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Journal

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.

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Journal

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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Journal

That Irresistible Journey

When the Return of the Jedi was released in 1983, we were a group of 27 people lining up in cinemas around Central London trying to get tickets. When we finally got in, we were blown away. We’d been waiting, you see, since 1980, to find out what happens to the rebel forces.

My brother and I had toy light sabers, the millennium falcon, x-wing fighters, and the force was strong within us (with two years between us, being Luke and Leia was no big issue). We made sure that our little sister, six years younger than me, loved the trilogy as much as we did.  When we moved to Pakistan, we gravitated towards Star Wars fans almost naturally.

In 1977, when the first movie came out, it was groundbreaking in terms of special effects, and memorable for its epic story. Over the years, however, I have constantly come across analyses and reviews that pick on the fact that the dialogue was simplistic, the plot was trite and predictable and the movies weren’t well made.

No doubt, they are right—but a generation of moviegoers has, nevertheless, immersed itself and their next generation in this legend. Becoming a Jedi was actually a life goal for many young children. Thirty years later, I still love the movies, the story, the characters (of the original movies, mind you—the subsequent movies should never have been made, in my opinion), and if I ever find a way to harness the Force, I will give up everything else and train to be a Jedi, for real.

Star Wars garnered its loyal fan base because it was simple, not in spite of it. The theme, good vs. evil, was complex in its own way (after all, Darth Vader eventually ended the reign of the emperor he served for so long), and the characters may have been unoriginal, but were still loved.

George Lucas was free, within a broad context, to layer his theme with sub-plots and an entire universe of new species and characters, but there were clearly the rebels in the white hats on one side, and the empire in the black hats on the other. Good was meant to triumph over evil.

These are universal themes, ungoverned by borders or religions, races or class. And they are eternal, like ‘Love will Prevail’.  The journey towards this theme will always vary—keeping in mind, for Indireads, the South Asian audience—but the destination won’t. Romance in literature has existed in some form or the other for centuries, and the destination hasn’t changed.

The goal is to make the journey so irresistible, so interesting, that the overarching theme is merely the satisfyingly expected ending. Your reader should be rooting for the cheesy finale, and they should be disappointed if it changes course.

If, for instance, Leia had rebuffed Han in the Star Wars trilogy, there would have been bloodshed. And that’s the bar—our audience has a wealth of stories embedded in their minds, and writers have to supersede old memories with new ones.

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A Thirteen-Year Dream Realized

Even as a kid, I absolutely loved the ‘lived happily ever after’ syndrome. I grew up reading all the fairy tales I could lay my hands on, Phantom comics, Mandrake comics and the like. It was always about good triumphing over evil and a happy end.

In my teens, I switched my attention from fairy tales to Mills & Boon. While I loved reading both of these, I always wondered what would have happened if there were similar situations happening in India; to a local hero and heroine. My imagination took flight and I have lived in a rosy cocoon of romance over the years.

Then came the writing—a true bolt out of the blue! I could barely string two sentences together when I was younger. While my spoken English had always been excellent—thanks to my grandfather—I could not write to save my life. I was bad at writing essays in both school and college. Later, when it was time to teach my kids, I could manage everything from science to mathematics and history & geography. When it came to writing compositions, my kids found me of no help at all.

All this changed suddenly one fine day in 2000. I had just quit my job at a school’s office and did not know what to do with my life. I was saturated with reading books. When I came home one evening after my walk, I took some sheets of paper and began writing. It was like I was watching a movie that was running in my head and I just had to put it into words. It was as simple as that and my first novel—The Malhotra Bride—was born.

It has taken me 13 years to get published. Being a commerce graduate with no writing background, I struggled to find a publisher—in India as well as abroad—who would show an interest in my novels. Yes, novels, in the plural. I have written a number of full-fledged novels that never got to see the light of day.

Then Rizwan Tufail and Naheed Hassan contacted me about writing a romance novella for Indireads.

And Double Jeopardy was born! As they say, the rest is history.

I have always been fascinated by the idea of identical twins. While we have a number of Bollywood films that portray twins who were separated in childhood finding each other as adults, I had been toying with the idea of twins growing up together—physically identical men with different characters.

This thought process gave birth to Arth and Ansh Sharma. There is only one heroine—Sanya. She can’t be in love with both the guys. My book begins with Sanya being fascinated with her childhood crush Arth, but being physically attracted to the hot and sexy Ansh. She feels torn between the two guys. Arth’s memory insists that she remain loyal to him while Ansh’s physical pull makes her forget the very existence of Arth. Who will Sanya settle with forms the rest of the story.

Mumbai is a metropolis where you will find both kinds of people—conservative as well as liberal. I have lived in Mumbai for more than 28 years. I felt this urban set-up is just perfect for a family with a modern outlook. Ratna and Shantanu Sharma—the twins’ parents—are extremely easy-going people who follow the maxim of ‘live and let live’. This is obviously the best place for the confused Sanya to find herself.

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Journal News & Events

Let’s Be Friends…Again!

Pakistan!

One word capable of invoking so much inside me and my compatriots.  Every time a soldier on the LoC dies—we hate Pakistan. Every time they ban our film—we pity Pakistan. Every time one of their artistes moves us with his/her creativity—we wish he had chosen India to live in. Every time their politician says rot about us—we curse him. Most of us can attribute these feelings to everything we have heard the news presenters say or have read in our newspapers.

So, in a nutshell, it’s a bitter-sweet relationship jo nibhaya bhi na jaaye or nibhaaye bina raha bhi na jaaye (can’t live with ’em, can’t live without them!).

I have had a different relationship with them. I have a strong opinion on everything that is political in nature but somewhere I had this crazy urge to see someone who lives in Pakistan from close. In my head I always wondered, how a normal person lives there? As in do they also wear nightsuits while sleeping? Do they eat out in restaurants and look at each other as to how much they should tip? Do they watch movies like we do in multiplexes and buy a bucket of popcorn in the interval? Do they walk on a busy street against the traffic or with it? Do they have bad hair days? Do they also crib about Monday blues? Yeah I know it sounds utterly obnoxious but I am like this for most of my fascinations (I have just two more—Celebrities and Times Square).

I guess if I had studied somewhere abroad, all these seemingly stupid enchantments would have been satisfied long ago. That didn’t happen and I built imaginary walls in my head which had its own notions of them being inaccessible and almost—aliens.

My first published work gave me a lot of things. But I never imagined it would give me a gateway to personal relationships with Pakistanis. My publisher is one and every time she called (although she lives in Canada), I would get butterflies in my stomach that I am about to hear a—”Hi Parul”—from a Pakistani. That definitely confirmed one thing—they address me like any other person from any other nationality would! Then came into existence a closed group on Facebook where all the authors were added. I could see a lot of names there which had Karachi/Islamabad/Lahore written underneath them. That was just too much excitement. And then came the real surprise! I got a ‘friend request’ from one of them. The world called Pakistan opened up in front of me. In pictures I saw, they have the same beds or sofas or parks or streets like I have in Delhi. And then I kept adding all the authors who kept sending requests. And now, I post a picture—they can see it. They write a status on their day-to-day life—I can read it! How cool is that?

The story that I have written for the Love Across Borders Anthology is really the culmination of my interactions this past year and a tribute to knowing the human side of Pakistan, who, I am now sure, aren’t two-headed monsters.

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Journal

My Journey to ‘The Perfect Groom’

My journey to The Perfect Groom began on a lazy afternoon when I got an enthusiastic phone call from a distant relative. Her daughter’s marriage had been arranged and she gushed on about how good the groom was, how rich his family was and how happy she felt that her daughter was going to be in the US.

I congratulated her and made polite conversation for a while. For some reason, her conversation kept playing on my mind all through the day. ‘He is such a perfect groom’, ‘He is all that I wanted for my daughter’, ‘His family is rich and he is the only son’. And I was reminded of an anecdote that an old friend of mine told me about a girl, almost a decade ago.

That was when I got the idea to write a story about that unknown ‘girl’. I had no details about her except for what had happened in her life. But I instinctively knew that she was bold, caring, broad-minded and yet innocent and naive. And my heroine Nithya arrived on my pages. I am sure that Nithya’s perilous journey through love and relationship will capture the reader’s heart and hold it.

I do not know what happened to the girl whose anecdote inspired me to write this novella. Hopeless romantic that I am, I wish with all my heart that she found a man like Vasu to share her life with.

P.S.  A special thanks to my friend Anupama who shared that anecdote with me all those years ago.

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Sumeetha’s Journey to The Perfect Groom

Sumeetha Manikandan tells us how she came up with the story for The Perfect Groom in this brief audio clip.

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The Making of ‘Unsettled’

Knock, knock, who’s there?

I am not a paranormal sort of person, so one day when a Yakshi, a female predator with her vampire aspect and white sari, her eyes that drink and siren voice knocked at the door in my head, I was surprised.

It made me sit up and take notice.

She sat down beside me as I wrote and showed me the lush green place where she lived. She led me through the rooms of the hundred-room house and she confessed that she was angry, with reason. After all, she is a woman and her grievances are real.

She told me to start looking at who I was. So I did. I come from a place with heritage written all over it. She was saying, See. That’s where I live! The hundred-room house. But of course! It was a large house that stood out on the path  I passed it a million times as I came walking home.

Now you may live in a place your entire life but it’s when you start writing that the place acquires a voice.

Two and two equals five

When I started writing this novella, past conversations came to me in a rush like audio clips—a grand-uncle who talked about a scholar poet who visited the village five centuries ago; ghost stories that my maternal family shared with me; poems I read aloud when it rained outside.

It seems very romantic, but it isn’t really. Writing about an unsettled character can unsettle you as well, and to etch the Yakshi’s character I fell back on many of the mad women in the attic, misunderstood characters I so loved and understood. Thathri the Yakshi is beautiful, yet so tragic, almost Plath-like in the way she is trapped in the bell-jar of her memory. Thathri needed to be heard.

Like so many women she was demonized—a mad woman lingering in a tree, a tree spirit with allure and deceit branded on her every elegant gesture. She urged me to tell her side of it.

So I wrote the story in a month.  I sat on it for a while, and then rewrote parts. The challenge  was writing the story across different time spans. That’s when it struck me that time doesn’t really change much—Divya suffers in the here and now and the Yakshi yearns over centuries. There seemed to be something timeless about this business of yearning and hoping for love.

The only thing that could save them both was the Scrolls of Love or poetry.

The journey to the scrolls

This book is not all female wizardry. In fact, it is my homage to poetry. A verse strewn on one page and another gives the text a kind of embroidered feel. The texture of love is the same—it permeates everything and yet it is so hard to define.

When the court poet in ‘Unsettled’ began his verse, the flow of the novella started for me. It’s when the voice of the character rings in your head that you know you are going in the right direction. The poems in the Scrolls were branded in Thathri’s mind and writing those lines is what I enjoyed the most on my journey with this book.

The Scrolls of Love are yours to find—they exist within. All you have to do is take a chance and read. Think outside genre, outside the convention. Just go read ‘Unsettled’ and see love and writing with new eyes.

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Growing up in a ‘Haveli’

The title of Haveli comes from my ancestral home, my grandfather’s haveli, which still stands in Mian Mir, near Upper Mall, in Lahore and though it’s no longer the way it used to be when we lived there, it’s still a poignant reminder of those halcyon childhood days. Bi Amma is inspired by my fabulous autocratic grandmother.

bi-amma-zmThe story of Bi Amma and her granddaughter, the last reminders of a by-gone age, germinated in part when I visited Bahawalpur two years ago. Bahawalpur is also a Nawab State which ceded to Pakistan in 1957. The last Nawab of Bahawlpur, Sir Sadiq, is still revered in the area. People are loyal to his memory though he’s been dead for nearly two decades. I visited the palaces and was fascinated by the craftsmanship in architecture, masonry and design. There is so much beauty that is still evident in the landmarks of the city. I patterned the fictional Jalalabad on Bahawalpur, which rests at the lip of Cholistan. The grandeur of the desert, the music and poetry of the place and its people was just so enchanting that I felt compelled to write a story around this little-known bit of history and culture of Pakistan.

Initially, I did not conceive Chandni the way she appears now in Haveli. At first, she was more mature, more introverted and intellectual. There were also several other sub-plots that I haven’t inscribed in this novella because when I started writing Haveli, from the first words, C. took over. I’d always envisaged her with green eyes and extraordinarily beautiful and that stayed—it’s a magical, romantic world after all and everyone is beautiful—and that’s the only resemblance she has to the first conception of Chandni. But as my fingers flew over the keyboard and C. emerged, the old and new versions of this story, parts of which I’d lived with for years, combined. I finished Haveli in a week. The finished version is very much like the first draft. I cannot say that about any of my other novellas yet. I’ve done several revisions with the others—even the ones that are not yet published—but I find it hard to give up editing.

But there was very little I could, or wanted to, change in Haveli. It’s a world that wrote itself. I hope that as you read it, you feel the magic that helped me bring it to life and I’ve given my readers a glimpse into another side of Pakistan.

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Journal

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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