Monthly Archives: October 2018

Interview with Sikeena Karmali

If you have to perhaps read historic fiction, and as we all know there are only two months left in the year, then you should read Sikeena Karmali’s, The Mulberry Courtesan. I read it earlier this year and absolutely loved it. It is a story of a courtesan in the last court of the Mughal Empire, that of Bahadur Shah Zafar. Karmali has written the book with great skill, passion, and accuracy. In my opinion, everyone must read this book because of the language and the plot. I got a chance to interview her via mail, and here goes:

What inspired you to write a historical fiction novel, that too set in 1857? What drew you toward that time? 

The novel was actually very much inspired by a visit to the Humayun’s Tomb and Gardens complex in 2003 – before it was restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. At that time I was living in Uzbekistan, directing a human rights project. I had just visited Ferghana – the birthplace of Babur and Samarqand and Bukhara are both also in Uzbekistan so the Central Asian/Timurid/Mughal civilization was already playing in my imagination but for some reason I was not really expecting to find that in India so when I visited Humayun’s Tomb I was kind of blown away at how beautifully this heritage had married with the civilization of the Indian subcontinent to create this breath-taking architecture. So I wanted to try to capture some of that.

I’ve also always been fascinated by the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 – Ghadr. It was actually the first serious challenge that the British East India company faced by the people it had colonized.

Bahadur Shah Zafar thankfully isn’t made a caricature of in the book. What kind of research went into ensuring that more facets of his personality came to light? How did you manage to translate that or incorporate it in the book?

I did a lot of research and I read his poetry. I visited the National Archives in Delhi where I also found a lot of information. He impressed me and I tried to understand him as a poet and a mystic rather than a ruler.

Laale is headstrong, independent, and yet has to adhere to the societal constructs of that time and age. What were the courtesans like in that period?

It is certainly true that there were societal constructs for women at that time, as there are today – however they are not always what we imagine them to be. Courtesans were often quite empowered as women. They were educated and erudite, they moved and circled in public spaces, often in male domains where they would have to hold their own among Nawabs and Mirzas. They were also not merely sexual slaves – many courtesans were respected women who came to wield a fair amount of power at court. Beghum Samru for example was a nautch girl who ended up becoming the head of a professionally trained army. Or Mah Laqa Chanda who became the first Urdu poetess and whose Divan is currently at the British Library in London.

How is Laale different and how was it like to place her in around 160 years ago, though she could very well fit in today’s time and age? 

It is funny you should ask that because The Mulberry Courtesan was originally about two women Laale and a contemporary women who is like her mirror or soul mate. So that contemporary story is now going to be The Mulberry Courtesan Book Two.

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The book moves between multiple nations and times. How easy or difficult was it to write about that? 

That is actually how the book unfolded so it’s how I wrote it. At the time that much of the book was written, I used to travel quite a lot so it didn’t feel unusual for me.

How is it to bring the interactions to life in a historical novel, given the context and plot? How does that work? Is it any different from say setting the novel in the 21st century?

I’m an avid student of history so it’s quite normal for me to be inhabiting another century in my imagination while I go about my daily existence in the 21st century. I think with historical fiction writing you really have to take the time to set the scene, to illustrate the details that will really transport your reader to another time and place.

Your top 5 historical fiction novels 

In no particular order:

The Moor’s Last Sigh – Salman Rushdie
Bel Canto – Ann Patchett
Burnt Shadows – Kamila Shamsie
Beloved – Toni Morrison
Song of the Assassin – M.G. Vasanji
My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk

What are you currently reading? 

I have just finished Daughters of the Sun by Ira Mukhtoy and I am in the middle of Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien which is really lyrical and beautifully written.

You can buy the book here: 

https://amzn.to/2PCXUIt

 

 

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And The Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness. Illustrated by Rovina Cai.

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Title: And The Ocean Was Our Sky
Author: Patrick Ness
Illustrated by Rovina Cai
Publisher: Walker Books
ISBN: 978-1406385403
Genre: Children’s Fiction, Literary
Pages: 160
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I am a sucker for retellings or adaptations. A real-time sucker. Love the way some authors take a jab at it, make the classic their own, and then there are some who just cannot communicate what they want to. Thankfully, Patrick Ness belongs to the former category. And The Ocean Was Our Sky doesn’t read like a retelling. It doesn’t read like anything I have read before (yes you have heard this a lot, but this time it is really true). Alright, to cut the long story short: I absolutely loved And the Ocean Was Our Sky – loved the minimalist prose and the breathtaking illustrations. On a side note, let me also say that I loved how it veered away from the plot of Moby Dick soon into the book and I thought it was very refreshing.

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Now to the plot: The whales of Bathsheba’s pod live for the hunt. They hunt men. Men who hunt them get hunted. Men who don’t hunt also get hunted. They are led by Captain Alexandra, fighting a war against men. Till they attack a man ship and from it emerges a man who will lead them to the myth of the very devil – the most evil of all men. The one that will change their lives forever. That in short is the plot of the book. It is a story of whales and men and how when we take over their world, what happens in the end.

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What makes it different or interesting you ask? Patrick Ness is at the top of his game. This book may be sparse in terms of the writing, but every word lends gravitas. Every word that perhaps is not there in the story, is accompanied by beautiful illustrations by Rovina Cai. The story comes alive through another dimension as you read and experience the illustrations at the same time.

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The morality play of the book is strong and is much-needed in times such as these. It is a book for both children and adults. I would say more for adults, just to get the point across that every life matters. The twist in the tale will take you by surprise for sure, but that’s hardly the point of the story. And The Ocean Was Our Sky is so heartwarming (I found it to be) and heartbreaking in so many places – the kind of book that will make you question so many things about life, death, and the in-between.

Interview with Amy B. Scher

I had reviewed the book, “This is How I Save My Life” by Amy B. Scher, way back in August 2018 and enjoyed it a lot. I got the opportunity to interview her, and here are some excerpts from the interview. Thank you, Amy for the interview.

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What were the differences you saw and faced between the Western and Eastern paradigm of healing? 

Western medicine creates a focus on physical symptoms, while Eastern focuses on the whole system — including mind, body, and spirit. I was a little resistant to this at first because it felt like looking at my thoughts and emotions might place blame on me for illness. But in the end, addressing those aspects were necessary for my healing.

How did you include humor in your narrative? A narrative that is staggeringly terrifying. How and where did wit come about? 

I tend to look at everything with humor. It’s how I was raised, thank goodness. My family tried to laugh as much as we cried about difficult things. And I think that just naturally comes through in my writing. No one wants to read a depressing book; and I surely didn’t want to write one. Humor is the element that can keep us going even in the worst of times…and I really wanted that to come through in my story.

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Could you please tell me something about your writing process? Where and how did you start writing This Is How I Save My Life? 

During my time in India, I kept an online blog about my experiences. This “record” was used later as part of my writing process. I ended up including my “before” and “after” India experiences and expanded and rewrote what happened while I was there. But it did help to have notes on what happened. There is so much that we forget, even when it feels huge and important at the time. Because I wrote the book years after I got back from India, I was able to add in reflection that I couldn’t have incorporated if I was still too close to the experience. Time and space always allow for a clearer picture to emerge.

How difficult or easy was it to get out of the exotic mode of India and weave your story right into it? I am sure it was extremely cathartic for you to write this book. How did you deal with that? 

It was very cathartic to write the book. I had my own relationship with India — and so I weaved it into my story as a character. I allowed it to be my teacher; and I felt that going back there in my mind really helped me to write it with more ease.

Did being a Jewish girl in India affect you in any manner at all? 

It didn’t! I actually went to a Jewish temple while in India. I saw the play Fiddler On The Roof in Hindi, too. I’ve always been interested in all religions so visited many different kinds of temples while I was there.

What memoirs inspired you to write your own? 

Of course Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. I also really loved Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Both books inspired me so much and kept me writing even when it was hard.

Thanks again, Amy and Simon and Schuster India for this opportunity.

The Engaged Observer: The Selected Writings of Shanta Gokhale: Edited and with an Introduction by Jerry Pinto

SGTitle: The Engaged Observer: The Selected Writings of Shanta Gokhale: Edited and with an Introduction by Jerry Pinto
Author: Shanta Gokhale
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Publishing Private Limited
ISBN: 978-9388070492
Genre: Nonfiction, Anthology, Essays
Pages: 312
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

You do not just read Shanta Gokhale. You literally take in everything she has to say, and mull over it for days, weeks, and sometimes even months. That to me is the power of prose, of words on paper, and most of all it is about the emotions she can evoke in you. You read Shanta Gokhale to take count of the world around you – to see its decline, the society we live in, its hypocrisy (laid out by her with immense logic and facts), and how at the end of it all, there might also be some hope and redemption.

I remember reading Crowfall way back when it released (in English though) and was moved deeply by it. There was nothing specific I could put a finger on, but what she wrote was enough. All of it. Every single word. What Jerry Pinto does through this anthology of her selective works is give you a fair enough glimpse into her mind and writing, so you can read more of her and I bet you will, once you are done with this one.

This book is varied – that because Shanta Gokhale is so prolific – having written so much – from theatre of Bombay to the theatre of Mumbai, the political scenario, on India, on Literature, the Marathi culture (that is trying very hard to revive itself), and everything else in between. I don’t think there is any topic that Shanta Gokhale hasn’t written on. But it isn’t just this, it is the way she writes – almost makes you feel that you are the only one reading her at that time.

The Engaged Observer (what an apt title) is about so many things and yet doesn’t feel overdone or trying too much to fit into one book. In fact, if anything, I wanted more. Shanta Gokhale writes with clarity. Every sentence is in place. My favourite section has to be the one on women – the patriarchy, feminism, and women defying the misogynistic constructs of society.

Shanta Gokhale’s writings are lucid, rich in facts, detailed, and doesn’t veer at any point into becoming something else. Points are made and then it is up to the reader to make their judgement or not. The writings are not biased. As the title aptly suggests, Gokhale observes intently, engages with the observation by making notes, writing about it, and leaving it to the readers to consume. Also, kudos to Jerry Pinto for carefully selecting the pieces he did to introduce us/enhance our understanding of the writer – and the neat sections that help the reader navigate.

There are a lot of reasons I would recommend this work. Some of them being: clarity and simplicity of language, the varied pieces – there is literally something for everyone, and to top it all her writing – the kind that cuts through without seeming that way, the kind that makes such a strong impact that you cannot help but want more, the kind of writing that shakes you up and makes you see the world differently. It is the kind of writing that only comes from an engaged observer – the one who constantly sees, relates or does not, but definitely engages – no matter where she is.

Pyjamas are Forgiving by Twinkle Khanna

Pyjamas are Forgiving Title: Pyjamas are Forgiving
Author: Twinkle Khanna
Publisher: Juggernaut Books
ISBN: 978-9386228970
Genre: Fiction, Humour
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

I normally do not read “celebrity books”. However, this isn’t the first time Twinkle Khanna has written a book, so to me she is just a regular author than a celebrity author and thank God for that! She has the craft, she knows how to tell a story, and be funny at that – not the laugh-out-loud kind of funny, but sure the chuckle kind of funny, the funny that leaves this smile on your face – also the one that you will not forget anytime soon.

I will also literally kill the next person who asks me what the title means. Read the book if you’d like to know that. The book takes place in the sanctuary of an Ayurvedic retreat in Kerala. Anshu tries to heal herself in the wake of a divorce and believes that things will become alright once the doshas are fixed, so to say. But of course, there is more to this than meets the eye. There is love that is clearly not quite lost, once her ex-husband Jay arrives at the same retreat with his younger, trophy wife, Shalini in tow. To add to this, there are other characters that enter the plot and those only make it richer, funnier, and quite a rollicking read.

Pyjamas are Forgiving is the kind of book you take to the beach, to the pool, or lay in bed all day and finish it with your favourite reading snacks. It is the right dose of funny and some contemplation on what relationships really are. What I love about this book is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, just like life must not be for most part. Twinkle’s characters are expressive, they say what they must, they are most human, and stumble and fall like any of us.

Anshu is the kind of person who seems all so powerful and could also be putty in Jay’s hands. She is the kind of woman who knows what is her worth and will also doubt her capabilities most of the time. Then there is the gay couple, Javed and Anil that I loved. What I think resonated right till the end of the book is that they didn’t seem out of place in the narrative, which usually happens when LGBTQIA characters aren’t protagonists. This to me is a great start when it comes to Indian Writing in English, in the popular segment (so to say, hate saying that). Javed and Ali aren’t caricaturesque and that to me was simply great.

Twinkle Khanna never loses sight of the Shanthamaaya spa (this is but obviously a major character) and the oddballs who work there – the Ayurvedic doctors, the ghee routines that make you vomit, the hilarious situations (when Anshu realizes in one chapter that men in the adjoining spa therapy room can see her in the buff), the forbidden foods and of course the strict no-no when it comes to sex, everything comes together very neatly. Also, a little later in the review, however, I absolutely loved Anshu’s Mummy and her sister, Mandira.

There are range of emotions in the book, sometimes as sudden as one sentence to another and somehow as a reader, I did not have a problem with this kind of writing at all. If anything, I thought it was cleverly done. Twinkle Khanna makes no bones about writing the way she does – it is intelligent, funny, and even warm and quite emotional in some places. I loved how there is no redemption or the “perfect end” that ties the novel without any hiccups. Like I said earlier,  these are regular people with regular problems and problems don’t just vanish in thin air at the end of the novel. Pyjamas are Forgiving is witty, sometimes poignant even, and just the kind of book that Ayurvedic doctor recommended.