Tag Archives: fiction

Of Writing and Motherhood

This was written for the Guest Blog section of the amazing Bookaholicanonymous blog.

 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.

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Interview for the Rayaan Writer blog

Really enjoyed doing this thorough, in-depth interview with the talented Mohammed Rayaan over at http://www.rayaanwriter.com
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Photo credit: Shuchi Kapoor

Divya Kumar is the author of ‘The Shrine of Death’, a thriller novel released in April 2018 by Bloomsbury India. She is also a freelance journalist. Her column, ‘Toddler Talk’ in the Metro plus has garnered many fans.

In her website, she describes herself as “Singer-songwriter and sometimes pianist. Movie geek. Netflix addict. Tennis nut. Mom of one little diva. Former physics student, computer scientist, web developer and media studies grad student among other things. Card-carrying member of the Happy to Have Been a Gulfie club.”


 
The Interview
 

 
How did you get the idea to write ‘The Shrine of Death’?

Divya: It literally came to me in a dream! I woke up one morning with one of the main characters of the story, Jai, fully formed in my head – his tragic backstory, his struggles. At that time, The Hindu was doing a lot of coverage on idol theft in Tamil Nadu, and the bust of the international smuggling ring headed by Manhattan-based art dealer Subhash Kapoor, and I was following it closely. So, the two – Jai’s story, and the idol theft plot – sort of just came together in my head, almost as a complete whole.

What kind of research did you have to do when writing your novel?

Divya: I did as much reading as possible on the idol theft cases in the news, as well as from the TamilNadu Idol Wing’s website, which had considerable detail on the busts, and I ensured that my information on the Chola dynasty was historically accurate. Especially helpful was a talk I attended on Chola temples by historian Pradeep Chakravarthy, from where I got the final piece
of the plot puzzle – pallipadais, shrines built to honour dead Chola kings and queens. But all of that was just a jumping off point for the story – the bulk of it comes from my imagination.

Can you tell us about your writing regime and your approach of writing a novel?

Divya: When I started writing this novel, my daughter was just about a year old, so there was no regime to speak off! I wrote whenever I could, late into the nights after she slept, or on the weekends, when I left her with my husband for a few hours and sat at a cafe with my laptop. The result was that I wrote intensely in bursts, but then there would be long stretches in between when I barely wrote at all. It got easier as my daughter got older – now I set aside three to four hours every morning while she’s in school to focus on writing or editing.

But I still like to write late into the night on occasion – though I pay for it in the morning! I always have a basic plot outline, an overall idea of where the story must go, and basic character
arcs mapped out before I begin my novel. But, of course, as I get deeper into writing each part, the plot evolves and changes, and the character arcs get tweaked to so that it all works, and fits together as a cohesive whole.

Can you tell us about your life as a journalist?

Divya: I began writing for The Hindu’s Metroplus supplement in Chennai after I returned from the U.S., where I was studying. It was, in all ways, a wonderful experience – we had a young, lively group of reporters and our editors were experienced and dynamic.

Books and art became my beat, so I had a chance to interview visiting authors – everyone from Amitav Ghosh to Jeffrey Archer – and leading artists in the city, and cover book launches and contemporary art shows.

I also got to explore Chennai, the city of my birth, and came to know it in a way I might never had been able to do otherwise. I think a lot that I learnt and experienced in the years I worked for The Hindu reflects in the setting and the themes of ‘The Shrine of Death’.

Who is your favourite author and your favourite books?

Divya: I love reading fiction across all genres — I enjoy Edgar Allan Poe and Anne Rice as much as I do Georgette Heyer and P. G. Wodehouse. I don’t have a single favourite author, but there are elements of different authors’ writing I love. For instance, crime writer Dick Francis is an old favourite of mine — I’ve always loved the way he foregrounds his characters and their emotional lives, even in the midst of a fast-moving plot.

I love the dark and brooding atmosphere that Daphne Du Maurier conjures up at will on her novels and short stories. I recently re-discovered Ira Levin — what a genius for plot the man had! And I love the gentle humanity and kindness in James Herriot’s writing.

Can you suggest tips for aspiring writers on how to get their novel published by reputed firms?

Divya: Being just one book old, I don’t know how much gyan I can give, but I can try! I guess the main thing is to make sure your manuscript is ready before you send it out – clean it up, edit, and revise until you feel sure it’s good enough to be out there. You want to make sure the agent or editor is seeing the best possible version of your work.

Also, it’s worth putting some effort into how you package your submission – your query letter/email, your synopsis etc. Make sure you stick to the guidelines the agent or editor lists on their website. These are small things that can make a difference. A lot of writers in India approach publishing houses directly;

I chose to approach Delhi-based Kanishka Gupta, one of the country’s top literary agents. He believed in the book enough to take me on, and he made things happen at record speed thereafter. Based on my experience, I can safely say that there’s nothing like having a dedicated, hardworking agent in your corner to make your publishing dream come true!

It must be quite difficult being a journalist. How do you manage to get new ideas for your articles?

Divya: As a features journalist, I never found it difficult to find story ideas! People are an endless source of inspiration, their stories, their accomplishments. Not just the people you meet when you go out to cover an event or a story, but the people you meet in daily life as well. And when that fails, you can always look within your own experiences for the germ of an idea.

 
How do you manage your life as a journalist and a fiction writer?

Divya: Journalism has taken a bit of a backseat for me in the last two years. It was partly that I came away from Chennai to Dubai, where I’m currently based, and partly that I’ve been pretty focused on completing the book and getting it published, and starting work on my next book. But in the preceding years, I was juggling a weekly column, doing freelance writing, and working on the book as well, and that happened pretty organically – I worked on the book when I didn’t have looming deadlines, and put it on the backburner when I did!
 
Do you get writer’s block? If yes, how do you handle it?

Divya: In my experience, if I’m feeling blocked and unable to write, it’s due to one of two things – fatigue or plot problems. Sometimes, if I’ve been writing intensely for a stretch, I hit a point of burnout, and start hating everything I’ve written. When that happens, I’ve found that just taking a step back and giving myself a break from the book helps a lot. Then I come back to it with fresh eyes, and find that hey, it’s not too bad after all, and the words start flowing again.
 
But sometimes, that doesn’t do it. And those times, I’ve realized that there’s often an issue with the story itself. Maybe I’ve written myself into an uninspiring corner, or some aspect of the characterisation is just not working. Then it’s worth reassessing/tweaking the original outline to try and fix the problem.
 
What principles do you live by?

Divya: I believe in kindness, in the old-fashioned concept of being nice. I always try to see the other person’s point of view, to be empathetic. But I also have very clear boundaries; I don’t stand for anyone disrespecting me or hurting the people I care for. I am extremely straightforward — I don’t have the inclination or the patience to play games – and excessively honest, to the point where I put sometimes myself in a spot by being unable to lie. But this is who I am, and I take pride in the ethical code I live by. I’m a friendly person but also intensely inward-looking. I need my own space, and I think that can sometimes be off-putting to people. But those who are close to me know that I will be there for them, no matter what.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

Divya: I was born in Chennai, but I actually grew up for most part in Muscat, Oman, and finished my schooling there. Then began what I think of as my wandering years – I was in Chennai studying physics for a couple of years before transferring to the U.S. to complete my undergraduate studies – a dual degree in Computer Science and in Journalism at Rutgers University. I worked there as a web-developer and coder briefly, before deciding conclusively that programming was not for me! I then did my masters coursework in Media Studies before once more returning to Chennai. It was then that I interviewed at The Hindu. A position had just opened up at the Metroplus and was offered to me – the rest, as they say, is history. I knew after just a few days on the job that there was nothing else I’d rather be doing.  
 
Can you tell how your normal day goes by?
 
Divya: Like any mom, my day starts early, packing lunches, making breakfast, and sending the family off to school/office. I wrap up my chores by 10 a.m. and begin my day’s work. During my intense writing phases, I’ll jump directly into reading through/reworking the previous day’s writing, and then continuing where I left off. At other times, I might spend an hour or two responding to emails, messages, etc. before getting into editing/writing. At still other times, I might take a break from writing altogether and work on my music. Then my daughter comes home from school in the afternoon, and it’s time to make the evening meal, take her down for playtime, and then back home for the dinner, and the bedtime rush…
 
Can you talk about your experience as singer/song writer?

Divya: Music is an essential part of me. I almost always have a song running through my head, that I’m humming under my breath. I am a classically trained singer, having learnt Hindustani vocal music since childhood. I enjoy singing Indian semi-classical and light music, but my heart really lies in Western music, specifically classic rock/folk/pop music. I’m an alto and have performed in choirs through school, college and beyond. I also play a little piano (not as much as I’d like!) and have been writing my own songs for as long as I can remember. In the last couple of years, I’ve begun to record my covers of some old favorite Western songs, and hope to share more of my own original songs soon too! You can check out my covers at my Sound cloud account: (https://soundcloud.com/user-396816675.)
 
How did your column “Toddler Talk” came about? 

Divya: The idea for the column really grew out of the writing I was doing on my blog, divyakumar.com, at that time. After the birth of my daughter, I took some time off from full-time reporting, and was freelancing for The Hindu. I began to write humorous posts on my daughter’s escapades on the blog, and found that people enjoyed them. When I was asked to do a column for the revamped Metroplus, I suggested ‘Toddler Talk’, a light-hearted look at raising this generation of high-maintenance, tech-savvy toddlers. My editor liked the idea, and the column was born. I loved writing it – it was such fun way of recording the memories of my daughter’s Terrible Twos and Threenager years, and also proved to be a wonderful way to bond with other moms going through the same experiences. 

The original interview can be found here
 

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‘The Shrine of Death’ — coming April 2018

Here it is guys! A first look at my debut novel, a thriller, to be published by Bloomsbury India this April:

shrine of death-R1 (Final)

 

“A beautiful, fiery young historian who discovered two priceless bronzes from the 10th century has disappeared without a trace …

Prabha Sinha, an IT professional in Chennai, 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 the gorgeous DSP 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 nothing, and no one, is as 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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The tree that remembers

Note: This piece of fiction was inspired by marsowords’ hauntingly beautiful entry for the three’s weekly photo challenge: ‘The oddly scenic threesome.

He used to live there, in the house under that tree. The tree would flower in the spring, blooms blazing bright red and orange under the California sun. There’d be a carpet in the colours of autumn on the ground and the sun would glint gold between the leaves above.

We sat there, on that carpet, many an afternoon. It felt like we were the only people alive. Even then there was an uncanny silence surrounding us. The green orchards, fruit and busy workers that were just miles distant seemed a world away, and that dusty road never saw any traffic. Just barren land all around, and this one, single spot of colour, bathed in the light of life.

When he was gone, the light went away. I go there every week to his house, and keep it perfectly clean, as though he’s just away on a trip and will be back home any day soon. I go there every week, but I can’t stop the life seeping out of it.

The flowers don’t bloom any more, the branches have curled up as though in sorrow. Even the light doesn’t glint golden; everything is grey and brown, just as it is all around. The ground is dry and burnt, no carpet to soften it, just spiny seeds.

All that remains are the memories that linger in the air, haunting that tree and that house like so many spirits of the dead. Now I go there not to exult in the present but to drift into the past, a past that was golden and warm. I exist like that tree, alive but bereft of life, warped by the past and uncaring of the future.

***

This was written for the Weekly Writing Challenge: Threes over on Daily Post.

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