Turning Hate into Halwa

In an episode of Masterchef Australia I watched recently, the contestants were asked to “hero” the vegetables and make them palatable to meat-lovers. It was an interesting episode and I made mental notes to try out at home and convert the meat-lovers into veggie-lovers although I knew I wouldn’t be able to fool the 11-year-old or his father. It reminded me of the time my father had to go on a no-meat diet and my mother made shaami kababs out of yam. She had us all convinced we were eating regular shaami kebabs. But that also got me thinking about what we Indians usually do to vegetables we don’t like. We make halwa out of them.

Carrot halwa, or gajar ka halwa, is one of the most representative desserts from India. It was also the first thing I learned to make in the kitchen. It helped that my mother oversaw the entire process. Instead of cooking the grated carrots in milk, we sauted the grated carrots in ghee first, added very little milk but more khoya and then sugar. There’s another version that’s even easier to make, because there’s no grating involved. Carrots are cut into pieces and pressure cooked in a little milk to soften them. Then, this is pureed and cooked with khoya and sugar. The resultant halwa is as rich and satisfying as the original without the hassle of grating carrots (and fingers inadvertently).

Converting beetroot into a halwa is also easy. Given its inherent sweetness, you could also go a little easy on the sugar. Apart from these two, I knew that we could make halwa out of bottle gourd and potatoes. To make this, we grate bottle gourd and cook it with sugar over a medium flame. As it releases water, it will get cooked in it and once the water dries up, you can crumble khoya and add to it along with fried nuts and raisins. But this got me curious. So, I posed a question on Twitter, asking people if they knew what other vegetables could be turned into halwa and the answers blew me away.

I got to know about the popular South Indian kasi halwa, made from ash gourd. But there were also some unusual replies such as onion, garlic, tomato, green chillies and capsicum as well. I thought these vegetables were too full of their own flavour to become desserts, but apparently these are prepared across India. The green chilli halwa is made by boiling chillies in water for 10 minutes to remove the heat, while there are also spicy-sweet halwas made from turmeric and ginger. Sweet potato and moong dal were also mentioned and I know from experience that the channa dal halwa served at most Muslim weddings is one of the reasons I try not to miss dessert even if I don’t get to eat the biryani.

Food blogger Nandita Iyer mentioned halwa made from green peas and raw papaya, and a visit to her blog will also take you to the steps needed to make halwa from pumpkin and carrot. Then, historian Rana Safvi also mentioned that halwa can also be made from kheema. I can’t quite fathom what that would taste like and I don’t know if I’d be adventurous enough to even try!

The replies made me marvel at this innate inventiveness. To convert something as strong tasting as garlic and even bitter gourd into a halwa takes talent, resourcefulness and a stretch of imagination — along with a good dose of confidence. Of course, with the Keto diet being so popular these days, one of my friends suggested that maybe we should try to make halwa out of cauliflower. Who knows? Maybe someone already has! I’ll stick with the humble gajar ka halwa, thank you.

This piece was first published in The Indian Express, 26th November, 2017

So many short stories!

I started my writing career with short stories and I didn’t think it I’d ever be able to write a novel because it seemed so long drawn and just difficult. But then, I did it once and I found that it wasn’t so bad and I’ve been writing and writing and here I am, with ten novels and 3 e-books. With that bit of shameless plugging done, let me tell you what I’ve been working on recently.

I’ve been writing these love stories for the Juggernaut app/website. They’re short stories and until I started writing them, I realised I’d forgotten how much fun short stories could be – both for the reader and writer.

My big love will always be the novel because of the chance it gives you to flesh out characters and give them delicious back stories and build your own world. But my first love will be short stories, indeed.

So, here you go!

Read The Nikah here – http://bit.ly/2wjnFDIWhat it's about – A married woman is forced to relive her past when she…

Posted by Andaleeb Wajid on Monday, August 21, 2017

Read My Cousin Sahil here – http://bit.ly/2vYE3aoWhat it's about – A young girl is unhappy because she is engaged to…

Posted by Andaleeb Wajid on Monday, August 21, 2017

Read Khoya Khoya Chand here – http://bit.ly/2wj54rHWhat it's about -Chand is waiting for her husband, Ashraf, to…

Posted by Andaleeb Wajid on Monday, August 21, 2017

Read An Eid to Remember here – http://bit.ly/2immApaWhat it's about – Anaya recalls the last time Eid was truly…

Posted by Andaleeb Wajid on Monday, August 21, 2017

Read The Man who Loved Zara here – http://bit.ly/2vTXAdCWhat it's about – Imran has loved Zara since they were kids….

Posted by Andaleeb Wajid on Monday, August 21, 2017

Read Ammi Always Knows here – http://bit.ly/2vjNwHkWhat it's about – It is Taskeen and Aslam's first proper date. All…

Posted by Andaleeb Wajid on Monday, August 21, 2017

Read The Other Wife here – https://goo.gl/SabE9aWhat it's about – Rashida gets a rude shock when her husband decides…

Posted by Andaleeb Wajid on Monday, August 21, 2017

Read Muskaan here – https://goo.gl/58KHfDWhat it's about – Beautiful and charming, Muskan was always at the centre of…

Posted by Andaleeb Wajid on Monday, August 21, 2017

Read When Shaheen met Kabir here – https://goo.gl/swhZNXWhat it's about – Kabir should have been the perfect husband…

Posted by Andaleeb Wajid on Monday, August 21, 2017

Read The Man Next Door here – https://goo.gl/XyR53YWhat it's about – Sharmina’s mother wants her to marry their…

Posted by Andaleeb Wajid on Monday, August 21, 2017

Read Anything for Apa here – https://goo.gl/vPuecCWhat it's about – Aslam was raised by his elder sister after their…

Posted by Andaleeb Wajid on Monday, August 21, 2017

Read Behind the Burqa here – https://goo.gl/MPDWdzWhat it's about – Ashi was brought up in a conservative household….

Posted by Andaleeb Wajid on Monday, August 21, 2017

 

Ten Questions I was asked

Kanchana Bannerjee, fellow writer and friend whom I interviewed for my blog sometime back, returned the favour and asked me ten questions on her blog. You can read the full interview and visit her amazing website here – http://www.kanchanabanerjee.com.

Meanwhile here are her questions and my answers –

Q1. The series of stories that you are doing with Juggernaut, how did you come up with the idea? What’s the duration and how many stories are you doing?

A. To be honest, the idea was from my editor Trisha actually and I jumped on it. She wanted me to write a set of short stories set in a Muslim milieu, something that was second nature to me when I started my writing career. I hadn’t written short stories in a long time and the entire process has reawakened the joy of writing short fiction for me.

Q 2. Is there an underlying theme you are adhering to?

A. No theme as such. As I mentioned in the above answer, they are just set within a Muslim milieu.

Q 3.Typically, how long do you take to write these stories?

A. It depends on the idea really. Sometimes an afternoon, sometimes a couple of days at the most.

Q 4.When you write, what comes first to you; the plot or the character?

A. In a novel, it’s always the plot. In short stories, an interesting character acts as a trigger to write the story.

Q 5.You started with Young Adult fiction, then moved on to romance. You’ve done a brilliant horror story, and quite a few romances. Any particular reason you moved away from YA?

A. I love writing. Period. I don’t want to be confined to any genre but I realise there may be practical reasons why I cannot choose a certain genre like maybe crime fiction because I wouldn’t be able to do accurate research. Young Adult fiction is my first love. I haven’t moved away from it completely. I am going to return to it soon in fact! I’m so glad you enjoyed the horror story! There’s a series of horror shorts coming out on Juggernaut as well as a horror novel that’s coming out next year.

Q 6. Which genre you enjoyed the most and which did you find the most challenging?

A. I love writing romance. Despite being a very cynical person, I love writing about the chemistry between two people, what makes them tick, that first glance, that unspoken thing that only the two involved know. But then, I’ve realized writing horror is just as fun. So I try and bring a little bit of romance inside the horror as well, as I did in It Waits.

Q 7. What’s your writing schedule?

A. It’s like a proper job. However, I used to write whenever the mood struck me. Now I’m more organized and write only in the morning. The rest of the day I take off for editing and other work that comes up as part of my life of being a ‘jobless’ writer.

Q 8. Do you wait for inspiration to strike? Give us a few examples of how some of the stories you have written have come to you?

A. Fortunately, I’ve never had to wait for inspiration as such because there are multiple ideas crowding in my head and I can give space to only one at a time. But there have been instances when an idea would come in just because of the way I’ve seen something and it gets stuck in my head. Examples, okay. I got the idea for When She Went Away when I saw this man and woman having a very intense conversation while I was at a tailor. I couldn’t help but keep looking at them even though I couldn’t hear what they were saying. I couldn’t forget the expression on that man’s face. That somehow evolved into the story of a girl whose mother leaves her family and goes away with the man she had loved when she was in college. Then, for Asmara’s Summer which is set in Tannery Road in Bangalore came about with a ‘what if’ scenario. What if a girl from an upper middle-class family is forced to stay here for a month. How would she manage? Tannery Road is the very opposite of posh and clean.The main story of It Waits with the bracelet causing the transformation came to me in a dream!

Q 9. You’re one of the most prolific writers, I know of. Have you experienced a block? How do you stay energized to write so much?

A. Thank you. It’s all thanks to Allah that I’ve never experienced a block but I deliberately gave myself a year off from writing in 2014. I had finished writing When She Went Away in December 2013, and it was officially my 10thbook. I felt like I needed a break although to be honest, I couldn’t wait for 2015 to begin so I could start writing again. Also, I’ve decided not to take such breaks in future. I hope I can write as long as Allah wills it. I remember being rather worried when at a book launch, Kamila Shamsie mentioned what her aunt Attia Hossain had said, that writing is a muscle, if you don’t use it, you lose it. I don’t intend to lose my writing muscle!

Q10. What’s next from the pen of Andaleeb Wajid?

A. Okay, where do I begin? The romance short stories on Juggernaut will come to an end in August but there will be horror short stories coming out soon. I don’t know the frequency they will be published though. There’s a somewhat slow paced, old school romance coming out later this year with Amaryllis, which has taken a very long time to publish. It’s called The Sum of All my Parts. Next year, I’ve got a contemporary romance/chick lit type book that Penguin is publishing, and then there’s the horror novel as well. That’s it, I guess.

 

Happening in exactly a month – A book reading at iBrowse

I realised just as I was sitting down to write this post, that the book reading is on 9th June, exactly a month from now. Marianne De Nazareth (a well known writer herself) conducts these book reading sessions at the iBrowse Club which is a book club at Catholic Club.

I’ve had the pleasure of being their guest twice already, once in 2011 for my second book Blinkers Off and then once last year, for Asmara’s Summer. The attendees are serious readers and they’re there to talk to writers, ask them questions and pick up the book if they like it enough.

So, we’ll be discussing my book The Crunch Factor on 9th June. The Crunch Factor was published in mid-April by Hachette is available online and in bookstores as well. For those who have read my previous books, especially More than Just Biryani, please do understand that although this book is about food, it’s nothing like the biryani book.

The Crunch Factor is a contemporary romance with two young people who are confused (as most young people in any generation are) about the choices they have and who they want to spend their lives with. It’s also lighthearted, frothy and fun and I had such fun writing it.

So if you want to talk to me, ask me questions about the book etc, drop in at Catholic Club on 9th June at 6 pm. Here’s the invite:

 

Some come off to Catholic Club and say hi!

 

A Sweet Deal

For those who don’t know, Juggernaut published one of my cutest/sweetest romances in early April. It’s called A Sweet Deal. Download the book from the website/app here.

Meanwhile, here’s a free preview.

 

 

Chapter One

What to do when you drop your Kindle in the toilet?

Rumana taps out the question on her phone, her fingers shaking slightly.

The search throws up several ideas. The most common suggestion – put the Kindle in a bag of rice and not switch it on. But Rumana’s gaze is snagged when she comes to her favourite author’s name. Stephen King. She taps on the link and the website opens.

‘If you drop a book into the toilet, you can fish it out, dry it off and read that book. But if you drop your Kindle in the toilet, you’re pretty well done.’

‘Fuck,’ she mutters as she stares at the dripping Kindle she’s placed on the sink. Her mother had hated it when she took books inside the loo. And when she got her Kindle, it was obvious that that was going inside too. Placing her phone carefully on the window ledge, Rumana gets up, zips up her jeans, and purses her mouth.

Bag of rice, here we come, she thinks as she washes her hands and then pushes her wavy hair away from her face. But no one tells me whether I should wash it once more, just in case, since it fell into the toilet. Ugh.

Neharika will be of no help. An avid paperback reader, she’d scoffed at Rumana when she bought her Kindle. Rumana would often smile at her friend sweetly whenever she pulled it out from her bag to read during the interminable waiting they had to do – waiting for the café name to be registered, or the contractors to show up with the labour during their months of preparation. If she was without a paperback, Neharika couldn’t do anything but sketch or doodle on her faithful but battered Samsung Note 2, her only concession to technology apart from her laptop.

Maybe it’s time to throw it away, Rumana thinks as she looks at the Kindle once again. It’s gross to think about how it slipped from her hand and fell into the toilet with a splat. Yuck. Thankfully this had happened right after she’d entered the loo, or else there would be no doubt she’d have to throw it.

But now? She can’t bring herself to do it. Her Kindle has been with her for years, her companion on long flights and train journeys and sometimes even on the awful commute to work when she’d take an auto and not her scooter. It’s not just the question of getting another one. It’s this one that she’d miss.

She picks up her phone, pushes it inside her pocket and walks out of the loo, game face on because it’s going to be a busy day. It’s a Saturday and the café has been booked for a birthday party for the following day. Parties are good for business, and the owners, Rumana and Neharika, have a ton of work to do.

***

‘This menu needs something more,’ Neharika says as Rumana picks up her apron and ties it tightly around her waist.

‘Like?’

‘I don’t know. I’m so fed up of this Frozen theme. Sick of it,’ she mutters. ‘We’re doing the centrepiece cake, that huge thingy with the Elsa figurine, blue buttercream and snowflake cupcakes, Olaf cake pops, party favours with snowflake cookies…’

‘Nothing savoury?’ Rumana asks as she looks at the notes Neharika has made on a sketch pad.

‘Umm…’

‘Look up something on Pinterest? I have to find me a bag of rice,’ Rumana says as she looks around their store room.

‘For what?’ Neharika trails behind her, pencil tucked behind her ear.

‘Never mind,’ Rumana mutters. ‘Just check Pinterest and see if there’s some way we can come up with some cheese based savoury treat which can fit into the theme as well.’

Neharika frowns at her and then heads back to the café counter where she powers up her laptop and starts browsing.

‘Jackpot!’ she yells sometime later, startling Rumana, who has been pouring rice into a plastic bag. Shaking her head, Rumana tries to take the bag of rice back into the bathroom without Neharika spotting her, or she’ll never hear the end of it.

Kindle packed into rice, she looks around for a place to hide it until it dries completely. She stashes it on a shelf on top of the sink and heads back outside.

‘Cheese puffs. We can make them look like the trolls!’ Neharika announces.

‘Awesome.’

Rumana gets started with work. They’d opened the café, Not Too Sweet, six months ago, and it’s been a slow, painful process. Every bit of money they’d managed to save as corporate drones in their previous lives had gone into the cafe and it would take some time till they broke even. Until then, it was a slog fest.

They had a smart-mouthed twenty-year-old who helped them out with all their outdoor chores. He also doubled up as the waiter during opening hours.

‘I hope you texted Vinod,’ says Neharika as she starts the batter for the cake.

‘I thought you did,’ Rumana says, handing her the flour.

Neharika glares at her. Before Rumana can reply, the door opens and Vinod lounges in empty-handed.

‘Bloody hell,’ Rumana mutters. ‘Stop. Stop right there before you enter.’

‘Huh?’

Despite being on the verge of twenty-one, Vinod has still retained the sloth-like ways characteristic of teenagers. If he gets behind the counter, he doesn’t move until they physically kick him out.

‘We need you to get these things,’ Neharika says, scribbling everything on a paper and handing it to him.

He stares at the list like it’s a vile snake.

‘Money?’ he asks.

‘I thought…’ Neharika looks at Rumana who stares back at her balefully.

‘Babe, we need to communicate better and not look like such fools,’ Rumana mutters under her breath as she pulls out the cash box from the drawer. The birthday client had given them an advance, which should hopefully cover all the costs.

‘Especially in front of him,’ Neharika agrees as she watches Rumana count the money and hand it to Vinod.

Vinod leaves the way he came, slowly, as if each step he took is boring the life out of him. Rumana sighs loudly.

‘It’s a good thing we have all the essentials and just need those few extras,’ she says as she lines a cake pan with baking parchment paper.

‘I think we’re going to be really behind as it is,’ Neharika says.

They work in silence. There’s a lot to be done before the café opens at 12.30, drawing the small lunch time crowd that drops by for their grilled sandwiches, pastas and bakes. The party starts at 4 p.m. tomorrow and they’re going to have to work through the rest of the day and most of the night to have things ready in time.

Vinod returns two hours later with all the things they’d asked for. Blue and silver balloons, edible blue ink, blue and silver sugar balls, cupcake liners, cake pop sticks, the works. Vinod is a good-natured boy but his laziness is legendary, and yet he works for them because Rumana has known Vinod all her life. He’s her family driver’s son and his father had often despaired about what would become of him when he dropped out of school in class eight. Since then, he’s been wasting time, not sticking to any job until Rumana came up with the café plan. While he still needs prodding every now and then, he manages to get their work done, which is more than they can say.

They can’t afford more staff right now, although if all goes well, they’ll soon hire a chef who can handle most of the work while they could focus on developing their business.

Vinod slaps a glossy flyer on to the work table between them.

‘What’s this?’ Rumana asks, picking it up with her flour-covered hand.

Neharika, who is getting the white chocolate frosting ready for the Olaf cake pops, turns to look and is surprised to see her best friend’s face turn pale.

‘What happened?’ she asks, wiping her hands on her apron and walking towards Rumana who hands her the flyer in silence.

It’s an advertisement for an upcoming patisserie. And by the looks of it, it’s going to be a really fancy place. The worrying part is that Daniyal’s Desserts is opening literally next door. It’s the kind of competition that could shut them down in weeks.

Liked what you read? Then download the full book here.

Train Journeys – What they were and what they are

The truth is, there is nothing romantic about train journeys any more. Years ago, when I was wondering what to write after my first novel, I thought of a romance that takes place on a train journey and even started writing it. I gave up after a few chapters because I wasn’t convinced about anything – the characters, the situation and I had no real idea what I was doing with that book. Nevertheless, train journeys had an element of fun more than romance when I was a child.

 

In fact, it was an adventure for us when we were young. My father preferred to travel by car so whenever we travelled by train, it was a novelty. Then years later, after he passed away, it became the preferred way of travel for us. In the pre-Uber and Ola days, there would be that worry about getting an auto to take us to the station for early morning train rides. Luggage tucked around our feet and at the back, we’d leave (usually for Vellore or Chennai) and the excitement would fully hit upon us with the nip in the air as the auto zoomed off on the traffic free roads.

 

The station was a place where I could cajole my mother into buying me a magazine which I would devour throughout the journey. If I was lucky, there would be a nice story in it but if not, I’d still enjoy reading whatever they printed in the magazines during the nineties. We usually travelled with my aunt and her children and they would either arrive after us or be there at the station. The cousin pack would reunite and we’d plan the card games we would play on the journey.

The Cousin Gang

The train would pull in to the station and amid worried shouts of whether we’d get inside in time (I don’t know why this had to be so stressful, really), we’d finally find our seats and settle down. The vendors would start walking through immediately and we were all keen on the vadais and cutlets and what not, even though my mother would have packed breakfast as well. People watching, looking outside the windows at the fields and mountains as they scudded by, playing card games even when it was not practical, listening with one ear to the elders as they gossiped…those were the train journeys of my childhood and teenage years.

 

In recent times, train travel has once again reduced drastically, barring the odd trip to Chennai on Shatabdi Express which is clean, convenient and easy. A few months ago however, we went to Hyderabad by train and none of us slept much because my younger son decided to play musical chairs (figuratively speaking) as he couldn’t decide where he wanted to sleep. I told myself the excitement of sleeping on a train is highly overrated, especially when you’re an adult who prefers a solid bed instead of a swinging seat that can’t decide if it wants to stay forwards or backwards.

 

Then recently, my mother, my son and I went to my hometown Vellore by one of our earlier favourites, the Lalbagh Express. As we left the station in the gently rolling train, it got crowded. And then some. My son was not happy at all but all I could see were the people around me, glued to their mobile phones.

 

A man sitting by the once coveted window seat didn’t look out or up even once as he was watching a movie on his phone, ear phones plugged in. He was oblivious to everything that happened around him. I suppose the window seat today is not for looking out but it’s more to be able to cocoon yourself from the rest of the world.

 

I pulled out my Kindle and then put it back in, just to observe people a little more. The children played games on mobile phones, people dozed with earphones plugged, probably dreaming of the songs in their naps. Then there was a couple who got on at a station and the moment they settled down, they got busy doing their own thing on their mobiles. I couldn’t figure out their dynamics – whether they were siblings or a married couple – the man watched something on his phone and the woman played Candy Crush. I was secretly judging them until I realised this could easily be my husband and I with the only difference that I would be reading a book on my phone.

 

In the futuristic end to my time traveling trilogy that was published in 2014, I’d written about people walking around in transparent bubbles, aware of only their little world. It’s not that much of an exaggeration really, because wherever we go, our mobiles are extending an invisible bubble around us, and nowhere is this more apparent on train journeys where earlier acquaintances were made, friendships formed and some even found love.

 

This piece was first published in Sunday Herald, Deccan Herald, 19th March, 2017.

Micro-horror stories I wrote for the Juggernaut blog

Juggernaut asked me if I could write creepy scary stories in 50 words or less. Challenge accepted, I said. And this is what I came up with, and their illustrator helpfully upped the creepy levels.

Pigeons are evil
The Collector of Faces
I did dream about this once. Hated aquarium fish ever since.
Sentient cars could be a thing!
Caught in a tumble cycle
Groundhog day comes to your neighbourhood park

 

Everyone loves a nice, chilling, horror story no? If you have any micro horror stories to share, send them over to Juggernaut, hmm? They’re going to give away free digital copies of It Waits to the best stories. You could also download it from the Juggernaut app/website here – https://goo.gl/DW5t10

It Waits

A long time ago, no wait, this isn’t the story, this is what really happened, a long time ago because that was when I was in school. So yeah, a long, long time ago, when I was in std. 6, my class was squashed into this classroom which had been converted from a dormitory. For some reason, our classroom was really far away from the rest of the middle school and most of the time we rejoiced in it because it took teachers forever to trudge up to our classroom from the main buildings and it shaved off at least ten minutes from each class.

 

What was interesting was the moody atmosphere that would brew over the classroom when it rained or when the weather was a little cold. Perfect for telling of ghost stories in those little interludes before the teachers came. Another girl and I often took turns to tell everyone these ghost stories. Of course, I didn’t know any ghost stories of my own, and I was mostly telling them stories of black and white Hindi movies I’d seen (which I was very sure no one else would have and they were more atmospheric than scary). The other girl of course petrified us with her stories of vampires (they were not stunning or gorgeous or desirable back then. Just blood thirsty creatures whom no one could kill) and at night I often woke up in cold sweat thinking that surely something was lurking somewhere.

 

Now years later, I’ve tried my hand at writing something scary-ish. A small but important part of this story actually came to me in a dream and I clung to it because I thought it was a great story. It took me a year to find the right publisher for it, someone who was willing to give this absurd and fantastical story a chance and Juggernaut was that publisher. In fact, this was the very first book I signed up with them last year, even before Will the Oven Explode.
And tada, here it is! After some heavy duty editing (much of which I cried and grumbled and cursed my way through, and yet it was so important, so I’ll just shut up now), It Waits is up on the Juggernaut website. Download, read and tell me what you think?

The Girls I Could Have Been

In January, while I was conducting creative writing workshops for children at a literature festival, I tried explaining to those present about the necessity of having grey shades in every character; after all, people are not completely bad or good in real life. I needn’t have bothered, because the children were completely into the bad guys. Who were their favourite bad guys?

Darth Vader. Joker. And Voldemort, apparently. Ouch. Nevertheless, I was intrigued. I wanted to know why they loved them and one girl answered, “Because they don’t stop trying.” That statement has remained with me and I’ve repeated it to other writers and friends, marvelling at how insightful children are. A friend remarked that bad guys are doomed to failure, and yet, that never stops them from trying to achieve what they want and how surprising it is that a 12-year-old girl could understand this. But there’s something else that I’ve learned here, and it’s not that you have to be a bad guy to never stop trying.

No one should ever stop trying.

Okay, well, let me give a little context here. I belong to the Lababin community from Tamil Nadu, a very small and close-knit community, with orthodox views. In school, I missed out on an important excursion in class IX, an overnight trip to Belur and Halebid, towns in Karnataka’s Hassan district which were renowned for their distinct Hoysala era architecture. My mother was paranoid about sending me away for various reasons, not least among them being that girls in our families don’t go away with school friends, especially on overnight trips. So, I stayed back. I watched my entire class get on the buses as they left and I stood back, thinking that it’s okay. It’s sunk into my head more than two decades later that I had stopped trying and, perhaps, too soon.

If I’d persisted, maybe, and convinced my mother, I, too, would have joined the gang of girls who smeared toothpaste over sleeping faces and stayed up late at night telling ghost stories to each other. Giving others (mostly my mother) the benefit of the doubt was probably the reason why I missed out on several such outings and events. I felt protective of my mother because she was bringing us up alone and I’d like to think I was wise beyond my years when I wanted to make things easier for her. But, in retrospect, I think I was just complacent about letting things be. Why upset the apple cart? My mother was a young widow and life was difficult enough for her without me being rebellious — although being easygoing never really got me what I wanted!

Many other instances come to mind, where I let things be because I thought it just wouldn’t be possible for me to do it. I gave up before I even tried. There was one time in 2003 when I got a call from a friend about a possible three-month job and for some reason, before turning her down instantly (because girls in our families didn’t go out for work was the diktat I was subconsciously following), I decided I wanted to try it. I broached the topic cautiously with my family, and, to my surprise, they were okay with me trying it out because it was short term.

The three-month stint didn’t work out because the project was cancelled. But when the next opportunity came up, I took it. It was my first ever job as a technical writer, and, more than five years after all my contemporaries, I discovered the joys of financial freedom. Even then, I couldn’t quite believe it was happening. In fact, I remember, when I was in Class X, I didn’t even feel like attending career guidance classes because I thought it was useless for me — I hadn’t even considered the possibility of ever having a career. I realised then that I had set very low expectations from my life.

Fortunately, it turned out very differently. But it was possible, only because I tried. Over the years, I’ve done things that are so commonplace for a majority of women, and yet, unheard of in my family, particularly for women. I’ve travelled alone for literature festivals (yes, it is a big deal for my family), stayed alone in hotels in cities like Pune and Delhi (my mother is still aghast) and I’m just waiting to see what comes next.

People ask me if characters in my novels are like me, and it was true for only the first book I wrote. My protagonist Mehnaz resembled me in personality and her reactions to life and the many situations it presented were how I would have reacted as a teenager. From then onwards, I thought I was consciously stepping away from writing about characters who resemble me in any way.

However, what I’ve realised, is that I’ve actually been writing characters of girls I could have been. In most of my young adult books, particularly in Asmara’s Summer (2016), Asmara is the kind of girl I might have even shied away from, let alone be friends with or be her. Where I’m timid, she’s fiery. Where I’ve let things be, she doesn’t. It took me a bit of introspection to realise that Asmara and even Maria from When She Went Away (2015) are protagonists who do not let their fates decide their lives. They charge head on. And in a way, they are me, or they are girls I could have been. These girls are on the opposite end of the spectrum in so many ways and yet, they are my alter-ego.

At times like these, I feel fortunate to be a writer because I get to relive those years through the lives of my protagonists. In a way, it’s liberating to write about these girls who are so much in control of their own lives because it reminds me as well to never stop asking, never stop trying.

This piece was first published in The Indian Express, 19th February, 2017 

A Never Ending Affair with Writing

Well, Valentine’s Day is tomorrow and it doesn’t make even a smidgen of difference to me. Yes, really. I write romances because I like the genre (and I enjoy reading them as well) but that’s about it. I thought it would be nice however, to put up this little chat I had with my friend Kanchana Bannerjee whose book A Forgotten Affair I recently read.

Congratulations on your first book. It’s a great debut. But as a reader I first want to know if Sagarika will ever get her memory back.

Honestly I don’t know. It doesn’t matter if she gets her memory back or not; what’s important is that she realizes and discovers her self. She understands the abusive marriage she was in and stands up to that, rejects it, confronts her husband and walks out. The story isn’t about memory loss or getting it back. It’s really about a woman’s quest to find her inner strength.

What was the inspiration for this story?

The society we live in, the marriages I see around me. I see so many women who have accepted submission in their personal relationships. They are minimized and put down. It’s a myth that abuse happens only in the lower strata of society. It is just as rampant in so-called educated and affluent homes. I wanted to write about this. Often this happens in such a subtle form that women themselves don’t think much about it. Some don’t reveal how much they earn, some tell the husband they are going to the salon when they are off for a meeting. They joke about this, saying what’s the harm in a small white lie if it keeps him happy. This is wrong, so wrong. Women need to accept this first.

There are times when I felt that if Rishab had been a grey character instead of outright black, there would have been more conflict for Sagarika and the readers. Were you ever tempted to make him the suffering husband?

In my first draft Rishab was mildly bad and the four friends who stepped in as beta readers, unanimously said, the story is very placid. Why does Sagarika not like the husband? That’s when I re-worked and made him a dark and despicable. I enjoyed his character more when he became so psychotic and crazy. I love dark and evil characters. They are more fun. In my novel 2 there are two characters who are unapologetically bad. Very very bad, evil and nasty and there’s no sad story to justify their actions. I love such characters.

Do you like naming your books before you write them or after you write them? What was the case with A Forgotten Affair?

I’m horrible with naming my books. I can write 80K words, even more easily but to think of a title; I’m no good. Clearly I’m not a woman of few words. So the novel was called The Accident till my editor stepped in and christened it A Forgotten Affair. My second novel is called Novel 2. That should tell you how awful I am with titles.

As a reader I’m not sure how I feel about open ended endings but as a writer I love them because there’s always the chance for a sequel. Any plans for a sequel?

No, there will be no sequels. I don’t like sequels. In my opinion all sequels are awful except for very few books like Harry Potter, Hunger Games. A Forgotten Affair had to be open-ended. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I know the ending soon after I start writing. I know the beginning and the end; so then it’s all about reaching the end.

Sagarika’s affair with Akash is presented in a very non-judgmental manner which I liked but do you think it gives out the message that people should take happiness where they can find and to hell with commitments? Her friend Roohi does act as her voice of conscience which she ignores.

We live in a society where such relationships happen. As a writer it isn’t my job to pass judgement. I’m not a moral cop. Neither am I writing a book to sermonize people or impart a lesson. I write because I enjoy writing. Through the story I’m not trying to send any message at all. I’m just presenting a slice of life as I see. Read it, enjoy it and if it triggers some thought in you, that’s great. 

What’s your typical working day like, as a writer?

I’m a morning writer. I write best in the morning and like to be done with at least 3 hours of it before noon. I have worked from home as a freelance writer for a long time so I’m very disciplined about my work.

It was great chatting with Kanchana and her book is an unusual love story. One that tells you to love yourself first, and its devoid of mushiness. It’s a mature story and perfect for Valentine’s Day. Go read it!

 

For the love of paperbacks

I’m an early adopter of all things technology. Well most things technology at least. Okay whatever-gets-through-my-brain technology. And I love it.

I love my Kindle more than my phone and that’s saying something. Even if there’s no chance of reading anything, I make sure I have it with me because who knows I might get stuck in traffic and whatever will I do? I do have other reading apps on my phone as well (ahem, for instance Juggernaut who published one of my books in 2016 and will publish 2 more this year) and I do get down to reading books there at times when I don’t have my Kindle with me.

Of late, I’ve stopped buying paperbacks because, well, no space. But I’ve realised to my horror that there are so many paperbacks (gifts and books I’ve bought at book launches) and even a couple of hardbound books that I haven’t got down to reading yet because of the Kindle. Some of these paperbacks are nearly 2 to 3 years old.

I’ve made a deliberate decision to stay away from the Kindle until I’ve finished all those books now. And yes, it’s working. I recently finished Kanchana Bannerjee’s A Forgotten Affair, Jane De Suza’s Happily Never After and Nandita Bose’s Shadow and Soul. (Okay yes, they’re all my friends and friends do get priority over others) when it comes to vying for my reading time but there are others as well.

I feel guilty very easily and I’m surprised at myself for not having done this earlier because all these books had been sitting on my bedside table, watching me reach for the Kindle every night, shooting their resentment at me. I mean I’m surprised I didn’t act on the guilt already. And no, this isn’t a New Year resolution or anything because I don’t do those but it does feel good to accomplish even something as small as making sure all the paperbacks on my bedside table are done with.

But all this has made me realise that just because the Kindle doesn’t take up much space, and I can carry it around everywhere with me, I’ve kind of forgotten the joy of carrying an actual book in my bag for those times when I must have something to read. In college, I remember most of us would have a paperback (Psst…romance most likely) hiding inside their backpacks, to read between classes or sometimes even during classes. Also those nice fat paperbacks were our guilty pleasures, books we could reach out to during the angsty mess that was our teenage years.

Even before that, as kids, for us books were a special treat. (There just weren’t that many bookstores when I was a child, unless you made the trip to Gangarams or Higginbothams) I remember looking forward to airport visits (REALLY. Also I was  a kid a long time ago and the airport was actually a fun place to go to) because there’d be a book stall from where I’d wheedle my parents into getting me a book. The anticipation of getting back home and curling up on the sofa to read the book is really one of the best things ever.

But once something becomes a part of you, you just can’t change as easily. Recently, my kids dragged me to a book sale where Kid 1 made me buy one of the The Vampire Diaries books (and he actually read it). I don’t know how or why. I don’t really care as long as he reads something. Kid 2 picked up comics and I returned empty handed. Why? I looked up the interesting titles and made a note to pick up the Kindle version.

 

 

Musing about Super Zeroes and Heartbreak with Jane De Suza

I met Jane a couple of years ago at Imli with a group of other writers where all of us were trying to figure out how we could market our work better. Jane and I met again in Atta Galatta for the first Super Zero book launch and we soon became part of a secret society that is trying hard to break the bestseller code (seriously. Okay not serious. Just kidding).

Jane moderated a session at the launch of my book When She Went Away and both of us were recently part of a panel at BLF called Badass Women. Ahem. Jane writes for adults and children and I’ve read both and admire how well she manages both. So naturally, I had to pick her brain and make her do this for my blog.

Since you write for children and adults with such ease (as it appears to us readers),which do you prefer to write? Why?
Writing for children came as unplanned as almost every other move in my life. A Penguin commissioning editor was looking for good ideas and writers, and I spoke to her about mine – and the rest was SuperZero.  After diving into the children’s writing genre, I have to admit I enjoy the workshops and festivals and interactions with small readers much more. I find meeting kids more fun.
However, when it comes to the writing, I feel I grow a little more with each book I write for adults. I have to dig much deeper and it’s a much more thoughtful journey. The writing changes me as a human being, with the range of questions it makes me ask myself.

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How did the idea for Super Zero come to you? And what about the other amazing supporting characters? Like each one of them is unique and special.

It was while staring at one of those Pre-IIT course ads in the papers and feeling really miffed that every kid in our country was to be judged on whether he could make it to an engineering degree or not –that the idea hit me. I mean, every kid is a hero, right? My own boy used to run around with a cape his grandma fashioned out of my dupatta. SuperZero is about each kid’s special power. Each one is unique, and needs to recognize that – and I hope the little readers get that message.

 

In Happily Never After, the parts where the daughter intrudes in the blog through her diary are often quite hilarious. But the rest of the book while still dealing with a heavy issue is presented in a light manner through much comedy of errors. Did you plan it all?

Hmm, yes, I do have a tongue-in-cheek syndrome. And I do see the world through a funny filter, and that helps me put across the most wrenching of issues without any sob-inducing narrative.  My book for me, needs to be, as you say, hilarious but not flippant – that’s a fine line. The style may be humorous, the issues deep.

That reminds me a bit of Marian Keyes’ books also. She tackles issues like depression and domestic abuse through her books. Do you enjoy writing those kind of books too?

I haven’t yet read Marian Keyes, but you’re right, I lean towards books which thread humour into the telling of life’s toughest problems.

Who are your favourite authors?

Roddy Doyle, Nick Hornby, Anees Salim, Sue Townsend and their ilk.

Who’s your favourite female protagonist? Tina or Gulabi?

Gulabi is a wild child. She’s the burning anger at injustice I have inside me. Tina’s the thoughtful one, the gentle, muddling one.  She’s me too. I’d need to be schizophrenic to answer this question, so I won’t.

 

gGulabi is not just a badass but also makes a kickass entry into the city from her small village. How did this story come about in your head?

From growing up in the cow belt. I was brought up among women whose attire was as colourful as their language. Yellow saris and paan-soaked lips, and jokes as raunchy as they come. And yet, they are portrayed to the world at large as a head-covered, voiceless, unfortunately-born-female. Gulabi sprang out , brandishing her own brand of humour and craziness from this world.

 

How come the head that Gulabi finds in The Spy Who Lost her Head doesn’t smell and alert her that it’s not a pumpkin but an actual head she’s got with her?

All’s fair in love, war and fiction. The book’s set up as a farce, so deviations from reality are generously scattered throughout.

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Vikrant in Happily Never After was not as developed as I would have liked to see him but then it’s a blog from Tina’s POV, so yes, understandable. Are you planning to write something from a male POV sometime soon?

The female voice comes naturally to me. And the male voice would be forced, I’d think. However, I will attempt a male point of view – just not in his voice. As a third person…
Of course, the SuperZero series has a boy relating it all, which is easy, because I have two boys of my own, and their “think”-ummijigs are familiar territory.

Would you like to tell us about your writing method?

I am a temperamental writer. I can’t write unless it’s bubbling within me, and then it just writes itself out –through one late night after another. I write when it’s absolutely quiet and relentlessly into the night hours. I don’t belong to the school of writing where I sit at my manuscript everyt day and churn out 1000 words. Those words would then be as light as the paper they were printed on. The book needs to write itself, and for that, I need to feel crazily, passionately and unstoppably like writing it.

 

What’s next for you? Children’s fiction or adult fiction?

I have ideas and scribbles in both, and it’s a matter of whoever (like the older twin) pushes itself out first. I seriously feel that a book writes itself when it’s time is right -I’m helpless to make that happen unless it’s ready.

On being prolific

Prolific is a word that I’ve begun to hate. No offense, but everyone exclaims that I’m so prolific when they hear that I’ve written ___ books, I don’t know how to explain it. How do you do it, they ask. Well, I thought I might as well put it down here, once and for all.

This is me trying to look creative although my mum has said it looks like my tummy is hurting.
This is me trying to look creative although my mum has said it looks like my tummy is hurting.

a) I write every day. At least I try to. Immersing myself in the lives of my characters is so much more interesting than the real world any given day, so I don’t see why I can’t do it all the time. The truth is, I’m addicted to writing. It’s my vice and I let it control me. It’s not always a good thing, believe me.

b) I don’t have a job. I used to, but I wanted to write more than I wanted a dependable salary every month and so here I am. Again, this isn’t something I recommend to everyone. I’ve done this before – quitting job and focusing on writing, so I’m used to being broke most of the time. (Although now, thanks to demon(that which shall not be named) everyone around me also seems to be broke, so I don’t mind it so much.)

c) I love writing. I don’t look at it as a job but I treat it like I treat a job. When I’m in the middle of a book (writing one, I mean), I make sure I get at least a chapter written every day. It’s always tough to get started but once I hit around 10k words, the story, characters take life of their own and all I have to do is just show up at the laptop and let them unfold on their own.

Scribbling my name on notebooks in school prepared me for this. Who am I kidding? I *love* signing my books. Is the only time I feel I'm doing something remotely glamorous.
Scribbling my name on notebooks in school prepared me for this. Who am I kidding? I *love* signing my books. Is the only time I feel I’m doing something remotely glamorous.

d) I write in a bubble. Writers are just as insecure as any other creative person. I don’t like being in that place where I’m jealous of another writer because of whatever they have accomplished, shortlists they’re in, awards they’ve won, deals they’ve signed, because none of it is in my control and if they’re getting all of the above, it’s because they deserve it. Since there’s no point in me lamenting about why I don’t get all of the above, I focus on doing what I know best. Writing.

e)  Determination – Or maybe ambition. I don’t know. Probably a little of both. The truth is, I just have an inner drive that propels me to write. And most of the time, the writing happens without any thought of publication. I don’t stop to think about who will publish it, or will it get published at all. I try to keep my focus on the work and finish it before all those aspects can factor in.

 

That’s it. I’m just a crazy person, a glutton for punishment (I hate weekends) and I love to write. This is why I’m so prolific.

In search of thrills and chills with Shweta Taneja

The best part about being friends with other writers is that you can press pause while reading their books and quickly fire off a Whatsapp message to them, asking what they meant by this or that. The other advantage is that you can harass them for longer answers which you can then proceed to put up on your own blog.

I met Shweta recently at lunch (with some other writer friends) and I had just started reading her book How to steal a ghost @Manipal on the Juggernaut app. So, I couldn’t ask her much immediately but once I was done with the book, I knew I had several questions to ask her.

Without further ado –

 

AW: Were you always interested in writing about ​the ​paranormal? How did you get interested in it​?

ST: Oh yes, my interested in the paranormal, in supernatural, in ghosts, monsters, aliens, and the idea of ‘others’ has been with me way before I chose the medium of writing. What continues to fascinate me is the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ conundrum. With monsters or the paranormal creatures, we always think of them as the ‘others’. I continue to look at this clash of what human versus others in most of my work in fantasy. And it’s been a fascination for as long as I can remember. When I was little, all I wanted to do was sit in a story circle with my cousins on a dark, stormy night when there was no electricity and scare the heebie-jeebies out of them with horror tales of a monster than had floppy, replaceable gooey eyes and claw-like hands. I love the freedom fantasy gives me to create and explore, to make new rules, new societies and new behaviours of creatures.

AW: Whenever I watch a lot of horror (like American Horror Story for example), I get a lot of dreams and nightmares about it. What about you? Do you get nightmares too?

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ST: Absolutely. Especially when I’m in the middle of writing a thriller scene—which considering I write thrillers for a living, is on a regular basis. The scariest I remember was in the middle of a scene from my tantric fantasy, Anantya Tantrist series. I was writing a scene where Anantya’s teacher Dhuma dances with skeletons for a ritual. Now I’m in the middle of this scene, it’s late at night, I also happen to be home alone. I lie in bed to sleep, close my eyes and maybe I doze off, or maybe my imagination is still rolling, but I see this old woman, very similar to the one I’m writing about, a halo of uncombed striking white hair around her face and she’s two inches away from my face and well…she screamed, like she was supposed to do in the scene, except this was right in my face and my eyes flew open and I was just so, so, so scared. With no one to console me, of course. Oh well. The pitfalls of the work we be in.

AW: I read How to Steal a Ghost @ Manipal ​and thought it was an interesting combination of sci-fi and paranormal fiction. Especially with all those gadgets that Twinkle uses. Did you do a lot of research into all of this?

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ST: Thanks for your kind feedback on the Manipal book! It did take a lot of research for me to get there, for there are a lot of aspects I wanted to ring true in the book. On one hand were the urban legends, folklore and myths of places in and around Manipal that I wanted to include. Then I wanted to base these stories on real-life clashes, themes that we hear in the area, concerns that people have. My research included listening in to people, reading blogs, news from Mangalore coastal area, even a few books about the unique legends that lie in the area. Finally to build up a paranormal gadgety layer on the world and to create a paranormal fiction, I researched real ghost hunter groups and the gadgets they use across the world. It was a fascinating thing. A few gadgets I included in the book, like EMF meters actually exist, while a few gadgets we see Twinkle making are pure fiction. It was fun to create this layer of fiction on the rockbed of research. I like doing that. Mixing real and fiction so closely that you’re never sure what’s what.

AW: What are your favorite genres in reading?

ST:  I can’t get enough of science fiction, diverse fantasy, narrative non-fiction and sometimes for a change literary fiction. Favourite authors include William Darlymple, Samit Basu, Isaac Asimov, Ursula Le Guin, Hillary Mantel, GRR Martin, Neil Gaiman, and Terry Pratchett.

AW: Which is your favourite horror book/movie/tv show?

ST: There are so many. I’ve always loved the way Stephen King creates a horror tale. It’s not an obvious oh-my-god-the-monsters-attacking type of fiction, more psychological, like you’re never sure if the narrator is reliable or not and the character keeps on falling deeper and deeper into that ditch. Amazing. Other horror fic writers that I’ve liked are a few stories from Roald Dahl, thriller-horrors like The Silence of the Lambs. In movies I absolutely adore the B-grade Ramsay Brother Bollywood  ones (yes, I know, I know) and Korean horror gives me the absolute terrors. I like fantastical horror TV shows with a lot of blood and gore like Dexter and American Horror Story.

AW: Which is the favourite character you’ve written?

ST: Till now? Definitely Anantya Tantrist. I’ve written three books of hers so far and I know I will be writing more of her in future. She’s this kickass tantric who is confident enough to walk on the streets of Delhi at night, solving supernatural crime. She is sassy, with a lot of attitude, a breathless freedom and don’t-care attitude about her which I absolutely adore. I also love the world I’ve build up around her that’s full of rich and colourful takes from Indian mythology and the books kind of run from one scene to another as she faces tantrics, deals with monsters, creatures, supernatural beings, alternating between ruthlessness and empathy. It’s been quite a rich experience and quite fun creating her and the world she inhabits.

AW: How much of all your ghost/paranormal stories are inspired by real-life?

ST:  It’s a mix of both reality and fiction. I get a lot of my ideas from real life stories I either read in blogs, in social media updates or now that people know I’m interested in both paranormal and supernatural, people message me or tell me stories on phone! I’ve always believed and continue to believe that reality as much, much weirder than things I can ever imagine myself, so yes there’s definitely a tadka of real-life in my stories, though the setting, the way the story plays or the characters might be different.

AW: What’s the creepiest thing that has ever happened to you?

ST: Oh well. The above episode I mentioned was pretty creepy. Then these was this ghost sighting I mentioned in a blog on real-life ghost stories I heard. A long time ago, as a teen, I’d gone to a camp from my school. We camped in a valley near Manali. It was a beautiful clear night, the sky was laden with stars. We’d finished dinner. It was late and we sat on a ledge away from the camps, chatting. About 30 meters behind the ledge, I saw a figure in white. At first I thought it was girl, but there was something weird about the figure. It was hazy and gliding towards us. Not walking. I blinked and asked others if they saw the same thing as me. The figure shimmered in the starlight almost like she had a torch under the white ensemble. And kept gliding towards us. All of us were now looking at the figure, wondering what it was. We tried to fit a lot of logics, but nothing worked. The figure vanished a few minutes later. Till now I don’t know what it was.

 

Whoa, that was creepy. If you love this kind of fiction, then you definitely should read Shweta’s books. I do enjoy horror (recent development) so I’m surely going to give her Anantya books a try!

6 signs you are about to be dumped

So, relationship advice is not really my thing. I listen to friends when they want to vent and commiserate but that’s about it. I feel rather inadequate when it comes to giving advice.

The reason why I’m talking about relationship advice is because in my book, Will the Oven Explode?, my protagonist Ayn has no clue that her husband is not happy. Not until he walks out of their marriage, leaving her stunned.

So, according to the Juggernaut blog, here are 6 signs that you are about to be dumped. Don’t be like Ayn. Be forewarned.

Also, it’s been a week now, since the book was published on Juggernaut and the response has been overwhelming and fantastic. In case you’re not aware, Juggernaut publishes books on their mobile app and now website too. So, Will the Oven Explode? is in e-book form only for now, and is priced at Rs.30 (yes).

Download the book today and do rate/review it on the website. Would also love comments etc here too.

 

Thankfully, the oven didn’t explode!

I’ve always found baking very therapeutic. No wait. Glamorous. It was why I tried my hand at it from the time I was 12. Several rock hard cakes and broken molars later, I’ve managed to get the cakes right. But last year I kind of miscalculated the size of a baking pan for my son’s birthday and got one that wouldn’t rotate inside my microwave/convection oven.

Ideally, I should have removed the batter into smaller tins but that was *such* a pain because I’d already lined this tin with baking parchment and I was lazy to redo the whole thing. So I went ahead and pushed the pan inside and managed to bake the cake, despite my oven’s protests. So, what happened was that the pan would rotate, get stuck and go beep, beep, beep. Then I’d pause the timer. Open the door. Turn the pan a bit and close the door. Rinse. Repeat.

Obviously, this kind of misuse has hurt my oven. It has not been the same, ever since. It creaks, groans and makes the most horrifying noises, to remind me that I have done irreparable damage to it. Once I was reheating something and it started making a lot of loud beeping noises that sounded like a precursor to an explosion. I immediately switched it off and stepped back, but thankfully, the oven didn’t explode, that day, or ever.

But it was like someone switched on a bulb right above my head. That’s a wonderful name for a book! Write it down.

I decided to do one better and write down the book too.

So, here we are people. Will the Oven Explode? is available exclusively on the Juggernaut app. And the good news is that the book is available as an e-book on the Juggernaut website as well!

What are you waiting for? Hit the download button already and come back to tell me what you think of it!

A chat with Zainab Sulaiman

Zainab and I met early last year when our common publishers treated us for ice cream (yes, they’re very cool like that!) and we met on and off at book launches etc. Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the book launch of Simply Nanju but I had the pleasure of reading it recently. What can I say? Totally wowed by it.

In case you’re not aware, Simply Nanju is set in a school for disabled children and Zainab writes from her own experience as being a teacher at such a school in Bangalore. I got the chance to ask her some questions about her writing and everything and decided to put it up here. By the way, I’ll be doing more of this soon, meaning talking to other writers and putting up our conversations here. Here goes:

AW: What’s your writing routine like? As in when do you prefer to write?

ZS:  No routine at the moment, as am swamped with work – I work at a sports company and head their HR. But otherwise like to write in the mornings when I’m fresh and well-fed. I wake up ravenous and can’t do anything until I’ve eaten a good breakfast 🙂

AW: Are all the characters in Simply Nanju based on real kids you met while you taught at that special school, or did some fictional ones also creep in? Tell us the names of one real character and one fictional character please?

ZS: Mostly, ‘inspired’ by real children 🙂 Nanju’s a real enough character; Pratik’s more fictional.

AW: I guffawed when I read about ‘Gussel Market’. Any reason why you changed this name as well?

ZS:  Pure laziness! Couldn’t think up a good name and so just changed poor old Russel market into Gussel market, haha. There’s another such change I made – again out of sheer sloth; those familiar with Fraser Town might have picked up on it.

AW: Was your experience as a teacher enough to write this book or did you do more research? Any books you read?

ZS: I set out by volunteering, then moved to fund raising, then got a special Ed degree in inclusive education. So yes, a lot of research in that sense 🙂 Didn’t read any specific books in this genre though as I had a fair idea of what I wanted to write – though the plot was a killer! – and didn’t want to be too influenced by anything written in a similar vein; though books about disability and inclusion are honestly few and far between.

AW: What genre of books do you enjoy reading? Anything you’d like to recommend?

ZS: I love crime stories but the gentler ones – can’t handle the very dark violent versions; there’s enough chaos in the world as it is. Good ole Agatha Christie and now, Alexander McCall Smith are favourites.

AW: Are you writing something else now? Fiction? Non-fiction?

ZS: Yes, and it’s fiction. Hopefully it won’t take me another three years to write though!

AW: How did you decide the name of this book? I’m always at a loss when it comes to this part of writing.

ZS: I didn’t actually. Sayoni and Anushka thought it up 🙂 And no one sucks more than me at finding an appropriate name!

AW: Is your next book also for children? Do you want to tell us a bit about it?

ZS: No, it’s for adults. And wouldn’t really want to talk about it till it’s clearer in my head 🙂

And finally, since there are hardly any books about disability in India, especially fiction,

AW: Any advice for writers who want to write about disability?

ZS: Write from the heart. Don’t be scared.

 

Friends, this is a book that you must read!

 

Buy Simply Nanju here.

In all its crunchy glory

Ta-da!

Here’s the cover of my new book:

 

 

cover_final-1Isn’t it lovely? I’m so excited! In fact, I’m fresh out of words to describe how cool it is.  I’m just waiting to hold it in my hand (December, 2016, come soon!) and I’m also nervously waiting for reactions from readers.

Sometimes, some characters walk into my head and demand I write a story for them. That’s what happened with Aliya and Sameer.

Aliya is this modern, straining-at-parental-controls young woman, who foolishly decides that getting married to Kamaal might give her a measure of freedom. Because he owns a restaurant and yes, because he’s hot.

Of course, nothing goes according to plan. Her ex, Sameer, literally the one who got away, turns up at the restaurant and he’s actually the head chef. And uff tauba, his hotness, do not even ask.

What’s a girl to do? Huh?

Pre-order here and wait. It will be worth it! Promise!

 

 

An award shortlist!

I didn’t expect to be back here so soon. Honest. I thought the next time I blog, it would be for some big cover reveal for the food+romance series. But was I wrong! I woke up this morning, blearily sent off kid 1 to school, tried to catch a few winks before kid 2 would ask for breakfast, dreamed something weird in the interim, checked my phone when Facebook and Google Photos reminded me that last year, on this day, we launched When She Went Away.

Aww, I thought. It’s already a year! Then I went about doing other boring stuff like making tea and again checked Facebook on my phone and there was an announcement from Goodbooks.in about The Hindu-Goodbooks Awards shortlist.

I thought to myself, heh, I never make it into any of these. So I shouldn’t even bother checking because it just feels so godawful when I don’t see my name there. And then I clicked the link, scrolled down and sorry to use an awful cliche, but my heart literally stopped.

My name was there! For When She Went Away. I blinked, hit refresh, waited for page to load through the disgustingly slow internet connection and then expected to read some other name instead of mine. But no! It was my name out there! Woo!

I immediately shared the link with Sayoni, my publisher at Duckbill and because I couldn’t wait for the ticks to turn blue, I called and told her and both she and Anushka were thrilled. The rest of my day has been spent hitting like on everyone who congratulates me on Facebook. Naturally, we have been very productive today, my dears.

If you haven’t read the book, you can order When She Went Away from Amazon here. To read the e-book, download the Juggernaut app and read it here.

Food+Romance

 

While I’ve been out of the blogging scene, I’ve been busy writing. Yes! I’ve written two books and the third is 3/4 written and all have the theme of food+romance.

What is that, you ask? Well, it’s not yet a genre (really? I need to check) but I realised that I love writing about food and somehow a romance creeps in, even when I, ahem try to write horror. So I’ve decided to make it my new thing.

The books all revolve around people who are involved with food. For instance, there’s a food photographer and a hot chef in The Crunch Factor (being published by Hachette soon), a food blogger whose only claim to fame was that she blew up an oven, in Will the Oven Explode? (Juggernaut, also soon) and as yet unnamed book about two neighbouring cafe owners who can’t figure out if they hate each other or have the hots for each other (also Juggernaut, and since I’m still writing it, definitely a little later)

And by God, I’m having such a blast. So, I guess you understand why I haven’t blogged since April. Been busy writing, folks! So, come back soon, because I’ll definitely post cover pics and other information here, on the website first, followed by my social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

 

My latest baby, Asmara

Sometime in early 2015, I was beginning to slightly panic. I hadn’t written a word in all of 2014. It was a self-imposed sabbatical from writing because I’d already written ten books by then, seven of which were published by the end of 2014. I thought I needed to stay away from writing, recharge my creative batteries as it were. The moment 2015 rolled along, I knew I had to get started, but I had no idea what I was going to write.

I scribbled random notes, tried to get excited about it but nothing really worked. So I thought that it will happen when it will and well, it did. The main character, her motivation and what really drove the story kicked in suddenly one day, and I had a very brief concept note for this new book. Normally, I’m super lazy about naming my characters. I usually name them whatever pops into my head at the moment. And just then, for some reason, the name that came to my head was Asmara.

I was excited and sharing my excitement was Pooja, my friend and colleague (who’s responsible for this photo by the way). I showed her the concept note, fleshed it out a little, and then sent it off to a couple of publishers. Let’s say I was pleasantly surprised when it was snapped up by Penguin. Okay no, make that ridiculously pleased and shout from the rooftop happy when Penguin said they wanted to publish Asmara’s Summer.

Of course, I still had to write it. And that was what I was secretly worried about. I was ending this year long drought of words, with a book that had already been signed up by a publisher. What had I been thinking! What if I couldn’t write it? Or what if they hated what I write?

If you know me, you know that I try and avoid thinking of all this when I write. I write firmly inside my bubble where no one can get in unless I let them. So I devoted most of March and April to writing it and I finished it like way before my deadline was due. Ha. I still had my writing mojo, bitches.

Editing for Asmara began and whoa – I realised that Asmara was being edited by the world’s most stringent/dogged/tenacious editor I’ve ever worked with. Niyati Dhuldoya. Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever worked *this* hard at a manuscript during the editing stages, in my life.

Anyway, like they say, bringing out a book is like having a baby and after all that labour pain, you kind of forget what the fuss was all about and you want to have another baby too. Same here. I got excited about another idea the same year, August to be exact. This time I decided I was going to write the book and then send it out. And that was how my contemporary romance The Crunch Factor came about. Ahem. I haven’t announced this anywhere else as yet, but The Crunch Factor has been accepted at Hachette and is being published in November, 2016!

A year that began on a doubtful note, ended with two books being written and accepted for publication. I can only hope things get better than this!

You can ogle away at Asmara’s gorgeous cover, designed by Abhishek Choudhary. And yes, Asmara is officially published and there’s a book launch on 30th April at Atta Galatta. Do drop by if you’re in the area!

Asmara's Summer Invite

Our first workshop

On 5th March, as I left home to go to Atta Galatta for our first Nutcracker workshop, I was slightly nervous but there was more anticipation than anxiety. I loved meeting new people, talking to them, helping them along in their journey as writers, and here we were, Sajita and I, embarking on our first workshop, because we loved doing this.

 

Our participants started showing up and it was time to connect the faces to the emails we’d shared. People sat around tables and got comfortable, while we distributed the folders that we’d designed and made.

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I don’t know why there were only four men and sixteen women at our workshop. It was definitely something to ponder about later. By the end of that day, our participants were comfortable with each other and us and they’d already got some interesting stuff written for their flash fiction exercise using the prompts we gave them.

 

Sajita and I went back to our homes, tired but elated. Oh and did I mention, it was also my birthday on 5th and it was one of the nicest birthdays I’ve had. The next day too went well, and we were pretty excited with the stories that were emerging from the participants.

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To say that our first workshop exceeded our expectations, be it in the number of participants, or their active participation, would be an understatement. We only hope we’re lucky enough for the workshops that we have lined up in the future.

About that – I’ve set up a calendar on the Nutcracker website – http://www.nut-cracker.in/calendar/ – where you can see that we’re pretty serious about our workshops!  So sign up for one or pass the word around in case you know someone would be interested.

Our next workshop is at Fragrant Kitchen, Kalyan Nagar, and it is a one-day workshop, focusing entirely on writing fiction. Registration for this has opened up and there are limited seats. So spread the good word around, please?

 

Creative Writing Workshops with Nutcracker

Life works in strange ways. A couple of years ago, I met Sajita Nair when I discovered that she was working in the same organization where I had joined. We used to have a few small chats together, every now and then, but she left soon after, although we’d stayed in touch.

It’s now time for me to leave and I’d been seriously wondering what to do next when Sajita messaged to wish me for the new year. We got chatting and both of us realized that we wanted to do the same thing. Organize and conduct Creative Writing Workshops! And thus, that’s how I joined Nutcracker, which was something that she had already set up.

So Nutcracker (www.nut-cracker.in) started taking proper shape. We met on weekends and decided to hold our first creative writing workshop in Atta Galatta.

Registrations are open right now! So don’t wait! Sign up to attend the first workshop on 5th and 6th March and it’s your chance to work with us! We have just a few seats left!

Also, Nutcracker is planning it’s next workshop as well, and a workshop for children too! What can I say? I’m having fun!

Reading Hour with Aruna Nambiar

Aruna and I were published together in 2005, as part of a collection of short stories called Curtains, stories by 9 women. Even in that selection, I have to admit, her stories had its own brand of gentle humour that brought a smile to your face. When her debut novel Mango Cheeks, Metal Teeth came out a couple of years ago, I picked up a copy and of course enjoyed it a lot.

For Reading Hour January, we had Aruna over at Atta Galatta to chat with me and it was a really nice session. Some excerpts from the session for those who missed it.

I brought up how books that have maps or family trees in the very beginning intrigue and intimidate me at the same time, as a reader. It implies that the author has put in a fair amount of effort into mapping all this out and they expect me to be an alert reader because I will need this information later on. As a writer, I find it interesting as a process. I asked her if she mapped out the family tree before she wrote the book or after.

Aruna agreed that having the entire family tree and that too, three of them in this book, was an afterthought. One of her earlier readers suggested that it would be helpful to readers considering the number of characters there were in the book.

I asked her how she came up with these alliterative names like Terrible Tasneem, Koovait kannan, Ration Raman, Meen Mohammed… And she said that it’s typical of a Kerala small town where people do get remembered or called thus.

I brought up the point that there are two threads running in the story… Of Geetha and her middle class family and on the other hand, Koovait kannan and Ration Raman. Both threads are not parallel and intersect most interestingly. But they’re so different from each other. Was there a favourite when she was writing? Which thread did she enjoy writing more?

Aruna said that the Nair family with the cousins converging on the ancestral home for summer vacation was true to her own experiences but the story of the other half, the domestic help and the people like Koovait Kannan etc was different. She said that writing that thread was more interesting and even fun.

Aruna then followed this up with a reading from the book that was quite funny. It made me remember how she’d said once that she wasn’t aiming for humor. But when she wrote this book it kind of crept in. The studied humour that shows a mirror to our lives, set in the 80s is not just a nostalgic trip. There are some painful growing up moments that Aruna deftly weaves in, so that the reader is left with a feeling of, ah, so that’s what the book was about, once they’ve finished it.

We spoke a little more about characters like Geetha who is the protagonist and how it appears that she seems to have grown the most in the book. There were several questions from the audience too, about various situations that arise when you write a coming of age novel.

Overall, it was a really nice event, intimate and yet, blessed with an interested audience.

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Selfie with the author of the month, Aruna Nambiar!

A Little Girl in a Big City

BLF (Bangalore Literature Festival) came and went away too soon. It was like, one minute I was getting excited Friday evening for BLF 2015, and the next minute it was Sunday night and I was coming back home, exhausted. Nevertheless, it was an exciting two days, and I felt pretty amazed that I was able to participate in it. My session was on Sunday evening and we had a decent sized, interested crowd. And although I kept telling people, I didn’t relate to our topic – A Little Girl in a Big City, at the end of the two days, I pretty much felt like that, creaky knees notwithstanding.

Meeting old friends and making new ones was pretty much the highlight of the two day fest. I’m not really a social person, and I really prefer to bury my head in a book than talk to people (some people I know have just gasped loudly, and then whispered ‘liar’) but it’s true! But it’s occasions like these that I put on a smile and hope for the best.

Some pics and a video of our session below!

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During our session.

 

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My books on display at BLF