Monday, February 25, 2013

The Next Big Thing

Tag! You're it. Or at least, I'm it. Yep, after many a moon and many seasons I am (a) blogging again and after even more moons and more seasons I am (b) doing a tag. There has been much excitement in my personal life chez nous which I will not be blogging about. If you are in my life and a Facebook friend you would have hardly missed this momentous event. So, since this is the Writing Life, this post is to do with writing. I'l raise a toast (or three) to more blogging in 2013.

My wonderful writer friend, Daniela Norris has asked me to participate in 'The Next Big Thing,' 'The Next Big Thing' is an internet project in which authors from different countries with different ways of live and diverse writing backgrounds respond to the same ten questions about their current work in progress. Daniela was tagged by Gwyneth Box and she discusses her own upcoming book of poetry, Around the corner from Hope Street here.
So, here are my responses to ten questions about one of my works in progress ("one?" you ask? Yep, because I got two. So there!) 

What is the title of your book?

I'm currently working on my first book-length non-fiction project tentatively titled The Warrior Queens of India. It is part history, part memoir and travelogue.

What genre does your book fall under?

I really have a beef about genres in writing because I believe there is good writing and bad. I'm glad this question wasn't asked when I was in the middle of writing fiction because my response would have been longer. So, technically for this book the genre would be non-fiction--which is a true genre (unlike the dissected-to-death genres within fiction for instance).

Where did the idea come from for your book?

You could say it was an idea that was right under my nose. I had read about some of the warrior queens in history books but they were so much a part of the historical tradition in India that they hid in plain sight. And then, one day, when I was still in Geneva, I thought about the most famous one (Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi) and discovered a hankering to read about some of the lesser known ones. I came back and did some web research and found out a singular lack of information about these amazing women--amazing historical people. How was it possible? I decided then to combine them together into a book. The world--especially women--needed to know about these historical role models. The added bonus is that their stories are full of high adventure and intrigue which makes them a great read for everyone. 

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

All I can say is no glossy, pretty Hollywood or Bollywood types. I would like to scout and find intense, obscure stage actors for the queens but I think I can find spots for Irrfan Khan and Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi. There is probably no role for Gerard Butler or Colin Firth but I am sure I can find roles for both of them *wink*

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Even crushed under the weight of empire, a strong woman can be a mighty warrior.

Will your book be self published or represented by an agency?

I am represented by The Rights Factory

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Since it is non-fiction I am still working on it. I made two month-long trips to India for research and travel and I've spent a lot of time on writing and research. Writing might end up being the most relaxed and relaxing part of this journey,

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Wow! Hmm. I really don't know. Some books by Antonia Frasier. Perhaps White Mughals by William Dalrymple?

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The dichotomy of being an Indian woman inspired me. It's something that has always inspired me. The strongest and most inspirational women I've met, seen or read about have been Indian. And, of course, some of the most atrocious things that happen to women have been Indian. I always say I was shocked when I came to the US and other young women bemoaned the lack of strong female role models. There was no dearth of them in India. There were historical role models who were warriors, mythological strong women, and of course, I grew up in the age of Indira Gandhi. I wanted to highlight this often overlooked (in the West at least) aspect of Indian womanhood.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

India--and Indian women especially--are seen as objects of pity, something exacerbated by the highlighting of atrocities against women in India. However, I believe people--even those in India who might have overlooked this--need to be aware that Indian womanhood is not analogous to victimhood. Our major role models are not just warriors and other fierce women. 

Apart from the historical aspects of the book readers might also be interested in reading about the travels of a woman traveling alone all around India. If the reader likes travelogues memoirs and history and feminism or any or all of these this book will appeal to her/him.

Thank you for reading my blog. Here are the links to the blogs of five wonderful writers four of whom will be answering the same ten questions about their work-in-progress or upcoming book. The fifth, Judy Bussey writes about growing up in the hills of Kentucky and is just fascinating. Just click on their names and read on!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Manifesto for Indian Males

I feel like I've lived these past few days with alternating bouts of frenzied activity and a rage-filled grief about the situation in India. First the news of the teen rape victim who committed suicide because she was being pressured by the cops to marry her rapist. Then the brave fighter who only wanted to live, died despite that will, in a strange land.

I want to hit something, someone. And I realize that these events reminded me of how close I've come to Damini's fate. I will call her this because that's what she was--lightning that flashed for a brilliant second and died away. But her name is immaterial. She is me. She is all Indian women.

I too was a twenty-something in Delhi. It was an unfamiliar city and I was brash, cocky, young, living in that state the young live in--infallibility. I got on to the wrong bus and there I was at night heading towards the U.P. border instead of to Delhi University. I had no idea where I was but I got down with a bunch of other people. It was pitch-dark and I managed to find an auto-rikshaw. Another woman got down with me and begged me to give her a ride because she was scared.

The area looked dodgy, seedy. She tried convincing me to stay the night at her place. I couldn't trust auto-wallahs. Why did I want to wake up my sister late at night when I could go home early in the morning?

Some instinct kicked in and I made her get off way before the place she wanted to go. I still don't know. Was she a procurer? Something worse?

I trusted the auto-wallah. Not because he was great but I had no choice. I could either be stranded somewhere unfamiliar late at night, be sold into something unsavory or risk being in a vehicle with a stranger. I made the right choice by chance that night. Damini did not. Could not. There was no right choice to make.

I know that feeling of desperation, of fear, of the million what-ifs. I felt it that night and many other times...but I was lucky. That's all. Luck!

Women can do nothing more in India but be lucky. This problem--this culture of violence and rape--is on the heads of Indian men. And perhaps on the shoulders of the mothers who bring up these little princes by telling them that all other women are fair game and if they are out there they are sluts anyway.

This is what men need to realize:

1. Women are are human. Take a minute, and think about this. Is the blood rushing to your head? Sit down then, and think. We are not exotic creatures no matter the books that proclaim our Venus heritage. And as humans we have the same emotions and feelings and dreams and aspirations as you do. And each unwelcome touch, each crude comment, each assault, each anything done without our consent grossly violates our human rights.

2. Not only are we human but we are fully equal to you. Whoa! Did that blow your mind? It's true. We have the same rights as you do. The right to walk the streets and go to any public place without hindrance. We have the rights to employment and life and liberty and the right to live our lives. Just as you do.

3. Any right of yours that infringes on ours is not a right. Is this a hard concept too? Let me explain. You too have the right to pursuit your happiness. But if your happiness comes only by molesting or touching someone without their consent it is not a right. Your rights (and mine) stop at the edge of our respective noses. Your pursuit of happiness stops being a pursuit when it only comes at my expense. See two equals cancel each other out and we are equal.

4. Rape is not sex: Rape is a sexual manifestation of many things. At the very least it is a lack of impulse control. At worst it is about violence, rage, control, domination and a deviant desire to hurt. There are actually women who will have sex with you...willingly. But for those who fail to see your charms? Just move on. Really, you might discover that sex is actually more enjoyable than rape. Sex is about pleasure--mutual pleasure. Rape is about stealing something--sometimes violently--that is not yours and is not about anything mutual.

5. You can change. Trust me on this. First of all, there many, many wonderful sensitive non-rapy men out there. They manage to live and love and prosper and do all the things they need to do without it being at the expense of women. Some of these men stood shoulder-to-shoulder with women in Delhi protesting the hideous crime in Delhi. If you too think of us people (not goddesses or princesses or any other label that diminishes our humanness) who are kind of like you then you can change. And it might even be fun. You might even make female friends. We're fun and stodgy and irreverent and stuck-up and funny and bitchy and nice and not nice: human. Judge us on our individual merits or de-merits, not just because we are women.

And mothers of Indian men? Stop making your sons into female-hating assholes. Just because women are not their mothers, sisters or wives and are out there in public does not make them whores ready for the taking. In fact--even they are whores they still have the rights to their own bodies. They still have the right to make their own choices about who can touch them and who cannot.

You are fond of bleating on about India being poised to be in the first world. Guess what? That is not going to happen unless and until this problem is addressed. It's a human rights issue stupid!

These are not radical rights. Most of these rights in some way or the other are already enshrined in the Indian constitution. Don't believe me? Read it. Nowhere does it say in that document that women are second class or that we do not have the same rights as men.

Even if not that: you can think the way you do...but you do not (and moms teach this to your potentially rapy sons)....touch anyone if they don't want you to. I don't believe in thought policing. I do believe in freedom of speech. But actions...they are another thing altogether. You say something crude to a woman in the streets or touch her or assault her...that is a crime!

See? That wasn't so hard right? Think of all the rights you legally enjoy and take as your birthright. We, as Indian women, have those exact same rights. You can think we are sluts, whores or whatever else. You *cannot* act on that. Just the same way that many Indian women might think most of the males around her are sex-obsessed, crude, assaulting assholes. But if we become vigilantes and start pre-emptively kicking random men in the balls or castrating them...that is a crime.

Did that make you cringe? Good. That was one-thousandth of what it takes for an Indian woman to go about her daily life, being prepared for a constant barrage of invasion and criminal assaults to various degrees.

Feel free to pass this along. And feel even freer to change and help others to do the same.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Crime and Punishment: A Rape in Delhi

Today the Delhi police arrested and blasted with water cannons those protesting the brutal gang-rape that sparked protests and social-media outrage. There are pictures too—of a young jean-clad woman being dragged away by cops. And of signs exhorting the death penalty for rape. And multitudes of young people protesting apathy or outright police and politician collusion with criminals in India’s capital.

This has been a media and social media sensation: the awful terrifying details of the rape, the petitions to make death penalty the punishment for the crime, the updates on the condition of the ICU-bound victim. No…not victim. The survivor. She was left for dead. She survived. She is no victim. A victim does not fight. She fought to live.

And that is why I am against the death penalty for rape crowd. Rape is an awful, terrible, horrific crime but it is not the same as murder. Anyone who is raped, , anyone who has been brutalized and lives is a survivor. If they do not, then by all means apply the penalty for murder. First figure out what rape is, what it really means before you start applying penalties. Penalties, which seem to equate rape with death. Rape is one of the most horrific things to happen to a woman. But it is not the worst. Not surviving a rape is the worst. No matter how much she suffers, dying is still worse. Because until there is life there is a promise of a future. And women do not need to be told that being raped is the end of everything good in their lives. That is giving too much power to the rapist, the men who feel like men only when they take by force what was not theirs to take. Equating rape to death makes women eternally suffering victims.

For too long has rape been akin to murder and to do so is to diminish the survivor. It feeds into the motivations between honor killings, as in the destruction and besmirching of some man's property.As if the one raped is forever tainted by being forced to have something that mimics sex. Being raped is not the burden of the survivor. The only one dishonored is the perpetrator. Being raped does not make a woman less a woman. It does not make her less alive. It does not make her less in control of her future.

Remember those old movies where the raped woman had only two options: to kill herself or to become a prostitute? That is how Indian society has viewed raped women. If you are a good girl, recognize your dishonor and kill yourself. If not, then recognize that the forced violation of your body has left you with only one recourse, to become a slut and a vehicle for men’s lust. 


The best revenge a survivor has is to go on with her life. The only way is to go forward, to testify, to face her assailants and gain the courage to take her life back. Rape is a crime and it needs to be punished. But is death penalty the solution? Why?

The severity of the punishment is not the solution. Some kind of punishment is the solution. India has the lowest conviction rates around. Where is the outrage against that? Why is there no outrage that there are really no forensics or scientific evidence given in Indian courts? Even rape cases become a he said-she said scenario with eyewitness accounts and other archaic tools. So then if a survivor is left paralyzed or unable to speak how do her assailants get prosecuted?

If a rapist (as in this case) is from a lower socio-economic class he might get sentenced. This is still the Indian justice system right? Where the police catch a hold of the first poor person, beat the hell out of him and force him to confess to a crime even if the perpetrator was someone else—especially if that someone is rich of well-connected. This is also the India where cops believe that a woman who drinks or who has consensual sex has no business complaining about rape. It is also the India where the “what was she wearing to bring it on,” is still used successfully in court an where judges take moralistic stances against those who are raped and advise them to get married to their rapists.

So it doesn’t matter if rape gets the death penalty. Or if at the point of death we cut the man down, whip him and string him up again ten times. It doesn’t matter because the conviction rates for any crime are so low. It doesn’t matter because as a nation we still don’t agree on what rape is.

I’ll tell you what it’s not. Rape is not about sex. What is it about? It is about control. And violence. And rage. And domination. It is about inflicting physical, emotional and psychological damage. The fact that it takes on the parody of a sex act is incidental. Sex is about pleasure. And it is about mutual choice and consent. Rape is about pain and the lack of choice and the steamrolling of consent.

We might ask why Indian men have so much anger against Indian women? So much anger that makes them leer and touch and molest and assault openly. Rage that makes them rape and attack? What lets them worship a goddess and kill his female fetus or his already born daughter? There is something, something that is making our male-female ratio plunge to alarming numbers. Something that makes them want to annihilate women. Not all men and not all women but enough to make me wonder. Why? And how can we reverse this trend. Can we? Can Indian women get justice? True justice, not reactionary, bandaid justice.

So the Delhi Police might blast away protestors—men and women—but they cannot blast away the truth. Rape is an act of violence. And it needs an appropriate punishment. What that punishment is can be debated later. What we need are profound changes so that survivors can live with their heads held high and perpetrators get appropriate sentences and the justice system is indeed about that most elusive thing of all—justice.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

It is so good to be

I used concepts that can be encapsulated in numbers: four seasons (fall, winter, spring, summer), the elements (earth, wind, fire, water) as writing prompts. Starting from the broad and drilling down helps in narrowing down to yourself. After all, a journal is a safe, exclusive place where the only person important is you.

"How do you spell, Fall?"



I wondered if she had wandered into this class by mistake and hoped she was not uncomfortable there. I even wondered if English was a language she was comfortable with. But this is not a class about learning as such, there is no goal in mind, just a space to be, to think, to write, to relax and get in touch with yourself. So I say nothing. Her voice was soft at first, so low that I could barely make out a single word...even though I sat within touching distance. Each time she asked me to spell something out she winced, seemed to curl up inside.

Her first sentence tended to be the same, "Summer is good." "The sense of sight is so good."

Then came the final focus on you exercise. I asked them to write a truth about themselves they did not mind sharing with others. The take-home would be to write a truth that is exclusively theirs, that no one would ever see.

"I am so happy," she said, "to be sitting in this classroom, to write and to be heard."

She was a little girl when her parents died. Some people took her in but they could not afford to feed *and* educate her. She never learned to read and write. Then, after a lot of struggle, and living on her own from her teens, she arrived in the U.S. Somehow she learned to read and write...but not well."

"I can't spell," she said mournfully, "I don't know the right way to write."

Her voice, still soft, was audible at last.

"I am 57 years old," she said, "and I am embarrassed but today I am happy, so happy to be here. It is so good."

I didn't know when I first saw this quiet, shrinking woman walk in that she had magical powers. She could do more to reach a deep, sacred place, and unlock goodness than I ever could with all my babbling about how wonderful writing is. The prickly, disabled woman in the corner who declared that she never told anything to anyone because people used it to hurt her unfroze, just like that.

"I don't really know you" she said to the quiet one, "but you are the only person who always offer to help me with my walker and you don't stare at me. Do you know how many people just stare and they never talk to me? I am taking my GED and I am older than you. I would be honored to study with you."

She talked also about her mother throwing her out when she was 13, with a few rolls of pennies and a few clothes in a bag.

Time was up and we all looked at each other and smiled. It's a cliche to say that I learned more than I taught but it's true. Each time in this little community of homeless, battered and destitute women I find humbling truths that bring me to my knees.

It is so good to be here, in this basement, where the light filters in softly, it is good to be here with all of you.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Slicing and Dicing Writing

First things first…I’m back baby! So, hey everyone. For how long am I back? I have no idea. I felt no urge to blog for months and then suddenly I wanted to blog again.

Second, this might be due to my good friend Katie Hayoz’s new blog applause. She is a fantas…fab....err….totally fantabulous YA writer. See Katie, one adjective cannot contain you or your writing.

So, anyway Katie wrote this awesome blog post and it made me want to re-start blogging too. So here I am, blogging again. Katie wrote a funny and lovely post about being both a YA reader and a wonderful writer. Well, she says she writes YA and that’s the label under which her creative, fun and well-written book is making its rounds.

I would say though that she is a writer. A good writer, not merely a good YA writer, or a YA writer at all. Why, you ask?

It’s because I’m old-fashioned, not just plain old. I remember when there were no genres really except fiction and non-fiction. Sometimes I would hear that a book was a classic or that it was contemporary…a ‘novel.’ Sometimes there were some kids books thrown into the mix.

And then marketers got their paws on the industry and suddenly around the time I started writing seriously, what was once a wonderland of words and phrases became chopped up and divided into genres. So, just in fiction (forget the non category for now) there is literary fiction, commercial fiction, commercial womens’ fiction, romance, children’s fiction, young adult (YA) also known as juvenile fiction, horror, science fiction, mystery, crime, fantasy, and western. In fact there are many other ways to slice and dice fiction. Each genre has sub-genres and the whole thing makes my head hurt.

 Of course, the word genre has been applied to the written word before but the boundaries were more fluid. They were looser generalizations but in the modern marketing machine, genres have become set in stone almost. So much so that sometimes even writers become genre-ized.

When my first novel, The Burden of Foreknowledge, was making the rounds of publishers it was almost sold to one of the big ones. The acquisitions editor loved the book but it got shot down in the board meeting. They had already made their quota of, “female Indian authors,” for that publishing cycle. Yes, this is how publishing decisions are made…sometimes.

I remember when I was a child my parents went to meet the Dalai Lama. For years afterwards my mother would quote something he said. “There are only two religions in the world. The religion of the good people and the religion of the bad people. There is no other religion.”

And for me, there are only two kinds of books in the world, good books and bad books. If a book is good the genre becomes irrelevant. H.G. Wells’ books are classics not because they are science fiction but because they’re great books. Little Women is still loved for the same reason. Huckleberry Finn remains a much-read book but not because it was jammed into an obligatory genre.

To me, genres limit us, as readers and perhaps as writers. Writing is supposed to expand our minds, our creativity, and our imagination. As does reading. But putting ourselves in a little box and saying, ‘here this is your writing/reading arena. Stay within the lines and you’ll do well,” is counter-productive to that in my opinion.

Readers become entrenched within the genres they read. Think about this, a man might pick up Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights but would they be likely to do that if these two were packaged as romance novels with the obligatory lurid bodice-ripper (neck-biters, the Germans call them) covers?

As far as I am concerned genres should not be tools to guide readers or writers. They are merely marketing categories that have grown to encompass and, in my opinion, strangle the way we read books. I read Little Women and all the other Alcott books but I never knew I was reading YA. I read Invisible Man without knowing that it might be classified as horror or science fiction.

Good writing is good writing. It spans boundaries and breaks them. It defies genres and goes beyond defining them. So…bring on some good writing and screw the genre.