Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Blackbirds in The Pomegranate Tree: A writerly friendship

I first met Mary Ellen Sanger in Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Virtual Studios way back in 2002. She was an American living and working in Mexico, and her short stories spoke of poor Mexicans and smelt of green trees and fields of their world. Her writing showed a deep empathy for the people among whom she then lived.
Mary Ellen Sanger

We exchanged critiques on each others stories and stayed in touch through the years, forging warm ties. Life went on smoothly until we heard the shocking news of her incarceration in a Mexican prison for no fault of hers. She found her way to freedom after a life-changing experience, which has inspired her new book,
Blackbirds in the PomegranateTree: Stories from Ixcotel State Prison
Indian readers can get it here

 Mary Ellen Sanger spent 33 days in Ixcotel State Prison in the fall of 2003. These stories of the women she met there, illuminate her biggest surprise and her only consolation in prison: the solidarity that formed among the women she lived, ate, swept and passed long days with while inside. Nine lyrical tales show the depth of emotions that insist on their own space, even in these harshest of circumstances. The largest and brawniest woman in the prison, doing time for armed robbery, kills a rat with her foot, then turns to the author for help with a very special letter. Another young woman, only nineteen years old, has already been in for three years, guilty of kidnapping her own child. And Ana, a political prisoner, teaches the author about creative ways to turn the tide, one including frog-eating snakes. Mary Ellen weaves her own tale through the stories. Accused of a crime that doesn't exist by a powerful man in Mexico, she depends on the fierce solidarity of friends on the outside, and a brilliant lawyer who trusts in the rule of law... even in Mexico. The women incarcerated in Ixcotel State Prison said that the blackbirds chattered in the lone pomegranate tree in the courtyard whenever a woman was about to be released. They are chattering now.

Chiapas, Mexico, birthplace of the Batista movement
Here's what she shared with me about her experiences, and the story behind the book.

When I returned to the US after being unjustly imprisoned for 33 days in Mexico, I thought I left prison behind me. But I realized the women I met inside, their surprising solidarity, the sense of community we built together and the many injustices I shared with them in their stories, stayed close with me. I wrote “Blackbirds in the Pomegranate Tree: Stories from Ixcotel State Prison” to share my own experiences in Mexico – most of those experiences lush and full of color – and the story of how the (in)justice system prevalent there seems destined to imprison some of the most innocent of Mexico’s population. And me.



1. Which writers influenced you the most, and why?
Elena Poniatowska, the First Lady of Mexican Letters, graced me with an introduction to my book. We made a sweet friendship several years ago through a chance meeting. I respect her writing for its focus on Mexico’s women, many who are victims of poverty and social inequities. One of my favorite writers on the planet is Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, whose lyrical style I could only hope to emulate. Give me Eduardo Galeano any time of day or night.

2. What is your experience re self-publishing? E-book vs print?
I self-published “Blackbirds” because my life was too full or work and volunteering and falling in love and moving, to do the intensive research and time-consuming work of finding an agent – which is quite a challenge in the US these days. I tried, and found several who were interested, but not enough. I wanted the book to be out for the tenth anniversary of my release from prison, so I popped it in the queue. It had been edited with the help of a professional editor friend, so I was confident of its quality in that respect. The shift to indie presses and self-publishing is a remarkable surge. However, the ease with which one can enter into self-publishing does flood the field with some astonishingly weak manuscripts, many poorly edited. So I am up against a hearty stigma still – though I do trust that with the proper exposure, and the attention given by people interested in the world of social justice – that my book can cut through the preconceptions around self-published works. I did make the book available in Kindle (e-book) format, which has enriched sales by 20%, as some of my audience is in Mexico and the book is more quickly delivered electronically.

3. Is the craft of writing receding in importance in a world where shoddily written but slickly marketed work dominates?
I hope the craft of writing is even MORE important in that world you describe. We recognize good writing. We find our way to it. Good writing (that is, talented writing!) is a necessary craft, an antidote if you will – to the instant and slick. If you can make a delicious slow-simmered sauce – that should win out any day over a squeeze-packet of mayonnaise!

4. Would you return to Mexico if things improve there?
I return to Mexico every year. I cannot be too far from her! The justice system is changing… at a glacially slow pace. As of 2008, there has been a mandate to allow for oral trials, and the country is slowly putting in place new practices. It is, however, a long history to counter. It will take time. Meanwhile, I visit each year, I eat my slow-simmered sauces! And I drink in what music and magic I can.

Photo: Of the nine incarcerated women I met inside:

For those of you who have read Blackbirds in the Pomegranate Tree: Stories from Ixcotel State Prison --

Which woman's voice stays with you most? Why?
One of the nine imprisoned women whom Sanger met and has written about.

5. What are you working on now?
Thank you for asking! I am trying to write a poem-a-day, as a part of a project started in 2010 with a friend, in honor of National Poetry Month in April. We were going to write those daily poems for one month, but we liked the practice so much we kept on going! We have put out a book of these quickie, unedited poems every year since 2010. Finishing up for 2013. Other than that, a novel is cooking in my head right now, which should involve Mexico and dancing! I won’t say any more. Still simmering!
Indian readers can get the book here

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Indian Railways, a window to our culture


I'm a recent entrant to the world of Quora and am finding it a fascinating forum for exchanging a wide range of experiences and ideas. What I like best here is the depth and variety of the posts by members. Quite the opposite of the superficial drivel that can often clutter Facebook.

I saw a question asked by a member, "What do you think of when you hear the words Indian Railways?" Here's what I shared about one of my favourite train journeys:
Apart from that lovely song, Toofan Mail', my favourite train journey used to be on the Karnataka Express from Delhi to Bangalore way back in the Eighties of the previous century.

This route, connecting the North to the South, gave a wonderful panoramic view of India, better than any textbook or documentary film. From 'chai garam' to 'sooda' or 'bisi' kaapi, from aloo paranthas and cutlets to idli dosas and Ambur biryiani, this 36 hour journey was a peek into our cultural diveristy.

The first sight that struck me after leaving Delhi was the Chambal Ravines, once the haunt of legendary dacoits. In more recent times, the area seems to have been reclaimed and those stark, deep rifts dotted with scrub, are no longer so prominent.

Chambal Ravines
Gwalior Fort

Sikandra, Gwalior Fort, The grand stupa of Sanchi, are some monuments visible from your comfortable perch near a window.
Sanchi Stupa
Sikandra, Emperor Akbar's Samadhi

The route passed through the Dandakaranya forest, and I used to picture Shri Ram and his entourage doing penance there.

It was normal to make friends with fellow travellers, exchanging homemade food, books and magazines, and playing games to pass the time.

True, the toilets were smelly. But arent we also to be blamed for that partly? Why do we always expect someone else to clean up after us, neglecting to flush etc, even when it works?

Some of the old first class coaches even had showers, and I remember taking one too.

At the cost of being a nostalgic dinosaur, I miss those leisurely journeys.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Dreams and Reality

All great things in the world start with a dream, writes Monideepa Sahu, urging us to dream a little dream, without which we would be mere drudges working to maintain a routine existence that lacks a sense of purpose. DHNSDreams are vital for our survival. If we stopped dreaming, we would be dull, unimaginative drudges living a meaningless existence. But then life is much more complicated than what feel-good aphorisms and self-improvement manuals will have us believe.

“Every great dream begins with a dreamer,” said Harriet Tubman. “Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” Everyone can overcome obstacles and fulfil their dreams if they are dedicated and enthusiastic enough, say great thinkers. Reality, however, doesn’t quite live up to such inspirational wisdom. We are urged from childhood to excel at anything and everything.

... No magic mantra can make everyone flash like a supernova. Even if we think big, have faith in ourselves and try, try again, we might fall flat on our faces. Suc oversimplifications fail to do justice to the complexities of the human condition. Must we all have sky-high goals and noble dreams? What about people who are competent, but not dazzlingly brilliant or fired up with some noble goal in life?

Ordinary people who are content to do their duty faithfully, earn an honest living, support their families, and serve society sincerely, are invaluable because they keep the world running. Are such capable and responsible people inferior beings because they have no overwhelming passion or some lofty aim to change the world?

On the other hand, dreamers who follow their passion by compromising on their normal duties may not be ideal, perfect people. What should we think of a parent who abandons a sick child to go and save lemurs in a remote rainforest? What if all industrialists shut down their factories and offices to chase dreams of becoming bestselling authors or karate champions?

We grow up with ambitions to skyrocket through IIT and IIM, command dozen-digit salaries, vacation on the Riviera, look like supermodels and win the Magsaysay or Booker, if not the Nobel Prize. We struggle to climb every mountain and follow every rainbow. We also stumble and fail to achieve every impossible dream, despite our most heroic efforts.

... The killer instinct might end up killing us if we sacrifice our morals, duties and peace of mind for its cause. A true winner is not one who gets every award and destroys the competition. A true winner respects and learns from others, improves, adapts, is inclusive and turns competitors into collaborators supporting his dream. It is important to introspect, understand our strengths and limitations, and accept who we are.

It’s also better to have a healthy amount of self-doubt, rather than leap blindly to boldly go where no man has gone before. Thoughtful people may appear indecisive or unsure of themselves, but it is because they weigh all sides of an issue before choosing a course of action. As Charles Bukowski rightly said, “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.”

That doesn’t mean we should give up on our dreams without trying. Many of us are all too conscious of being ordinary. We stifle our dreams for fear of failure. Instead of acting on our dreams, we find excuses not to act. Obstacles will rise on our paths, but we must try to overcome them. “It always seems impossible until it’s done,” said Nelson Mandela. “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.
... We need to accept responsibility for ourselves and our actions. It is defeatist to throw up our hands in despair and leave everything to fate. Humanity will never progress if we do not strive to do our best, and continuously try to improve our condition. We cannot simply sit back and complain, and hope somebody else will improve things for us. Some dreamers sit around idly dreaming of what miracles they could work, if only they had enough money, supporters, education and other resources. Such people waste the opportunities they do have.

All of us have our strengths and weaknesses. Instead of lamenting our shortcomings, we need to identify our strengths and make the most of them to attain our chosen dreams. As Swami Vivekananda rightly said, “We are responsible for what we are, and whatever we wish ourselves to be, we have the power to make ourselves.”
Dreams, hopes and visions, aspirations for a better life, are a vital part of human existence. Without them, we would be mere drudges working to maintain a routine existence. We would be no better than wild animals clawing each other to survive in the urban jungle. Dreams lend a sense of purpose to our humdrum existence. Pursuing a noble goal makes us feel more energetic, alive and better connected to other human beings. Dreams give us something worth sharing with others, and win us new friends.

A selfish life is only half-lived. Even if we only succeed in encouraging and inspiring a handful of others towards realising their dreams, it is an invaluable achievement. Dreams boost our self-esteem when we succeed in even a small way to make this world a better place.

... Sometimes we need to appreciate ourselves and others for their good work, even if it’s just ordinary, everyday work. If we are positive ourselves, and spread good vibes, we can create the right conditions for dreaming, and making those dreams come true. Let’s appreciate what we have. It isn’t essential to have high flown dreams or ambitions.

Often, it’s those small moments of joy that transcend the clutter and drudgery and make life worth living. Sometimes it’s enough to be responsible, kind and connected with one’s inner child. It’s hard work being a good friend, parent, employee and citizen. It isn’t easy to let go of resentment, envy, sorrow and regret, and reach out and help less fortunate souls around us. As poet Emily Dickinson said, if we can revive even one fainting robin and help it back to its nest, we shall not have lived in vain

My complete essay is published in Sunday Herald


Friday, January 10, 2014

Why do we read novels?

We have only one life to live. Novels offer us glimpses and insights into the experiences of others, their lives, loves, adventures and ideas of people and places which we would otherwise never encounter.
Novels offer the deeper stories of human experience beyond dry accounts of history or news reports.
Novels help us to understand the intricacies of human nature.
What is it like to be a young man growing up in a small town in Malaysia and being sucked into the underworld? I recently read Nazi-Goreng by Marco Ferrarese and was drawn into their experieneces.

Another book I recently read,  The World in My Hands by K Anis Ahmed, is a satirical exploration of life in Bangladesh today.
What is life like in the strife-torn frontier regions of Pakistan? Fatima Bhutto's Shadow of the Crescent Moon offered me deep insights.
 The Hungry Ghosts by Shyam Selvadurai took me into the world of a young gay man of Sri Lankan origin living in Canada. 
Seasons of Flight by Manjushree Thapa drew me into the life of a young Nepali woman who migrates in search of a new life to the US.
These beautifully written novels are random examples from my recent reading, which have opened up new worlds for me, and showed me different perspectives and different views, to which I would otherwise never have been exposed.
There are numerous classics, written by consummate literary artists. And well-written recent novels like the ones cited above are examples of engrossing stories which entertain. challenge our thought and imagination and broaden our horizons.
Great movies also serve the same purpose, but reading novels scores over movies because:
watching movies is a more passive activity compared to reading. While we are passive spectators in the case of movies, reading requires more intellectual involvement and effort, excercising our grey cells a bit more.
Reading novels increases our command over language, our vocabulary, and our abitlity to express ourselves.
You can relax with a good book just about anywhere and at any time, and enjoy the experience at your own pace. Try watching a movie for an hour, and going back to view the rest after a day or two, and you will see what I mean.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Mohini: of Bollywood Dreams and Obsessions

Ramendra Kumar  is a prolific author with several awards and twenty-three books to his credit. Best known for his many books for children, he is a regular at literary festivals and seminars in India and abroad.  

Mohini of Bollywood Dreams and ObsessionHis latest work, a pageturner saga and his first novel for adults, is about the reality and tears, the passion, intrigue and suspense, the dreams, loves and heartbreaks behind the magical world of Bollywood. Mohini of Bollywood Dreams and Obsession is a racy story of three people driven by their obsessions.

A young girl growing up in the shadow of Bollywood secretly dreams of becoming the number one star in the industry. In her ruthless, and sometimes reckless, pursuit, she uses and is used by many individuals. However, there are two men in her life who love her to absolute distraction. One she betrays, and the other she rejects. Both unleash vengeance and pit themselves against each other as the fast-paced story unfolds.

Ramen, as he is popularly known, chose to set his tale in Bollywood because "We are a film crazy nation. Every aspect of our life and living is impacted by movies.   I too  grew  up watching movies and  was hugely influenced by them. And hence, when I chose to write my first novel for adults  Bollywood was a natural choice." 

This film buff "grew up watching re-runs of  classics like Pyaasa, Jagte Raho, Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi,   Anand , Jaane bhi do yaaron,  et al. From snatches of conversation at home I came to know the buzz behind Bollywood : how a  leading  heroine dressed up as a tribal and  managed to grab the lead role in a blockbuster, how a showman turned marketing wisdom on its head to make his movie a mega hit,  how a brash  wannabe star   tried manipulating the system   in an attempt to bag the   top award of the country. All these delicious nuggets have been scattered in the pages of Mohini. Most of the rest is from my imagination."

The current crop of stars have not inspired the main characters, Ramen shares. "However, a few of  the supporting ones do bear resemblance to the stars and superstars of  recent times."

Mohini has all the elements of a Bollywood masala movie. If it is adapted for the silver screen, Ramen feels Deepika Padukone would be the perfect choice for the lead role. "She has the classic looks, the talent, the attitude and the chutzpah to essay the character to perfection," he shares, as he signs off.