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Freedom to live life on our own terms

How many times have you stopped at a traffic signal and turned your face away from the hijra who stood outside your car window asking for money? Wasn’t it pure loathing that you felt? Wasn’t it worse than what you normally feel when a beggar woman with a child does the same? Why? I’ll tell you why. You abhorred the eunuch because you couldn’t identify with her sex. You thought of her as a strange, detestable creature, perhaps a criminal and definitely sub-human.

I am one of them. All my life people have called me hijra, brihannala, napungshak, khoja, launda . . . and I have lived these years knowing that I am an outcast. Did it pain me? It maimed me. But time, to use a cliché, is the biggest healer. The adage worked a little differently in my case. The pain remains but the ache has dulled with time. It visits me in my loneliest hours, when I come face to face with the question of my existential reality. Who am I and why was I born a woman trapped in a man’s body? What is my destiny?

Beneath my colourful exterior lies a curled up, bruised individual that yearns for freedom—freedom to live life on her own terms and freedom to come across as the person she is. Acceptance is what I seek. My tough exterior and nonchalance is an armour that I have learnt to wear to protect my vulnerability. Today, through my good fate, I have achieved a rare success that is generally not destined to my lot. But what if my trajectory had been different? I keep telling myself that this is my time under the sun, my time to feel happy, but something deep inside warns me. My inner voice tells me that the fame and celebration that I see all around is maya (illusion) and I should accept all this adulation with the detachment of a sanyasi (hermit).

The first ever transgender to become a college principal is a rare feat, the media has proclaimed. My phones have not stopped ringing since, and invitations to felicitations have not ceased to pile up on my desk. I would love to believe that those who fete me also accept me as I am, but how can I ignore the sniggers, the sneers and the smirks that they try to hide but fail? For them I am just another excuse to watch a tamasha (spectacle), and who doesn’t want some free fun at someone else’s expense?
Hurt and anger are two emotions that I have learnt to suppress and let go. It is part of the immunity package that I am insured under. I have finally accepted the fact that my achievements have no bearing on the people around me. They still think I am sexless between my legs and that is my only identity. That I also have a right to have emotions is an idea that is still completely foreign to most. I don’t blame them. I blame myself for not being able to ignore such pain. I should have long stopped bothering about them.

It is not that I have not had my share of love in all my fifty-one years of life. They were good while they lasted. I have had major heartbreaks too, but each time I learnt a new lesson. I have loved well and deeply, and I hope my partners, wherever they are now, would silently remember that bit about me. It’s another matter that relationships don’t seem to work for me. Those who have loved me have always left me, and each time I have lost a piece of me to them.
Memories rush back as I sit down to write my story. I write with the belief that it would help society understand people like me better. We are slightly different outwardly, but we are humans just as you are and have the same needs—physical and emotional—just as you have.



A diving holiday, disturbing discovery, and kidnapping

Far out in the Arabian Sea, where the waters plunge many thousands of metres to the ocean floor, lies a chain of bewitching coral atolls – the Lakshadweep Islands. Vikram and Aditya dive into lagoons with crystal-clear water and reefs that are deep and shrouded in mystery. But when they stumble upon a devious kidnapping plot, their idyllic holiday turns into a desperate struggle for survival.

Here is an excerpt from Deepak Dalal’s new book, Lakshadweep Adventure where Faisal – the boy who’s care Vikram and Aditya are left in – makes a disturbing discovery.

Front Cover A Vikram–Aditya Story: Lakshadweep Adventure
A Vikram–Aditya Story: Lakshadweep Adventure

Faisal was in a bad mood. His uncle’s impending arrival hovered like a dark cloud above him. And his friends’ decision to abandon him for the day only made things worse.

Faisal had noticed the wind the moment he had strolled out on to the beach, and his mood had soured even further when he saw his friends enjoying themselves. He wished he had accepted Aditya’s offer as he watched them speed their boards across the lagoon. But it was too late now. His uncle would be arriving shortly.

Faisal sat under a palm tree. He passed time drawing figures in the sand. Above him, palm fronds shook and fluttered as the wind whistled through them. The sun shone brightly. The sand intensified its glare, forcing Faisal to shut his eyes. It was pleasant under the tree and the wind was crisp and enjoyable. The rustling of the palms overhead soothed him and he soon fell asleep.

The tide slowly crept up the beach and finally washed over Faisal’s feet, waking him with a start. He looked at his watch, muttering softly to himself. It was past midday.

Basheer uncle would have arrived by now. He dusted sand from his clothes and rose hurriedly to his feet.

Faisal heard raised voices from the living room window when he entered the yard. He crept forward till he was below the window and peeped in.

His uncle was standing in the centre of the room, facing a group of men.

Basheer Koya was a copy of Faisal’s father, except that he was fatter and there was hardly any hair on his head. But unlike his brother, whose manner was calm and collected, Basheer Koya’s face was contorted with rage. His cheeks were dark and red and he was shouting like a man possessed.

‘Fools!’ thundered Basheer Koya in Malayalam. ‘Monkeys have more brains than you lot. Idiots. I thought you had ears. But obviously you don’t. You weren’t to set foot in Kalpeni. How many times did I tell you not to come here? Yet, not only do you come to the island, but even more brainlessly, you visit my home.’

A bearded man with big, wide shoulders spoke. ‘Sir,’ he began. ‘Sir—’

Basheer Koya ranted on, cutting off the man. ‘I travelled all the way to Kochi to make certain that no suspicion fell on me and I returned only after the operation was over. And you? I come home and see you fools sitting in my house. I take all these precautions and now everyone on this island can link me to you and from there to the operation.’

‘But, sir—’

‘You were under orders to head to Tinakara Island. What are you doing here?’

‘Sir. I was trying to explain just that, sir. We were headed for Tinakara. But we had engine trouble, sir. A terrible rattling noise came from the engine and we were forced to head for the nearest island. You can speak to the mechanic, sir. He looked at our boat and said we were lucky to make it here to Kalpeni.’

The explanation diminished Basheer Koya’s rage, yet he continued to glare at the bearded man. ‘Kumar. Where is Kumar?’ he barked.

‘Kumar is safely on board, sir. There’s no need to worry about him. He is in the lower cabin and one of our men is with him all the time. He can’t make a sound or do anything. He won’t be able to alert the mechanics.’

Faisal froze. This was not for his ears. It was wrong of him to eavesdrop. He wondered if he should leave, but who was Kumar and what was his uncle up to?

‘No one is to know that we have a prisoner on board,’ growled Basheer Koya. ‘Even Allah will not be able to help you if he is discovered. I make no allowances for mistakes.’ Basheer Koya stared at his men, shifting his gaze from one to the other. ‘Do you understand?’

There was silence in the room.

Faisal understood full well what his uncle meant. He shuddered.


Journey through these breath-taking islands with a tale of scuba diving and sabotage, set in one of India’s most splendid destinations.

The Absence of Adolescence

Writer – politician Muthuvel Karunanidhi is amongst the most important political leaders India has ever seen. In Karunanidhi: A Life, author A.S. Panneerselvan tells the story of the man who became a metaphor for modern Tamil Nadu, where language, empowerment, self-respect, art, literary forms and films coalesced to lend a unique vibrancy to politics.

Here is an excerpt from the chapter titled, The Absence of Adolescence.

Karunanidhi A Life || A.S. Panneerselvan


Like many underprivileged children, karunanidhi’s life moved straight to adulthood from childhood, bypassing the phase of indulgent adolescence. The politicization that began with the anti-Hindi agitation and exposure to the literature of the Self- Respect Movement propelled karunanidhi into becoming an activist right from his days in the second form. The police excesses and the custodial deaths of two anti-Hindi agitators, Thalamuthu and natarajan, had a profound impact on the young karunanidhi.


The late 1930s witnessed varied crises for all the political players: the imperial government was getting ready for the Second World War; the great Depression and its fallout was taking its toll; Mahatma gandhi’s supremacy was challenged within the Congress by the election of Subhas Chandra Bose as the party president for the second time; and the Left was emerging as a distinct political force with its leaders gaining a hold over decision-making in both the Congress as well as other popular fronts. There was also a shift in Dravidian politics with the leadership moving from the wealthy section among the non-Brahmins to Periyar and Annadurai.


The twists and turns of the Left’s mobilization need elaboration in order to understand how, despite its revolutionary aura, karunanidhi remained with the Dravidian Movement’s social reform agenda. in his essay, in the January–March 1984 issue of The Marxist, E.M.S. namboodiripad points out that when the Congress Socialist Party was formed in 1934, the Communist Party of india initially branded it as Social Fascist. With the Comintern’s change of policy towards the politics of the Popular Front, the indian communists’ relationship to the inC witnessed a reversal. The communists joined the Congress Socialist Party (CSP), which worked as the left wing of the Congress. Once they had joined, the Communist Party of india (CPi) accepted the CSP demand for the Constituent Assembly, which it had denounced two years before.1


in July 1937, the first kerala unit of the CPi was founded at a clandestine meeting in Calicut. The five persons present at the meeting were E.M.S. namboodiripad, krishna Pillai, n.C. Sekhar, k. Damodaran and S.V. ghate. The first four were members of the CSP in kerala; ghate was a CPi Central Committee member, who had come from Madras. Contacts between the CSP in kerala and the CPi had begun in 1935, when P. Sundarayya (Central Committee member of CPi, based in Madras at the time) met with EMS and krishna Pillai. Sundarayya and ghate visited kerala several times and met with the CSP leaders there. The contacts were facilitated through the national meetings of the Congress, CSP and All india kisan Sabha.


in 1936–1937, the cooperation between socialists and communists reached its peak. At the second congress of the CSP, held in Meerut in January 1936, a thesis was adopted which declared that there was a need to build ‘a united indian Socialist Party based on Marxism-Leninism’. in kerala the communists won control over the CSP, and for a brief period controlled the Congress there.2


While the Congress in kerala had a distinct leftward tilt, in Tamil nadu it was virtually under the conservative leadership of stalwarts such as C. Rajagopalachari and S. Satyamurti.


Thiruvarur became a microcosm of the play of these multiple forces. Smitten by Periyar’s radicalism and Annadurai’s eloquence, karunanidhi began devouring the entire oeuvre of Dravidian literature. Periyar had already published the Tamil version of The Communist Manifesto in 1937; a number of serious political publications were being published from various parts of the state. Periyar’s Kudiarasu (The Republic) was the key vehicle for dissemination as well as articulating new ideas and planning political mobilization towards an egalitarian society.3


While Muthuvelar and Anjugam were rejoicing at their son’s tireless learning, little did they realize what he was reading about. Textbooks were last on karunanidhi’s reading list. The extensive literature in politics was revelatory for young karunanidhi. For the first time, he realized that he too had two priceless possessions—his oratory and his pen. His first public speech was a clear pointer. it was a school competition. And karunanidhi decided to make a mark. He looked at some of the redeeming features of the so-called villains within Hindu mythology. karunanidhi spoke at length about the friendship between karna and Duryodhana—a friendship that cut across both caste and class.


The speech was well-received, and the teachers developed a new respect for their wayward student. But, what they did not know was the effort that went behind this oratory. karunanidhi worked on the text of the speech for nearly a week; rehearsed the speech frequently before the mirror; changed the words, similes and metaphors to get the rhythm that would alter the art of public speaking in Tamil forever.


He also created his own publication—Maanavanesan (Friend of students). A handwritten fortnightly of eight pages in demy size that dealt with a range of issues—from questioning orthodoxy to exploring the poetics of early Tamil. He and his friends would make about fifty copies of the magazine and circulate it for a modest fee that managed to just cover the cost of the paper. Years later, when i met him at Murasoli along with Kungumam editor Paavai Chandran for a short interview for the Illustrated Weekly of India, karunanidhi said the handwritten journal was a great learning experience. ‘We could not afford to make any spelling mistakes or grammatical errors. A single mistake meant rewriting fifty copies. The sheer labour of correcting made me write a very clean first draft, without any corrections or overwriting,’ he recalled. He also took pains to mail a copy of the magazine to the leaders of the Self-Respect Movement.


But not all of karunanidhi’s icons were happy with the handwritten magazine. Bharathidasan, the well-known poet and a life-long supporter of the Dravidian Movement and karunanidhi, called it a waste of time and effort. He told karunanidhi: ‘The madness of expecting changes from handwritten publications can only be compared to the madness in thinking that development will happen due to spinning charkhas.’


Muthuvel Karunanidhi was ardent as a social reformer and unrelenting as an opposition leader. To read more about him, his life and his work, get your copy of Karunanidhi: A Life.

Devika Rangachari: On research, favourite books and potatoes

It is not for nothing that Devika Rangachari’s new book is called Queen of Earth; we have been conquered completely by this wonderful historical narrative. Rangachari’s research is urgent and important, and has given us a book that is poignant and inspiring in equal parts. We had a chat with the author and it was delightful.


Since you are a historian by training, was there something specific that led you to choose Prithvimahadevi as the protagonist for Queen of Earth?


Prithvimahadevi and her rule over the Bhaumakara dynasty in the ninth century CE formed part of my post-doctoral research on gender in early medieval Odisha. It was an extension of my doctoral research whose underlying essence was the manner in which women have been made practically invisible in the historical record due to an existing gender bias. The silences pertaining to Prithvimahadevi in the annals of the Bhaumakaras were intriguing given that the records of her family, the Somavamshis, indicate that she held her own over this rival dynasty for a period of time. The content of the inscriptions that she issued also contains clues to her political sagacity and shrewdness.

Most historians, on the other hand, in keeping with the ubiquitous gender bias that governs the writing of history, tend to ignore Prithvimahadevi’s rule or dismiss it in a few grudging sentences, implying that her rule precipitated the downfall of the Bhaumakaras. Her story and the manner in which she has been viewed in later ages formed an immediate and striking parallel with Didda, the protagonist of my earlier work, Queen of Ice, who has been similarly vilified for being a strong and ambitious woman. It was for these reasons that I chose Prithvimahadevi as the protagonist of Queen of Earth. The story of this remarkable woman deserves to be more widely-known.


Gender-sensitivity is such an important qualifier for a genre like historical fiction for instance. What drove you to write these books for children?


The manner in which history is taught in schools only serves to deepen the gender bias that exists in the writing of past narratives. Textbooks continually underline the apparent irrelevance of women to the historical record by only focusing on what clothes or jewellery they wore and being arbitrary in their selection of names to include in the historical sequence. As a result, the overwhelming impression conveyed is of the men always being at the centre-stage of the polity, society and economy in the past, driving all the action and doing the things that mattered, while the women stayed indoors obsessing over what to wear.

This, as a gender historian like me knows, flies in the face of actual evidence. Original sources, such as texts, inscriptions and coins, reveal the palpable—and often powerful— presence that women had in all stages of history and it is very important to acknowledge this if we are to understand the past at all. Gender-sensitive historical fiction would go a long way in correcting this lopsided historical record—and this is the reason I wrote Queen of Ice and Queen of Earth, featuring strong women characters who left a mark on history but who have been virtually erased from it, legitimate parts of their collective past that children would probably never get to know about.

front cover of Queen of Earth
Queen of Earth || Devika Rangachari
Who were your favourite writers growing up?


That is a rather tough question to answer! I read voraciously—anything and everything I could lay my hands on—so I had a very long list of favourite writers when I was growing up. To add to that, my school librarian realised that I was an advanced reader at a very early stage and challenged me with books that were way beyond my age range, so I discovered some wonderful writers through her, too. I loved Enid Blyton, of course, but not her most popular stories, such as her Famous Five series. Instead, I preferred her standalone books, such as The Six Bad Boys, The Family at Red-roofs and The Put-em-rights. I also loved Elinor M. Brent-Dyer’s riveting Chalet School series about a school that started in the Austrian Tyrol and then moved to Guernsey and, subsequently, Switzerland. As I grew older, I added P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer, Mary Stewart and A.J. Cronin to my list of favourites.


What are your 3 desert island reads?


Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart, Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman and The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse. And a million others that I want to mention!


Do any of your characters resemble people you know in real life?


My early school stories regularly featured characters based on me and my friends. However, as my focus is on historical fiction now, my acquaintance with my characters is only through research. It must be noted, though, that Didda and Prithvimahadevi, the protagonists of my latest books, are very relatable people whose dreams, motives and actions have familiar resonances.


We hear you’re a potato fan. What is your favourite way to eat potatoes– fried, mashed, roasted, something completely different?


Fried, mashed, roasted, boiled, baked—all forms of the potato are delicious—and eminently welcome. Wondering about potato ice-cream but not sure it’s a good idea!


Picture of Devika Rangachari
Devika Rangachari


We also hear you’re fond of libraries. Do you have a favourite one, or is there a library you haven’t yet visited and want to?


The British Council Library in Delhi and the Dr. B.C. Roy Memorial Children’s Reading Room and Library, also in Delhi, are my favourites. The place I most want to visit, though, isn’t a library but a museum and visitor centre dedicated to children’s literature—Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Not only does it curate its own exhibitions of the best children’s books, including original manuscripts and illustrations, but it also hosts workshops, seminars and author and illustrator visits throughout the year. I think I could live there perfectly well!

Do you have a writing routine? Is there a specific time of the day for example when you are most productive or get the most writing done? Or is your work pattern more flexible?


I am more a reader than a writer, so I could spend the entire day quite happily between the pages of a book. However, deadlines have an unnerving habit of looming, so that is when I write and then usually in the morning for a couple of hours. I do it fairly fast with very few drafts, so the entire process doesn’t take too long. Mine is a rather flexible work pattern!


If you could meet one author, dead or alive, who would you meet and why?


I can’t really choose! I would probably keep an entire day for meeting my favourite authors, scheduling different time slots for them and being in a joyous trance all through. There is so much I want to know from them—their motives for writing particular stories, the manner in which they honed their craft, their favourite writers and so on. If I had to choose, though, I would like to meet P.G. Wodehouse for his masterful blending of humour and language, and Hilary Mantel for her exquisite retellings of history.

~ We agree with you 100% Devika. Especially about the potatoes. ~

Get to know your author – A factual glimpse into Bilal Siddiqi

Bilal Siddiqi, a shining star among the young authors has authored four novels. His fifth – The Phoenix – is an exciting new release, hot off the press and will transport you into a world of secret missions, uncertain loyalties and retribution.

Siddiqi is a fan of the world of espionage and thrillers. His novel The Bard of Blood has been adapted into a Netflix series.


Upon the release of his new book, we bring you some fascinating facts about the dazzling author who has brought us one nail-biter after another.


1. His first novel was called The Bard of Blood, which he wrote he was 19 years old. It was published when he was 20.


2. It wasn’t only James Bond, Robert Ludlum and Fredrick Forsyth that drew him to the genre of the spy thriller. His interest in studying the patterns of religious conflict and the roots of extremism drove him to write The Bard of Blood


3. He is an avid reader, and loves fiction.


4. Not only did Bollywood actor Emraan Hashmi star in the Netflix adaptation of The Bard of Blood but he also co-authored The Kiss of Life with Siddiqi (bet you didn’t know this one!)


5. Siddiqi enjoyed reading Shakespeare in college.


6. The first and only advance copy that Penguin India gave Siddiqi was presented to him by Shah Rukh Khan.


7. Siddiqi is not bound by genre. He likes to write in different styles. The Bard of Blood was a spy thriller, The Kiss of Life a biography, The Stardust Affair a romantic thriller, and The Pheonix is a fast-paced thriller.


8. He considers author Hussain Zaidi his mentor. He started working with Zaidi after Zaidi had asked for 10 volunteers to help him with research for his novel Mumbai Avengers in 2014. Siddiqi was shortlisted.


Siddiqi says he started writing his novel but getting published was not his goal. He was writing for himself, so that years later, he would have something to look back upon as a piece of himself from the past. Well, he did get published. And the rest is history.


[The Phoenix is out now.  Get your copy today!]

5 Times Ruskin Bond Made Us Fall in Love with Poems – All Over Again!

Ruskin Bond’s literary career started with his much loved first novel, The Room on the Roof, written when he was only seventeen. It went on to win the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize in 1957. Since then there has been no looking back! He has written several novellas, over 500 short stories and articles, essays, poems and children’s books. He was also awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1993 and the Padma Shri in 1999. He now lives in Landour, Mussoorie, with his adopted family.
On the birthday of this absolutely adored author of Indian literature (by both adults and children alike), we shall take a walk through his beautiful poetry that could only be woven by this genius.


Writing We That Are Young by Preti Taneja

Preti Taneja was born and grew up in the UK. She teaches writing in prisons and universities, and has worked with youth charities and in conflict and post conflict zones on minority and cultural rights.  She is the co-founder of ERA Films, and of Visual Verse, the anthology of art and words. We That Are Young is her debut novel. It has been longlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize and the Jhalak Prize, and shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize.

I arrived in New Delhi in January 2012, carrying my battered copy of Shakespeare’s King Lear and 300 A4 pages of double spaced text: the first drafts of Jivan and Gargi, and half of the Radha sections of something called We That Are Young. The writing wasn’t wonderful, I remember feeling that. It was hard to capture the different voices of my characters from London. I worked a lot in my local library. I felt like a ‘writer’ there, or at least, one in training. But I wasn’t really convincing myself on the page. Shakespeare’s language and plot were a magnetic puzzle – I wanted to work with them but not give in to them. The book had to stand on its own terms.
We That Are Young was never going to be a realist novel if it was to cleave to an epic play that is set in a no-place, a no-time. I wanted the book to be a dark carnival, hyper-real, with a polyphonic structure and modernist sensibility in the lines. India as a setting can handle elements of the real and the mythological, the psychoanalytical tradition of the West and a circular sense of time in ways other settings can’t. Yes, I had high hopes – but working from books and memory in England, it read like the first draft it clearly was.
The stakes were high: I had lost my mother to cancer when I was 28. I cared for her, for almost eight years with my family, till she died. What should I do with the inheritance she left me? It included courage, an example of sacrifice and risk-taking, as well as the security she had worked all her life to leave me. Two years after, I had got a job I loved, reporting on minority rights abuses for an NGO. I had the chance to travel and met people who trusted me with their stories. All of us sharply aware of the gulf between those who have freedom of movement, freedom of speech and those who do not, and the responsibilities that brings. I had a regular sandwich and coffee order in a nearby café. I commuted against the tide of city bankers streaming out of Liverpool Street station. Then I turned 30, and I still wasn’t doing the thing I had said I wanted to do all my life. Write fiction. I knew something had to change.
I enrolled on a night-class on the far side of the city, reached via the stopping Circle Line, East to West. I got a portfolio of stories together, and applied for a part-time Master’s in Creative Writing, which I could study for around my job. Two years later, I got my degree. I knew I wanted to carry on teaching and writing. I handed in my notice at work. The next day the email came: I had won full funding for a PhD. To work on We That Are Young.
Four months in, and that same instinct to jump made me pack up my life. I found a place to rent in Delhi via endless online searches, and paid the deposit without actually seeing it first. Then I told my Delhi family and friends that I was coming to write a book based on Shakespeare, set in India and was going to live in a rental for as long as I could afford it. ‘Whatever,’ they said. ‘Just come.’
I rediscovered my second city, the place I’ve been coming to since I was a child, on new terms. There was a fermenting energy; there was creativity; there was so much rage. There were important books I could not get in the UK about Indian politics, men’s fashion, women’s rights. I kept notebooks – there ended up being 15 in total – and made daily cuttings from national newspapers and magazines. Journalistic training learned crossing borders and working in different parts of the world and (in an early, misguided incarnation) as a very junior financial reporter now got me into the back kitchens of hotels, expensive parties, the outskirts of the city. Everyone wanted to tell me about what was wrong with India. Corruption, inequality, misogyny, ‘tradition,’ pollution, caste, expansion, city planning, waste, child abuse, the building of the metro, politics, safety. There was also a forward momentum among certain classes and in the media: long held injustices were being highlighted; new possibilities for equality were being claimed. So many people I met were working, had been working for years for this.
I would write every day. The rest of Radha, all of Jeet and most of Sita was drafted as the heat became brighter. Against family advice I travelled to Goa in April. I got sick from the humidity and had to come back early. And then, finally I went to Srinagar. A person I will never be able to thank enough, took me, silent and wrapped in shawls, into parts of the city he said that even most Srinagar people don’t go to. He introduced me to artisans, traders, chefs who talked to me about their work, and their daily routines, their hopes for their children. I stopped writing and just listened. I celebrated my 35th birthday with my partner on a houseboat overlooking the Dal: the stay was a gift from my godmother, my mother’s dearest friend.
I don’t believe writers think about their own process – how, when, what with – until they are asked to. For me, there were some simple imperatives. I was 35. I had taken a pay cut and tried to make a career change. I had to finish the book, get it published, and from that, apply for teaching jobs, perhaps write the next thing – that was the plan. Finishing became a kind of obsession, driven by the PhD submission deadline, funding running out, the need to sell the novel and seek paid work. With the 15 notebooks, press cuttings and a stack of other people’s novels and non-fiction from across India and the diaspora, I returned to my childhood home in June 2012. One more house move, and I finished the first full draft of my manuscript by December. Then my agent sent it out and I submitted my PhD.
I got the PhD. But, We That Are Young found no favour with London or Delhi publishing. The editors said, ‘ambitious,’ ‘clever,’ ‘brilliant idea’ and ‘powerful.’ There was, ‘too close to the bone’ and variations on, ‘Shakespeare? Really?’ Everyone, I mean, everyone said, ‘no.’
I could still research and teach, I thought. I could try for an academic career, if fiction was not to be. I began to focus on that. But writing We That Are Young was like being possessed by five crazy characters: they would not leave me alone. I had to keep working on the book. I believed that the India I had seen, and the way people told me it was changing, the way the world was changing, had to be expressed in fiction, now, and I still wanted to try to do it. When I started the novel, there was no Trump, no Brexit. It was the dog days of Congress in India. It was before a brutal rape on a Delhi bus became world news. But anyone really looking could see what was coming. The rise of the right-wing in different parts of the world. Wave after wave of protests against corruption, war, and for social justice were taking place. There was Rhodes Must Fall, and calls for the decolonisation of public spaces and curricula. People were documenting it via film and non-fiction. Some fiction writers were also getting through.
When I finally sold the fourth complete draft of my manuscript to the UK independent publisher Galley Beggar Press, it was January 2016.
There’s a lot more to this story, including the people close to me, who wouldn’t let me give up on my endless editing. One round of which was done on a rainy holiday in Wales, where I sat in my Tshirt, with my laptop in the hotel bath, pulling an all-nighter while my long-suffering partner slept next door. That was the version before Galley Beggar said yes. Then there was even more editing, intricate line stuff – it was thrilling but exhausting for all of us, and it went to the wire – it was finished just 10 days before the book actually became a real object in a warehouse, waiting to go out.
Writing is hard, editing is hard. It all feels less like creation, more like excavation. I often read as I write – returning to find segments of non-fiction that feed my stories, or fragments of poetry and other peoples’ writing – the kind that makes me work even harder at my own. We That Are Young is now in the bookshops and online, on people’s shelves and TBR piles, maybe in their bathrooms or beach bags. In India, its beautiful Penguin Random House hand-painted cover suggests water, hair, mehndi, bloodlines. My five crazy characters are partying without me – I saw them in the airport bookshop in Kolkata, in Delhi, Jaipur, in Bangalore; people send me pictures of them in Glasgow, Oxford, Norwich and Mumbai. They are talked about on YouTube and in blogs, just as they are in the world of the book. It’s meta. As Radha might say.
We That Are Young ends with a beginning, placing whatever might come next in the reader’s hands. Since I finished it, real world events, some positive – the #metoo and #TimesUp campaigns, the steps towards decriminalising gay sex (again), ongoing protests against child rape; some horrific – including those headline cases of sexual violence, water running out in cities, toxic smog, the rise of the religious right and its fascist ideology, go on:  ‘machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders…’ as Gloucester puts it, in King Lear.
Meanwhile, I am meant to be working on the next thing. I don’t know much about that, but I know the process won’t change. It will start with reading. It always has.
Author Portrait: Rory O’Bryen

In Conversation with Kim Wagner – The Author of The Skull of Alum Bheg

In his latest book, The Skull of Alum Bheg, author Kim Wagner explores the mutiny of 1857 and the shadows of colonial rule in India. Spurred by an intriguing find, Wagner’s elegant narrative uses the story of one man’s death and skull to excavate the underbelly of Britain’s nineteenth century empire.
Here’s an exclusive interview with Kim A. Wagner, where the author shares his opinion on British Imperialism and what inspired him to write the book – The Skull of Alum Bheg.
1. What was your inspiration behind writing The Skull of Alum Bheg?
My starting point was obviously the story of the skull itself, as outlined in the brief note that had been found inside of it back in 1963. But in trying to write about the events of the Indian Uprising from the perspective of a single – and in many ways an insignificant – individual, I was very much inspired by the classics of micro-history and especially the work of the likes of Carlo Ginzburg and Natalie Zemon Davis. The challenge I was facing was the fact that while I had the remains of Alum Bheg, I never ‘found’ him in the historical records, and so I had to write the book by tracing an outline of this individual, trying to reconstruct the world he inhabited and the people who surrounded him. The subtitle is obviously a nod to Gautam Bhadra’s classic essay, ‘Four Rebels of 1857’, first published in Subaltern Studies IV in 1985.
2. Tell us something about your writing process. 
For this book, I wrote what I thought of as different ‘layers’ or different ‘voices’, in sequence, and only at the end did I put them together into one complete text. So I wrote the narrative of the Scottish and American missionaries first, then that of Alum Bheg and the sepoys, and finally the background and analysis. It was a very different way of writing from what I am used to, and you only know whether the plan you have in your head actually works once you put it all together right at the end. I am also not very economic with words – for every 10.000 words that I write, I will have produced three times that in the form of notes and drafts of paragraphs in varying stages. It is a time-consuming and cumbersome process, which leaves my computer littered with orphan files, but it works for me.

3. What was the most intriguing facet of colonial India you came across while researching for your book?

When you take a micro-historical approach, the grand narratives come apart at the seams and you begin seeing new and intriguing details. It was interesting to look at the Indian Uprising in a place like Punjab, where the sepoys of the Bengal Army were invaders as much as the British were. When the outbreak eventually did happen at Sialkot, where Alum Bheg’s regiment was stationed, it was accordingly a very different type of mutiny, compared to, for instance, Meerut or Delhi, where most of the local population joined the sepoys. It was also fascinating to see how local dynamics shaped the violence, and personal grievances and relationships played a large role during the chaos of the outbreak. I’ve never been able to adequately explain why some Indian servants would lay down their lives for the sahibs and memsahibs, while others readily stabbed them in the back. Sometimes new insights also mean new questions to be answered.
4. Victorians’ had a fetish for collecting and exhibiting body parts. Are there some other such instances you can share with us?
I have previously worked on the collecting of skulls of so-called ‘Thugs’ by phrenologists in the 1830s, but that was just the beginning of a veritable obsession with skulls. In the final chapter of the book, I describe some of the later examples from the British Empire: Following the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, for instance, General Kitchener had the body of the Mahdi disinterred and the skull was kept, which later caused a scandal. The same happened in South Africa where the heads of tribal leaders, such as Luka Jantje or Bambhata, were cut off and either used for identification or kept as private souvenirs. It is often assumed that there was a clear-cut distinction between the ‘rational’ collection of scientific specimens and the ‘irrational’ taking of war-trophies – in practice, however, such distinctions are often unsustainable
5. Finally, if in a line you had to summarize British imperialism in India, how would you do that? 
Despite the conventional narrative of cultural expertise and liberal governance, British rule in India was defined by a lack of comprehension concerning local grievances and anti-colonial sentiments, and as a result prone to panic and the use of exemplary violence.

Author Nanditha Krishna on the close relationship between Hinduism and Nature

There is a close symbiotic relationship between Hinduism and Nature. The basis of Hindu culture is dharma or righteousness, incorporating duty, cosmic law and justice. Every person must act for the general welfare of the earth, humanity, all creation and all aspects of life. Dharma is meant for the well-being of all living creatures. The verses of the Vedas express a deep sense of communion of man with god. Nature is a friend, revered as a mother, obeyed as a father and nurtured as a beloved child. In Vedic literature, all of nature was, in some way, divine, part of an indivisible life force uniting the world of humans, animals and plants.
Five thousand years ago, the Vedic sages showed a clear appreciation of the natural world and its ecology. There is a hymn to the rivers (Nadistuti Sukta) in the Rig Veda and a hymn to the earth (Prithvi Sukta) in the Atharva Veda. Throughout the Vedas there is a deep respect for life which is an important manifestation and expression of the gods. The need to protect and conserve biological diversity is exemplified in the representation of Shiva, Parvati, their two sons Karttikeya and Ganesha and their vahanas or vehicles – bull, lion, peacock and mouse respectively – who live in close harmony.
There is a very strong and intimate relationship between the biophysical ecosystem and economic institutions which are held together by cultural relations. Hinduism has a definite code of environmental ethics and humans may not consider themselves above nature, nor can they claim to rule over other forms of life. Every aspect of nature is sacred for the Indic religions: forests and groves, gardens, rivers and other waterbodies, plants and seeds, animals, mountains and pilgrimage centres. The sacred is still visible in modern India. All creation is a manifestation of the divine with no dichotomy between humanity and divinity. Religious practices are influenced by local environmental and festivals coincide with a natural phenomenon.
I fell in love with sacred groves attached to Hindu temples, where not a twig may be broken and which are the remnants of ancient forests where sages lived in harmony with nature; with rivers that gush from the hills and meander through the land; with the sacred tanks attached to each temple, the sacred plants and the animals respected by my religion; with the awe-inspiring mountains which reach up to the skies and where the Gods live. Every festival reminds us of the importance of nature in our lives. As the author of Sacred Plants of India and Sacred Animals of India I explored the divine relationship between human beings, plants and animals, which are an essential part of every Hindu prayer.
“The Earth is my mother and I am her child,” says the hymn to the Earth in the Atharva Veda. The human ability to merge with nature was the measure of cultural evolution. Hinduism believes that the earth and all life forms – human, animal and plant – are a part of Divinity, each dependant on the other for sustenance and survival. All of nature must be treated with reverence and respect. If the forests, clean water and fresh air disappear, so will all life as we know it on earth.

A historian, environmentalist and writer based in Chennai, Nanditha Krishna has a PhD in Ancient Indian Culture from Bombay University. She has been a professor and research guide for the PhD programme of C.P.R. Institute of Indological Research, affiliated to the University of Madras. Her latest book, Hinduism and Nature delves into the religion’s deep respect for all life forms, the forests and trees, rivers and lakes, animals and mountains, which are all manifestations of divinity. 

How to Plot a Psychological Thriller; Juggi Bhasin spills the beans

Before one plots a novel, a story or in a macabre sense even a heist or a murder, one must think of the idea leading to the plot. The plot in a sense is the body but the idea is the life breath, the very soul of the thriller.
In a psychological thriller, the psychology or the innermost workings of the mind creates the idea and the ecosystem of the novel. The idea in a psychological novel is in that sense very different from horror, action or the romantic genre where a certain degree of physicality of action is required to flesh out the story.
I would even go to the extent and say that the psychological thriller is a kind of elite art form because the challenge here is to hold the reader’s attention by action that to a large extent takes place in the mind rather than the physical world. This is no easy task because we live in a day and age where there are hundreds of short and crisp distractions offered by television, cinema, the net and various other channels of entertainment and information.
The psychological thriller can only compete with these art forms if the writer is both a skilled practitioner of plot as well an astute observer of human behaviour. A psychological thriller in the hands of a skilled writer is like mining a vein full of inexhaustible precious material. The same novel in the hands of a writer who pretends to understand human behaviour is like jumping in the sea with lead weights.
So, the idea of the novel and a sharp analysis of human behaviour are good enough to get one started with the psychological thriller. The next step is to create a narrative that is sure but unusual, simple but impregnated with complex ideas and the love for thrill, probably at the end or the beginning of each chapter.
The trick in the narrative is to constantly intrigue the reader and force him to guess or speculate what will happen next.
This method is relatively simple in an action or adventure novel. But we are dealing with mind games in the psychological thriller and an abundance of action or violence or blood and gore takes the impact out of the psychological genre.
So then how to meet this challenge? There are three ways we can rise to the challenge.
We deploy in a chapter the right mix of conversation, description and imagery to build an atmosphere of intrigue, uncertainty and dread. We polish our craft to such a degree that we hold back more than what we reveal. This is the key to a great psychological thriller. We must resist excess. We have to be frugal with our analysis and hold back unnecessary display of emotion. We need to leave the reader asking for more after each chapter.
One way we achieve all this is by the usage of economy of words. Sometimes to depict complex emotion and thought processes of the mind we need not give lengthy explanations. We can simply describe mundane action. The trick is that this mundane action should be written in a way that it sets the reader on an edge.
To give an example a woman highly stressed by her husband’s behaviour goes to the kitchen and sets the kettle to boil to make some tea for herself. To convey her state of mind I would write about how she selects the tea leaves and immerses them in the boiling water. I would show a single lock of her hair carelessly clouding her face. I would depict her pinched and determined face as she moves in the kitchen soundlessly making the tea. And finally, I would show her fill a cup with tea, stir it a bit longer than necessary and then with great deliberation throw the tea in the sink and quietly walk out of the kitchen. I would not comment on the situation or speak of her state of mind. Her mundane actions in the kitchen would do the talking for me. They would convey her state of mind.
The craft of writing a psychological thriller in a sense mirrors many aspects of fine cinema. The chapter should be broken down into many scenes. Each scene should make the reader walk a tightrope. This can be achieved when the scene is shot with tension, mundane but sharp description and cutting-edge, crisp, short and pithy dialogues relevant to the scene.
Many people erroneously believe that psychological thriller writing should be in a sense arid, lifeless to convey the workings of the human mind. I disagree. I am a great believer in using imagery in narrative. Use of imagery need not be florid or over the top. It needs evoke a multiplicity of emotions. Again, to give an example we can show in a conventional image a dead body floating in the water which evokes a feeling of sadness or revulsion. But the better way would be to show a tattered shirt or a saree minus the body, floating across the water. Such an image creates doubt, horror, fear and so many different emotions.
The plotting of the psychological novel therefore incorporates myriad elements of dialogue, description and imagery but constantly our endeavour must be to hold back and keep the reader guessing.
A reviewer for my new book, Fear is the Key, commented (views available on Amazon) that long after she had read my book she kept thinking of various ‘scenes’ from the book which were almost like troubling images that refused to go away.
Without sounding immodest, I think that should be the endgame and end goal of the writer who attempts a psychological thriller. In a single word if we can get the reader somewhat disturbed and contemplative after reading the book then in a certain psychological sense we have touched some deep chords in the reader and we might have just succeeded in our endeavour of writing a book of the mind.
Juggi Bhasin was one of the first television journalists in India. He has worked with Doordarshan News and Lok Sabha Television as a reporter and anchor. Bhasin is the creator of the popular graphic novel Agent Rana, which appears in a major national daily.
His new book, Fear is the Key will continue to give you chills long after you have read it.