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.


The Cocktail Bar That is India

There has been no dearth of times when I wished I could call myself a Maharashtrian or a Tamilian. Even Gujarati, Rajasthani, Bengali or Assamese would have done as well. Fate, and circumstances of birth, however, make this impossible.

Whenever anyone asks me, and I dread it when they do, where I am from, this is how the conversation usually flows.

The Inquisitive Behenji (IB): “So, where did you say you are from?”

Me: “I am from Chennai.”

IB: “Oh, so you speak Tamil at home?”

Me: “No. We speak Marathi at home.”

IB: “Then you are from Maharashtra!”

Me: “No, we live in Tamilnadu, but speak Marathi.”

IB: “But you speak Tamil so well that no one would believe you are not Tamil!”

While those who have heard my Marathi say “But that is not Marathi!” This is usually accompanied by a look that ranges from ridicule to sympathy to amusement.

In the three decades that I have been the resident of this planet, I have been through this conversation (more or less) many times with different people, and sometimes even with the same people again and again! At those times I often wonder, “Why did God choose me, of all people, to be a part of this complex linguistic and demographic equation?” OK, not just me, but the small group that constitutes my community—what did we do that made us so ‘special’?

Well, apparently our great forefathers weren’t satisfied with their sedentary (I am assuming!) life in the great land of Marathas, under the rule of the great Shivaji Maharaj. The Diwan of Tanjavur sent out a distress call that the Nayakar of Madurai was greedily eyeing his town, and off they went, marching down south from the mighty western frontiers, led by Ekoji, Shivaji’s half-brother. Trot, trot, trot, his horses tread the lands of southern India, reaching Arni, then ThiruMallepadi and finally Tanjore.

Now, once they declared a sweeping victory over their rival, the Nayakar of Madurai, one would have expected them to return from Tanjore, right? That’s what people do; come home after work, right? I think, however, that my forefathers are the inspiration behind our modern IT bachelors whose motto seems to be, “ghar jaa ke karna kya hai?” So they stayed behind and made Tanjore and the surrounding places their new home.

While this one act of bravado earned them a small slot in the pages of our history books, it did little to preserve our identity. The generous, openhearted and broadminded souls that my forefathers were, they soon embraced the culture of their new homeland, and happily mixed it with their own. They also mixed in some Kannada traditions, not to mention Telugu and even maybe Malayalam. The result? A heady cocktail of various South Indian customs and cultures and languages in a base of Marathi; a Marathi that no one even recognizes anymore.

Today my community follows a mixture of customs that no other community can recognize. Here is a sample of this wacky, tangy cocktail that is my community:

  • We are so completely Tamil that we cannot do without our rice, rasam and sambhar. By the way, sambhar is not originally from the South, did you know? It was us, the great Marathas who stayed behind in Tanjore, who invented the spicy dish.
  • But we are not completely Tamil either, since we also like our pitla, gojju, dangar (sounds like Tanker!) and kadhi a lot!
  • We decorate our houses with golu, the dolls exhibition, during the nine days of Navratri, just like the people in the south do.
  • But we will not celebrate Karadayan Nombu, for our ‘day-to-pray-for-hubby’ falls on the Amavasya of Ashada, and Tamil New Year is just a government holiday for us, for we, the ‘Grreatt Marratthhasss’, celebrate Gudipadava.
  • A sentence containing eight words, spoken by my granny, will have two Tamil and six Marathi words. A sentence of eight words spoken by my mother will mix four Tamil and four Marathi words. A sentence of eight words spoken by me, will have three English, three Tamil and two Marathi words.
  • We have this uncanny ability to curse the autowallah in Marathi when riding an auto in Chennai, and in Tamil when riding an auto in Pune.
  • When we are heatedly debating with a friend in Tamil, we will invariably drop in a Marathi word.

Every time these contradictions prop up, I have to give exhaustive explanations, with a growing feeling of ‘na idhar ka na udhar ka‘ inside my heart.

The ‘why me!’ feeling used to be quite intense until some time ago. I woke up to the fact, one day, that it was not just me, or my community that felt this way. I looked around and saw a Mallu from Delhi, born and brought up in Kolkata. A Telugu Brahmin so Chennaiized, that people in their native town in Andhra refused to respond to the language they spoke. A Punjabi, mouthing expletives freely and casually in Amchi mumbaiyya Marathi.

Looking at these examples I realize how unique a people we are. Ignoring politicians shouting their throats hoarse that ‘we are Indians’, the cocktails that the bar called India has to offer truly makes us ‘Indian’, sans community, sans religion, sans language.

And yet we spend so much of time defending and fighting each other on behalf of our communities.

It’s probably the bar effect; have you not heard of drunken bar fights at all?

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Download, share or listen online to Yamini Vijendran (author of Full Circle) talk about her journey to becoming an author.


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The Way to Love

To compare my first book with my first-born baby is a tad clichéd, I know. However, the similarity in both these experience is uncanny. They both started with a defined hope. They were both dependent on me for their first journeys. I was equally apprehensive about being able to take them to a logical end. Everything I breathed, ate or drank was done keeping in mind that I was responsible for them. So let it just be a cliché. Just this once.

The whole process of sketching out the story, its characters, defining their relationships to the plot and each other, engaging them in a dialogue, not just with each other but also a potential reader and weaving them into believable people is a journey that has changed my life tremendously. It’s different from writing an article or a blog. To write a book that has an identity and soul of its own is something I learnt only after taking it up. It is an all-consuming thing with a life of its own, and it will take over yours.

Am I complaining? NO. “Love will find a way” has helped me find the real meaning of life itself. As I started building the intricacies of human relationships between the three main characters of my novella, I realized I was drawing inspiration from the various relationships that I have or have had with people who have come and gone. Sometimes when you are in the present, you do not realize the other side of things that are happening with you. But this novella gave me an opportunity to build three fictional characters and, basing their behaviors on people I have known or heard about, I realized that there is so much I would like to go back in time and change.

My story is not about finding love. It is, in fact, about love finding you. It is about believing that love is not something you can give up on. It is not something you can move on from. If it is meant to be yours, it will happen to you, stay with you, guide you, take you in its fold and transform your life again and again.

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