Category Archives: Interviews

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.

Image result for sikeena karmali

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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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.

Amy

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.

Amy 2

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.

Interview with Manu Bhattathiri

The Town That Laughed

I had a ball reading The Town That Laughed and couldn’t wait to interview Manu Bhattathiri. The Town that Laughed is reminiscent of Malgudi Days, of small towns, and small lives that amount to a lot when viewed from their side. And yet there is always change that takes place in small towns and things perhaps aren’t what they used to be. The fictional town of Karuthupuzha, nestled within the Kerala countryside, is home to eccentric and the unexpected. The predictable lot of people and the ones who aren’t easy to gauge at all. This is one book that I would recommend to all, who are looking for a light read. It is hilarious and quaint and rather charming.

Here’s my interview with Manu Bhattathiri: 

When and how did you start telling these stories?

I think I picked up my passion for storytelling from my granddad. He would tell me stories from mythology when I was a child. I always wanted to tell stories the way he told them – fantastically, mixing real characters with incredible happenings, lending life to creatures and even inanimate objects. Somewhere along the way, somewhere during adolescence perhaps, I picked up the art of lying: yes, simple lying, to friends and family, just for the sake of saying something I had made up! It was only in my mid-thirties, though, that I realized instead of making things up in my talks with others I can actually just write fiction.

Were you inspired by R K Narayan and similar others who have created fictional towns?

R K Narayan is a legend. It sometimes makes me a little self-conscious when Karuthupuzha is compared to Malgudi. But I must say, I have read very little of R K Narayan. I have only read The Guide, and I think a couple of other books. No, my fictional town is not really inspired by his. I cannot trace it to any particular imagined town at all, to be honest. I draw from a real village called Cherupoika in Quilon district of Kerala. This was home to my maternal grandparents and was where I spent a lot of my holidays as a kid.

MB

Karuthupuzha is almost idyllic and I am guessing that's how it is meant to be. Was it easy or difficult to write that?

I think it is when you keep your characters simple on the surface that you can dive deep into them, like the stars can be well studied on nights without too many clouds. It certainly isn’t easy to define your characters strongly and yet portray them like simpletons. But fortunately in the villages and small towns I draw from, there are real people like this: people who are simple yet deep. They are a reference for me.

How did you manage to excel in characterization given there are so many cameos, and yet each one seems fleshed out so perfectly? Was it difficult or easy when it came to that?

Perhaps that has to do with the fact that for my writings I pull out not from other literature but from life. Every day you meet people and connect with them, but their story—their character, emotions, inclinations—is not any less detailed even if you only met them briefly. You might get chatting with an old man waiting for the same bus as you and never see him again in your life, but even in that brief meeting you can see he isn’t a flat character. There is still a complete and complex story of his life that he carries with him. I think literature must emulate life in this. So whether a character is major or minor
in your novel, I don’t think he/she ought to be flat and lifeless. Working this way takes a lot of thought and careful orchestration between characters, but it is also very satisfying.

Who are your favourite novelists and have any of them inspired the writing of this novel?

My favorite authors are Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Mark Twain, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and, more recently, J M Coetzee and Kazuo Ishiguro. While The Town that Laughed is not directly inspired by any of them, I do believe they make me who I am. So the stories I think up will have something to do with them, yes.

There you go! This is my interview with Manu Bhattathiri. Do read the book. It is fantastically written.

Oliver Sacks: The Last Interview and Other Conversations

Oliver Sacks - The Last Interview and Other Conversations Title: Oliver Sacks: The Last Interview and Other Conversations
Author: Oliver Sacks
Interviewers: Charlie Rose, Studs Terkel, Lisa Burrell, Tom Ashbrook and Robert Krulwich
Publisher: Melville House Publishing
ISBN: 978-1612196510
Genre: Non-Fiction, Interviews
Pages: 208
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4 Stars

I’ve always admired Oliver Sacks. His works make you want more and illuminate you on so many levels about science, humanity, relationships and empathy. Oliver Sacks was not just another neuroscientist. I think he knew how to give cases a voice – to add the human touch to them, to not make them seem so scientific but connect with them on an emotional level because that is what science is at the core. His creativity, compassion and insight made him a worldwide renowned persona and this volume of interviews only make that belief stronger at every possible level.

“The Last Interview and Other Conversations” is a series of interviews (including the last one) with eminent personalities and the volume read by me was of course the one on Oliver Sacks. This volume includes transcripts of six interviews given by Sacks from 1987 until 2015. He died in August 2015 at 82.

These interviews were conducted around the time of his books’ releases – four books and the last two (my favorite ones in the volume) are on aging and finding love. This book just makes you look at Sacks’ various personality attributes – shyness, inquisitiveness, and how he could empathize with people who had neurological disorders and not just treat them as only cases.

This book is a great place to start if you haven’t read any of Oliver Sacks’ works only because these interviews give you the essence to the man and the writer, which would compel you to read at least one of his books if not all. Which would further lead the reader to some incredible case studies (The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat) or the one about the face colorblind person (it is a real thing by the way) to the surgeon with Tourette’s syndrome who also flew a plane.

Sacks speaks of them so fondly in these interviews, also about his friendship with Robin Williams to my most favourite interview (the last one) where he speaks of death and finding love at seventy-seven. These six interviews are like the appetizers that will for sure want you to take a bite of the main course. Read these interviews. Also, read all his works.

 

Interview with Chhimi Tenduf-La: Author of “Loyal Stalkers”.

So I had just finished reading “Loyal Stalkers” and had a few questions in my mind for the author. I was lucky enough to have been in touch with him on mail, so I could conduct this interview through the web. Chhimi Tenduf-La is a world citizen in the true sense. His stories are of ordinary people and yet seem so extraordinary that they cut across territories of geography, mind and emotions. A collection that I loved reading and truly cherished.

final cover

Here is a short interview:

What made you write a collection of short-stories, after two novels?

I started a couple of stories in Loyal Stalkers as novels, but I felt they were better left with some things unsaid, whereas if I fleshed them out they would have lost their subtlety. When I found I could connect them I knew I could advance an over-riding story through a number of different characters and plots. This was enormously enjoyable and allowed for much more freedom. When writing a novel I may think of a character I want to write about but cannot fit him into the plot. With a collection I could just write a new story for him.

Your characters aren’t redeemed easily. Why so? Why is there a constancy in not letting them see the light of day?

I guess I had not thought about this much, until you asked this excellent question, but one of my pet hates is people acting with impunity because they know they will not be punished whatever they do. Here in Sri Lanka money and connections can get you off most things and that annoys me. As you point out, all my characters, although they have redeeming features, pay for the crimes they commit.

Chhimi book 3

I am intrigued by the title. How did you choose that for the story (a little obvious, yes) but then why stick to this for the entire collection?

I feel this whole book could have been written by a nosey aunty obsessed with what her neighbours are doing. I think it is indicative of society here that people are more concerned with other people’s lives than their own. Most of the stories have some stalking theme; the maid obsessed with her boss, the abusive relationship, the loyal dog following his special needs friend. I wanted the title to be creepy, but also reflect Colombo society in some ways; everyone is invested in each other’s lives, they can be a little annoying, but yet there is that closeness and that feeling that there is always someone nearby to help you when in need.

You’ve been a citizen of the world and yet this collection restricts itself to Sri Lanka. Why so? Why not give the characters space to see the world?

As I found my feet as an author I felt safest writing about what I know best. I have been here so long I have forgotten what it is like to live elsewhere. Yet now you have said it I do want to explore what some of my characters would be like living in another country. How much would it change them? Thanks for the idea!

Your top 5 favourite books and why?

I have limited this to books I have read recently.

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared 
by Jonas Jonasson 

Comedy in literature is hard to balance. Endearingly silly, or annoyingly farcical. Jonasson gets it just right in this inspiring tale about Allan Karlson who goes on the run to avoid celebrating his 100th birthday. As he does so, we travel back through a hilarious twentieth century history lesson, in which Karlson mingles with great leaders and tyrants; at one point he convinces Stalin to shave off his moustache, and he regularly has a young Kim Jong Il sitting on his lap. Genius.

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Great movie, greater book. The prose, slick and punchy, suck you in, slap you back and forth and churn you out. With great twists, cool dialog, and an abundance of quotable lines, Palahniuk tells an extraordinarily original story with awesome ease.

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilika

It is more than a novel about cricket; it is Sri Lankan modern history through the eyes of an alcoholic. It is recognition of the tragedies, often self-inflicted, that tore at Sri Lanka’s core. It is a detective story, a mystery, a thriller, the search for a genius Tamil cricketer whose name and records have all but been wiped out of Sri Lankan history.

The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War 
by Rohini Mohan

A 368 page lesson about Sri Lanka’s civil war. In fact, this is the definitive lesson about any war; about child soldiers, mistrust, disappearances and lies. This book reads like a novel, whereas it is fact. Rohini Mohan messes with your emotions; she humanises people we thought were monsters. She makes you root for them, understand them, believe them.

What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera

I had to pluck up the courage to read this a second time because it is an incredibly disturbing book for a parent to read – but it was all worth it. Munaweera’s writing is brilliantly fluid, emotive and captivating and personally I felt this was an even better book that her prize-winning Island of a Thousand Mirrors.

Chhimi 9

Was writing “Loyal Stalkers” a cathartic experience? Did you live some of these stories yourself or through someone else?

I find all writing to be cathartic and relaxing. But yes, Loyal Stalkers touched on a number of issues that all of us in Sri Lanka should be more aware of. Since writing it I have become more sensitive to others affected by these issues, be it a friend battling homophobia or a maid not getting enough credit for the work she does.

Chhimi as a writer…

I write purely for enjoyment at the moment. I have never felt pressured into it or had writer’s block; maybe I require both to improve as a writer. I have a fairly wild imagination so this is an outlet for it. I write two hours a day, but nothing on weekends and I read back my work hundreds of times to try to see if it flows. Once it is printed I hate looking at my writing because it is too late to change anything I don’t like. I try to be snappy, hip, humorous and sensitive as a writer but probably fail in all regards. My story-telling is more inspired by movies than by books, for some reason, maybe because I don’t want to write like anyone else (not that I could).

How important do you think it is for the short-story form to be recognized in India and why do people prefer the novel over the story?

I was told by a UK based publisher that the issue they have with short story collections is that it is very hard to get the leading lit critics to review them, unless the writer is very well known. If a book does not get reviewed, book shops are reluctant to sell it. Maybe the problem with short stories is that readers may love one, but lose momentum if they don’t quite dig the next one. It is a lot of stopping and starting I guess, whereas with a novel you have invested in the characters already and so each time you pick up the book you’re not taking a blind leap of faith. This is why I have tried to link the stories in Loyal Stalkers, and have the characters popping in and out of each other’s lives. I love reading short stories myself because they are standalones; I can read one each night and if I don’t like one I have not wasted too much time on it. In some ways short stories are more accessible to people who aren’t necessarily bookworms and thus they are important to India if they can get more people to read. They can also get more people to write; almost anyone can sit down and write a short story, whereas a novel requires a different level of commitment and craft. With such rich culture and tradition, as well as the complexities of class I am sure there are hundreds of thousands of people in India who could write an important short story.

Chhimi 4

Your 5 favourite short-story writers

I’m inspired by R K Nayaran,  Alejandro Zambra and Raymond Carver. To understand how to appeal to a large audience, Jeffrey Archer. Of current South Asian writers Prajwal Parajuly, Sandip Roy and Ashok Ferrey. (I know this is 8 and not 5, sorry).

What are you working on next?

I have taken a break because I am not entirely sure in what direction I want to go. A novel, a collection, a movie? Maybe I will focus on writing more articles for a while. I have had many false starts with writing because I jump into new projects too fast, so now I am trying to be patient and I hope a killer idea for a novel will start growing on me.