.

“Break a glass or two. Throw tantrums. Make them realize that you’re in love. You don’t do that girl. You’re waiting for them to give in; they’re waiting for you to give up. This is an endless game.” Sathya sounded frustrated. “Now say something, will you?”

“Something,” said Pia, trying to lighten the situation.

Sathya was in no mood for banter. She could hear him breathe over the miles and visualized the faraway look in his eyes, the detached stance when he was irked.

“Sathya, I’m trying. It takes time, you know. Baba has been like this all his life. Now to have his daughter rebel is not easy on him. Look at it that way.”

“We don’t have our whole life to bring him around, Pia.” His tone was somber. “I want to have our child soon.”

“You haven’t proposed to me yet.” Pia tried hard to make him smile.

“Ya, you’re right. I actually haven’t. Because from the time I’ve met you, I knew you wanted to marry me,” he said with his maddening confidence.

“You’re so conceited. Has anybody told you this?” Sometimes she missed Sathya her friend more than Sathya her lover. “I’m coming next month with two tickets. You keep your bags ready. You’re coming with me to Hyderabad.”

Piali could hear her own heart beat. Elope? She was trying to fathom the aftermath. What would happen to Ma, Baba? What would the teachers say if she did something like this? And her students? God, this was too scary even to think of.

“Sathya, I cannot come away just like that. There’s too much at stake.”

“Like what, Piali Roy?”

“I mean, what will people say?”

“Okay, make up your mind if people matter more than your own heart’s desire. I will wait.”


Excerpt from Love’s Labor by Andy Paula

Short Stories

Anjum & Vandana – Unlikely Friends

My first instinct on hearing about the Love Across Borders anthology was to write a story based on the Wagah border. Dividing the two strife-torn neighboring countries is this fascinating place where, paradoxically, some semblance of unity is found. The audience sitting on either side of the fence bear the same complexion and features with the only obvious difference being the style of clothing. This place holds immense potential, and not just for story-telling.

Surprisingly, when I actually sat down to write, my story took on a mind of its own. Away from the border and the parade, it started talking of Anjum, a Pakistani girl who lived in Bombay. That caught my attention. I had never heard of a cross-border migration in urban India, not in the recent times. Vandana, the narrator, was Anjum’s neighbor and after her initial guardedness about a Pakistani padosi, gradually lowered her defenses and took to Anjum like she never had to any other neighbor. While I was bent on knowing how Anjum was ‘smuggled’ to India—this was before the Shoaib-Sania alliance—Vandana could not probe beyond the point of decency.

Nevertheless, she was struck by Anjum’s simplicity. Strife, anarchy, political unrest did not exist for Anjum. She had grown up in a secure background amidst relatives, food and festivals and thought that the rest of the world was an extension of that warmth. That was how she disarmed Vandana.

And that was something! Having known Vandana all my life, I knew how hard it was to be her friend. She was in a constant hurry to accomplish her tasks; her tutorial was her pilgrimage and her students her pilgrims. She knew no life beyond them. As the eldest of three siblings she was equally adept at household chores and went about them with the professionalism of an event manager. It was a joke among friends that if we were to go to Vandu’s house unannounced, she may ask us to do our dishes because it was not on her agenda!

For someone as rigid as her, marriage was difficult. She detested the fact that she had to follow Vineet to Bombay, giving up her lifeline—her tutorial. It did not help that Vineet was her exact opposite. He was laid back and relaxed and lived for the moment. Vandu disliked him at once, but she was practical enough to know that she could not remain a spinster all her life. As she was convinced there was nobody who would be compatible with her, she said yes to Vineet. One alliance was as bad as the other, why waste more time!

Post-Anjum, Vandu was a different person, though. Anjum opened up a part of Vandu’s life that she did not think existed.

Read about Vandana’s journey with Anjum and decide for yourself if the fence between the two countries is just a mental block, or are friendliness and love actually hostage to geography?

Andy Paula, India


Dr. Kalam’s Stamp of Approval

14th June
Dear Dr. Kalam

Hoping this finds you in good health.

I, Anindita Sarkar, a teacher for nine years and a corporate trainer for the last six, am delighted to be writing to you. A graduate of Banaras Hindu University, I started my teaching career in 1997. From 1997 to 2006 I taught English to high school students in various parts of the country, my last academic stint being St.George’s College, Mussoorie.

That was the year when you graced the Sesqui Centenary celebration of our school with your presence. I was the editor-in-chief of the school yearbook then, and with the editorial board, we tried to capture what you truly embody. The excitement that your visit created; your address to the students; your answers to their questions; your photographs with the faculty and all my memories associated with it have been frozen in time.

So potent was my meeting with you Dr. Kalam, that when I made a foray into writing, this visit of yours to the school became a backdrop of my book! My book, Love’s Labor, deals with the caste and communal differences that so plague our society. How the protagonists sometimes bow down, and, at other times rebel against the limiting influences of family and society; how the role of parents defines our choices as Indians; our deference to the collective consciousness rather than upholding individual wishes form the fabric of Love’s Labor.

Please permit me to present to you a hard-copy of my e-book.

I am publishing under the pseudonym of Andy Paula, as Anindita was shortened to Andy by well-meaning friends from my school days!

I look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience, Dr. Kalam. My husband, Prakash Chandra, a software engineer, and I will be the two people present for the presentation. And we shall not take too much of your time.


Anindita Sarkar

drkalam_01There are some mails we send and forget; others keep us awake. This one, definitely, belonged to the second category. There was no reply from the former president’s office for ten days. TEN HARROWING DAYS! The Missile Man was traveling; he would be back by the 3rd of the next month. Did I actually think he would invite me for high tea the same evening he got the mail?! Aah, the vanities of an author.

It took a couple of calls for the president’s personal secretary to forward my mail to Dr. Kalam’s personal inbox. Duly done. Wait begun.

Good things come to those who wait, they say. And it seems, they do!

28th June
Dear Ms Anindita Sarkar,

Ref your request to meet Dr Kalam to present a copy of your e-book to him.  Dr Kalam will be happy to meet you on Wed, 03 July 2013, at 1950 hrs at his office No.10, Rajaji Marg, New Delhi.

Please confirm if you are coming for the meeting.



Please confirm? Please confirm?! I have been waiting for a fortnight for just this, Mr Secretary. But then you wouldn’t know the thrill, the apprehension, the excitement, the palpitations, the zoning out that happened on receiving a mail from someone like HIM, or, technically, from his office.

drkalam_03The first thing I noticed about the former president was how frail he had become in ten years. He was as inspirational though, taking interest in the digital format, appreciating how we are saving trees by not paper-printing, fascinated about how global Indireads is with the authors, editors, publisher, marketing all working out of different countries; complimenting entrepreneurs that they are the employment-generators and not employment-seekers and saying all the things a budding writer would take home with her.

Was I inspired to write more, write better? Of course! The moment I come down to Mother Earth, I will…and that’s a promise.


Love’s Labor: The Background Story

Love’s Labor comes from an incident about ten years ago, when it was discovered at home that a cousin had the audacity to fall for a gentleman from another community. All hell broke loose and the poor girl was subjected to the worst possible form of blackmail; from her mother threatening to swallow sleeping pills to the matriarch leaving home were the offender to not change her decision. The man in question was well-placed and offered to take the cousin away to his place of work; she vehemently refused, citing filial duty and social disgrace as her reasons.

In an unexpected twist of events, one day she disappeared from home. While initially, the family suspected that she had eloped, the lover himself was at a loss because he was very much at home!

This incident, a legend during my young adulthood, left a disturbing influence on me. As a thinking individual, I replayed it in various forms in my imagination, giving it a happily-ever-after ending. As a literature student, love was sacrosanct to me, and I hadn’t yet learnt about the various shades of gray. It was simple, I thought. If two people were in love, they had to marry. In the small town that I grew up in, though, the reality was very different.

There was a fanatic emphasis on same-caste-same-class alliances; love marriages were almost unheard of; and if there was a stray one, the adults almost waited for it to go wrong so they could be proven right. While the metros in India were opening their doors to MNCs, the small towns were still grappling under the narrow confines of caste and community in the name of tradition. Films like Mohabbatein only made it worse with their depiction of the ‘humein parivartan pasand nahi’ theme, while the blockbuster Dilwale Dulhaniya exemplified how love was only ‘allowed’ with parental consent.

Love’s Labor, a story of Piali Roy and Sathya Nair, is about two young people falling in love, fully aware of their different backgrounds. Piali is the quintessential, small-town Indian girl, torn between her love for Sathya on the one hand and her love for her family on the other. As with many youngsters, she is plagued by an all-consuming guilt for hurting her parents and being a disgrace to them.

Jamshedpur, the steel city of India, where the plot is set, is urban in many ways and children are encouraged to follow liberal arts passions, play a sport and participate in extra-curricular activities. When it comes to marriage though, the traditional household is ruled by the parents’ choice. Love, the very basis of human existence, is considered taboo and anybody daring to tread that path is made to feel like a sinner. Gender discrimination dictates that while Sathya can speak his mind, and his family even bows to it, Piali does not have the same luxury. This, of course, is a specific case and cannot be generalized.

As an author, I had control over my story’s ending. With time, I’ve (sadly) come to realize that control is a pipe dream in real life. Such is the illogical deference to parental dreams that a youngster has no say in matters of the heart. Surprisingly, even in this decade, I come across youth who say they’d like to marry by their parents’ choice. While there is a certain ‘nobleness’ about this sentiment that, on the surface, reflects respect of authority, at a subtle sub-level it is actually indicative of Indian society’s inability to embrace change and open up to the broadening world scenario.

Does Love’s Labor offer a solution? Or is it a mere reflection of the society we live in? Read it to find out.