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Back to the Past

I went for a trip down memory lane and needed the help of Google Maps to find my way!

From 1973 to 1986 I lived in Naraina Vihar. A residential colony in West Delhi. My wonder years were spent in this quiet, cozy neighbourhood which was for the working middle class.

Even today, I can see myself in those lanes. Standing at the street corner for my school bus, walking to the Milk depot and the bread shop. Rushing back home after school to finish homework so that I could play in the evening.

Evenings were playtime. We ran in the park carefree. Played hide and seek in the neighbourhood. Hid in the porticos of other homes or behind bushy shrubs in parks. When we got thirsty, we went into any of the homes and asked for water. It didn’t matter if they were known to us or not. The neighbourhood was a family.

The ice-cream seller appeared every evening, half an hour before our playtime ended.  He knew better than coming too early when all of us were caught up in the thrill of playing and would ignore him. He would arrive minutes before our playtime ended and stood near the edge of the park, his cart leaning against the cemented pavement. We finished our game of run & catch or chain-chain or crocodile in the water. Flushed red with all the running, sweaty and hot, the iced lollies were just the thing we wanted. None of us wanted to go home and having an iced orange stick meant being able to hang with the gang for a few minutes more. All of us didn’t get lucky all the time. That was a time when parents didn’t agree to every whim & demand. So, only a few lollies were bought and passed around. We licked till our tongues turned orange and lips went numb.

Even today, the very sight of the orange ice stick takes me back to the wonder years, makes me a child with her hair stuck to the scalp with sweat!

The roads were broad, quiet, and empty. Trees lined on either side, bending towards each other, providing the much-needed cover. Gulmohur trees flowered to bloody red and then fell on the streets, laying a red carpet. My friends and I cycled all around, often venturing far. The roads were safe. Cars were few, tempers were mild, and people weren’t in a hurry all the time.

The houses stood in a row, like friends with interlocked arms. All of them had a similar façade, the same look. Simple, nice and clean. People didn’t really make a big fuss about décor and looks. Each was a unit; a ground floor, a terrace, and a little rectangular portico in the front. Most families had an Ambassador – the great Indian family car that accommodated all and sundry. Many also had scooters, and it didn’t really matter. We were all equal.  

We knew our neighbours, and they knew us. When the elders passed us on the road, we slowed down, wished them and smiled. We offered to carry their shopping bags. They were no home delivery or any of the apps that delivered in a blink.   

The world was a different place then. 40 years ago. Parents didn’t worry about their kids, playing on the sidewalk or cycling around. It was safe and people weren’t as rabid as they are today. The singular nonnegotiable rule my friends and I had to adhere to was to be back before the streetlights came on. That was the start of homework time, study time.

When it rained, we rushed out to the streets and revelled in the first shower. Later, we made paper boats and sailed them in the rushing water. The trees in the park tossed their green heads, enjoying the bath. The leaves shivered as the rain teased them. Mum made fried fritters with gram flour, spiced with chilli powder, and cumin seeds. Dad and I swept the rainwater out of the portico. After the TV arrived in our home, post-rain, we had to straighten the antenna to get the TV running. Papa would go to the terrace and move the antenna, while I scuttled between the living room and the portico; yelling back if it was all right.

Another lasting memory from my childhood is the crazy fun I had with my 2 besties. Leena and Kiran. The former lived in the house next to mine, while Kiran was a few houses ahead. Leena wore dresses stitched by her mother. Many years later, she would start a boutique and be featured in a women’s magazine, but then she was content making dresses for her daughter. Kiran was the short and stubby one. She always felt left out because Leena and I lived next to each other. We had to constantly pacify and assure her of our love. It was tiresome, but we did it.  

Delhi heat in summer is legendary and the summer holidays were long. When we couldn’t go out to play, we read, sketched, and made-up games to keep ourselves entertained. The three of us formed a club. Inspired by the Famous Five, Secret Seven books we gorged on, we decided we must have a name for the three of us. Hence, was born our secret club – the Terrific three. We made badges out of cardboard and stuck a safety pin through them. We were going to be the local detectives and catch crooks. With that resolve, we set out to find a suspicious man. We zeroed in one unsuspecting fellow who was walking down the road, minding his own business, and three of us followed him. After some time the man realized he was being followed. He stopped, turned around and started walking towards us to question why we were following him. Petrified of being reprimanded, we ran like the wind. Since our attempts at playing detective failed, we did the next best thing. Write crime stories. Each of us wrote one story and then read it out to our parents. We were told, this isn’t good at all. This is just a poor copy of the books you read. Be original.

It was a time when parents didn’t mince words and didn’t believe in mollycoddling kids. My friends gave up writing, but I continued, determined to get it right. It would take me more than 40 years to publish my first book.

The reality of changing times hit hard when PM Indira Gandhi was shot dead and people turned against the Sikh community. Curfew was imposed. Cops patrolled the streets, and we weren’t allowed to step out. Hushed whispers passed from one home to another about people being burned alive, beaten to death. I remember the night when Papa and some other uncles stopped a mob from entering the house of a Sikh family who lived a few houses away. But things went back to normal soon enough, or so I thought. I was too young to understand that this was the start of something dangerous. Picking out people of a different community, singling them out and persecuting them.

I had other things to worry about. Algebra, Hindi test and the pimply boy I had a crush on. It was my duty to water the plants in the evening before going out to play and the fellow cycled down the road at the same time. Our eyes met for half a second, the stolen look and the hidden smile… that was eagerly awaited.

Today as I drove down outer ring road, I was confident about finding my way. But I couldn’t. I kept going round and round in circles till my driver said, “Madam, please switch on Google maps.” It felt so odd. I needed Google Maps to find my way to my old neighbourhood. In my defence, the roads today are unrecognizable. The lanes look smaller. The houses are larger and they loom on both sides. Flashy cars stand defiantly bumper to bumper. All balconies have split AC units. My eyes searched for the familiar but found none. I was going back after 1987. Though I have been living in Gurgaon since 2013 end I hadn’t found the time and opportunity to make the trip. Life kept me occupied.

As I stood before G219, flanked by my parents, who are now a pale and quivering shadow of their former exuberant selves; I looked at the house and tried to go back in time. I couldn’t. Google maps took me to the road and the house, but that’s as far as it can. It’s no time machine. I tried to imagine my aged granny sitting outside the gate in the winters, on a folding chair, peeling oranges and dosing. She is long gone. My friends — Kiran and Leena — they waited with their cycles for me. They are lost in the world somewhere. I haven’t been able to find them on FB. The pimply boy… I do not know where he is. People come into your life and then they leave… or do we walk away? Life takes everyone on a different path.  

The house looks completely different today. Had it not been for the number plate stuck on the gate that said G 219, I would have thought the house didn’t exist. It’s a huge 3 storey one now, like all the others on the lane and everywhere else in the neighbourhood.

There’s no terrace or barsati. No place for kids to lounge and dream and form a club called terrific three. Kids today are busy playing on their tablets, texting friends or watching one of the 500 or more channels available on their individual TV sets. Each room has one. The parks look smaller. The roads seem to have shrunk. I was dazed and horrified…then I realized that the park and roads haven’t changed. The houses have become bigger. There are more cars on the road. Bigger cars. These have dwarfed the parks.

Three of us walked around for a bit, trying to find the memory of a happy simple past. We couldn’t. People walking by stared at us, wondering why we were walking around, staring at the houses. Every block has an iron gate and a security guard manning it. The park looks forlorn. Kids probably don’t play there anymore. Cars clog the road, honking impatiently. Everyone is in a hurry today.

We got back into our car, drove around for a while and then drove away.

I had gone to the old neighbourhood with a memory in my heart and with the hope of reliving the past. But the past is… well, past. Long gone and the present is so far removed from what was that it hurts. Sometimes the past is best left in our memory, rosy, happy, and lovely.

I will go back to my old neighbourhood again but this time it’ll be in my thoughts, in my dreams and probably in my writing. And for this, I wouldn’t need the assistance of Google Maps.

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Watching birds and soaking in the sun

There’s something about soaking in the winter sun that warms the very core. When I moved to Gurgaon from Mumbai, I was excited to enjoy the winters after having lived in the balmy sultry Mumbai for years. And I try to enjoy the cold and sparkling sun as much as I can. The winter sun is eagerly awaited because much of the winter days are spent nearly entombed in dense fog. So when the sun dispels the fog, everyone rushes out to soak it in, revel in it before the sun turns harsh and begins to singe the skin.

The swampy marshes and ridges outside Delhi and Gurgaon have an annual visitor – the feathered kind that flies across lands and oceans. The migratory birds from far away lands come every year to soak in the sun and enjoy the weather away from the icy lands of their habitat. Sultanpur bird sanctuary is a great place for bird watching and enjoying the sun.

There’s a kind of joy in watching birds lazily float above a water body, scouting for a fish; hearing the cackle of their collective chatter and feeling the warmth of the sun on your face. Every time I see these migratory birds, I can’t help wonder…how did the first flock know that they could come here…1000s of miles away from icy Siberia? How did they know that there was a warm land so far away from home? Weren’t they wary of flying to an unknown destination? And then… how did they pass the learning to other birds? How did they communicate? It’s just so fascinating to imagine this knowledge being passed on from one flock to another.

The swampy marshes are no less fascinating. Just 35 km from the heart of Gurgaon and you are transported into a completely different world.

I could sit near the waterfront, gazing at the birds, hearing their calls. Nature soothes in a way that nothing else does. It heals you, calms you and also makes you feel like a tiny speck in the scheme of things. You realize the vastness of Nature, its mysterious ways and sheer mindboggling beauty. As I bid adieu to the birds in Sultanpur Bird sanctuary, I whispered to them, I’ll be back again next year. And they replied back, so will we.

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Winning over my worst fear

This picture was taken in 2014 at the Bangalore Literature Festival during Lit-Mart. For those of you who don’t know what Lit-Mart is, it’s a contest where aspiring authors submit a 300-word synopsis of their manuscript. 25 candidates are selected, and they are invited to attend the Lit Mart, where they present a 3-minute pitch to a panel of judges – senior editors and literary agents.

In 2014, I was among the chosen 25 to present my pitch. I had finished writing my debut book. With zero contacts in the publishing industry, this was an excellent opportunity to connect with editors. At Lit Mart, a senior editor from HarperCollins, one of the judges liked my pitch and requested the entire manuscript. She helped my manuscript make its way through the rounds of review. As a result, I published my first book in 2016 – A Forgotten Affair with Harper Collins.

But I’m not writing the post to tell you about Lit Mart and how I got my first book published.

The picture on the top and my current self…we are 2 very different people. For starters, I weighed much less in 2014 than I do now. I used to chemically straighten my hair; now, I don’t. I’ve written and published 3 books; 4th is complete & currently writing my 5th. (You can read about my published books, by clicking on My Books)

But there’s more. What you can’t see in the picture is a woman whose knees were trembling and knocking into each other. My heart was in my throat, and I was finding it difficult to breathe. How I spoke for 3 mins and impressed 2 editors from 2 reputed publishing houses is a mystery. I guess the story did its magic because I was a nervous wreck. Guess, you can’t stop a story that wants to be told and heard.

I have never ever been a confident speaker. Standing up and facing a crowd, speaking to them, is something I was never, ever comfortable with. During my teen years, I used to stammer. A simple thing, like standing up in a class and reading a passage, used to terrify me.

But that day, I silenced my fears and apprehension. I went to the washroom before the session began and spoke to myself. Looked at myself in the mirror and said, for God’s sake, for your sake, don’t mess this up by being you. Don’t chicken out. This is your golden chance to connect with editors of reputed publishing houses. Don’t lose this opportunity.

Also, my son had told me, “Mom, don’t read from the pages. Just talk about the story. YOu’re passionate about the story. So just speak.” That’s what I did.

I think a time comes when we need to scold ourselves. When we need to have that chat with ourselves, we need to get out of our way. Often, what holds us back is our fears, insecurity, and reluctance to win over it.

We are the biggest hurdle. Overcoming this is probably the most challenging thing to do. But I did it that afternoon. When you face your fears, when you look them in the eye, you usually win. So, I won that day, and no, I’m not talking about clinching a contract with one of the leading publishing houses in the country.

I won over my fear of public speaking. After my book was published, I attended lit fests, interviews, radio shows etc., as part of my book promotion. My knees didn’t shake anymore. My heart stayed in the chest cavity and didn’t jump into my throat. No one believes me when I tell them that I used to be terrified of public speaking.

Do what you are terrified of and watch yourself be born anew.

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School Ties

                                                                                        

It was very unusual for Jai to get so angry. His fists clenched, breath coming in sharp and jaws drawn tight, Suhashini had never seen him so angry. He wasn’t the type who screamed or even raised his voice at his wife. But today he was fuming. All because of a Facebook profile, which she created without his knowledge. He found out and hell broke loose.

“You know how much I dislike social networking sites. I’m uncomfortable leaving behind digital footprints.”

Suhashini, his friends and colleagues teased him about being conservative. His buddy and his tennis mate coaxed him but nothing or no one could convince Jai otherwise. “I don’t want to be the quintessential fish in the glass bowl” was his reply when asked why he wasn’t on Facebook.

She hadn’t anticipated such an angry response. In ten years of marriage, he had never spoken to her the way he did that day.

“What’s the big deal?” Suhashini asked feeling more flummoxed than upset with his outburst. “Why are you so mad at such a trivial thing?” He didn’t speak to her for 3 days, till she deleted his profile.

Jai felt miserable after shouting at her. He wasn’t like that at all. But how could he tell her why he stayed away from such sites? Everyone visited these sites to reconnect with old friends. People from their past and relive the bygone days.

“The past is what I don’t want to remember,” Jai said to himself. He had worked so hard to erase that past and make a life for himself.

From a penniless orphan who depended on aid to study; he had become a successful investment banker. Lived in a plush condo in an elite NY neighbourhood. Married an artist and had adorable twin boys. His friends and colleagues loved him. Jai was friendly, helpful and generally great to be around with.

‘You’re the perfect man,’ his friends often said. He smiled. Suhashini swelled with pride every time someone said that. But sometimes she couldn’t help notice a shadow of a faraway look on his face. Only momentarily. She asked him about it but he laughed it away changing the topic.

Couple of days after the debacle of Facebook profile and its subsequent removal, Jai had to leave for London. It was just like any other day. The day your life changes its course is just like any other day. No premonition. No ringing bells to warn you of what lies ahead. Just an ordinary day with an extraordinary sequence of events!

Jai was packing for his flight. He was going to London for a an important meeting.

“This is a make or break deal for me and for the company,” he said as he neatly folded his shirts.

“I need to swing it my way.”

Suhashini sat on the corner sofa in their bedroom watching him. Being an orphan and having lived his life in boarding school and hostel, Jai was fiercely independent. He liked doing his own things and didn’t like any interference. She knew better than to get in his way.

He got to the airport on time. Jai wasn’t a man who liked being late or rushing in after the last call.

Finding a corner sofa in the lounge, he began working on his lap top, engrossed. He didn’t see the man in the crumpled suit approach him. In fact he didn’t even respond at first when asked, ‘Is the chair taken?’ When the question was repeated, with irritation writ large on his face, Jai looked up. And froze.

So did the man in the crumpled suit.

‘I’ll be damned,’ the man said and sat down with a thud.

Jai couldn’t breathe. Walls began to close around him. ‘So…how are you buddy…ghost from the past or have you forgotten your room mate, Ashok?’

Jai looked at his friend, ‘ASS’. Ashok Sen Sharma. The boy, whose mother had insisted that her maiden surname be part of his name and thus leaving the hapless Ashok with the initials and the nickname.

Ass looked nothing like he did in school. But then two decades is a long time. The lean, scrawny lad now had a generous pot belly. His face puffy and red. Time changes all but traces of the older persona remain. Ass smiled and Jai winced remembering his old friend’s smile. Very few people have smiling eyes. Ass was one of them. Warm, from the heart; his smile always lit up his face. That hadn’t changed. And his sartorial sense or rather the lack of it. His clothes were carelessly thrown over his body. Ass never cared for appearance.

Jai wanted to disappear, vanish. Just get up and leave. But sat frozen. Ass began chatting merrily, as if nothing had happened.  Visibly excited on meeting his long-lost school friend.

“So what do you do, man? I have tried so hard to find you. We all have but you just disappeared. No one knew where you were.”

Jai couldn’t hear him. He was far away. At school. The expensive, elite Oakdale boarding school.  He secured a grand scholarship after gruelling tests and interviews. How else could a destitute orphan pay such fees? Father D’Souza, on whose doorstep he was left wrapped in an expensive Turkish towel, loved him like a son and always said: “Jai, you are made for great things. Your intelligence is God’s gift to you. Use it well. Make a life for yourself.”

Ten beautiful years of his life were spent in that school. A friendly and intelligent boy, Jai was popular with students and teachers alike. Witty and always smiling; it was difficult not to like him. While he had many friends, his best friends were Vinod, Ashok and of course Sunny. With whom he chatted, studied, played and  lived for ten years. They were his life, especially Sunny. He was closest to Sunny; loved him more than anything in life.

And he betrayed his best friend.

It was the last year of school. Before the State board exams, the school held a mock-board exam to test the students’ preparation and also weed out those who weren’t well prepared. No good school wanted any student to fail in the board exams.

Jai knew that he needed to top in the whole State to get the prestigious scholarship, which would fund his studies in the premier college. He had left no stone unturned to ensure success.

Sunny and Vinod flunked in Math throughout the year. Suresh Sir, who taught Maths, was livid.

“You are the worst students of this batch,” he had thundered.

“If you don’t pass the mock tests, neither of you will be allowed to sit for the board exam.”

The Headmaster agreed. He summoned the boys and said, “I know your fathers. They are big donors to the school trust. But if you don’t secure pass marks in Math and Science, I’ll disallow both of you from taking the class XII board exams. I will not have a student of my school fail a public exam and bring shame to my school. Your fathers’ money will not change my decision.”

Jai tried to help his friends but Sunny kept saying, “You worry too much. Headmaster wouldn’t do a thing. My dad always gets his way. And don’t worry I will pass the tests.”

Jai wondered what Sunny had in mind. But he was too busy with his own preparation to notice.

He would never forget that fateful day. It was dark and cloudy since morning; threatening to rain. Next day the mock tests would commence. An air of gloom hung over the senior’s hostel. It was late evening.

Ashok came dashing in the room, panting. “Jai! You have to stop Sunny and Vinod. They’ve gone to Suresh Sir’s room to steal the Math and science question paper.”

Ashok could barely speak. Jai stood up with a jerk. The chair fell behind him. “What! What are you saying Ass? What…what are Sunny and Vinod doing?” Ass nodded his head and collapsed on the bed. ‘Only you can stop Sunny. Please stop him before he…” Jai ran out. Dashing and jumping down the stairs. He had to reach Suresh Sir’s room before Sunny got in.

But he wasn’t fast enough. As he neared the room, he saw Sunny and Vinod coming out of the room. “What are you doing? Have you lost your mind?” hissed Jai.

Sunny’s face froze on seeing his best friend. “What the hell are you doing here? Why are you here? Get out of my way!” growled Sunny.

Vinod added, “Jai, this doesn’t concern you. Go back.”

“No! I’m not going anywhere till you put that paper back,” Jai said.

Sunny and he were now pulling and pushing each other. Vinod also joined in.

‘Guys! If you don’t stop we’ll all get caught and expelled. Please let’s just stop and go back quietly,” Vinod whined.

But Sunny and Jai were jostling. Pulling and pushing; Jai got hold of the exam paper and a big chunk tore away in his hands. Sunny grabbed Jai’s T-shirt and pushed him hard.

“Get out of my way. I’m not letting that Suresh flunk me,” he said. Jai fell down on the floor. Sunny and Vinod darted out of the room.

But they had created enough noise to alert the warden, who came rushing into the room. Jai was caught with a piece of the exam paper in his hands in Suresh Sir’s room. The headmaster and Suresh sir were summoned.

“I can’t believe you would do something like this, son. You are a brilliant student,” headmaster said.

Suresh sir sat on a chair nearby holding his head.

“You are the best student I ever had, Jai.”

The warden said, “Sir, I am certain I saw two boys running out of the room when I came in.”

The headmaster put his hand on Jai’s shoulder and said, “I know you didn’t do this. I also know that you know who they are. Tell us their names and you can go.”

Jai felt dizzy. How could he name his best friends? How could he betray them?

“It isn’t fair”, he thought to himself. “I haven’t even done anything. I wanted to stop them from committing a crime and now I have to make a huge decision. All alone. Nobody to help.”

“Sit down, son,” the headmaster said. “Let me show you something,” he continued. He read out the glowing recommendation he had written for Jai. The recommendation, along with the excellent marks, that Jai was sure to get in the exam, would earn him a scholarship to go to the college of his choice.

“I know life hasn’t been easy for you. Neither has it been fair. You’ve had to work hard. What I have in my hand can make your future. You can make a brilliant life for yourself. A life that you richly deserve.” The headmaster paused, looking at Jai, who had tears in his eyes.

He could see the future, he had so often dreamt of. Only this time it seemed to be fading away.

“Son, the boys who stole the exam paper aren’t worthy of being protected. They don’t deserve to be in this great institute. They have committed a grave crime and should be punished. Remember if you stand by silently, you become party to their crime and hence deserve to be punished too.”

“I know who know who stole the paper. And believe me, this incident wouldn’t even be a minor bump in their lives. Their rich fathers would bail them out. But for you…I don’t need to say how important the scholarship is.”

         ‘This is the last and final call for the passengers on flight…’ Jai jerked out of his thoughts.

         “You going to London too?”, Ass was asking. They boarded the flight together. Ass hadn’t mentioned Sunny or Vinod even once. Jai couldn’t ask. Ass said, “We are meeting for dinner tomorrow evening. Why don’t you come?”

         “We?”

         “Three of us – Vinod, Sunny and myself. We are all in London. The inseparable four would be together. I’d love to see their faces when you walk in.”

         Jai mumbled some excuse about being tied up, important meetings lined up that he couldn’t reschedule. Ass pushed a slip of paper with the name of the restaurant scribbled on it and said, “Try to come, buddy. It would be great.” As he got into his cab at Heathrow, Jai realized that he hadn’t even taken Ass’s mobile number.

         “What kind of a friend am I? I meet my school buddy after two decades and don’t even take his number.”

         He had asked himself the question a million times in the last twenty years. ‘What kind of a friend was he?’ And every time he got the same answer.

         ‘A terrible kind. The kind who betrays his best friend for a scholarship. A scholarship that made his life.’  

         He had to fight hard to focus on work. The meetings went smoothly. The deal was clinched. His boss was ecstatic. “There’s a fabulous party waiting for you when you get back,” was what he jubilantly yelled.

All through, a quiet voice in his mind was murmuring to him. “How long will you keep running? Isn’t two decades long enough?”

“But what will I say to them? How can I explain what the scholarship meant to me? Will Sunny understand? What if they ridicule me?”

He was in turmoil. Questions and more questions to which he had no answer. A part of him desperately wanted to go and meet his old buddies. But then … Once he decided he wouldn’t go. Then after a while, that feeble voice in mind said, “Go Jai. Go. Face your friends. Tell them what you feel and be rid of the guilt that’s plagued you for two decades. Go.” The feeble voice was getting stronger and louder.

He was a nervous wreck as he told the cab driver the address of the restaurant. He was shifting in the seat. Anxiously looking out of the window. He got off near the restaurant. He wanted to walk in the cool evening air to clear his head and calm his heart.

“How would the evening turn out? Am I making a mistake? May be I should return.”

“Don’t. Don’t run away Jai. Today if you run away, you’ll never be able to face your past,” the voice in him screamed.

Taking a deep breath, he entered the restaurant. Friday night in downtown London is party time. Every table was full. Excited happy voices drowning everything else. Everyone was happy. Everyone was there with their friends.

Jai was looking around nervously. He couldn’t see his friends.

“Jai?” a voice called.

He turned towards it. A tall bespectacled man in a fine suit was looking at him.

“Umm…I..,” Jai couldn’t find the words. His voice was lost.

The man hurriedly walked towards Jai. Held his shoulders. Looked at him long and hard.

“What the fuck man! Where have you been all these years.!”

Sunny threw his arms around Jai and hugged him tight.

How I dealt with writer’s block

If you’re a writer, you’ll agree with me when I say, that writer’s block is the thing that must not be named! The dreaded thing that sends a cold shiver down our spine.

I used to consider myself as a wordsmith; having spent more than 18 years writing for publications and companies, ideating, pitching stories all the time, I’ve never been stuck with words. I used to say, when you write for money, you can’t afford such luxuries. Though I never openly said it, I’m too polite to do that but in my mind I scoffed at those who said they have a writer’s block. I believed it to be an excuse for not wanting to write. A lazy mind’s excuse.

I made the transition from freelance writing to fiction easily. First book done in 2016, second one in 2019, a bank of good stories ideas to write on. I was sorted and sure to go cruising all the way. But then Life has few knocks stored up it’s sleeve just when you least expect it.

2020. COVID happened. When the lockdown started on March 24, I was clocking in 5 hours of writing time and feeling on top of the world. My book 3 was looking good, I had chapter outlines drawn out for 30 chapters, the end was clearly defined; as it always happens with my writing. I was good. Nothing could go wrong. I told my editor, I would have the MS ready when the lockdown ended. In my mind I thought I’ll have 2 books ready. What could go wrong huh?

Well, as I would soon discover… a lot!

After about a month of lockdown, I just didn’t feel like writing the story that had been gurgling inside my head. I told myself, never mind, write the next story – book 4. That’s a fun wild thriller too. So I jumped into that. Somewhere, far inside my head, a niggling thought was raising it’s ugly head.

This isn’t me. I’m very disciplined and organized. I don’t behave like. doing one thing today and something else the next day.

For a person who always walks the straight and narrow path, who likes order and precision, chaos is…chaotic and unsettling. But I went along and then one fine day I didn’t want to write book 4 either. I didn’t want to write book 3 also. Both the stories seemed pointless to me. And my mind shut down. It’s like someone flicked the light switch off and I just couldn’t find the damn switch to turn on the light. I panicked. I’m the kind of person who always paints the worst case scenario first so my thoughts were – may be I’m done as a writer. May be I have only 2 books in me. That’s all. I spoke to some of my author friends and lucky for me, they are extremely patient with me. Always.

Maniature garden that I made

They assuaged my fears. Told me, this was happening to loads of authors around the world. I was told to shift my focus to something else. So turned to my other love – gardening. I began watching gardening videos on Youtube, taught myself how to propagate plants by plant cuttings, how to make rooting hormone at home. Then I sought refuge in baking – something I’d never ever tried my hand at. I baked bread, garlic bread with cheese, cookies, croissants, pin-wheel puffs, more cakes than I can remember.

I was trying to calm myself but the truth is…

I was going crazy. Writing is like breathing to me. As far as I can remember I have wanted to write. I have never ever wanted to do anything else in my life. NEVER. And writing is what I have done. How can this happen to me? How can I get stuck? Not even in my wildest dreams did I think of such a possibility.

But it happened. I. just. couldn’t. write. I was blocked and nothing I did could get me out of it.

The reason I’m writing this post is to share not my angst but to tell you, yes! it’s true. Writer’s block is very true and it’s not an urban legend. I used to believe it is. I didn’t believe it could happen but it did. But there’s light at the end of dark tunnel.

While I kept myself busy with other things, I didn’t stop writing, or trying to write. I scribbled furiously in my thoughts journal, I wrote blog posts, I dug out old stories and reworked parts of them. I didn’t completely switch myself off from the write mode. And finally my mind walked out of the funk. I’m hardly the one to give advice but if you are going through what I did, please know that you aren’t alone. I don’t feel nice saying this but misery likes company and it’s ok. Seek solace in numbers, in the fact that you aren’t alone. Reach out to friends. Connect with me if you want to. There are few writing exercises I did that helped, may be they’ll help you too. Writing prompts are good thing to work on when you’re head isn’t in the write space. It’s important to get the stress of the current WiP out of your mindspace but not to stay away from writing completely; hence the writing exercises and the prompts.

I read loads of writing help books, listened to podcasts and audio books. I also enrolled for a writing course with Curtis Brown – a reputed literary agency in the UK that conducts world class writing course. It’s a good idea to use the time to learn, do courses and basically equip yourself with knowledge.

Some of the books that i read and found useful:

Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson

The Last Draft by Sandra Scofield

Save the Cat writes a Novel!

The Emotional Craft of Fiction – Donald Maas

What I talk about when I talk abour running – Murakami. Though this is a book about his running expriences but there are so many writing references and metaphors; this is one of my favourites.

(There are many books that you can pick up. Above mentioned are the few I picked, read and found useful.)

When that which must not be named, strikes; you just need to ride the phase out. Yes, it’s easier said than done and I know it too well. One thing’s for sure, I don’t take my writing for granted anymore. Every day when I sit down to write I say a little prayer and thank the Muse for showing up.

I finished writing Book 3 finally in April 2021 and submitted it to my publisher. Currently working on Book 4, also a thriller.

On the Book shelf with Neil D’Silva

Neil is an author who writes horror stories. An inspiration to aspiring authors, Neil has made the transition from self publishing to now being published by reputed publishers. What many indie authors dream of achieving, Neil has succeeded in doing that. Kudos to him.

He started a YouTube channel – On the Bookshelf and interviewed me for it. Ain’t I lucky to have enterprising friends who think of interesting initiatives and then include me!

It was great talking to him. Do click on the link above to listen to our conversation. I’ve spoken in details about my writing journey and do leave your comments if you feel like.

Thanks in advance.

Interview with Lipika Bhushan

As an author, it’s great to be able to meet other authors, lit agents, book marketeers. During the Pandemic, many people turned to digital platforms as means of interacting with authors.

Lipika Bhushan, an ace book marketeer with years of experience with many reputed publishing houses, started her Youtube channel – Between the lines.

She interviewed me for her channel. If writing is my first love, then talking about writing comes a close second.

Do click on the link above and watch the interview. I’ve spoken in details about my childhood, the loneliness of an only child and how books were my constant companion. I’ve also spoken about how I got my publishing break with Harper Collins in 2015.

There’s a fun rapid fire question round. Lipika fired away some quirky questions and I shot back crazy answers. Unlike most people, I enjoy these rapid fire sessions.

Hope you watch the session and please do leave your thoughts in the comments box.

Making miniature gardens

There’s indeed a time for everything in life. I’ve always enjoyed gardening and plants. I had attended a workshop on miniature garden 2-3 years ago. My interest fizzled out soon after the day long workshop.

In the past few months, due to COVID, like everyone else I’m at home and when home is all you have and nowhere to go, no one to meet; the mind looks for alternatives. And just like that I decided to revisit my earlier interest of making a miniature garden. Actually it started with a friend’s 50th birthday during lockdown. I was thinking of a gift…what to give her. Options were limited as deliveries weren’t happening. So I decided to make a miniature garden for her.

The picture on the left is what I prepared. I wanted to gift her something special that would stay with her. I propagated plant cuttings from the ones I have at home. Thankfully I had the ceramic huts and some stones from an earlier jaunt with miniature gardening. So I put it together to make this miniature garden. Nothing exotic but my friend loved it!!

Made this miniature garden with Aralia & pink Syngonium. Collected stones from my cycling rides around Gurgaon. The kissing boy & girl on the bench are from Amazon.

Table for you. Bought these accessories from Amazon. Stones and chips from another online nursery. The plant is a variegated spider.

And now I’m hooked to miniature gardens. I’m not at all the artistic kind and absolutely have no sense of colour or design. So for now, I’m selecting designs from Pinterest and other online sources to create miniature gardens. These make very cute gifts, don’t you agree?

HOW TO THINK OF STORY IDEAS?

If how do you write is the oft asked question authors face; then a close second is how do you think of story ideas?

Most authors will tell you that the first book literally gushes out of you. (At least that’s what happened with me). You don’t really have to spend much time thinking about what to write. Everything you’ve felt, experienced or believe in comes out in the first one. It doesn’t have to be your biography or memoir; you and your life so far will imprint itself on your debut book in a big way. When my first book A Forgotten Affair was published, my friends scrambled to get a copy to see if they featured in it. Some identified instances of exchanges with them in the story, some found themselves carefully tucked in characters and some knew it was them, outright. Those who found no traces of themselves were offended. “I don’t mean anything to you because I’m not in your first book.” Well, i wasn’t chronicling my life or telling my story but willy-nilly people I love & dislike did get into the book.

But coming back to the topic of the post, how to think of story ideas…if you want to keep writing books, you have to turn on the story receptor in your head. You have to spot ideas and marinade them well enough so that they turn out into a juicy steak. Not rare or medium but well done. (Pardon my food metaphor!)

If you want to write and are struggling with what to write about, here are certain things you can do to get into the ‘write frame of mind.’

READ THE NEWS & WATCH TV

Yes, I know there’s utter garbage in the News and most of which is so off-putting and disgusting. But buried beneath all that garbage is a seed of idea that could become a great book. To explain further, I hate reality TV. I can’t stand the nonsensical drama that unfolds only to spike TRP and fill the coffers of the producers and TV channels. I don’t watch any but I read about them in news snippets and articles. It’s from these snippets that I got the idea of setting Nobody’s child in the backdrop of a reality TV music contest. The story of a young girl from the back of beyond, running away from a difficult past, trying to make a new life for herself in the music world. Her path crosses with vile manipulative people who have an agenda of their own and don’t stop at anything to win. That’s the gist of Nobody’s Child.

Small insignificant news items can often become the base of your story. So look out for those. You can set Google alerts for topics that interest you and news will be delivered in your inbox.

CATASTROPHIC EVENTS

A plane goes missing. A bomb blast in a hotel. Devastating monsoon. Locust attack. COVID19. Tucked in each of them are multiple possible stories that you can cull out and write. Let’s take the most recent catastrophe that has the entire world in its grip – COVID19. I’ll suggest few story ideas below:

A thriller – a building in the outskirts of a city. City goes into lockdown. No one can come in or go out. The cops put out an alert. A dreaded killer has escaped and is hiding somewhere in the area. Is he in the building? Is he going to kill people? What happens…

Romance – a woman goes away to a sea side or mountain retreat to recoup. Lockdown happens and the people in the retreat are locked in. she comes face to face with her ex-lover. They both were together in college. It was a very serious relationship but didn’t work out. Both went their separate paths. She underwent abortion during that relationship, which the guy didn’t know. Now they are locked in together. What happens?

Now let’s think of an earthquake and try to make a story.

A woman, an artist works with an NGO that sends volunteers to a prison to help teach the inmates art. The day she is sent to the prison, an earthquake happens and she is locked inside the prison with the inmates. What happens? Among the inmates she finds an aged woman. Who is that woman? Is there any relation between them?

Read about international events of importance and flex your writing muscles to make a story out of it.

OBSERVE PEOPLE

Getting bored at a party. Arrived too early for the flight or for a meeting. (Of course this is tough given the current circumstances but when life goes back to normal) Just sit back and watch the best show on earth. Life and people around you. How are they talking to each other? What are they doing with their hands, hair? Their body language as they speak with others? Everything will tell you something.

UNSOLVED CRIME CASES OF THE PAST

I’m a huge fan of unsolved cases, true crime or even solved cases that can serve as an inspiration for a new story. I search the Internet about such cases, read them and try to make a story. My book 3 is inspired by an event that happened in the US in the early 1970s.

The main story of Nobody’s Child is from a letter I read in an agony aunt column in a magazine years ago. It stayed with me and I knew some day I would write a story on it. The character of Kamini Pratap Singh is inspired by the case of a rich and influential socialite and businesswoman who allegedly killed her own daughter and is now in prison.

There are stories galore around you. All you need to do is to notice them and get inspired. It’s not easy but then if it were then everyone would become a writer. You just need to train your mind to do it and before you know you’ll be writing away!

If you haven’t read my books, here’s the link for them.

Nobody’s Child & A Forgotten Affair

You want to write but don’t know how to begin…

Visiting book shops with Nobody’s Child

I must begin with an apology. With only 2 published books to my name, I’m no authority to guide aspiring writers but given the limited experience I have, I want to share some of my learnings. Hence, this post.

In another life, I used to be a freelance writer , writing for publications & companies. I’ve done that for nearly two decades. However, it was only in 2014 that I began writing my 1st book. Writing a novel is a different ball game.

Below are few things I have tried on myself. I hope it helps you in your writing journey too.

STOP TALKING ABOUT IT

If talking about writing could get the job done then there would be no problem. So if you’re serious about writing, stop talking and start doing. It’s time to walk the talk. Some know what they want to write but lack the discipline and courage to take the plunge. If you fall in that category, help’s coming few paras down. If you have a vague idea, a ghost of a story that lingers in the far recesses of your mind, get down to it right away. List down ideas or themes as they come to you. Read books in that genre. This could trigger a well formed plot. You need to and have to spend time thinking long and hard about this. Set aside a time every day, when you can be undisturbed. Lock yourself in the room and scribble or type in random thoughts. Think hard what you want to do with the themes. Believe me, inspiration strikes in a flash but you have to prepare the ground for it.

STOP DOING FEW THINGS

You have to make a few, actually a lot of changes to be a writer. You have to forgo social gatherings, fun lunches, impromptu shopping jaunts and etc. Don’t get me wrong I’m not asking you to live the life of a hermit or a social recluse. But if you don’t put aside time every day for this, you’ll never get started. Writing like any other craft needs devotion and time. I made a lot of changes in my life to be able to write my first book. As Ann Patchett writes in her marvelous book This is the story of a happy marriage says; “Show up, show up, show up. The muse will too”. What does this mean? You need to sit with your writing pad or laptop whatever is your chosen writing mode. You need to do this every day. The Muse will come to you. The Muse isn’t your wife or mother who will cater to your whims and fancies. She is your lover and you have to woo her, court her, pamper her. She is temperamental. So show up for her. Every day. And she will come to you. She always does.

SET A ROUTINE

Jot down your thoughts

Many may disagree with me but it helps to set a routine, at least in the beginning. I find it best to write early in the morning, before the crack of dawn, before my family of husband, son and two dogs wake up. So pick your time of day when you think you can get an hour to begin with, undisturbed. Sit down with your thoughts and writing pad every day at that time. Our mind and body follows a routine. Compel your mind to think and write at a particular time to start with. Once you are in the rhythm you will need to increase the time. This will be a struggle to begin with but if you do so for a few weeks, it will get easier.

USE WRITING PROMPTS

If you’re having trouble starting and don’t know what to write but desperately want to; then start with writing prompts. There are websites galore that offer these prompts. If you sign up with them, a new one will be delivered to your inbox every day to flex your writing muscles.

If embarking on this solo journey is daunting, you can get yourself a writing mentor. While this may not yet be prevalent in India yet but there are few established authors who are willing to help aspiring writers. They coach you, hand-hold you through the stumbling blocks and most importantly keep tabs on your writing progress.

JOIN A WRITERS’ GROUP

Writing is a solitary act, done in solitude but it doesn’t have to be in isolation. You write alone but being part of a group will give you company, solace and help when you need it. And believe me, you’ll lots of it. You can exchange ideas, reach out for help, critique each other’s work.  Sometimes it will help just to share your frustration and rant. It helps to know that you aren’t alone. Others face similar problems. For new writers who are just starting the journey, this is a good thing to be part of. It will motivate you to keep writing.

ATTEND BOOK EVENTS & LIT FESTS

At Times Bangalore Lit fest, 2019

Why am I suggesting this? If you want to get somewhere, be in the company of people who are already there. At book events and lit fests, you will hear authors talk about their book, their writing journey; not only will you learn a lot from their talks but watching them with their book will give you the added boost to push yourself. You’ll imagine yourself with a book in hand talking to the audience. It will fill you with i-must-do-this feeling. I used to do this a lot before my first book A Forgotten Affair was published.

 EXERCISE

Yes, you read that right. Exercise. Engage in some form of physical exercise that makes you sweat. Sweating not only cleans your pores, it also helps clearing the blocks in your mind. You may not realise this initially but if you do this regularly, you’ll thank me. When you sit with the story every day, think about it all the time, allowing it to churn in your mind…when you exercise, you get clarity. It will help you tide over the blocks. So don’t forget to exercise.

Writing isn’t easy

The rate at which books get published, it would be easy to believe that writing is easy. It’s not. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the story will just gush out of your head. You’ll have to work very hard. The story will sometimes gush, sometimes trickle and then there will be days when not a word will come out. I told ya, the Muse is temperamental. And it’s very easy to give up when the going gets tough. When the words refuse to flow. When you feel flummoxed where the story is going. It’s not an easy phase to be in. It’s frustrating, emotionally crushing and you’ll ask yourself: do I have it in me? It’s natural to self-doubt. But don’t give up. When you get stuck, remember it’s the Muse testing your commitment. She is watching if you’ll give up or stick to course. This is also a time when your exercise regime will help.

DON’T HURRY

Writing isn’t a sprint run. It’s a marathon. So take it slow and steady. You don’t have to finish the manuscript in a month or two. No harm if you do but don’t rush it. Spend time with the story. It will evolve and  grow beautifully. Stephen King says, “You should have the first draft done in 3 months.” While King is God, I don’t agree on this one. I took 7 months to do the first draft. Take your time but set a deadline and stick to it.

From a person who has written all her life and published her second book in August 2019, I can tell you, this is the most amazing journey you’ll ever take. You’ll rise and fall. You’ll stumble, rave and rant. You’ll want to give up. But then when you finish it…the feeling is something else. The sense of achievement in knowing that you didn’t give in. You didn’t stop. That you did it!! It will change you in ways you can’t even imagine.

So, write-away and write-on!!

Do leave your comments if you feel like. Share your experiences if you want to.