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Interview for the Bookaholicanonymous Blog

Loved doing this interview with Smita Singh for the amazing Bookaholicanonymous Blog!

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“I was quite clear that this was not a historical novel. It was to be a fast-paced contemporary thriller with elements of Chola history woven in” Divya Kumar

Bookaholicanonymous is extremely happy to present Divya Kumar, author of the novel ‘The Shrine of Death’. The book is a chilling crime thriller in which a beautiful young historian who discovered two priceless bronzes from the 10th century disappears without a trace. Her friend sets out to find her and is drawn into a world of fraud, murder and betrayal where no rules apply. Get hold of this racy thriller, we gurantee its unputdownable! 

About Divya Kumar: Divya is a journalist, writer and blogger, earlier based in Dubai now Chennai. She spent her early 20s studying and working in the U.S., dabbling in web-design and media studies, before settling down to a career in journalism. She returned to India in 2006, and joined ‘The Hindu’ in Chennai, working as a senior reporter and feature writer with ‘The Hindu’ Metroplus for five years, covering mainly the book and art beat, before taking a break for the birth of her first child in 2011.

This is your first book right, what made you finally dive into the world of letters/books and become an author?
I’ve wanted to write a book for as long as I can remember. I’ve always been an avid reader – a bookaholic, in fact! – especially of fiction across all genres. And my childhood and adolescence are littered with novels I began and never got around to completing. As a features journalist in The Hindu in Chennai, I got to cover the book beat extensively, attending book launches and interviewing authors, and of course, reading all the books that came my way with relish. Through it all, the dream of writing my own book remained a constant. But it wasn’t until I took a break from full-time reporting for the birth of my daughter that I finally got started. And this book idea was different – it took root in my head and didn’t let me go, and unlike all those other times, I actually finished writing it!

How did the idea of the book come to you? 
Quite literally in a dream! I woke up one morning with the character and tragic backstory of Jai, the empath, lingering in my mind. At that time, The Hindu was doing in-depth coverage of the bust of the idol smuggling ring allegedly headed by the Manhattan-based Subhash Kapoor, and the two parts – the character of the empath, and the idol theft plot came together in my mind almost as a complete whole.

Did you deliberately choose to not go in to the detailed history of the time (Chola kingdom) you have chosen to write about?
Yes, it was a conscious choice made as I wrote the book. I was quite clear that this was not a historical novel. It was to be a fast-paced contemporary thriller with elements of Chola history woven in, and I didn’t want to bog down the narrative with long paragraphs of historical detail. The reader learns the pertinent facts along with my main character Prabha as she uncovers them, through her conversations with the professor, or through books she or Jai read, so that the history I reveal – about the great Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi, and about ancient sepulchral shrines or pallipadais – feel like an integral part of the scene, rather than a heavy info-dump that becomes a speed bump in the plot.

How much research did you have to do on idol thefts? Did being a journalist help you? 
The research was primarily trawling through all the newspaper coverage of high-profile idol thefts stretching back a couple of decades, especially in The Hindu, and also going through the Tamil Nadu Idol Wing website, which had considerable detail on thefts they had uncovered. Being a journalist certainly helped me in sifting through the various sources of information and using them optimally.

How long did it take to finish writing the book?
About three and a half years. But the writing was not continuous. I began, as I mentioned, when my daughter was a baby, so initially I wrote only late into the nights or on weekends. I was also, during that period, doing a weekly column for The Hindu Metroplus and doing freelance reporting as well, so my work on the book often happened in fits and starts. I’d write intensely for periods and not at all for stretches in between. It wasn’t until the final six months that I was focused entirely on the book and its completion.

You know Chennai more than any other city in India, is that why you based your novel on the city?
Yes, Chennai is the city of my birth, and although I grew up for most part in Muscat, Oman, I returned to Chennai every summer to my grandparents’ house. It was the place I came to for college, and then again returned to after studying for a while in the U.S. Most of the important milestones of my life are linked to Chennai – it’s the place where I began my career as a journalist and writer, where I met my husband and got married, where my daughter was born… So when I began to write my first book, it was only natural that Chennai would have a starring role in it!

Which of your characters did you develop first?
Jai, the empath. As I mentioned, his character arrived almost fully-formed in my head, and I knew from the start that I wanted to explore his past traumas and his struggles with his abilities alongside the idol theft mystery.

Did you weave a little bit of yourself in the character of Prabha as you were a Computer Science student?
I guess I did! Prabha is definitely not me – she’s very much her own distinct person. But I suppose I did use certain aspects of my experiences and my life in shaping hers. One, as you mentioned, is the transition from computer science to journalism – though mine happened under very much more mundane circumstances than hers! And the other, maybe, is her search for roots and finding them in Chennai, something I went through after drifting between Muscat, India and the U.S. for the better part of a decade in my late teens and 20s.

Did you have someone in mind while developing the character of Gerard Ratnaraj? 
Not really. He’s a composite of the cops I read about while researching the idol thefts, with a liberal dose of my imagination thrown in!

When and what can we expect from your next book? 
The ‘when’ is uncertain… all I can say is that I’m working on it and am about half way through currently. As for the ‘what’… It picks up a few years after ‘The Shrine of Death’ and takes us back into the lives of the three main characters, Prabha, Jai and Gerard. Jai is struggling to deal with new aspects of his evolving abilities, even as more of his murky past is unveiled; Prabha is growing into her new career as an investigative journalist but that brings fresh conflict into her relationship with Gerard; and the three of them find themselves fighting against a powerful and dangerous enemy…

Bookaholicanonymous wishes Divya…all the best…and yes we are waiting for your next novel eagerly!

The original interview can be found here

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Interview with… Madhav Chari

Pianist Madhav Chari talks about the spirit of jazz, linking his music to Indian philosophy and his experiential workshops. DIVYA KUMAR listens in

PHOTO: R. RAVINDRAN

If you go to meet jazz pianist Madhav Chari expecting to discuss just jazz or even just music, think again. With mind-whirling rapidity the conversation flows between cognitive science and colonialism, mathematics and anthropology, Indian philosophy and American academia, not to mention martial arts, dance and the Bhakti movement…

At one point, I have to ask him to stop briefly, so I can look back to the original list of questions I’d studiously prepared before the interview. But they seem rather limited — and limiting — now, so I decide to let the conversation take its course, just interjecting the odd query now and again.

“What we’re doing right now is jazz music,” says Madhav, halfway through, during an impassioned (there isn’t any other kind with Madhav) discussion on how jazz is freedom, but with form. “This conversation is not scripted. It’s loosely improvised but you’re still providing direction — that’s jazz music.”

And with that neat journalistic analogy for jazz, the free-flowing chat suddenly makes sense. After all, the essence of any conversation with Madhav Chari is jazz, the music form that grabbed him when he was a six-year-old in Kolkata and hasn’t let go since.

“What about it grabbed me I don’t know,” he muses. Maybe it was his father’s knowledge of jazz from the 1940s, when he saw the big bands of the era play while at The Lawrence School, Lovedale. Or, perhaps the family friend whom he used to watch improvising on the piano. “There was just an emotional connect. It’s like asking why the chocolate cake appealed to you… it’s hard to answer.”

He dismisses his training in Western classical piano as mere calisthenics. “Loosely speaking, yes, I’m trained in Western classical, in the sense that I did the gamut of exams, but it doesn’t mean anything,” he says. “That’s because we learn the music in a context where it wasn’t born, where that form of music isn’t a vibrant, living force, unlike in London, Moscow or Paris.”

This idea of absorbing music as a ‘living force’, of experiencing its spirit, is of intense importance to Madhav. That’s why he cherishes the time he spent in the U.S. at places such as New York or Chicago, where jazz still lives. There was the time, for instance, that he got to play with a local sax legend in Chicago while he was a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign (UIUC).

“The great pianist Tommy Flanagan, who had recorded with John Coltrane, was sitting in the audience… I saw him and my heart just skipped a beat,” he laughs. “But the music took me over and I forgot my stage fright, and in the end, he congratulated me and gave me his number in New York. These experiences were very important in my search as a jazz musician.”

After his studies, Madhav spent some time as part of the jazz scene in New York and a brief eight months in Toronto before returning to India in 2003 and settling in Chennai, where his parents live. These past seven years have been a period of a spiritual awakening for the pianist, and Indian philosophy has now become an integral part of his musical journey.

“I want to be a jazz musician who thoroughly understands the tradition of the music, but who’s also alive to the possibilities of his own consciousness and has linked himself with the mystical traditions of India,” he says, adding with a smile, “But I don’t play Hindustani music… I’ll be playing the blues.”

He’s also developed some very strong opinions (to put it mildly) on the Indian music scene — whether it’s local jazz or fusion. “I will go on record saying that in the last 40 years, not one musician in Mumbai — the leading jazz centre in India — has tapped the spirit of jazz,” he says emphatically. “They’ve tapped the form, but not the spirit. And that’s why I have a problem with fusion as well, because so much of it is technical and theoretical, with very little experiential insight.”

His own corporate workshops, which he now conducts with martial arts expert George Kurian, focus entirely on just that — the experiential. “We make people do music and martial arts exercises, and allow the gateways of the mind to open up,” Madhav says. “There’s hardly any talking, because I believe that in the modern Indian urban consciousness, language is a tremendous block to understanding. English has blocked our access to our own experiences — it’s a facet of colonialism.”

These beliefs are part of the reason why Madhav has connected with Chennai the way he has since 2003. “It’s not about it being conservative or liberal; it’s about it being open to experiences while being rooted in tradition,” he says of the city. “I’m not impressed by people telling me Bangalore is more hip or modern; modernity is actually old, based on where I want to go in a cosmic sense.”

KEYNOTES

He enjoys the writings of S.N. Balagangadhara, chair of the Comparative Science of Cultures Centre at Ghent University in Belgium, on Hindu philosophy and religion.

He loves the music of American jazz pianist ‘Bud’ Powell. Madhav’s most recent album ‘Parisian Thoroughfares’ is titled after a Powell composition.

He likes Mathematics, in which he has a Masters degree from Dartmouth University

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Interview with… Letika Saran

DGP (Law and Order) Letika Saran, the girl from the hills, talks about her journey to the peak in the plains. DIVYA KUMAR listens in

Photo: R. Ravindran

Trailblazer Letika Saran

A fan of detective novels. A child of the hills. A dog-lover. A concerned mother.

The world knows Letika Saran as the super-achieving cop — she became Chennai’s first woman Commissioner of Police in 2006, and now, at the age of 57, has become the first woman Director-General of Police in Tamil Nadu (and only the second woman to hold that post in the country).

But, half an hour spent with the trim, diminutive lady in her enormous office on Kamarajar Salai, and you get a glimpse into the world of Letika Saran, the woman. You find out that her heart still lies in the hills of Munnar, where she spent her carefree childhood. You find out that she’s currently worried about a mix-up in her daughter Uthara’s return ticket to Perth (she’s a student research scientist there).

You find out that her favourite way to unwind is with her four dogs (two long-haired dachshunds and two recently-acquired pups). And that she still loves reading the detective novels that were part of the reason why she wanted to join the police force in the first place.

“I was always fond of detective novels, and I liked the idea of the police,” she says simply, of her decision to join the Indian Police Service (IPS) after her undergraduate degree at the Women’s Christian College. “I’ve worked in investigation for over 15 years and always found it interesting; so, I’ve never looked back on that decision as anything but the correct one.”

The transition from college girl to cop wasn’t ‘unduly difficult’, she says in her precise way: “Even the physical aspects of training weren’t difficult, as gymnastics was part of our daily routine at my boarding school in Kodaikanal.”

But the hard road truly began from her first posting. “I was one of only two women in the field at my level, and it was like working in a goldfish bowl, with the eye of the public and the department on you,” she says. “You had to constantly prove yourself — not just as Letika Saran but as a woman police officer. Failure wasn’t an option.”

And so, the girl from the hills began to blaze a trail in the plains. But even today, when you speak of Munnar, Letika’s eyes soften. “When you’ve lived in the hills, you identify so closely with the place — even if you haven’t had the time to go back in years,” she says in her clear, flute-like voice. “There’s something familiar about the hills which, perhaps, isn’t there in any other place.”

Still, over the years, Chennai has become home, mostly because, she says ruefully, it’s home for her daughter. “She was born and brought up here and calls it home — so, we don’t have a choice,” she laughs, adding: “As anyone who’s lived here for a long time knows, Chennai is a city that grows on you, and my husband and I really don’t look at living anywhere else.”

Our interview is interspersed with a series of phone calls over her daughter’s ticket mix-up, and super-cop Letika sounds endearingly like any concerned mom as she hangs up and shakes her head: “Here’s the kid not even prepared to travel today, and she’s being told she’s got to be on the flight…”

Juggling her job and family hasn’t always been easy on Letika, but in her no-fuss way, she tells me she was fortunate in having postings that allowed her to be with her daughter when she was very young. “It also helped that she knew exactly how things would be; she was independent right from the beginning,” she says, pride evident.

Today, Letika Saran exudes an air of no-regrets contentment with her life. There isn’t perhaps as much time as she might like for travel — back to the hill stations of her youth, for example — but there are always detective novels to read (“they’re ideal for when you don’t want serious reading”), her dogs which recently doubled in number, and, of course, the passion that has guided her throughout her career.

“From the time that I joined, I always wanted to prove myself as somebody who is competent and capable, who could do the job and get the job done,” she says. “That’s still remains my goal today.”

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Interview with… Sivasankari

Celebrated writer Sivasankari speaks to DIVYA KUMAR on her four-volume masterpiece on India’s literary heritage and her love for social causes

PHOTO: R. RAVINDRAN

It’s been 16 years since celebrated Tamil author Sivasankari wrote a piece of fiction. Those years have been spent in a sort of literary tapas for the cause of regional Indian writing, otherwise known as Knit India Through Literature, her monumental four-volume work on the literary heritage of each of India’s 18 official languages.

The fourth and final volume of Knit India was completed recently (it was launched last month), and the author is in a philosophical mood when we meet one drowsy afternoon at her home in a pretty cul-de-sac of Adyar.

“I have mixed feelings – I’m deeply satisfied to have given back something so solid to my country and to the literary field, but also exhausted after all these years of travel and absolute concentration on this task,” she says. “I always think of it as a yagna that took 16 years.”

Not writing fiction during the entire period was a conscious decision – she wanted no distractions – even though there remained some very definite themes she wanted to explore through her writing. In typical Sivasankari style, these themes are very real, socially relevant and meant to inform even as she entertains (“masala-coating”, she calls it). For instance, she says, she’s wanted to address what women go through during menopause.

“No one has touched upon the subject in an in-depth way; there remains a stigma attached to it,” she says forthrightly. “People are so naïve in dealing with it – even women don’t understand what they’re going through, let alone their families and their husbands.”

Of course, social stigmas have never stopped Sivansankari from tackling issues. She famously addressed drug addiction in the 1980s, and subjects such as artificial insemination and surrogate motherhood back in the 1970s, years before they came to be discussed in the mainstream. “As a writer, one is always looking ahead to the problems that can arise,” says the author of 30 novels and over 150 short stories. “It’s like sitting on the 20th storey of a building and looking into the distance.”

However, fans will have to wait a little longer for the next Sivasankari story. The 66-year-old plans to spend the next six months setting her personal life in order – moving into an apartment and giving away or getting rid of a bulk of her belongings, whether it’s her 400 pattu podavais, the roomful of mementoes received during her illustrious career, or the three rooms of books, papers and correspondence accumulated for Knit India.

“I have to be practical; I’m getting older and since my mother passed away, I’m living alone,” she says, a tinge of pathos colouring the pragmatism. “Who am I going to pass this all on to? If I had children or grandchildren, it would be different.”

Her strong philosophical leanings come to the fore again as she likens this time in her life to the third stage of Hindu dharma, vanaprasta, prior tosanyasa or renunciation. “This process is teaching me to be non-sentimental about my belongings,” she says. “When giving is forced on you, you regret it; if it’s a conscious choice, you enjoy it.”

Not that Sivasankari is new to the art of giving and of social service (she hates that term, she says vehemently; anything one does for the betterment of society is one’s duty and not a special service). For instance, she reveals that she has been conducting 10 weddings anonymously at her temple for the last six years – her aim is to complete at least 100 weddings in the upcoming years. “I want to do as much as I can in my lifetime, with whatever funds I have,” she says.

She pauses for a moment and we simply sit and listen to the birds chirping outside in the sun-dappled garden. “When I die, I want people to say what a wonderful human being Sivasankari was, and incidentally, she was a good writer as well,” she says finally. “That’s my wish.”

KNITTING INDIA

Sivasankari’s massive literary project Knit India Through Literature consists of four volumes of hardback books:

Volume 1 on the languages of the South (from Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu)

Volume 2 on the languages of the East (from Assam, Bengal, Manipur, Nepal and Orissa)

Volume 3 on the languages of the West (Konkani, Marathi, Gujarati, and Sindhi)

Volume 4 on the languages of the North (Kashmiri, Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi and Sanskrit)

Each book consists of travelogues of the states covered, interviews with leading writers of each language, a representative selection and an overview of the literature of each region.

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Interview with… B.K.S. Iyengar

He made yoga a global culture. DIVYA KUMAR catches up with the legendary B.K.S. Iyengar during his visit to the city

PHOTO: K. V. SRINIVASAN

The mane of white hair, the fiercely bushy eyebrows with the ubiquitous namam in between, and that perfectly upright figure familiar from thousands of pictures of impossible asanas…

Seeing yoga exponent B.K.S. Iyengar in person for the first time is a touch surreal, like watching a revered hero step out of the covers of a book you’ve owned all your life (in this case, it would be a dog-eared copy of his first book “Light on Yoga”).

It’s also rather awe-inspiring. At the grand old age of 91, Iyengar carries himself and moves like a man half his age, and is surrounded by quite an unconscious aura of power. And as he begins to talk about 75 years of practising and teaching yoga, his struggles and successes, what emerges is the portrait of a fiercely determined man who prizes strength and discipline over all.

“In the 1930s, yoga had no respect in India at all,” he says flatly, speaking at Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram recently. “There would not have been more than 10 teachers in the entire country — including Pakistan and Bangladesh, in those days — and it was a Herculean task for my guru T. Krishnamacharya to convince people that yoga had something to give.”

He recalls how his guru (also his brother-in-law) at one point lived literally in rags in Mysore, and his own humiliating experiences as a yoga teacher in Pune, of being called to do demonstrations, being made to wait for hours and being sent away at the end because ‘time was up’.

“I fought on because of my faith and belief in the subject of yoga,” he says.

‘Fought’, ‘combated’, ‘conquered’, ‘mastered’… these are words that feature repeatedly in his narrative, whether he’s talking about the racism he faced when he first went to the West with his teachings at the prompting of his close friend, world-renowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin, or his battle with injury.

“After 70 years of non-stop practising yoga, I had an accident that left me unable to even move my hands,” says the man who is credited with making yoga a part of global culture. “Everyone thought my life was over. But I refused to surrender — if I had stopped, it would mean I had no faith in what I’d practised for over 70 years, it would mean I had become a slave to my mind. So I combated it; today I still do four hours of yoga everyday.”

Iyengar’s attitude as a teacher of yoga is just as uncompromising. If the great man has a rallying cry, it’s that ‘sadhana (practice) must go on’ and that one must never give in to fear. He says with twinkling humour, “I often didn’t have very many Indian students; Indians were afraid of my discipline. I’m a very strong teacher.”

It is precisely this dedication to practice and precision that has made ‘Iyengar yoga’ such a phenomenon worldwide. His aim has always been to perfect the asanas, in form and alignment; to Iyengar, that is the route to realising the full potential of what yoga has to offer. “When I began, no one taught the practical aspects of yoga, only the philosophical,” he comments. “But my research on yoga has shown that thorough practice of asanas is necessary to truly experience the conjunction of mind and body.”

There are few who would argue with this living legend of yoga, a man who would, one feels, through sheer force of will, be able to conquer any obstacle in his path.

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