A Special Subset (Part I)

In the spirit of the upcoming International Women’s Day, my publisher thought it would be a great idea to focus my next few blog posts on women, specifically women writers from South Asia. I was reluctant to do so. It sounded like a cliché, the obligatory post that every female writer feels compelled to do at some point in her career. “Hey, women of the world, look at me, I’m also a woman!’ I have often thought that making that distinction, women writers vs. male writers, is what puts us in second place. Which reminded me of Ainsley Hayes from The West Wing, who didn’t believe that her country needed an equal rights amendment for women:


– Aaron SorkinThe West Wing, S02, Ep 18

When I first heard this, I thought, she’s so right! Why do we make it a point to separate ourselves as an independent entity when all we want is the opportunity to be judged equally? After all, even in a country like mine, which has a reputation for being an oppressive society for us, women are well entrenched in positions of power and as leaders of industry.

For instance, we’ve had a female prime minister twice—something that the US has yet to do. Women have been a part of our political leadership for decades, from Fatima Jinnah (a political player as far back as 1965) to Benazir Bhutto to Hina Rabbani Khar. In the last government, the Speaker of the National Assembly was a woman and for many, many years, Pakistan’s ambassador to the US (a coveted position) was female. One of our most famous architects, and the one getting very high-profile projects, is Yasmeen Lari. The top and most respected names in the fashion industry include Sonya Battla and Sana Safinaz. Noorjehan Bilgrami is a founder and the first dean of Pakistan’s second-largest art school. Until recently, the chairperson of the largest multinational corporation in the country, Unilever Pakistan, was Musharraf Hai, a woman. The most vociferous and vocal human rights activist in the country is a woman. Razia Bhatti, founder of the prestigious Newsline magazine, was a recipient of the Courage in Journalism award. Ameena Sayyid runs one of the largest publishing houses in the country, the Oxford University Press and is a founding member of the Karachi Literature Festival. The first Pakistani author I had heard of, who published in English, was Kamila Shamsie. Our first national (and international) pop icon was Nazia Hassan and our most celebrated singer is Madam Noorjehan. The first Oscar Pakistan won was awarded to Shireen Obaid Chinoy, and within Pakistan, women like Sahira Kazmi laid the groundwork for female directors thirty years ago. And, you’ve probably all heard of Malala Yusufzai, who survived being shot at, but not Perween Rehman, a tireless activist against Karachi’s notorious land mafia who was murdered for her efforts.

I’ve forgotten more women who belong on this list than I can count. But that’s not all.

Pakistan’s air force boasts nineteen female pilots, one of whom has just graduated to becoming our first fighter pilot, and the ranks are rapidly filling up with more. By a large margin, women dominate admissions to (and graduations from) top colleges and universities. They generally have the better grades and work very hard.

I know that in many instances I have special privileges because of my gender. When I go to the bank to pay a bill, I’m moved to the head of the line because I’m a woman and they don’t expect me to stand in line (something I’m in no hurry to change). This goes for almost all public-dealing and bureaucratic organizations. We routinely have security checkpoints around the city and if the police see a woman in the car, they wave you on (stupid, I know, considering the recent discovery of female suicide bombers and the Lal Masjid incident.*).

I can’t escape the fact that, due to religious convictions and cultural traditions, women are disadvantaged, sidelined and oppressed. But women in Pakistan are breaking glass ceilings and barriers despite these obstacles. They have a significant, if largely unmentioned, presence in almost every field and every industry, except perhaps sports (though that omission is also rapidly being redressed).

So, why would we need an International Women’s Day?

If organizations like the Taliban didn’t exist, I would probably agree with Ainsley Hayes. And if women weren’t joining their ranks (unbelievable as that is, they are), I would have told my publisher that we didn’t need to be seen as ‘a special subset’ of writers, artists, businesswomen, politicians and leaders.

And we don’t. But we do need to shout our accomplishments from the rooftops. Not to tell men that we’re valuable members of society, but to tell women that we are. To inspire other women to reach for the stars. We should celebrate our achievements not because we want to be judged as a separate entity, but because other women, young girls who are dreamers, future leaders and thinkers, need to be aware that it is possible, that they have choices in life beyond marriage and children. And that we’re here to support you, whatever you decide to do.


*For those who don’t know the story, Lal Masjid is a historically significant madressah created as a training ground for the mujahideen in the Afghan war. In 2007, the imam of the mosque and his students, both male and female, challenged the writ of the State by declaring war on immorality. They kidnapped a woman they suspected of running a brothel in Islamabad, vandalized music and video stores and barricaded themselves into their mosque, guarded by a phalanx of female students wielding sticks and batons. In a dramatic showdown with the government, the imam of the mosque tried to escape amongst a group of women, dressed in a burqa. They found a hefty cache of weapons when they finally cleared out the mosque.


Writer’s Block: Are You a Victim?

Caution: Those looking for quick fix remedies will be disappointed

Curing writer’s block is tough. Have you had insomnia? No, it’s not a trick question. For those who suffer from both or either of them, it’s the same.

I have always slept like a well fed baby. Always, without exaggeration. Uninterrupted by my copious caffeine consumption.  Sleep came readily and easily to me everywhere: in buses, cabs, parties, lectures, coffee shops; you name it and I have slept there. Effortlessly.

Then one wretched night it happened. It was time to sleep. I lay on the bed, cuddled up to my pillow, and closed my eyes. A while later, I opened my eyes and found myself staring at the big, wooden cupboard in my bedroom. I was not dreaming. Nobody dreams of massive, battered cupboards that are falling to bits. So I tried again. I even moved the cupboard, but it didn’t work. I sighed and put my mild irritation to productive use that night—I read a book. And the next night and the night after. Unfortunately, my irritation ceased to remain mild. It turned malevolent. I couldn’t read or write. Nor could I watch TV (this was before my Game of Thrones fervor). Unsurprisingly, I was at the remedies counter. And to my joy and misery there were many to be tried and tested. Dousing myself in lavender oil; taking long, luxurious baths before going to sleep; milk and honey, chamomile tea; reading (yawn) boring books; even counting sheep that kept bumping into each other—it was endless and I did it all. No sleep. Splat.

It was agonizing, debilitating. Not the insomnia. The wait. The wait to sleep; the wait to feel the body turn spongy and warm and soak up sleep. Sweet sleep. Tender sleep. Effortless sleep. I never wanted anything more that week.

Then when the week ended, my mind was a blur. On an hour’s sleep every day, my energy had ebbed.

And I gave up waiting.

As I lay in bed that night (the eighth night) I prepared myself to be a version of Christian Bale’s character, Trevor Reznik, in The Machinist. For the first time that possibility seemed like a reality, and I closed my eyes. I don’t remember much of what happened later except that when I opened my eyes, the mynahs were chirping and the sunlight was streaming through the flimsy white curtains. I had slept for nine hours at a stretch and my mind was wide-eyed with clarity.

Still looking for a cure for your writer’s block? Try this:

“I don’t believe in writer’s block. If I can’t write, I go out and live. Then, if I’m a writer, I’ll find something to write.” ― Peter Arpesella


Thou Shalt Now Be Pronounced ‘Author’ – Shuchi Singh Kalra

AUTHOR. AUTHOR. AUTHOR. The word has been ringing about in my head ever since it sunk in that my first book will be out less than one month from now. Yes, less than a month! Trust me, I wasn’t half as nervous when I was being wheeled into the operation theatre for an emergency c-section. Okay, I may be exaggerating a bit, but you get the drift. Things are happening at a maddening pace around here, and now its time to pull out the marketing canons. All the blitzkrieg is taking a toll on me but it is also very exciting. The follower counts on my Twitter and Facebook pages are exploding without provocation and frankly, there is little to complain about right now.

While I have been wearing the “writer” tag for quite a while now, it is the “author” tag that is giving me the tummy tickles. The first time I contemplated writing a book was when I was ten years old. I saw this movie “The Fly” on television and liked the story so much that I decided to write it down as a novel. Don’t yell PLAIGIARST yet – I was only ten! The point I am trying to make is that writing a book has been my dream since forever. It is tops on my bucket list even (I had aimed to publish a book before I turned thirty and I’m thirty one now, but still).

As much as it is exhilarating, it is scary as hell. What if people just hate it? Worse, what if nobody reads it at all? What if only my mom and dad buy the copies and say “shaabaash beta, bahot achha likha hai”? It is all very nerve-wracking since this has been one of my major life goals. Every time I send out a review copy to a critic, I imagine myself handing a sword in their hands and giving them the permission to hack me down. What to do, I’m dramatic like that.

The truth is: writing a novel isn’t anything like writing a blog post or a brochure. It involves so much more. It is an emotional process where authors bare themselves to the public. I now realize that it takes incredible courage to put your work out there because most definitely, there will be readers who will NOT like your book. Some will even say nasty things about it. Things become scarier when expectations are high or even marginally existent (believe me, every time someone says “Oh you are such an established writer – your book just has to be amazing”, I almost shit in my pants). But thankfully, I’m not going crazy yet. This isn’t the first thing I have written, and neither will it be my last, and that is a major consolation. I have been a professional writer for years and thankfully, clients have loved my work and most have only good things to say about me.

I’ve even found a way around my pre-launch anxiety. Every time I feel jittery, I go back to the time when I would hold a chick-lit in my hands and imagine my name sprawled across a pink cover in bold cursive font. Confession: I have even daydreamt about giving out signed copies to wide-eyed fans (hey, don’t you laugh!). I believe the latter will also happen in good time, and ‘Done With Men’ is hopefully a giant leap forward towards that crazy dream.

Right now, I’m just going to soak up in the fabulous feeling of becoming a PUBLISHED AUTHOR. I wrote a full, freakin’ book, and it was taken by a real, reputed publisher (not one of those scammy ones that expect the author to cough up money). And the best part is that people are loving it (so far, so good). The initial reviews that have come in are mostly positive and the book is all set to hit the market on Valentine’s Day. So if you want to show me some V-Day love, you know what to do!

See more here.


Welcome to the Virtual book club – Shweta Ganesh Kumar

There is this need these days to analyze and talk about what we are reading and looking at a book from every possible perspective. And thanks to the wonders of technology, all of this can be done while curled up on one’s couch, still in your pyjamas.

Welcome to the era of virtual book clubs.
But is this what reading is all about?
Wasn’t reading an intensely personal experience where a particular book became a part of you?
Has it now evolved into a collective experience?

Suchitra Ramachandran is a Carnegie Mellon doctoral student in computational neuroscience studying brain mechanisms that might underlie how we learn to read. One of her dream projects is to open a library-bookstore-café. She created Drones Club—a book club on Facebook as a sort of virtual world precursor to this dream.

Suchitra says, ‘While there is a pleasure in reading and retreating into the worlds created by the author, there is as much (if not more) fun in talking about your favorite characters and plots, wondering why this author decided to take the story this way or that, debate ideas, hear about new authors from friends who are passionate fans.’

What fascinates her about social reading, ‘is understanding what different books do for different people. Chetan Bhagat and Twilight may not be high art, but there are people who appreciate and enjoy it. The books do something for them that Wodehouse, Kundera and Murakami don’t.’

One of the most common pieces of advice doled out to writers is to read and of course, talk about their book. And what better forum for this than a book club?
So does being part of the Azure Book Club help author Sumeetha Manikandan?

‘Though the initial idea was to promote my book ‘The Perfect Groom’, I enjoyed my interactions with the group members and many have become my friends,’ says Sumeetha.

Creative Art Therapist Shahla Nikpour who is working on starting a book club in El Salvador says there have been times when she has vehemently disagreed with other members. ‘But that is the beauty of book clubs too, having those disagreements, books bring out the passion in people,’ she says.

From different perspectives to making friends and tasting the passion, book clubs are more than just forums to intellectualize. What do you think? Would you rather read and introspect or are you ready to join a club?

Shweta Ganesh Kumar


The Reviews

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice.” — T.S. Eliot

Happy 2014, Indireaders. The 12th of January will mark Indireads’ six-month anniversary. Six months—it feels like a lifetime.

In six months, we’ve done a number of things that were firsts for Naheed and myself.  We’ve dabbled in social media and haven’t quite found a groove yet, but we’re getting there. We’re honing our editorial policies and processes and figuring out how to bring out the best in our writers. And we’re laying the building blocks for a permanent place in the publishing industry.

Indireads’ first book reviews are finally making their appearances around the web. Zeenat Mahal has found her way on to, Love Across Borders has its first review on Amazon, as did Andy Paula’s Love’s Labor (both 5-star reviews).

Reviews are the life-blood to any good book’s success. A good review will drive new readers to your book, and in some cases, will generate life-long fans of a writer’s style, characters and plots. At the same time, a bad review may nip a writer’s fantasies in the bud—something that can be remedied.

Bad reviews with constructive feedback should be cherished. Because you can always fix things if you know what’s wrong in the first place. Your next hero can be both manly and sensitive; your writing will improve with practice. Your descriptions can be more realistic, your research can be deeper, and you can always write a better plot. And, as a publisher, you can make sure not to repeat your mistakes.

Indireads has stumbled a few times in the past six months, but we’ve gotten up, brushed off the dust, and started again. We have talent, determination and a great team on our side.

Here’s to always moving forward!


Research is Boring, but Essential

One of my favorite authors of espionage novels is Helen MacInnes. Most readers today will find that name unfamiliar, but about a year and a half ago, Titan Books announced that they would be reprinting and digitizing her works. I’m hoping she’ll be as popular this time round.

Her last book was published (a year before her death) in 1984—Ride a Pale Horse. Her first, in 1941 (Above Suspicion). In forty-five years, she wrote twenty-one spy novels, a prolific rate considering the exquisite detail in each of her books. Her books are long—averaging 300 pages in standard small-print paperbacks. They are set around the world, from sultry Spain, to icy Poland, to the majestic Wyoming mountains (though that particular book, Rest and Be Thankful, was not among her espionage works), and each book takes you so deep into its location that you feel as though you’re actually there.

If you ask me what Delphi and Athens looked like in the sixties, I could easily direct you to the best tavern for political debate, or what the Parthenon looks like against a golden sunset. I could describe the crisp summer air of Malaga, or the narrow streets of Venice that, even in the sixties, was drenched in the stench of stagnant canal water.

She travelled extensively before she started writing, giving her a solid foundation for the exotic backgrounds to her stories. It helped, I am sure, that her husband was a bona fide spy (MI6), because her complex plots were layered with subtleties and mundane details that seemed inconsequential at first. It was often the smallest details, the little flash of memory—a laughing woman’s outstretched arm, a book someone was reading, a word in a newspaper article—that would turn the tide in the plot.

Her heroes weren’t dramatically exceptional like James Bond or Jason Bourne or Jack Ryan. They were often just ordinary citizens caught up in a desperate game, and they each bought their own particular talents into the fray.

What set her apart from her peers was the depth of her research. Her stories were vivid and authentic. So authentic, in fact, that her third novel, Assignment in Brittany (published in 1942), was required reading for Allied spies working with the French resistance against the Nazis (Wikipedia). This wasn’t something I knew until I looked her up (doing my own bit of research) for this article, but I am not surprised. I learned a great deal of history from her books, histories of the West, admittedly, but history nonetheless. She used existing and current events as backdrops to her stories. She researched political and ideological concepts, using them to strengthen her characters’ dialogue. Accordingly, when her nihilist propounded his theory of the new world order in Decision at Delphi, he did so with passion and accuracy. When her journalist heroine explained the subtle differences between disinformation and misinformation, she was authoritative and confident, not fumbling and pretentious.

And the crux of the matter comes down to this: if you want to create a character that your readers connect with, if you want to give your characters words that resonate in the minds of your readers, you have to know not just what they look like or what they do, but how they think. And you can’t do that without research.

Helen MacInnes died in 1985. She never had the power of the Internet at her fingertips; she did her research the old-fashioned way. With all the amenities of unlimited sources of knowledge available to today’s writers, it isn’t too much to ask that if you don’t know something, look it up.


Favorite Romance Writer?

When I read my first Mills & Boon romance, I was young and thought it was the height of raciness. A friend loaned me a couple of books that were listed as ‘bestsellers’, and while the thrill was there, I caught on to the obvious formula pretty quickly. The tall dark hero was always contemptuous of the spirited heroine, and due to a slight misunderstanding (which could have been cleared up with a couple of sentences that are never uttered until the final chapter), there was friction between the protagonists. This friction led to heightened tension, which translated into sexual tension. They’re horrible to each other through most of the book (or at least, the hero is), but everything washes away when they say ‘I love you’. Magic words.

This was all well and good for the first two or three books that I read, but the formula palled quickly (Penny Jordan’s writing make me want to shoot myself. How can she be a bestselling author???). I was bored out of my mind with what M&B considered bestselling authors. I would have stopped reading them altogether, except that I discovered Susan Napier.

I think the first book of hers that I read was a story of a film director and the disapproving aunt of his big star. The hero wasn’t tall. He wasn’t forbidding and enigmatic. He was flighty and articulate. He was a flirt and funny, not someone to be taken seriously.

Unlike the usual M&B fare, this story was richly textured with layered characters, dialogue that required a second look, and a story that sizzled with chemistry from the first page. It seemed irrelevant that the hero and heroine weren’t perfect (I recall a scene where they exchange gloves, because his hands are as small as hers are large!), because they were so real.

After that, I hunted for her books. One of her heroines was mute, another was a psychic. Her heroes were always articulate, but not all of them were rich, or harsh, or tortured (well, maybe one). Her characters were clumsy, quiet, exuberant, and yet each was totally believable.

If I must have a favorite romance novelist, it would have to be Susan Napier, but I wonder if I’m alone in this—I don’t want the normal romantic story, and the quality of writing makes a big difference to me. What about you? Who’s your favorite romance writer?


Where do you get your ideas from?

doodlesI know this question is often met with derision from literary panels, but I think it is a relevant question to ask a writer. Writers get ideas from the world around them, but so does everyone else.

Perhaps the question should be—what makes this process unique for writers?

People who like to express their ideas through the written word come equipped with a specialist device manufactured from books and the worldview of their creators. When a ‘writer’ meets an idea and says hello, it triggers a series of unstoppable reactions which transforms the ‘germ of the idea’ into a narrative. The disparate units, the random details that float around in the information sphere, a faded memory, a suppressed cry, now becomes a song with meaning and purpose and structure. It is now preserved in a perfectly constructed capsule, equipped to protect and transport ideas to future generations.

Articles, poems, short stories, novellas, novels…they are snapshots of the past. They are letters from times gone by. We get ideas from the past so that we may speak to the future.

Here’s a litmus test for you to decide if you are cut out for telling stories with words. Write me a flash fiction tale in five sentences in the comments area inspired by a significant event in your college/university life.

And I will provide you feedback 🙂


Dear Diary

diaryI like the idea of a journal because I write it for me, meaning am my Target Audience—this gives my imagination a lot of free rein.

Take a look at some of poet Bernadette Mayer’s journal concepts: Dreams, food, finances, ideas, love, ideas for architects, city designs…even telephone conversations. There are six pages of journaling ideas and concepts that Bernadette lists. It is a landmine of prompts and I’m thinking of posting it in my room. You should too.

The list reads like a catalog of observations we could make while we go on with our lives—while going for work we can change that jumpy bus ride into a poem or talk about the saddest things in our lives in prose. You could have a journal for your sweetest dreams and one for your fears. There is a format designed to portray every experience in our lives.

The journal and me

I started journaling when I was a teenager. I guess it was the worst time to start as I ended up burning my diary. Teenagers don’t usually store their diaries in case they want to write a book some time in the future. After burning the diary, which didn’t have any acute observations of the world around me but was more me-centric, I abandoned the concept of the cute little diary from Archie’s with the hearts and teddy bears and the Lock.

There was a Lock. I really shouldn’t have burnt it.

The next time I started writing a diary was when I became a Mom. This journal was different as I was obsessive about scrawling down feeding times, potty frequencies, fever occurrences, doctor’s appointments, vaccination dates, but all in a very disorganized fashion. At the same time I was typing in entries. When I typed, my journals were different and when I wrote by hand they represented some other aspect of me.

Getting Past IT

“I hate what I write,” a journaling novice told me. “When I look at what I’ve written, all I see is pages and pages of rubbish, trivia, blah blah blah, and I start thinking how I could be this way. How do you get past that?” It happens when you write. I was ashamed too at some point (now don’t come looking for my diaries!).

A lot of you comes out. In the beginning, your diary could be about the things you hate the most, the people you never want to see but who keep showing up, the life you don’t want to live but are living anyway.

Even years later, when you think you are over IT, IT raises its head and you lambast IT all over again. You got to get yourself out of you before you see the rest of the world. I guess that is why people who write are very introspective at some point or the other in their lives. Once you write yourself out in your diary, a lot of room will enter your writing space—and you will start to do word dances. The free writing finally starts becoming meaningful writing. I promise you that much.


So Excited!!!!

profanityI once read a novel where a protagonist points out that the use of profanity is the sign of a stunted mind. Not only is the person swearing ill-mannered and boorish, but he (or she) obviously does not have the words in his vocabulary to effectively convey his real meaning. Hence the over-use of slang or offensive language to cover his deficiencies.

This made sense to me—after all, if you can’t come up with sufficient insulting words in your normal vocabulary, you’re very likely to resort to swear words that you’ve heard so often.

In today’s age of mobile phones, two words are better than fifteen. It’s so much cooler to say (and easier to type) ‘f**k off!’ to someone than to tell them to ‘take that narcissistic ego of yours and feed it to your troglodyte of a brother’. The same goes for expressing oneself on social media platforms, such as Twitter, where you’re limited by the technology. Even with the over-prevalence of expletives on the internet, you need to shout to be heard online, and profanity normally gets people’s attention.

It did surprise me, therefore (considering the age we live in), that there were very few expletives in the manuscripts we received at Indireads. The sheer lack of profanity, in fact, stands out in our books—something I would normally consider a welcome breath of fresh air.

Sadly, that range of emotion, so easily expressed in two words, hasn’t been replaced with eloquent wit or powerful intellect. It’s been replaced with the exclamation mark. Everything, it seems, is more powerful when said with an exclamation mark at the end. A symptom of the times we live in, perhaps, where expressing emotion concisely and powerfully through an impersonal channel (such as email and text messages) is a challenge. Add several exclamation marks to a word—‘Hello!!!!’—and you easily convey anger, sarcasm or exasperation.

As with profanity, there is no need to tax your vocabulary with unnecessary explanations anymore. Apparently, the exclamation mark says it all.

Except that, when over-used in a novel, no matter how serious the subject matter, or how down-to-earth the story, all the characters come across like thirteen-year-olds embarking on an Enid Blyton adventure. Everything they say, from a normal ‘Hi!’ to an emphatic ‘Stop!’, is punctuated with an exclamation mark.

Nothing, consequently, has any emphasis to it at all, and everyone in the book needs to be heavily sedated.

Back in the Stone Age when I was in school, our teacher taught us that if everything is emphasized then nothing is. In 1926 (I did mention the Stone Age, didn’t I?), Henry Watson Fowler published ‘A Dictionary of Modern English Usage’, in which he says: “Except in poetry the exclamation mark should be used sparingly. Excessive use of exclamation marks in expository prose is a sure sign of an unpractised writer or of one who wants to add a spurious dash of sensation to something unsensational.”

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I agree with Fowler. The Chicago Manual of Style says this about exclamation marks: “An exclamation point (which should be used sparingly to be effective) marks an outcry or an emphatic or ironic comment.”

Unless all your characters are overly excited, habitually over-emphasize everything they say, or are chronically ironic, the exclamation mark should be conspicuously absent from your writing.

Spurious sensation is what it’s all about. As far as I’m concerned, using the exclamation mark is the equivalent of swearing, and I am beginning to reconsider the breath of fresh air in the ‘f**king’ clean manuscripts I’m getting!