I was recently interviewed by Chennai-based blogger Sarath Babu about my experience writing and having ‘The Shrine of Death’ published…
Shri Ganeshaya Namah is not an incantation you’d expect to see etched in the heart of Azerbaijan, the tiny Muslim-majority, former Soviet nation on the banks of the Caspian Sea. But it’s what catches my eye on a stone archway as we enter Ateshgah, a fire temple near Surakhani, Azerbaijan.
There are five more lines in Devanagari, invoking, among others, Jwala Ji, the Hindu deity of fire.
There are similar inscriptions in Sanskrit or Punjabi on almost every doorway leading into the pentagonal fire temple compound, all left behind by Hindu and Sikh travellers to the region over 500 years ago.
Ateshgah, it turns out, is a fascinating little relict of history, of globalisation and the inter-cultural exchange between the Indian sub-continent and Europe, dating back to the 16th century.
Azerbaijan was part of the Silk Route that connected Asia and Europe, and it is believed that merchants from the Indian subcontinent came to hear of the legend of the ‘burning earth’ and ‘eternal flames’ that the Absheron peninsula in Azerbaijan was renowned for (Azerbaijan, in fact, is often referred to as ‘The Land of Fire’). And so, Indian travellers and pilgrims arrived in the late 16th and early 17th century, building Ateshgah in its current form, and worshipping the sacred flames alongside their own gods such as Ganesha and Shiva.
On the day of our visit to the temple, the wind is very strong, whipping up dust around us; we are, after all, less than 20 km from the capital city of Baku, unofficially called the ‘City of Wind’ in Azeri. But the sacred flame in the raised main fire altar at the centre of the temple compound burns on regardless.
That central flame, and the open flames that burn in the two circular platforms on the side are today lit by Baku’s main pipeline of gas. But for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, they were a naturally occurring phenomenon, the result of the country’s massive natural gas reserves that leaked through holes in the rocky surface, igniting into flames as it came into contact with air.
These ‘eternal flames’ have been venerated by fire-worshippers throughout Azerbaijan’s history — there are mentions as far back as the 7th century by travellers to the region. Indeed, historians believe that the fire temple itself existed in an earlier form, built by Zoroastrians long before the Indian travellers came.
Part of an older structure was found beneath the current one during renovations done at the temple in 1969, and the name ‘Ateshgah’ comes from Persian, meaning ‘house of fire’. There are indications that the old temple might have extended beyond the existing perimeter, but any remains were most likely destroyed when the surrounding land was excavated for oil and gas from the late 19th century onwards.
That was also what caused the end of the glorious natural phenomenon of the eternal flame — the aggressive century-long mining of the natural gas reserves meant the flames went out by 1969. And possibly the reason why worship ended at the temple in the late 19th century as well — historians speculate that the pilgrims were driven away by the setting up of petroleum plants in the Surakhani region.
A pilgrimage site
But thankfully, the 500-year-old temple itself still stands, and retains traces of its multicultural past. The central altar isn’t purely Hindu in its structure, with similarities to traditional Zoroastrian fire altars, and one of the inscriptions in the temple compound is in Persian as well. The Zoroastrian influence in Azerbaijan is old but deeply rooted, a remnant of the days when pre-Islamic Persian dynasties ruled the region. Even today, Nuvroz, the Zoroastrian new year celebration, is a major festival in their calendar.
Fittingly enough, according to historical accounts, Ateshgah in the 19th century became a pilgrimage site for Parsis from Bombay who came to visit the Indian temple that was once a Zoroastrian place of worship.
Following its restoration in 1969, the temple was converted into a museum in 1975, and was officially listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1998.
Today, each of the tiny cells that line the pentagonal perimeter of the compound tells stories of the pilgrims and ascetics who lived there, showing them doing tapasya, draping themselves in heavy iron chains or indulging in extreme acts of self-denial and fasting. Chants of Om Gam Ganapataye Namah float out of one cell, another houses a Nataraja bronze, and yet another displays shards of pottery used in rituals long ago.
The author of The Shrine of Death is a journalist, sometime singer-songwriter and full-time mom, based in Dubai.
This article originally appeared in The Hindu’s Sunday Magazine supplement.
The article is in Malayalam, but the video of me talking about the book at the end is in English! 🙂
Following the launch at the SIBF 2018, this interview appeared in one of the region’s leading English dailies, the Khaleej Times.
For debutant Indian novelist Divya Kumar, the protagonist in her maiden book The Shrine of Death had to be a woman. “It was a no-brainer,” she explained to Khaleej Times, after launching her book at the Sharjah International Book Fair late last week.
The Dubai-based author and former journalist’s first book was published by Bloomsbury India in April 2018. The fiction title is a fast-paced thriller deal with the issue of idol theft and is a heady mix of crime, mystery, romance and the paranormal.
“The book is a fictionalised account of actual events that occurred in Tamil Nadu in 2009 when a set of ancient Chola idols disappeared from an abandoned temple and were later discovered to have been smuggled out of the country,” said Kumar.
“This was the watershed case that eventually leads to the high-profile arrest of Manhattan-based art dealer and smuggler Subhash Kapoor.”
The book’s central character – Prabha Sinhan – is an IT professional who gets pulled into the murky world of idol theft and goes in search of her missing friend Sneha Pillai.
“Mainstream Indian media often portrays a certain stereotype of women in mass media. Like a manic pixie dream girl, or a virtuous, pious woman, or an oversexed glam doll, or even a confused, flaky millennial,” she added.
Kumar’s character had to be a relatable, regular young woman who was not epitomised in any manner. “I also wanted my character to be strong, stubborn, and fiercely loyal,” she said.
A former journalist of The Hindu newspaper in India, Kumar moved to Dubai in 2016. “I finished a big chunk of the editing and re-writing process in the UAE,” she added.
Though the book had its first release in India, Kumar said she is extremely proud of being part of the Sharjah book fair.
“I wanted to write fiction for pretty much my whole life. From childhood, I’ve had a set of unfinished books and manuscripts. I worked at The Hindu from 2006 – 2011, but I stopped working full-time after my daughter was born,” she said.
She began seriously working on the novel, and it took shape after details of the Chola idols case unearthed.
“I was still with The Hindu when the bust of the idol smuggling ring was in the news. From a local case in Tamil Nadu, the case went international as it was linked to an international crime ring. It was covered extensively in the India media and I followed it with a lot of interest.”
For Kumar, the theme was a perfect fit for her book as she got increasingly fascinated with the subject. “The plot evolved out the details of the case,” she added.
As she began writing the book, Kumar imagined it to be part of a trilogy. “I am definitely working on a sequel,” she added.
The original article appeared here in the Khaleej Times.
My debut novel, ‘The Shrine of Death’ was recently launched at the prestigious Sharjah International Book Fair 2018 — the third largest book fair in the world, and the largest in the region!
SHARJAH: Debutant Indian novelist Divya Kumar received overwhelming response as she introduced “The Shrine of Death” to booklovers at the ongoing Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF).
Published by Bloomsbury India, the novel was released in India in April 2018 to glowing reviews by the press and readers alike. Since then its arrival was awaited by the UAE book aficionados.
It is a fast-paced thriller dealing with the hot-button issue of idol theft, and has a heady mix of crime, mystery, romance and the paranormal.
During a conversation at the SIBF with the acclaimed poet and author Anuradha Vijayakrishnan, Kumar said that the book is a heavily fictionalised account of actual events that occurred in Tamil Nadu, India, in 2009, when a set of ancient Chola idols disappeared from an abandoned temple, and were later discovered to have been smuggled out of the country. This was the watershed case that eventually led to the high-profile arrest of Manhattan-based art dealer and smuggler Subhash Kapoor.
“The Shrine of Death” tells the story of Prabha Sinha, an IT professional in the south Indian city of Chennai, who is plunged into a murky world of idol theft, murder, and betrayal after she gets a mysterious phone call one night from her old friend Sneha Pillai. As she races to find answers before the people she loves get hurt, she seeks the help of Jai Vadehra, a troubled young man with a tragic past, and police officer Gerard Ratnaraj of the Idol Wing, CID, whom she can’t help but be drawn to. Their search takes them from Chennai’s newsrooms and universities to the abandoned sepulchral shrine of a Chola queen in the heartland of Tamil Nadu. And here there is a twist in the tale.
Divya Kumar is a journalist, writer and blogger, currently based in Dubai. She spent her early 20s studying and working in the US, dabbling in web-design and media studies, before settling down to a career in journalism. After returning to India, she joined The Hindu newspaper in Chennai, writing for The Hindu Metroplus, covering mainly the book and art beat.
“I started writing this book when I took a break for the birth of my first child. Naturally, it took me three years to complete the book. Fortunately, I didn’t have to run after dozens of publishers. The only difficulty I faced was to convince famous literary agent Kanishka Gupta to have a look at my work. Once he agreed to, it was quite smooth as the editor, Himanjali Sankar, also had confidence in my work,” she added. Encouraged by the tremendous response, she has already started working on its sequel.
Currently available at Jashanmal Books stand at the SIBF, the title will shortly be available at leading bookstores in the UAE.
I have been writing for as long as I remember. I wrote my first story when I was around 5, about a fish and a turtle that were friends. This was followed by a comic-book series drawn in pencil over school summer holidays, about a pair of naughty twin boys called Tissy and Tassy. Then came the Enid Blyton-inspired stories about sassy kids who went on picnics and solved mysteries in their holidays, followed by never-completed novels of teenage angst and romance, and even a reincarnation-based story in college that I lost along with all other data when my crappy Windows 95 system crashed.
But in my 20s, following my journalism degree and my grad school years, while working in my first real job as a features reporter at The Hindu, I found myself, for lack of a better word, stuck. I ought to have been the most inspired I’d ever been. I ought to have been churning out stories. Here I was, being exposed to interesting people and stories, every single day, on the job. Here I was, attending book launches, speed reading new novels by Indian authors, and getting to interview them about the process of writing. It was a dream come true for a young wannabe novelist. And yet, I found myself paralysed. When it came time to try and work on my own writing, I couldn’t seem to make progress. I had ideas, sure; I’d sit and try working on some of them, but it would come out sounding stilted. And worse, I wasn’t inspired to keep going.
I talked about it all the time though, so much so that it came to be known as ‘The Book’ in my family, the one I would someday write. The Great Indian Novel, or something like that. Then marriage happened, then the birth of my daughter in my early 30s. I was intense about motherhood, from the start. I wanted to be hands-on, so I quit my full-time job. I was the archetypal over-involved first-time mom. I Googled everything. I worried about everything. I overthought everything. But I also thoroughly enjoyed all those firsts, all those incredible moments of babyhood and toddlerhood, the ones that become picture postcards in your mind, and then get passed on as stories to your kid as she gets older and wants to hear about “when she was a baby”. And of course, I wrote about them too, in blogs and a column.
But something else was happening at the same time, almost silently. I was working on a book, in stolen moments at night, while my baby slept, or on weekends when my husband shooed me out of the house to go take a break. Not ‘The Book’, but just a book. Not some hopelessly elevated ideal, but just a story I wanted to tell, like the ones I wrote in my childhood. Just for myself, what I’d myself want to read. This time, I didn’t talk about it much. It was like a little secret I hugged to my chest. I wasn’t even ever sure I wanted to publish it. I just wanted to write it. It wasn’t until it was complete, some three and a half years later, that I knew I wanted to try and put it out there. That story, of course, became ‘The Shrine of Death’.
I often wonder what made the difference. What broke the paralysis. And I believe it was motherhood. I believe that motherhood liberated me. I know that seems contradictory. After all, motherhood, in a lot of ways, shackles you. Your time isn’t your own, your energy isn’t your own, your mind even isn’t your own, filled as it is with thoughts and worries and fears about the little person who’s wholly dependent on you. But motherhood also gives you a brand of confidence, a belief in your ability to tough it out in the trenches. “If I’ve managed to care for this little life, then what is a mere story?” It puts everything in perspective, and it frees you from any delusions of grandeur you might possess. Suddenly, the story I’d been obsessing about and building up in my head for years was just that – a story. It didn’t have to arrive perfectly formed in my head or become The Great Indian Novel. If there’s one thing motherhood teaches you, it’s that everything in this life, including yourself and your efforts, is less than perfect, but no less meaningful for it. That the most important things in life are messy and hard, and that the only thing to do is just keep going.
I’ve always been terrified of screwing up, of being less than perfect. Hence, you can probably guess, the paralysis when it came to doing anything that was really important to me. But with motherhood, not doing was not an option. I was responsible for this tiny human being, and so I had to do, terrified or not, and – amazingly! – we both survived. I made mistakes, and beat myself up about it, yes, but then I got up, dusted myself off, and moved on, because, again, there was no other option. It just had to be done, and you know what, I did okay.
Every single day as a mother, especially in the early months, holds innumerable moments of failure and triumph. It’s exhausting, but it’s also the biggest life lesson there is.
Now, I like to say I’m the mom of two – of my firstborn child, and of my firstborn book. Neither journey was easy, but I know in my heart that if it hadn’t been for the first, I may have never completed the second.
You can find the original blog post here.
Book: The Shrine of Death
Author: Divya Kumar
Publication: Bloomsbury India
If reading Divya Kumar’s The Shrine of Death while stretched out on a beach somewhere, remember to slap on some sunscreen and order enough beer to last you at least a couple of hours. Because once you start on this book, it’s unlikely you’ll set it down before you race to the end. The Shrine of Death has all the ingredients required for a thrilling beach read: an ambitious and beguiling beauty who stumbles onto a web of conspiracy and then vanishes, two amateur detectives — one of whom is harbouring a disquieting secret — and a dishy love interest (a man in uniform, no less).
The plot is fairly straightforward: IT professional Prabha Sinha gets an unsettling phone call from her old friend, Sneha, and is drawn into an investigation of her disappearance and the theft of some priceless Chola sculptures. The book switches between Prabha’s perspective, and that of the troubled Jai, who is, for reasons of his own, helping her figure out what happened to Sneha.
Apart from the deftly managed suspense, what draws the reader in is Kumar’s ability to flesh out characters. One gets a real sense of the emotional stakes involved, and, as the story progresses, the stakes only get higher. Given the premise — that of heritage loot, a major problem in India — this book could have quite easily been overloaded with research. But the writer maintains a light touch, although there should still be enough to satisfy art history and archaeology wonks.
This review for ‘The Shrine of Death’ was part of a round up of this season’s detective novels the Indian Express’ book section. You can read about all the other fabulous novels in the list here!