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Interview for Sarath Babu’s Lifestyle Blog

I was recently interviewed by Chennai-based blogger Sarath Babu about my experience writing and having ‘The Shrine of Death’ published…

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1.What motivates you to write?
Love of the story and the characters! That, I’ve realised, is the only thing that makes you want to keep writing, that brings you back to the book again and again, amidst all the periods of self-doubt and low inspiration. That’s what happened for me with ‘The Shrine of Death’ – the story wouldn’t let me go.

 

2. How did you feel after publishing your book?
For someone like me, who has always loved books and reading, to see my own words within the covers of a novel was an incredible feeling, almost surreal. I remember holding it in my hands for the first time and feeling almost tearful. It was, quite literally, a dream come true.

 

3. What are some of your favourite novels and authors?
I love reading fiction across all genres — I enjoy Edgar Allan Poe and Anne Rice as much as I do Georgette Heyer or P. G. Wodehouse. Crime writer Dick Francis is an old favourite of mine – Ilove the way he deftly draws his characters and their emotional lives, as much as the way he sets up his fast-moving plots. I love the dark and brooding atmosphere that Daphne Du Maurier conjures up in her all novels and short stories. I recently re-discovered the thrillers of Ira Levin — what a fascinating variety of plots he came up with! And I love the gentle humour and kindness in the writing of James Herriot.
4. Is there a specific reason for naming your novel?

 

I had actually given it a different name in the beginning – ‘The Empath’. But my editor Himanjali Sankar and others at Bloomsbury India felt that wasn’t the most evocative title, especially since many people may not even know what an empath was (and I could see their point!) So, she asked me for some alternative titles, and ‘The Shrine of Death’ was the most popular of the ones I came up with. As for why it’s called that, it has to do with a special sort of Chola temple called a pallipadaithat is central to the mystery in my book. These are sepulchral shrines built to honour dead kings and queens – i.e. shrines of death! To know more about how the title came to be,you can check out this post in my blog: https://divyakumar.com/2018/04/05/why-the-shrine-of-death/.

 

5. Where do you write from? Do you go to some specific place, like beach side or the hills? 
I wish! Most of my writing for this book was done at home since I began working on it at the time when I gave up my full-time job as a reporter to become a stay-at-home mom. I still do the same… I generally write at my spot on the couch or at my desk, either after everyone is asleep at night, or after everyone has left home in the mornings! But there are also times when I just need to get away from it all to write, and then my go to is usually a coffees hop. Both in Chennai before, and in Dubai now, I have certain favourite cafes where I love to go, order a cappuccino and write.

 

6. What inspired you to write the books (in general)? Any tales to tell…
I grew up in a home filled with books, and I’ve just loved stories for as long as I can remember.I wrote my first story, about a turtle and fish who were best friends, when I was five years old, and my childhood and teens are littered with ambitious novels I began and abandoned. And that doesn’t count all the stories I’ve made up in my head and never put down on paper! Working as a journalist with The Hindu Metroplus, I covered the book beat, attending book launches and interviewing authors, and that was definitely a source of inspiration as well, meeting all these creative people and hearing their stories.

 

7. What was your biggest learning experience throughout the writing process?
The process of writing and rewriting, working and reworking, the steps that go into converting that first draft, the idea in your head, into something whole and complete, something cohesive and engaging. I’ve done that for feature articles, of course, but a 95,000-word novel is something else altogether!

 

8. Looking back, what did you do right that helped you break in as a writer?
I think there’s no better training ground for becoming an author than working as a journalist. Just the act of writing and editing everyday hones your abilities. It teaches you to cope with days when the words just aren’t coming that easily. It teaches you economy with words. It teaches you to be ruthless with your own writing. And exposes you to so many new experiences and interesting people.

 

9. Any best piece of writing advice that you would like to share with new or struggling writers? 
Just keep going! This is neither new nor original advice, but it’s the only thing that works – to keep writing. If you’re feeling blocked or burnt out, take a break, take a breather, but then come back to it.

 

10. Something personal about you people may be surprised to know?
Like my main protagonist Prabha, I have a degree in computer science! But unlike her, my shift in careers happened early on – I did a second degree in journalism, and except for a brief stint as a web developer, had moved completely away from coding by my mid-20s.

 

11. Any future books that you would like to discuss now?
I’m actually working on a sequel to ‘The Shrine of Death’, and I’m hoping to do a trilogy eventually. You will get to know what happened next with the characters in TSoD, and there are, of course, many strange and disturbing new developments!

 

12. What other profession excites you the most?
If I wasn’t a writer, I would love to be part of the music industry, as a singer, songwriter or composer!

 

13. Any special mention about your reader (be it with reviews/feedback or anything else)
The responses from readers are what matter to me the most, hands down. Nothing makes me happier than hearing from someone that they loved a particular aspect of the story or a were drawn to one of the characters; that they enjoyed curling up with the book while sick or during a long flight or layover; that they couldn’t put it down, and had to race to the end! To be able to share this story that was in my head for so long, and to see how people who love to read like myself respond to it… it’s just the best part.

 

14. Do you write the story at a stretch or you take your time to complete it? If you take a longer time, wouldn’t you be forgetting the story? How do you tackle it?
I tend to write in fits and bursts – I write intensely for stretches, then go through phases when I’m not writing that regularly. But I’m in no danger of forgetting the story! In fact, the periods when I’m not writing is often when I keep mulling certain plot points in my head, and come up with ideas to fix any issues in the story.

 

15. Traditional or Self-Publishing? Why?
I don’t know if I’m really equipped to comment on that, since I’m just one book old, and haven’t tried self-publishing. I do see the pros and cons of both though, and can understand why authors may choose one or the other. For now, I see myself sticking with traditional publishing, but who knows, maybe it’ll change in the future!

 

16. How is the response so far for the book? 
It’s been so encouraging! I’ve gotten good to great reviews from newspapers, bloggers, and readers alike, and I really couldn’t have asked for more as a first-time author.
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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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