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Monday, August 26, 2013

The Hanging Tree

One doesn't need to go far to look for stories. You can find many in your backyard itself. Searching for my roots, I have found several. And the one I am working upon now, began the way many have, with a question. What could impel a man to travel hundreds of miles from his birth place and embrace an existence completely alien to the one he had always known?

The man in question was my grandfather, who made a huge leap when he changed his religion and adopted a completely different way of life.

Of course, when I embarked on my exploration, I realised that whatever answers I might find could only be conjecture. But this is what fiction is all about. Facts that can be turned into story. Questions that sprout more questions, in the course of your quest to answer them. Questions that will continue to proliferate even after you've completed your book.

But where does this 'hanging tree' fit in, you may well ask? What is the connection? The fact is that my grandfather belonged to a nomadic community that roamed between three different villages that lay far north of my home town. When I was a young girl, despite my curiosity about his past, there was no question of my travelling to his home region, though the boys in the family did. Naturally, I eagerly questioned a boy cousin who once visited the village  nearest to us, and while narrating his experiences, he mentioned a place where they hanged criminals. Years later, a reminiscing aunt talked about this  again. Neither of them were very specific, or maybe I wasn't paying enough attention, but I conjured up the image of a gallows.

Just a few years ago, I got a chance to fulfil my curiosity when I travel to two of the villages my grandfather had lived in. When we arrived at the first, enquiry led us to a deserted house. It was the kind common in the hills--slate roofed, double storied with narrow, carved doors and windows. The usual paved courtyard surrounded by a low wall enclosed it. But when all the pictures had been clicked, and we stepped out of the ruined gate to return to out car, a woman among the cluster of curious folk who had escorted us said in an undertone, 'There used to be a tree here, on which they hanged people.' A moment of astonished silence followed, during which I recalled the gallows I had imagined. A tree? Suddenly it felt more plausible. Then a man added, 'It was a surahi tree (a species of cypress). Someone chopped it down a few years ago.'

I recall feeling a little embarrassed about the presence of this hanging tree in my family history. Especially because the way this information was shared, with a smirk of macabre satisfaction. As if encouraged, another man pointed towards the river gushing below--'There are caves there where lawbreakers were imprisoned.'

At that time, I was working on my historical adventure novel Caravan to Tibet and part of the reason for the trip was to get a better sense of the locale I had set it in. But this new, somewhat gruesome information added a different dimension to my grandfather's early life.

There was a story brooding over the place the hanging tree had occupied. Some day I would write it, I thought. And this is what I am doing now, seeking answers to a new question. Can a hanging tree hold the key to an old, old mystery?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Turning Real Life into Fiction

Many years ago, a young neighbour shared a personal story with me, a deeply moving narrative from the partition of India and Pakistan. It was a tale of endurance and survival, heart-warming because neighbourly relations between people from hostile communities played a major role.  The obsession for male offspring was an important thread too, while in the end it was revealed as a poignant tale of loss. In short, this real life incident contained all the elements of a powerful piece of fiction, something writers usually struggle to create.
It was so riveting that it gave me goose bumps when I heard it, and as a writer I felt blessed to have come across it.  I lost no time getting down to it, but when I started typing the story into my computer, after the first few sentences I found myself stuck, completely blocked.  Try as I might, despite all the dramatic incidents waiting to be described, I just could not move ahead. It was awful enough to make me want to tear my hair in frustration. Such a wonderful story, a complete story, and I couldn’t make anything of it! Was I really a writer or had I been fooling myself all this time?
I could not give up, however, though it took me three years to write that story. But how did I was manage to diagnose what was holding me up? Only when I discarded some preconceived notions that I had embraced about the craft of writing. When it struck me that my inability to ‘set the scene’ had applied the brake. Early in my writing career, someone had told me that I had a great sense of place and I had become very particular about beginning a story with a physical description. The problem here was that I had never visited the city in Pakistan where it was mostly set.  And without my background I could not tell the story. Now we all know there are ways to tackle this kind of issue. There is no dearth of resources that will help fill in the gaps when you set your fiction in a locale that is outside the realm of your experience, whether in space or time. You can turn to accounts by travellers, photographs, films and television programmes or talk to friends who might have gone there.
I tried some of these resources. However, for some reason, nothing worked. Finally, I made the tough decision that if I was to write this story at all, I had to forget the descriptions of streets and houses and carry on with the actual events, and to concentrate on the emotions the characters might have experienced.  To my astonishment, the story took off immediately. Not merely took off, but sped to a destination that had never been there in my map. From the heart-warming tale of neighbourly relations among people trapped in political conflict that I envisioned, it turned into the slightly chilling tale of a neglected girl reclaiming what she had longed for and never received. To this day I am at a loss to explain how this happened. But the story which I titled “Cradle Song” won a prize in a competition and has been the one most appreciated in my collection If the Earth Should Move.
More significantly, this experience turned out to be a valuable lesson. A lesson not to get bogged down by the do’s and don’ts of writing as defined by others, because each story you write is your own, and each story has its own imperatives. And that it is utterly, absolutely important to identify the element that is the true driving force of your story. A sense of place is essential if the locale dictates the action, which often happens in the adventure stories I write. But paramount in every story are the emotions that possess your characters.  It is emotions that spark the conflict that will impel your story, lead to the compelling turns in the narrative that draw the reader in—simple human feelings like love or the lack of love, fear and longing, envy and empathy.
And in this context, recently I made a discovery which reinforced this notion. At a discussion on my book Caravan to Tibet in a school, a girl mentioned that it was the protagonist Debu’s love for his father and his determination to find him in the wilds of Tibet that appealed to her most. That amply proved to me that even in a story full of action and adventure it is common human emotions that make it meaningful.
It is also important to recognise the chimera of the complete plot supplied by a flesh and blood muse for what it is. A chimera that glimmers most enticingly, only, you cannot disregard the necessity to use your own sorcery to bring it to life and make it real. For even the most attention grabbing yarn will not emerge as an equally engaging piece of fiction if you persist in the belief that all you have to do is to transcribe it.
The fact is, someone else’s story usually contains hidden sub currents that have not been shared, been ignored, or simply forgotten. You have to probe further, sniff out the unidentifiable masala and scrounge around for back story that will provide motivation for your characters.
The word here is motivation. We know that motivation is the engine that propels a story to its denouement. I think when I unconsciously hit on the motivation that possessed the neglected girl; my story began to take shape.
There’s no denying that many finely crafted classics, many hugely popular pieces of fiction have been inspired by real life incidents. But that first discovery only flags off the writer’s journey and is like the cryptic map that leads you to a hidden treasure only after you have deciphered all the clues, not like the fixed itinerary created by a travel agent.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Oleander GirlOleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If the young are brave and committed, life will reward them with knowledge. In Oleander Girl,  seventeen-year-old Korobi uncovers many truths, palatable and unpalatable, in the course of her quest to find the father who remained a mystery.  She learns the hard way—as most of us do, to judge between true and false and comes to terms with the ground realities of human existence.
Korobi’s story takes hold of you right from the haunting opening paragraph. Her voyage is itself extraordinary, in the sense that a young Indian girl who has led a sheltered life can prevail over convention and persuade her guardians to let her to embark on this journey. As this determined young girl travels from Kolkata to the U.S.A., facing a series of challenges, the reader eagerly waits for the mystery of her parenthood to be revealed. The timeless appeal of the orphaned protagonist finds compelling play here, and the clash of cultures heightens the drama. However, this is not just the tug-of-war between east and west, but also their coming together. The author explores numerous facets of the global, multicultural experience with ease, and her mastery of craft is apparent in the wide range of narrative voices she employs so effectively to add depth and texture to Korobi’s story.
I particularly liked the portraits of assertive women—from Korobi herself to her grandmother Sarojini, Jayashree her future mother-in-law, and best of all, Pia her fiancé Rajat’s little sister. While Rajat comes across as the somewhat confused modern Indian male, it is Bhattacharya the politician who surprises us with his yearning for the past with its well-defined values, symbolized by the old temple in Korobi’s grandfather’s house. For him: “…the gates that shut out the twenty-first century…” are invaluable and irreplaceable, as they stave off the demands of a new age that has still to evolve a respectable code of conduct. A bemused Sarojini wonders, “…how many layers there are to a man’s heart, tender spots beneath the calluses, hidden even from himself.” The interplay between tradition and modernity is another important point of conflict skillfully explored by the author—the faceoff between the old and new Kolkata, starkly outlined as well in Rajat’s struggle to resist the seductive Sonia’s siren song and embrace wholesomeness as represented by Korobi.
The reader is held in thrall as the problems pile up and secrets unfold. However, Oleander Girl is much more than a tale of suspense; it is also a story of tender relationships that reach beyond race, religion and class. Apart from the primary narrative strand of Korobi’s mixed parentage, there is the chauffeur Asaf Ali’s attachment for Pia, which prevails against his employers’ prejudice and his friends’ conventional warnings.
These are the special touches in this book that make it so heartwarming, by reinforcing your faith in human nature.
Towards the end I did find the rapid unfolding of events a tad overwhelming. However, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s consummate storytelling carried the day and this poignant tale remains one of my favourite recent reads. 

View all my reviews

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Spinning Yarns...

There’s something in this collection for everyone—spine tingling spooky stories, thrilling adventure tales, thought provoking fables, even nonsense rhymes that will tickle you silly. Some stories could have been taken from your own life—stories of school and home, of celebrations and hard times, of light-hearted fun as well as heartbreak. There is a vast variety of fascinating, unforgettable characters to keep you enthralled too—clever girls, daring boys, foolish kings, understanding teachers, gutsy grandmothers and dogged shikaris.

Putting them together was a trip down memory lane, a delightful excuse to read, read and read, but I must confess it was not an easy task. What should I include, what leave out? When the decisions confronted me, I realized what a daunting task I had set myself. There was so much to choose from! It was heart-wrenching to leave out some truly wonderful works because there wasn’t enough space. That's life for you--always those tough decisions to make...

But why did I find the tales in this anthology so special, so memorable? I felt they contained universal truths—an essential element of great writing. There are many ‘Aha!’ moments in these stories. For example, Big Brother in Premchand’s story with the same name, keeps falling behind his younger brother in school, despite all his hard work. However, when he says with simple dignity, ‘You are flying high today because you have stood first in your class. But you must listen to me. I may have failed but I am older than you. I have more experience of the world that you have…’ your respect for Big Brother goes up several notches—even failure has not shaken the roots of his self-belief. The warmth of understanding floods through us when Jim Corbett states at the end of his account of a long, gruelling hunt of the man-eating tigress: ‘There have been occasions when life has hung by a thread and others when a light purse and disease resulting from exposure has made the going difficult, but for all these occasions I feel amply rewarded if my hunting has resulted in saving one human life.’

These stories are rooted in our culture and history as well. We are reminded about the importance of the guru-shishya tradition in Sudha Murty’s heartwarming “How I Taught my Grandmother to Read”. In fact, two other tales dwell on the very special relationship of grandparent and child—Shankar’s fun-filled ‘Rain-making’ and Khushwant Singh’s nostalgic “Portrait of a Lady”.

There are many other thought-provoking themes. The power of the imagination is celebrated in Paul Zacharia’s “The Library”; and the peril of excessive attachment to worldly goods is playfully highlighted in Sanjay Khati’s “Soap”. Then there are those moments of realization—of understanding that we are all special in different ways as in Paro Anand’s ‘Eid’.

There are very real boys too, like Swaminathan in R.K.Narayan’s Swami and Friends, to sympathise with when they keep getting into trouble. There are also inspirational characters like Rajappa in Sundara Ramaswamy’s powerful story “The Stamp Album”, who decides to do the right thing, after doing a very wrong thing, even though it requires an enormous sacrifice.  

If you adore chills, there are two goose bump inducing tales—Satyajit Ray’s scary “The Vicious Vampire” and “The School” Ranjit Lal’s compelling tale of a very unusual school. A school quite different from the one in which we encounter the intriguing Mr. Oliver in Ruskin Bond’s engaging story, “Here comes Mr. Oliver.”

The eminent Ray family has contributions in both fiction and poetry in this volume. No matter how low you might be feeling, you cannot help but smile when Mister Owl says to Missus in Sukumar Ray’s hilarious poem:

‘All my fears all my woes
All my throbby sobby lows,
Are all forgotten thanks to you
My darling singing Owleroo…’

And as for Vikram Seth’s highly entertaining “The Goat and the Ram”, nuisances though the two characters might be, you cannot help but admire the resilience of the goat as it says after the farmer turns them out:

‘Things aren’t that bad. We’ve not been beaten.
We could have been, but were not, eaten.
Some time we’ll find some home somewhere.’

What else can I say? That there are stories of village life and city life, from the past and the present, set in real worlds and imaginary worlds; that this is one book you can read in one sitting or you can dip into it again and again.

So go ahead, enjoy—the road to wonderland starts right here! And do let me know what you liked best...

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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Grandma & Grandpa

Putting together a collection of memorable writing that would appeal to children, I couldn't help but notice that at least three pieces were about grandparents. There was a story from Shankar's all time favourite Life with Grandfather, and reminiscences about their grandmothers by Sudha Murty and Khushwant Singh. What a rich lode family relationships offer, I thought, for writers to draw upon! There must be hundreds and thousand of stories about grandparents, perhaps as many as the numerous collections titled "Grandma's Tales". Grandparents are a primary source for story, whether narrating them to their grandchildren or providing inspiration.

I must confess that I felt a little envious, since I did not have the privilege of my  grandparents' company, no memories to share in stories. As a child I puzzled about this a bit. But not knowing what it was like to be pampered by a grandparent, did not feel particularly deprived. Of course, I was curious about them. But my mother lost both her parents in childhood and didn't have too many memories about her own mother. All she could tell me was that my Nani had hair that came down to her ankles, and that she came from Pune. Both pieces of information were mystifying. It didn't seem possible for anyone to have hair that long. And how did she manage to marry my Nana if she belonged to a place so distant from our home town Almora? I feel sorry now that I didn't probe further.  It just didn't occur to me while my mother was alive. I knew a little more about my Nana, my mother's father. I was told that he was six feet tall, something very unusual in our area, and a worked for the government.

My father's parents are much more clearly sketched out in my imagination.  My Dadi's photograph occupied a prominent spot on the walls of our drawing room, more prominent than my Dada's. My father lost his mother while he was in medical college and that was the first time he tasted whisky, he said. He also mentioned that she was the best mother in the world, the best cook and that while he respected his father, he loved his mother. This created the image of a stern figure in my mind--a man who demanded respect but did not evoke affection. But that was what fathers were like in those times. All the same, my older sister did share a scant memory of our grandfather once--of his playfully pulling her back with the crook of his walking stick just as she was about to pluck one of his precious roses. And a cousin recalls finding him in a room surrounded with baskets of apples from which he selected a juicy one and gave it to her. I remember the bower of roses--it survived him for many years, as did the apple orchard.

I have some facts about their rather eventful lives too. My father's parents came from backgrounds as dissimilar as those of my mother's. Dada was a rebel who converted to Christianity as a young boy and was consequently cast out of his community. But again, I don't know where he encountered my grandmother, the daughter of an indigo planter and a Nepali lady, and how he got married to her. 

So many question marks, no tangible memories of my own...but enough material, I felt, to base a novel upon...the novel I have titled "The Hanging Tree". Because, when you're writing a story, I feel, too many facts can sometimes hamper the flow of your imagination. 

But how have family memories worked for you? I'd love to find out. 

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Vengeance is mine…

When working on a biography of Chanakya, ancient Indian kingmaker, author of the Arthashastra, a classic treatise on statecraft, it struck me that the theme of revenge is a very absorbing one to write about, read as well. Chanakya may not be a fictional character, but the story of his vow to extract redress for an insult by King Dhana Nanda of Pataliputra by dethroning him, is as riveting a tale as any imaginary account of vengeance executed. Dhana Nanda was a ruler so powerful that even Alexander the Great hesitated to take him on, and Chanakya’s quest to get even is said to be behind the founding of the Mauryan Empire, when he placed his protégé Chandragupta on the Nanda’s throne. 

Amazing how far revenge can drive a person! This is exactly what makes it such a compelling theme. First of all, the deed that demands reprisal provides such strong motivation for the protagonist that it takes control of the major action of the story. Inner and outer conflict, the see saw of events that will propel you to your dénouement, all arise from it. There is fertile ground to create suspense as well. Is it going to happen now? Will she succeed or will he fail? Or will she/he have a change of heart? Repent eventually, or gloat?
A protagonist single minded or obsessive enough to scheme vengeance and follow it through to its bitter end is most likely to capture the imagination of your readers. They might sympathise with the character, or detest her/him but will certainly be interested in discovering the outcome of all that plotting.  

There are many novels both popular and classic with revenge as their theme that are memorable. One that comes easily to mind is Vendetta: A Story of One Long Forgotten by Marie Corelli, an author whose works I devoured in my school days, but who no longer enjoys the same following. I still recall the scene in which the hero Count Fabio Romani, who has been buried alive, returns to consciousness and how it made my heart thump in anticipation. Even more so the one in which he discovers his wife Nina and best friend Guido’s betrayal.  Count Fabio’s elaborate plan of revenge and its implementation was so gripping that it was a wrench to tear myself away from the book when my strictly enforced school routine demanded it. Count Fabio’s extreme misogyny was disturbing, true, but not enough to abandon the book. I needed to know if he actually accomplished his plan and how he felt when he had.

Novels of revenge must indeed be dark and brooding. But the way they take hold of us is intriguing. Who can forget Heathcliff, one of the most tragically mesmerising of fictional characters ever created? When I first read Wuthering Heights, also in my school days, I conjured up the image of a towering man with a tortured face that could never soften into a smile.  The graphic descriptions of this archetypal anti-hero create a vivid picture of his appearance: “Do you mark those two lines between your eyes; and those thick brows, that, instead of rising arched, sink in the middle; and that couple of black fiends, so deeply buried, who never open their windows boldly, but lurk glinting under them, like devil's spies?”

 Heathcliff exudes gloom but vengeful personalities are fascinating because they are so obsessive. Chanakya is supposed to have exacted revenge to his satisfaction, though his own end was eventually violent. But the accomplishment of the deed does not always bring gratification or resolution.   

Remember the bizarre Miss Havisham in Great Expectations?   The jilted woman who brought up a girl, Estella, to be heartless so she could execute her guardian’s vengeance on the male sex. However, her plans go somewhat awry and she ultimately recognises the error of her ways. Our hearts go out to her, despite the fact that she used Pip, the protagonist, as a guinea pig in her scheme.

Heathcliff remains more enigmatic, even though a change begins to come over him towards the end and he does actually smile in his death. As the narrator Nelly Dean says: “His eyes met mine so keen, and fierce, I started: and then, he seemed to smile.”
Perhaps tales of revenge grab us because they help us to work out our own negative feelings about people who have treated us unfairly. While we long to retaliate, in real life few of us can pursue such a course wholeheartedly.  But many a time too, we feel gratified that we forgave and forgot because the revenge taker is mostly rewarded with only a sour satisfaction.