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Review of ‘The Shrine of Death’

The Hindu’s Literary Review supplement carried the first review of The Shrine of Death!

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Thrillers spun around Indian mythology are a dime a dozen. Pluck out whispered legends about temples or idols and weave them into tales of intrigue and you have a thriller in hand. In this saturated milieu, this book by Divya Kumar manages to stand a tad apart.

Generic title aside, The Shrine of Death does what many of the author’s competitors in the genre either fail to do or just don’t care to do. Divya Kumar pushes her research into the background and focuses instead on the characters, and not just her two protagonists.

She paints a world of journalists, art-mongers, academics and disillusioned IT professionals, and the grand descriptions of nature, architecture and warriors’ physique that usually define this genre give way to observed mannerisms, sensibilities and one-on-one interactions. Superlatives are kept to a minimum. It makes all the difference.

Working women curl up on the couch with their flatmates, swapping ghost stories during powercuts. An old woman going through emotional hell takes the trouble to check in on a troubled youngster. Cousins discuss bikes and careers, and exchange surreptitious glares when being scolded.

None of these moments is essential to the plot. But they do the job of keeping the reader invested — and better ensuring that the page will be turned — than any cliffhanger can. The story seems more real because the people and the situations are relatable, even with the occasional supernatural oddity thrown in.

That’s not to say that The Shrine of Death doesn’t deliver the usual dose of history: it’s just that every single page isn’t dripping with information overload. Kumar gives her readers plenty of space to rack their brains, to try and get ahead of the plot.

The plot revolves around an idol theft, and the hunt for a missing researcher who might have discovered something invaluable. Her colleague and old friend begin searching for her and the mystery soon widens enough to encompass the police and the CBI. Throughout The Shrine of Death, Kumar keeps her ambitions simple and delivers what she promises.

The Shrine of Death; Divya Kumar, Bloomsbury, ₹399

(The original article appeared here.)

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Pre-order ‘The Shrine of Death’!

The pre-order link for my debut novel, ‘The Shrine of Death’ is up on Amazon.in! And it’s currently available at a 44 per cent discount, so do check it out 🙂

An April 2018 release from Bloomsbury India, ‘The Shrine of Death’ is a fast-paced thriller with a heady mix of crime, mystery, romance and the paranormal. Set in the murky of world of idol-theft, it takes you from Chennai’s newsrooms and universities to the sepulchral shrine of a Chola queen in the heartland of Tamil Nadu, and nothing and no one is what they seem…

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Short Story: Murder in the Mirrors

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She carried the heavy laundry basket into the balcony, balancing it awkwardly against her growing belly. The winter sunshine was disconcertingly bright, the Dubai sky dusty blue in the gaps between high-rises. She was on the 10th floor, yet the glass-covered building opposite towered above her. He’d laughed when she called it a skyscraper. “It has only 18 floors. Real skyscrapers have 40 or 50.”

Wet clothes forgotten, she pressed against the cold metal of the railing, and looked at the building’s lake-green mirrored glass windows. There she was, the statuesque blonde sunbathing by the pool. The first time she’d seen her naked form, she’d frozen in shock. It had taken a moment to realise she wasn’t looking into a home in the building opposite, but at the reflection of her own building; that the woman wasn’t naked but in a bikini, by the pool, on the roof above her. Her gaze dropped eagerly down to the reflection of the balconies of other apartments in her building. She’d mapped them out now… 906, 806, 706 in a column under her own flat, and, to her left, 904, 804, 704… She’d never met or spoken to the people in these flats but, at these times, she felt connected to their lives. The maid in 806 had hung the clothes out to dry, pristine whites today, talking on her cell phone the whole time. The man on the seventh floor stood chain-smoking, ashtray balanced precariously on the railing. Her eyes flickered up again. There was the toddler in 906… her heart skipped a beat as he ran forward. Too close to the railing, baby! But a hand reached out and pulled him in, a voice scolding in a language she didn’t understand. He would know what language it was. But she couldn’t ask him. He’d think she was crazy, staring at the mirrors from her perch on the topmost floor. He wouldn’t understand. He was part of their world. Her days were spent alone in the flat, and even when she went out, she felt separate from the alien, glittering city and its alien, glittering people.

When she saw movement on one of the lower balconies, she stilled. Had someone moved into 504 already? Or was it 404, whose inhabitants she had never seen? The lower floors were harder to map, the images and angles warping in the mirrors. Four-oh-six was the flat with all the plants, so this had to be… But before she could get her bearing, it hit her that something was wrong. Very wrong. The couple, a tall, dark-haired man, and a thin woman with long, straight hair, seemed to be locked in some sort of tussle, an odd, otherworldly dance in the wavering mirror. Her heart was pounding, her hands gripping the railing hard and, as she leaned out further, the man’s thick arms rose, and his hands wrapped around the woman’s neck. The woman was struggling, clawing at his fingers. Call for help, you should call for help! But the other balconies lay empty now, and the road was too far down. As she looked around in panic, the sunlight bouncing off the glass caught her eyes, and she was blinded. When the dark spots cleared, the man and woman were gone. Only she was left on the 10th floor, trembling, her fingers locked tight around the railing.

***

“So, you’re telling me,” he said with exaggerated patience, “that a man strangled a woman in broad daylight, in his balcony, right here in this building, but you don’t know which floor or flat.” He dropped the spoon on his plate. “And now you want me to… what? Go knocking on our neighbours’ doors, asking, ‘excuse me, did you kill your wife?’”

Her face reddened in mute misery. She had watched from the balcony all afternoon, half-expecting a police car or an ambulance to arrive. But neither had. The balconies of 404 and 504 had remained resolutely empty. The maid came out in 806 and took in the clothes, still on her phone. The woman in 604 watered the plants. The man in 706 came out for his evening smoke. Then the sky darkened to ink blue, the mirrors turned mossy and opaque, and she saw no more.

“It has to be either 404 or 504, I’m quite sure,” she said, voice small.

He finished eating, and sat back. “It’s all these teleserials you watch. They fill your head with all sorts of nonsense. You need to go out, make friends. Did you even speak to the lady I introduced you to?”

“I didn’t imagine it,” she wanted to scream. But the protest died on her lips.

His voice softened. “You have to stop upsetting yourself like this. It’s not good for you or the baby.” He patted her arm. “We’ll go to the park tomorrow evening, what do you say?”

***

She pressed herself further into the corner of the mirrored lift. Going up. She had spent the night unable to sleep, and the morning staring into the green glass. Then, finally, she had changed into one of the few salwar-kameezes that still fit her, and got into the lift.

First, she had gone down to G, planning to ask the security guard if anyone had moved into 504. But when they’d reached the ground floor, she hadn’t moved, and had held her breath as the lift filled up again and began to go up. The delivery man got out on the first floor, the two women on floor three, their high heels clicking. The doors opened on four and five, but she didn’t get off, and the middle-aged man, the only other person in the lift, shot her a suspicious glance. He finally got off on six, and she heaved a sigh of relief. She reached for 10 on the lift’s panel — enough was enough — and then paused. She was alone now. The doors had closed, and the lift stood poised, in waiting… On an impulse, she pressed five. This time, when it stopped, she stepped off.

The corridor stretched out dimly on either side, all dark brown tiles and stale cooking smells. She turned left and walked to where she knew 504 would be, and there it was, front door open and large cartons and furniture and a child’s cycle strewn about outside. She stopped in surprise, and watched as a short, bespectacled man came out with two tall men in red t-shirts, obviously the movers. “These boxes have to go to the children’s room,” he was telling them. “Arre, carefully, or everything will break!”

He either didn’t see her, or didn’t acknowledge her. She slunk back to the lift, pulse racing. There was no way this could be the man she had seen in the balcony. Inside, her hand hovered over the fourth-floor button, but she pressed 10 instead. She knew now. It had to have been 404. Had to. She hugged her swollen stomach as she felt the baby squirm inside. Suddenly, all she wanted was to be back in the safety of her house.

***

When she heard the jingle of his keys outside the door that evening, she tensed. She was going to tell him what she’d found out, and tell him to ask the security about the mysterious tenants of 404. Obviously, something was wrong, that’s why the poor woman never ever came out, not even onto the balcony. God knows what had happened to her now…

Her heart sank as she realised he wasn’t alone. He opened the door, still talking to the person with him. “No, no, please come, have a cup of chai with us. I insist,” he was saying in an ingratiating tone. “Look, who I met,” he said to her. “He’s new in the building, works at Al Mostafawi, our parent company…”

But she wasn’t listening. It was the man from 504, small, bespectacled, balding. Did he recognise her? The man smiled perfunctorily. “I will join you another time,” he said. “My brother is waiting…”

“I invited him also… ah, there he is. Come in, come in.”

Even before the tall figure filled the doorway, she knew.

Not 404. It was never 404.

“Hello,” the brother said. His eyes were like green shards of glass. “Nice to see you again.”

***

Later, she couldn’t remember if he’d really said “again”, or if she’d imagined it. Snippets of the men’s conversation reached her as she hid in the kitchen, shaking. The brother used to work for Mostafawi too, but was leaving soon for the UK. He was getting married “to Mahmoud Mostafawi’s own niece”. The little man tittered. “After that he won’t even turn and look at us poor relations.”

That night, her husband could speak of nothing but the wedding and the billionaire’s niece.

And she thought of the girl on the balcony, the girl who was not the billionaire’s niece.

***

When she stepped into the balcony the next morning, it was overcast and chilly. No one was sunbathing on the roof. No laundry hung in 806. But he was waiting for her on 504. Their eyes met in the green mirror, and her world turned grey.

She was stumbling into the drawing room when she heard the lock turn, and she remembered that she hadn’t seen the spare key on the table that morning.

When they found her body, they called it a suicide. But the mirrors knew different. They knew.

Divya Kumar is a Dubai-based author whose first novel ‘The Shrine of Death’ will be published by Bloomsbury India in 2018

(This story originally appeared in BLink’s fourth anniversary fiction edition, as part of a series featuring the work of 2018 debut novelists.)

 

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Happy Grandparents Day!

This lovely, heartfelt song was composed by my mother for my five year old daughter. It’s an ode to the love and adoration grandparents feel for their grandkids ❤ I hope you enjoy it!

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The thing that *really* bothered me about La La Land’s ending

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There’s been a lot of debate about the ending of La La Land, the musical that almost won the Best Film at the Oscars. Obviously, if you haven’t seen the movie, stop reading now, because there be spoilers ahead.

**Spoiler alert**

The ending has been aptly described as ‘bittersweet’. People love it, people hate it. It’s been proclaimed as the best thing about the movie, and the thing that totally ruined it. Basically, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), after two and something hours of being madly in love, decide to part ways in order to follow their dreams. In the final portion of the film, they meet five years later — they’ve found professional success, but lost each other. She’s married to the drummer from That Thing You Do and he’s alone, and there’s a gorgeous musical sequence as they think about what might have been.

On a purely visceral, emotional level, sitting there in the theater, the ending worked beautifully for me. I loved the bittersweet tone, the ‘what if…’, and the final lingering glance they exchange at the door, and got all choked up. Logically, though, I wasn’t sold. The more I thought about it later, the more I found I wasn’t convinced that they couldn’t follow their dreams and still invest in their relationship. Why couldn’t the jazz-loving Sebastian spend four months in Paris while Mia acted in her breakthrough film? He says himself that there are great jazz clubs there… so what exactly is the problem? Or why not even consider a temporary long-distance arrangement? They wouldn’t be the first couple or the last to Skype their way through a four or five month separation. Or why doesn’t she look him up after the four months are done and she returns to the U.S., if, as she says, she’ll always love him? I never got the sense that there’s any personal or professional incompatibility that necessitated separation. To me, it seemed like director Chazelle wanted this ending, this bittersweetness, and so he tacked it on. It didn’t feel like the relationship naturally found its way there.

The only sort-of explanation that’s offered is when Sebastian tells Mia that she has to give her 100 per cent to her dream of making it in the movies — no distractions or demands due to Seb and their relationship, presumably. Fair enough. But let’s see how that works out for Mia, shall we? (And this brings us to the part about the ending that really bugs  me). Five years later, she’s a super-successful actress, yes, but she’s also married to Generic Husband Man, and has a Cute Toddler Daughter, who is at least two years old, maybe 2.5. Back-calculating, that means that she got pregnant just barely two  years after breaking up with Seb. Let’s assume that this wasn’t a case of her getting knocked up and hastily tying the knot while showing off her six-month baby bump. That means she married GHM maybe six months before she got pregnant. They must have dated for at least six months-ish before they got married (this isn’t some quick-gun desi arranged marriage after all). So that means that she met and got into a serious relationship with GHM just barely a year (probably less) after breaking up with Seb, just about when her breakthrough film was wrapping up/getting ready to release. See the problem here? The logic doesn’t hold up.

So if Mia wasn’t so focused on career goals that she put her personal life/marriage/children a far second (clearly this isn’t the case if she is happily ensconced in domestic bliss and is preggers just two years later), then the choice was more Sebastian’s than hers. And this is more believable. Because he’s the one who’s living like a hermit at the start, and still is living that way, five years later. He’s the one who tells her they should go their separate ways. And all Mia does is agree. We never actually get to hear her point of view. She asks him, “Where are we?” and he tells her, and she agrees. That, to me, is really annoying on closer inspection. This is clearly a favoured trope of Damien Chazelle’s — the male artiste who eschews love for his art (e.g. Whiplash). Mia, really, has all the will and agency of a damp dish rag in this particular scenario.

That final sequence, where we see their life together if they’d never broken up, then, is truly her fantasy. That’s what she would have wanted, only she never fights for or even makes a case for it (see damp dish rag). Sebastian throws away their relationship and is content to ‘suffer for his art’ because, in Chazelle’s world, that’s what men do. And she fantasizes about domestic bliss with him, while sitting beside the man who was actually willing to commit to her, because… I don’t know… that’s what women do? (Not).  Suddenly, it’s not all bittersweet and romantic anymore. It’s just… annoying and blergh. And also really unfair to GHM. Poor ol’ Guy Patterson of The Wonders deserved better.

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The five stages of an IKEA visit with my five-year-old

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Stage 1: Vigorous protest. The night before/the morning of the visit:

Kid: “But Amma! I don’t want to go to IKEA. I want to go to the park/beach/indoor play area with my friend! IKEA is booooring!”

Me: “No, it’s not! It’s full of interesting stuff.”

Kid (arms crossed): “Does it have clothes?”

Me: “Er… no.” (But it has toys. For once, I have enough thought-to-mouth-control not to say it out loud. We’d cross that particular bridge when we come to it <see Stage 4>).

“Shoes?” (My daughter, the diva.)

“No.”

“Hairbands?” (Note: We’re currently obsessed with hairbands)

Me: “No, but…”

Kid (throwing up arms in exasperation): “See? It’s boooring!”

*

Stage 2: Enter Festival City Mall, where IKEA is located in Dubai. “Amma amma amma! I want to go on the toy train! I want the Sophia the Princess balloon! I want to go to that play area…” Curse you, Festival City. Why do you need to have so, so many distractions for the pint-sized brigade just outside the entrance of IKEA?? Do you not realise we parents need to reserve every ounce of our strength for the ordeal of the next 3 to 4 hours, as we stagger zombie-style through the winding maze with whining little person(s) in tow, laden with a shopping cart full of junk we don’t need, and unwieldy boxes and shelving units to store it all in?? We can’t be wasting energy battling past helium balloon and tooting red-and-yellow engines!

*

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Stage 3: Enter IKEA. Cue amazement. “I LOVE IKEA!” This is the best portion of the trip, so one must make the best of it. The daughter has shelved the diva-ness and demands for balloons, and is totally charmed by the pretty, pretty bedrooms and kitchens and dining rooms on display. She pretend cooks at the kitchen, has a tea-party at the little kiddie table on display, lies on the beds (while I pretend not to notice), and generally makes like she’s living in a life-size doll house. “I don’t ever want to go home! Can we live here forever, amma?”

*

Stage 4: BOOM!  By that, I am referring, of course, to the wretchedly attractive and colourful toy section of IKEA, strategically located at the halfway point of the maze, right about when your kid is getting bored of amusing herself with pots and pans and pillows, and is starting to get tired. What happens when a bored and tired little person who’s been looking at shelving units and kitchens is confronted with an oasis of toys? Exactly. BOOM!

Now, there are two options here for the also-starting-to-get-tired-and-cranky parents — a blanket ban on any more toys, and damn the consequences (you brave souls you), or multiple rounds of negotiations before you settle upon a mutually agreeable, not-too-outrageous toy purchase. We bought a stuffed cat, who has been christened Mia (don’t judge me… virtually every kid walking out of IKEA was carrying a stuffed animal of some species or the other.) Of course, sometimes the peace talks fail and you end up with a toddler lying on one of IKEA’s pristine aisles throwing an epic tantrum. Let’s have a moment of silence to express solidarity for every parent whose ever been in that position (there but for the grace of Mia go I.)

*

Stage 5: Exhaustion. This stage has both its advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, your kid is too exhausted to wander off or break things or demand to buy new stuff, and is likely to sit in the shopping cart quietly for the first time in the entire expedition. On the other hand, she’s more likely to whine (“I’m huuuungry! Are we done yet??”) and make irrational demands like “Carry me!” and “I want to lie down!”. I settled this by placing a random cat-motif pillow I’d picked up (in keeping with the general feline theme of the day, and the compulsion one feels to buy random stuff at IKEA) on the handle of the cart and having her put her head on it. I no longer had a handle to push the cart with, but hey, the whining was down, so I’ll take it.

*

We eventually did finish and make it back to the car, stopping only 10 or 15 times to pick up Mia and/or the cat pillow along the way. Our annual visit was done; there were no tempers lost or tantrums thrown (only the husband’s blood and sweat  lost over setting up the shelves later), and at least 50 per cent of what we bought was actually useful. As IKEA trips go, I’d give this one a Grade A – (half a grade point reduced for unnecessary purchase of cat pillow, which has already since been abandoned.)

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Mia says meeoww

 

 

 

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To All the DivyaKs out there (Part 6): Matrimonial Mayhem

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Ladies, we need to talk. Again. For years now, I’ve been getting your travel itineraries, your bank/credit card statements, your phone bills, your job applications/CVs, your online shopping lists, even your missives to long-lost friends, etc. etc. because, it seems, a hundred or so of you believe you have my email address. *Deep breath*. In the beginning, I worried. I worried about you guys missing out on stuff. That I’m receiving so many of your private/important documents. I used to write back diligently, saying, ‘Yo, you’ve got the wrong email address’, and feel that glow of having done something good. But those days are long gone now. I’ve reached a point where, unless it’s a question of life-or-death, I don’t bother. I figure, if you couldn’t be arsed to properly remember or type in your own fricking email id, it isn’t my problem. Mostly, though, I don’t even notice them anymore. I just blindly go delete delete delete when I see random bills, office memos, PowerPoint presentations, etc. addressed to me from organisations I’ve never been a part of in my life.

However, you’ve succeeded in getting my attention. Again. Because now, I’m getting marriage proposals that ought to be going to one of you. And really, I draw the line at that. Is nothing sacred anymore?? Every morning, I open my inbox, and there they are, another four or five ‘expressions of interest’ from men viewing your profile on BharatMatrimony.com. I kid you not. Every day. I do feel a tinge of pride on behalf of us female DivyaKs (I’m sure you male DivyaKs are very attractive as well, no gender discrimination meant) everywhere… this is one popular profile. But I digress. I’d like to point out that I’m a much-married mom of one, and I, for one, don’t want any more expressions of interest from matrimony-seeking males. That part of my life is (thankfully!) done and dusted. No more, thank you.

But there you are, a lovely, talented, sweet woman whose only faults are having a) a wretchedly common first name, b) an equally common last name/initial, and c) an annoying inability to remember your own email address properly. And you can’t even be blamed for (a) and (b). Yet, you’re sitting there, day after day, staring at your email inbox wistfully, wondering why, why none of those matrimony-seeking men are interested in seeking matrimony with you. And scattered across the internet there are all those men, at least about 20 by my last count, staring at their inboxes, wondering sadly why this Divya isn’t interested in their expressions of interest.

And the wedding nadaswarams fail to play for another day. *wipes away a tear*

You see? You see, DivyaKs? This isn’t a joke anymore. You miss a phone bill, your company calls you. And you probably don’t want to see your credit card statement anyway. But this, this is a question of the rest of your life! You may never meet the man the you’re meant to be with because you didn’t check your email id properly while filling in an online form! This is tragic stuff, y’all. And let’s face it. This isn’t You’ve Got Mail or something, alright? You’re not going-to-meet-the-guy-anyway-because-you’re-destined-to-be-together-and-already-know-him-but-don’t-realise-it’s-him-until-the-last-five-seconds-of-the-movie. Because if that was our lives, we wouldn’t be on BharatMatrimony or Tindr or PerfectMatch or whatever, see?

So get your act together, ladies. This stuff is important. Check. Your. Email. Address. Repeat after me: “My email id is not your email id.” Stop signing me up for stuff I don’t understand or care about. Stop trying to marry me off to random men, when all the while, your Prince Charming is out there, pining away, staring at your profile. *sniff* Go! Change your email so you can be with him!

And please, for the love for holy matrimony, leave me out of it.

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