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


The Power of a Like

When my editor reminded me that I still had not sent her a blog entry, I was tempted to write about what one needs to do in order to become a better author. Yes, it is slightly presumptuous to assume that winning my first publishing contract entitles me to write such an article. I am, after all, a beginner.

But then I thought about an incident that occurred back in 2009. This was a time when Orkut was briefly popular, mind you, and being an 11th grader, I spent most of my time online, increasing the number of ‘scraps’ in my scrapbook while trying to get more people to write testimonials for me. I was an aspiring author, and like most clueless wannabes, I decided to post a serialized novel on my blog. The idea was to create a riveting story told over several chapters, all ending with a cliffhanger. In my mind I was the next Charles Dickens.

The first three or four chapters were out, and the response was lukewarm, to put it politely. But just when I was about to give up on the story, a classmate of mine, Meghna Mehta, posted a scrap. She said, “The novel sounds promising. Looking forward to read more.” (I am, of course, paraphrasing).

That single scrap breathed life into my story. Knowing that there was someone out there who liked what I’d written provided enough fuel for me to churn out a few more chapters. Sadly I didn’t complete the novel, since I’m a skilled procrastinator, but the ideas kept growing in my mind.

I honestly believe that had it not been for that scrap, I wouldn’t have had the interest to expand my novel.

It’s funny how right now we live in a world where feedback is easier than ever before, and yet so scarce at times. You can share, like, tweet, comment and backlink a piece of writing. And yet so many of us remain silent when it comes to letting the author know our opinion. True, sometimes the piece may not deserve to be praised; sometimes there’s nothing much to comment on. But ask yourself how many times you’ve scrolled down an article, smiled, and promptly closed the window without acknowledging it’s merit.

Now this may sound like a subtle rant of someone who’s mourning the fact that he doesn’t get enough likes or comments about his writing, but it’s not. This article is about the immense power that you and I have as readers. We have the power to water a person’s creativity, to let it grow by feeding it bits of appreciation. We have the ability to mold art, to make it better and more beautiful.

But every time we remain silent, we do the opposite. We let art die. We let creativity wither. We let self-doubt, despair and indifference win.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m guilty of remaining silent as well. But every once in a while I remember just how much a single comment helped me grow as a writer. Today I hope that by reading this, you realize just how much impact your actions can have as well. After all, what we all really want are better books, movies, songs and paintings, isn’t it?

It’s both humbling and wonderful to know that we have the power to make that happen – one like and comment at a time.


The Writer’s Conundrum

The road to hell is paved with adverbs.
― Stephen King

There is something magical about writing—about creating a world with just words; about drawing up landscapes and family lines with a few flourishes of the pen (or taps on the keyboard); about holding within your palm the power to create a character and the turns that define his/her life.

Of course, it is not easy as it sounds. Oftentimes, the words are stuck in another plane, the characters remain foggy shadows in the recess of your mind, and there is little by way of a plot that can fill the pages. And the frustration a writer faces at this stage is hard to explain—it is a pain-filled anxiety, clouded over by doubts about whether the nascent idea that rests in one’s mind will take root and grow. The pain is almost beautiful, preceding as it does the creation of something eternal, something that will touch another.

There are times when nothing seems right, when the words are all hollow and the plot is laughably plain. When the characters in your mind’s eye refuse to make their mark on paper; when your creative element seems to have left for a distant land. This is when writing in itself seems like a futile exercise—the idea of spinning a story, an impossible task. It is very tempting at such times to close away the mind and laptop, and put away all thoughts in dark, deep drawer—away from the light of day.

And yet, in the midst of all this, something keeps pulling the writer through—the promise of a work that is as dear to one’s heart as is a child. It is this impulse that makes the writer plod through empty hours when barely a few words fill the space on a blank page. And then, one day, the words come together, the story is string together in a beautiful sequence of events, and—after you turn the last page—all that remains is a smile or sigh. A feeling of contentment, of sweet success, washes over the writer.

It is the love for this process that keeps drawing me back to writing, even after I proclaim that my creative muscles have atrophied and I cannot string together yet another tale. Writing is like a drug—once you are hooked on to it, there is no substitute.


Read. Write. Listen. Evolve. Repeat.

I co-wrote my first script when I was in the ninth standard. A satire on the popular Star Trek series, it was written over the period of a week during class hours. It may have been childish and downright cartoony but I still keep that book with me even today. The desire to one day see my name in print was non-existent as I grew up and settled into the medical field—writing scripts in notebooks (no DELETE buttons, mind you) was just a way of letting out some excess creative thoughts that existed between my ears. But the desire to keep on writing was there, resulting in pen pals receiving timely pages of my life every month for years and eventually the creation of a blog.

It was here that I first had to face real reviews of my stories from a faceless public—a true test of whether my words were worth commenting on. Unlike friends who would smile graciously to keep me cheerful, these anonymous faces online were under no such obligation. They would let me know what they liked about the story and what my weaknesses as a writer were. It was their positive responses that goaded me to keep on writing. It was their thumbs down that let me know my twists in the tale had failed miserably.

And it was those comments—positive and negative alike—which goaded me on. Writing within the blog reined in my tendencies for long scripts and made me focus more on shorter tales. Within the tiny confines of a few thousand words, I needed to build a world and make the reader empathize with the protagonists within that fictional realm. I needed them to look for a twist in the tale and still not see it coming so that they nodded appreciatively when the last line had been delivered.

Eighteen years after I wrote that satire in a classroom where I was supposed to be learning algebra and geography, a story of mine did make it to print in 2011 in the Chicken Soup series. Ironically, it was not fiction but a true story based on events I witnessed as a doctor. I still have the first copy of the book that I received and the cheque that accompanied it. In the three years that have passed since that day, I have been lucky enough to win a few national anthology contests, find my name in print and attend book launches at stores.

There have also been rejection letters galore during this period too, mind you, informing me that I missed out on the possibility of publication because I got my tenses wrong. I didn’t feel bad—if anything, I felt scared. What if my story and the grammar it was coated in was so bad that the publishers sent it to my high school English teacher? Would I wake up one morning and find her catching my ears and forcing me to come back to school to read my Wren and Martin grammar books again alongside smirking third standard students?

Along with a desire to improve myself as each year passes by, there is also a need to evolve and step out of my comfort zone. Stephen King comes to mind when I think of the evolution of an author. If the author’s name was erased from the books, would you have ever believed that Carrie and The Shining were written by the same mind that gave us The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption? Following a near death experience in real life, his own fictional stories took on a more natural approach, eschewing vampires and scary clowns in favour of more intimate personal fears that haunt us all.

That’s something I look to do every time I try to build a new world within a page—be a better writer than I was previously. Ever the eccentric Aquarian, I never stick to one theme and flit across all genres—real life, humor, romance, action and adventure, psychological thriller, crime, real life, medical and even historical fiction with some erotica to boot!

It isn’t a desire to get published in all available genres that keeps me going. It is the desire to write. It is a desire to tell a tale that I feel people would like to hear.

In Eric Segal’s novel ‘Doctors’, there is a very astute comment right at the very beginning on how we have still only found the cure for twenty-six diseases. In the twenty-six years since that novel has released, I wonder how many more we may have added onto that list though I doubt if it would be too many. That doesn’t stop mankind from trying though.

I feel that the same applies to writing. When all is said and done, there are a very finite number of storylines available at our disposal within each genre (The remarkable similarities between Disney’s Pocahontas and James Cameron’s Avatar come to mind as a defining example). How we choose to form and narrate that story is where the true gift lies.

My advice to those who have a story to tell? Read. Write. Listen. Evolve. Repeat.

READ as many books as you can. Enjoy the beauty of lyrical prose and taut storylines, immaculate plots and beguiling metaphors. From the reader whose mind is opened to new worlds, the WRITER will emerge. Your stories may be inspired or original, sensitive or silly. You will never know if you alone are the judge. So allow others to read your work and then sit back and LISTEN. Listen to their comments and their opinions. Neither should you get disheartened by bad reviews nor should you allow yourself to float too high on cloud nine when the first positive review arrives. Instead see how you can improve. EVOLVE and become better than the writer who wrote that previous story. Then REPEAT it all once more!

You will surely get published. If this formula could work for a nerdy doctor sitting inside one or the other operation theatre for most of his adult life, it will surely work for you too.


Why Every Writer Should Start Out in Fanfiction

And just what on earth is fanfiction, I hear most of you say. Well, here, let me google that for you.

In short, fanfiction is the term for stories about characters or settings written by fans of the original work, rather than by the original creator.

Say you’re a fan of the television show Supernatural (in which case I say, you have good taste!) and you didn’t like the way an episode in Season 2 was handled. Sam, you think to yourself, doesn’t talk that way. Or you love the Bollywood movie Jab We Met, and you’re endlessly annoyed by the fact that Geet had red nail polish in one scene and no nail polish in the scene immediately preceding it. You want an explanation, and since there isn’t any in the actual film, you decide to provide it for yourself.

This, in essence, is fanfiction. It’s not part of the original creation, the characters and their world don’t belong to you, and—most importantly—you can’t publish it, and make money off it.

So why would anyone want to write fanfiction?

Well, the simplest answer would be the same reason you’d give if someone asks you, ‘Why do you write?’

Because you love it. Because you can’t see yourself not writing.

And the same applies here. I write fanfiction because my muse pushes me into it, with odd thoughts and questions popping into my head as soon as I close the book or turn off the television.

I write fanfiction because I loved the characters and world so much that I couldn’t quite let them go, and my fanfiction is my love letter to them.

I got into writing fanfiction back in the day, when a television show called The Pretender aired on Star World. The show ended abruptly, since it had been cancelled in the middle of its story arc, and I was left feeling like someone had ripped out the last few pages of a book I loved. I had to know how the story ended! So, I did what any teenager in the 21st century does—I went online, looking for any information I could find.

I discovered fanfiction.

It was a new world of stories featuring the characters I loved, and—most important to me at the time—they all had endings! I devoured all the stories I could read, and before long, I was fully conversant with the various terms used to describe fanfiction, like AU (Alternate Universe), and WAFF (Warm and Fuzzy Feelings) and even PWP (Porn without Plot).

At this point, I had been writing, on and off, for three or four years, always a poem or a short story at a time. It was a desultory kind of writing, I wrote when the mood struck me, never showed my writing to anyone else, and there it stayed, shut up in notebooks and journals.

And then I started writing fanfiction. The website featuring The Pretender fanfiction was defunct by then, but it didn’t matter, because by then I had seen the movie Serenity, and fallen quite in love with the incomplete story of two of the main characters, Mal and Inara. I went looking for fanfiction of them, and discovered LiveJournal. I read hundreds of stories, leaving gushing reviews for some and bookmarking many more.

My initial fan stories were all attempts to give Mal and Inara’s story a happy ending. I posted my stories to communities dedicated to fanfiction about these two characters, and many of the authors I had interacted with were kind enough to comment on my writing. And so started my love affair with fanfiction.

I wrote every day, commented endlessly, and became friends with a unique circle of creative, fun, and extremely welcoming people.

So what did I learn from writing fanfic? Why would I recommend that every writer should start out in fanfiction?

  • It’s easy: Fanfic is the perfect place for beginners to start—you have ready-made characters, and a ready-made world for them to inhabit. All you need to worry about in your stories is the writer-ly stuff, like sentence structure, and plotting and pacing.
  • Instant feedback: Sure, you can blog your original fiction on your own website, but when you write fanfic, you have a ready base of people willing to give you instant feedback on your writing. They’ll tell you when your sentence construction sounds clunky, when characters are off beat, when you misspell words like ‘occassionally’. They’ll be your biggest cheerleaders when you get it right; they’ll tell you in detail what lines they loved, what moved them, what made them cry, laugh, and save your story to their bookmarks.
  • Broadening your skills: When you write fanfic, you don’t end up sticking to the kinds of stories you read all your life. I wrote 100 word vignettes for a community on The Lord of the Rings, where I learned how much you can say in just a few words and the turn of a phrase. I wrote stories in the second person point of view, when I realised how immersive they could be for a reader. I wrote stories that explored characters—the villains became misunderstood heroes in their own right, incidents in the original work were described by minor characters, protagonists became antagonists in alternate universes where just a single decision had a profound impact on their lives—it went on.
  • Learning to appreciate—and write—variety and minorities: Whenever I see questions on Quora asking ‘How do I write believable x characters?’—x being female, black, Chinese, Indian, gay or transsexual characters—all I can think about is the wide variety of fanfic I read, featuring nearly every kind of character known to man. And the very best of them all rang true. In the fanfic circles, I read—and wrote—stories featuring same-sex relationships. Being a heterosexual woman, same sex relationships were never something I even thought about before discovering fanfic, but reading about them made me appreciate the idea of telling stories about people different from me. My characters stopped being cookie cutter versions of people; always heterosexual, always looking to settle down and marry and have as many kids as possible. Reading and writing these stories, I realised that not everyone’s ‘happily ever after’ looks the same. And that’s alright.
  • Sense of community: Writing is a lonely business. It’s solitary. It consists of you, in your room, alone with a computer or a notebook, bringing things to life. And no matter how much they love you, sometimes your significant others and families and friends will not understand the frustrations of dealing with a character who just won’t behave the way you want them to, or how horrible it is to be afflicted with writer’s block, or how terrifying it is staring at a blank page. This is where your community becomes your best friend. I’ve bitched about my characters to my fanfic friends, and listened to their own horror stories of never ending tales, and plot bunnies that just won’t die. I’ve asked them to critique my attempts at original fiction, and their comments and feedback has been invaluable.
  • In rare cases, it’s publishable: There are instances where what we would now call fanfiction has been published. To be fair, though, these are all cases where the copyright on the original has expired. Examples include Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Mary Reilly, and Wide Sargasso Sea.
  • It’s fun! Perhaps most importantly, fandom is fun. Fanfic is fun. You write stories you never thought you’d write—as virtual birthday presents for online friends. You get the chance to read the exact story you always wanted to read, the exact scene you always wanted to see play out for your favourite characters – for free! You get to experience the joy of creating, and in return you get comments and compliments you wish you could frame and display on your walls, if only more people knew what fanfic was. Fanfic gives you the freedom to be a male character, or a female character, or an elf, or a dark wizard, or mage—whatever you want. Fanfic gives you the freedom to try writing non-linear stories, or flashback fic, or a hundred other things you’ve seen and loved in other writers, but never knew if you could pull off on your own.

In end, nothing I say can ever be really enough. All I can tell you is that fanfic can be a fun and fulfilling way to earn your writing chops, and to broaden your mind as a writer, as a person.

Additional reading: 10 Famous Authors Who Write Fanfiction


Writing is Art

I know a number of people who don’t get the power of Picasso’s work, or who mock modern art. The most common comments I hear center around the premise that Picasso couldn’t draw, which is blatantly false. Picasso himself was a remarkable artist and he didn’t embark on cubism until the later period of his life. By that time, he had the tools he needed to explore new avenues in his art.

He mastered his skills before he distorted them. He could draw, paint in oils, watercolors and a host of other media. He learned them all.

About a month ago, a post by Natasha Ahmed reminded me that one of my favorite American screenwriters was Aaron Sorkin, not just for the great stories that he comes up, but with the staggering command of language that he wields in each of his shows. He’s most famous for A Few Good Men, Moneyball and The West Wing, but I am currently waiting breathlessly for the next season of The Newsroom. He also wrote at least one other show that I know of, Sports Night. If you watch each of the shows, you can see Sorkin refining his tools, his control of language, much like Picasso’s works map his gradual mastery of his tools.

Unfortunately, I’ve found very few fellow fans of The West Wing, even fewer who recognize the sheer genius of Aaron Sorkin (I’m speaking of my own circle of friends within Pakistan—I may be completely wrong about you!). Shows like Friends, How I Met Your Mother, The Walking Dead, TBBT, Game of Thrones, Pretty Little Liars and Grey’s Anatomy are amongst everyone’s favorites lists. But not The West Wing or The Newsroom, which is a great pity because he can take the most mundane topic and turn it into a work of art. I think that if he chose to write about a rock, I’d be riveted!

One of the best examples of Sorkin’s skill with words is an episode from The West Wing called Galileo. He takes an ordinary, poorly written speech and shows us how to turn it into something magical:

BARTLET: [reads] “Good morning! I’m speaking to you live from the West Wing of the White House. Today we have a very unique opportunity to take part live in an extremely historic event which…”

Whoa, boy…

SAM: [waves and smiles] How you doing, Mr. President?

BARTLET: Who wrote this intro? 

TATE: I did, sir. I’m Scott Tate from NASA Public Affairs.

BARTLET: [gets up and shakes his hand] Scott. “Unique” means “one of a kind.” Something can’t be very unique, nor can it be extremely historic.… Sam?

SAM: Yeah.

BARTLET: [to Tate] He’s gonna make some changes.

TATE: [following Sam] You’re going to clear them with me?

SAM: I doubt it. [to a recording staffer] Write this: “Good morning. Eleven months ago a 1200 pound spacecraft blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Eighteen hours ago it landed on the planet Mars. You, me, and 60,000 of your fellow students across the country along with astro-scientists and engineers from the Jet Propulsion Lab in Southern California, NASA Houston, and right here, at the White House, are going to be the first to see what it sees, and to chronicle an extraordinary voyage of an unmanned ship called Galileo V.”

You have to watch this scene to appreciate the depth of these words; Rob Lowe does them justice. From ‘an extremely historic event’ to ‘chronicle an extraordinary voyage of an unmanned ship called Galileo V’, this is the kind of writing that should be taught in schools.

A writer’s tools are words. And great writing is all about wielding those words in new and unusual ways that will delight your reader. Picasso may not have delighted everyone, but he was in total control of his tools when he painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. He was enticing us to view the world through his eyes, because a two-dimensional painting is flat—perspective and depth is an illusion created by an artist equally adept at his or her art.

Words create atmosphere, they paint pictures, they reveal harsh realities and images of great beauty. Words create an illusory depth, like Rembrandt, or they can be starkly transparent like Picasso. Both require control of words and lots of practice!

Every published, established and popular around the world will give one common piece of advice to new authors: read. I’m adding to that and saying, watch great shows. Read their transcripts. Specifically, watch Aaron Sorkin’s shows. Reading other books, poetry or plays gives you new ways to approach a scene, a description, a dialogue. It doesn’t mean that you should copy them—even though everything we write has been written before—but be inspired by them.

Sorkin, by the way, is also the master of an understated, low-key humor that requires a double take:

TATE: Look, I don’t want to step on your toes. You don’t want to step on mine. We’re both writers.

SAM: Yes, I suppose, if you broaden the definition to those who can’t spell.


Resilient, Beautiful Butterflies

In literature and in life, the themes I connect to most strongly—perhaps because they echo the story of my life—are those of discovery and freedom, leading inevitably to disconnection, displacement and eventually to new beginnings. The themes are a familiar literary backdrop, revisited again and again in love stories, novels and movies.

Why are these commonly recurring themes? And what makes them so powerful? The answer lies, I believe, in the trajectory of life. We are perpetually pitched into the unfamiliar, jolted out of our comfort zones and asked to move, with times that are a-changing. And no matter how much we kick or scream or resist, willingly, or unwillingly, we are continually poised on the brink of letting go of something old to find something new. And so, when we read about it, we relate to the fear and sympathize with the unfairness, and inevitability of it all.

Our newest release, Butterfly Season, launched this month, touches on these themes in the life of a thirty-something Pakistani woman Rumi, who is blithely and unsuspectingly on vacation in London for the first time in ten years. The spirited side of her, squashed by family and cultural dictates, wakes up and causes Rumi to act on impulse, to let go and to fall in love—until reality catches up with her in the form of her moralistic sister, who brings her face to face with the far-reaching consequences of her actions.

What strikes me, ironically enough, is that, although Rumi believes herself to be an emancipated modern woman, how hemmed in and closely scrutinized her life actually is. Although she is independent, employed at an unconventional job and is able to invite her friends over for breakout evenings on her rooftop, beyond these small incursions, Rumi is not really free to venture out and discover what she wants in life. It is her vacation that grants her the freedom to discover, to explore and to experience the heady power of being attractive to an attractive man.

It is telling that for so many of us, the process of going away may be the only means of coming alive and coming home to oneself. For so many South Asian women the disconnect has been linked to marriage—the end of the old and the beginning of a new life. More and more young women however, are able to choose other paths. To begin offbeat careers, to work or study away from home, to travel, to break boundaries, forge new paths, to explore and discover and find ourselves, as individuals, unconnected to family, tradition, or relationships.

Ultimately however, like Rumi, each of us is challenged to choose between old and new, and at that precise moment of choice and courage, we are rebirthed—free of our cocoons, to venture forth into a new life.

Here is to all of us—beautiful, resilient butterflies.


Only in the unfamiliar are we able to distance ourselves to recognize who we have become, and what we really wanted to be.


Travelling to the Land of Butterflies

A few years earlier, a scandal ran through Karachi’s middle classes when several cyber cafés released videos of couples necking (and a lot more) in the small private booths of their establishments. The couples were unaware that they were being filmed and some of the videos were incredibly explicit. To the sensibilities of ordinary Pakistanis, the videos were more than scandalous. They were horrifying, especially since all the women in the videos were covered in burqas or hijabs (which, to most Pakistanis, is what distinguishes the pious Muslim woman from the herd). The only upside to this fact was that the women were unidentifiable and therefore safe from stampeding mullah brigades out to dispense their own brand of justice.

But it caused a small sensation in the country. Even my own mother, whom I consider to be fairly liberal (she’s a fan of Harold Robbins. If you’ve read any of his books, you’ll know what I mean), was vocal in her anger at the actions of the women in the cyber cafés. It struck me that almost all of the condemnation was for the girls—no one seemed to care that all the videos included young men, all easily identifiable, all equal participants in the clandestine affairs.

It was a hot topic of discussion for days after the media ruckus had died down. Every conversation I had, even among my own friends, was about the audacity of these burqa-clad girls meeting men in private booths at cyber cafés to have sex.

Why all the anger towards women only? Weren’t the men equal participants? I would have understood a violent reaction to public indecency—that’s a matter of civic duty, not to disrupt public sensibilities. But these couples were seeking out cyber cafés with closed booths for privacy. They weren’t flaunting their affairs; they weren’t out in the streets encouraging other men and women to abandon their principles and espouse sexual freedom. And at the end of the day, what they do, or their morals, are none of my business, or anyone else’s for that matter. Individuals define their own morality, and while we are in our rights to try to convince someone that they may be wrong, we can’t condemn them for having a different morality (unless, of course, they believe murder, rape and crime in general is morally acceptable).

It formed the basis of my story—the anger people have towards female promiscuity, as opposed to the complete acceptance of a man’s affairs. Double standards exist in this part of the world, and it’s not based on the physical differences between a man and a woman (as most people here like to point out—men and women are physiologically different and should be judged against different criteria). If you think adultery is wrong, then your anger should equally apply to men as it is to women.

I had my conflict. Sex outside of marriage for a Pakistani woman. Rumi had to be strong enough to withstand condemnation, possible incarceration (though I decided that wouldn’t work well in a romance so I didn’t go that route at all). And the hero would have to be totally worth the uproar. I don’t know if either came across that way—I leave it to my readers to decide!

Because I knew nothing of how to put a novel together (such a massively different beast from writing a blog post or article), I needed guidance. Indireads didn’t have a formula for their books (unlike Mills & Boon and Harlequin who are very clear on what must or must not happen in their books), and all I knew was that it needed an introduction to the characters, a powerful conflict and a happy resolution. So, I searched online and found a series of articles on The Guardian’s website. It broke it down for me, segmented and boxed up into neat sections: character development, plot development, dialogue, conflict, resolution, scenes. It gave me a structure, a starting point on which I could actually plan the book.

It took me less than three weeks to write the book. It took considerably longer to edit and polish, but obviously this was a story that I wanted to tell, which is why it came pouring out. By the end of it, I had completely discarded all the worksheets and advice provided by the Guardian articles. I’m pretty sure that none of my characters came out the way I planned them, and the plot did several twists after two or three people had read the book.

That’s because I am impatient. I like to think I am organized and analytical, but the fact is, I’ve degenerated. I look at everyone and everything around me now for potential ideas. I store away mannerisms and patterns of speech. I don’t want to get up and go to a meeting when I’ve got a story to write. I don’t want to be doing boring housework or feeding the cats when I could be pounding away at my keyboard. That’s where writing one book has left me.

Short journey. Long repercussions.


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She Reads, South Asia

My journey to appreciating South Asian writing was a rather circuitous one.

While growing up I read widely and eclectically, which is another way of saying that I read pretty much everything I could get my hands on. At that time, familiarity with the classics was considered essential for the well-read person, so my father enthusiastically supported my love of reading by buying me the unabridged works of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe, to name a few. The longer it had been since the author had died, the better.

By the time I went off to college, I considered myself quite well-read. Unfortunately, my knowledge of South Asian literature was next to nothing. This is something that I have tried to remedy as I have grown older and wiser, at least in terms of fiction from the sub-continent written in English. From Vikram Seth to Arundhati Roy, from Salman Rushdie to Mohsin Hamid to the wonderful Chitra Divakaruni and Kiran Desai, I discovered and fell in love with the writers and their craft. And then I branched beyond the award winners and discovered delightfully evocative fiction written by the likes of Anuja Chauhan, Advaita Kala and Rupa Gulab, who have become some of my favorite South Asian popular women writers.

As I started discussing my reading likes and dislikes with friends, I was surprised at how common my journey had been. Most of my friends had read the classics, but many of them had never even heard of enormously evocative writers like Indu Sundaresan or Anjana Appachana.

A few years ago, when I started on the Indireads journey, I was equally surprised to see how many in my reading circles had favorite Western romance writers—Georgette Heyer, Mary Balogh, Sophie Kinsella and Judith McNaught et al, but when it came to South Asian romance, most of my women reader friends were just not interested. Slowly I came to realize that, by design, accident or choice, we know very little about the amazing writing talent that lives and thrives within our own region. It is hard to be an author anywhere in the world, but to be an author in South Asia, and that too a writer of ‘women’s fiction’, can be quite a challenge.

SheReads South Asia was conceived as an initiative to allow ourselves to be inspired by these writers and to celebrate their words. Motivated by 2014 being celebrated as the Year of Reading Women and building on the success of the #ReadWomen2014 campaign, SheReads South Asia will reach out to women readers, encouraging them to support, discover and engage with our very own South Asian women writers and their works.

Through SheReads, Sabahat and I hope to make the journey of discovery easier for many readers.

Over the years, I have also been drawn towards spirituality, and there, the masters point out how the discovery of oneself is a long, winding road. Maybe the path to discovering yourself, your roots and your stories, was never meant to be straight either. The journey may be long and circuitous but we hope SheReads South Asia will take out at least a few bends on the road, allowing you and us to get ‘home’ faster. May the journey begin!


Haunted by Rains

mazhayil maaril cherum kanam pole, ennum njan
I will be like a raindrop that falls on your breasts, always

It is raining here in Canberra, but this is not rain. The good Lord gave the people of Kerala the real deal. The south-west coast of India, is perhaps the most romantic place on earth, where people still die for love. Instead of pub crawls and O weeks and toga parties, university students in Kerala protest and write love poems in the rain. It is the kind of place where people would much rather lay on a train track than part with their beloved.

We were always drunk on love in Kerala. I clearly remember how a classmate of mine wrote a series of love poems in the university magazine titled ‘Her’. The whole Social Sciences department speculated the subject was either the resident poet (me) , the musician (a semi successful music director now) or the artist (he works for a newspaper now, I think) in her classroom. New issues of the magazine flew off the shelves as soon as it was printed. We used to sit under the almond trees in the campus dissecting the lines.

All that effort went to waste, because she left a few months later. She was married off to someone hastily, because her hypochondriac mother had a revelation from the good Lord that she was going to die before her daughter’s marriage.

Years later, I asked a common friend who knew the truth of the matter, and she admitted that the object of desire in those poems was the artist.

Truth be told, I was a bit disappointed. But then it rained and my big fat ego and I gazed at it through the open door, and the rain fell through the green leaves and the scent of the earth rose and intoxicated ruby-red hibiscus flowers. And it reminded me of coconut oil and jasmine flowers and mascara and lips that never dared to speak the truth.

When it is about to rain in Kerala, a cold breeze blows through the classrooms and homes and offices, letting everyone know that somewhere, someone is biting into soft flesh and digging their nails into bed sheets and moaning in the shadows of muted light. And responding to the invite, everyone gravitates towards the open windows and doors, waiting with bated breath for the first drop, the many drops, the deluge of desire.

Norman Mailer ends his novella ‘A River Runs Through It’ with the sentence – “I am haunted by waters.”

I am haunted by rains.