Posted in Books, Writers, Writing

When I met Alan Sillitoe

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Apart from Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and a few others, one of my favourite writers, though very different from them, is Alan Sillitoe [1928-2010]. It was after I read his brilliant short story, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, that I began reading his other books, among which my favourite is The Storyteller. A working class boy, Sillitoe started work at the age of 14 in a bicycle factory, but went on to become a world famous writer.

I thought of him today because of a question posed on social media, have you ever met a famous writer and what effect did this have on your writing? Of course, I have met many well-known Indian writers, my mother being one of them! But among international writers, the one I remember is Alan Sillitoe.

It was 1979 or 80 perhaps. He came to India, and then to JNU in New Delhi. I don’t remember if he gave any public talks, but he spoke specifically to a small group at the history centre. He was simple and informal, and during the interactive talk, he said that he loved maps. Those were pre-digital days, and after the talk I took him to see our collection of 1 inch to 1 mile Survey of India maps. They were not easily available and could not be accessed by the public. Acquired for a special project, a form had to be filled and signed every year stating that the maps were safe and secure.

Sillitoe spent some time looking at them and seemed fascinated. We discussed his books, he was surprised that I had read them all and was such a fan. What effect did the meeting have on me as a writer? None, as I wasn’t a writer then, and had no idea I would become one. But his books, and the simplicity of his writing, certainly influenced me.

 

Posted in History, India, Mahatma Gandhi, Writers, Writing

Writers and nationalism

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There must be innumerable writers who are, in some sense nationalists, or who write about their own country.  The Russian writers such as Solzhenitsyn come to mind. However, nationalism which leads to hatred of the ‘other’ seems unacceptable in a writer. The best writing, one that is long lasting, can include details of a place or country, and yet have a universal theme. Writers are rooted in the land where they live, or where they were born, and that forms the theme or background of much writing. I too write on India, and from an Indian perspective, about its history, culture, religion and its natural beauty, its wonderful arts and crafts. At the same time, one can still appreciate other countries and their histories and traditions.

India remembers Mahatma Gandhi, but forgets his words. Gandhi, lived, worked, and died for India, but his views were never narrow or limited.

Here is a quote from him.
I would like to see India free and strong so that she may offer herself as a willing and pure sacrifice for the betterment of the world. The individual, being pure, sacrifices himself for the family, the latter for the village, the village for the district, the district for the province, the province for the nation, the nation for all. (YI, 17-9-1925, p. 321)

 

Posted in Books, History, Writing

My first published book

I had written this post below four years ago, and thought of re-posting it, as this morning I remembered an incident related to the book. I had read a book called Small Miracles, and this was something that could be categorised as one. Of course, a critique of the book said they were just coincidences, so this is a coincidence I still remember. It was probably 1996, mid summer in Delhi, temperatures around 44 centigrade. There were no mobile phones in those days. Finally, I had been allotted an editor for the book, and as she had a small baby she was working from home. I had her address and set out to visit her in Chittaranjan Park. But once there I could not locate the house. I walked in circles, asked everyone, received directions, but still could not find it. The heat was unbearable. I stopped to breathe, and thought I had better go home. At that moment a sannyasi in orange robes passed me. I hardly noticed him, but suddenly I felt a gust of cold air. In that blazing dry heat, it was cool and moist. Refreshed, I walked on a few steps, and there I was at the gate of the house I had been searching for . A very small incident–only if one had actually experienced the heat and exhaustion, and then that cold air, could one know why I still recollect it.


The earlier post

The Puffin History of India
The Puffin History of India

Perhaps because my mother was a writer, and because the house was always full of books, and I spent most of my time reading, I always believed I was a writer. Somehow, though, I became one only late in life, and almost by chance. After a stint in academics, a PhD, spending years doing research in a musty library, I moved on to become an editor. Then an interest in the philosophy of J Krishnamurti took me to teach in a school in south India run on his philosophy. After a few years there, teaching history and geography to youngsters, I realised there were no books in history that they wanted to read on their own. Teaching there I had begun to understand the kind of books young people required. I approached Penguin India with an idea for several small books on different dynasties, but instead they suggested a single book on Indian history. After sending them a synopsis and sample chapters, I had a contract. I wrote the book in longhand, got it typed, revised it, and got it retyped–I think it was probably the only book for which I kept to the deadline! Meanwhile, Puffin, the children’s division of Penguin, had its own problems, and closed down for some time. Submitted in 1993, the book was finally published in 1997! I had almost given up on it by then, had left the school, and was back to editing. This book, now called The Puffin History of India vol 1, is in its 3rd edition, and continues to have steady sales. A few years later I was pushed by my editor to write its sequel, on India after independence, which is now The Puffin History of India vol 2. After that I went on to write more books.

Posted in book review., Books, Writers, Writing

Writers and book reviews

Times have certainly changed. In the past there was no self-promotion. Writers spent their lives writing, some were recognised, some excellent authors faded away, hardly known.

Recently, I read a short review of a book [I am not  sharing its name or that of the reviewer], that said something to the effect that it was written by undoubtedly the best writer of the 21st century–a brilliant new voice. How is it I had never heard of this book or author? I downloaded a sample. In the very first paragraph there were grammatical errors. Proceeding further, the story meandered in a meaningless way. Unable to continue I deleted the sample. The author was self-published and had paid a new small publisher, first for publishing it, and then for promoting the book.

I am not against self-publishing, in fact I believe it is the best way for an author to retain control over her work. But I am against fake reviews that people are paid to write. I have received several offers myself, Rs 4000 for four good reviews of your latest book, etc. , which of course I would never take up. If the book is good, or if it is controversial, people will review it themselves, without any encouragement or inducement.

Then there are those reviewers who are not paid, but rush to write critical reviews online, of books they have hardly understood–reviews that are again full of errors.

In today’s world, it is okay to advertise, perhaps it is essential, but shouldn’t a reviewer be honest, whether paid or unpaid? And shouldn’t they at least have basic writing skills, and some background knowledge?

Posted in Books, Writing

Writing a biography

For the first time I am writing a biography, and began reading about the best biographies. I found two points to keep in mind, which are immensely useful.

Firstly, every detail of the person’s life does not need to be included.

Secondly, write after identifying with the person, try to see life and the world through his/her eyes. This second point definitely gave me a different perspective, instead of looking at the person through the accounts and views of others. It gave me a much better understanding of the person about whom I am writing.

 

Posted in Poems, Writing

Writing and Bidyutprabha Devi

I have been busy with a forthcoming  book on 70 years of independence. Of course, that period is already covered in my Puffin History of India vol 2, but this book’s focus is culture. I keep reading wonderful poets and stories in translation–some may be included in the book, some may not.

These two verses below are from Bidyutprabha Devi’s poem, Dilemma, translated from  Odia, the language of the state of Odisha [earlier spelt Orissa]. Bidyutprabha is recognized as one of the best Odia women poets. Only writers know how wonderful writing is.

‘Writing is the balm
for all my pain.
It’s the glory of my sorrow.
Writing is rain-soaked woods.
It’s the music of cloud bursts
during the month of Shravana!

I wish I could speak of
the joy that gathers in my heart.
Like a flame
in the mouth of storm,
my poetry
A luminous lamp!’

(Translation: Sachidananda Mohanty (First published in Kavya Bharati, 1997]:-

Posted in newsletters, Writing

Newsletters—what type do you like?

I have been planning to start a newsletter for some time now. What will I put in it? That is a question I don’t yet have the answer to. Should it be on history? Religion and spirituality? My books and writing? Or on a combination of all these?

What should be its format? Now on this I have some thoughts. I get a number of newsletters, and there are many that I don’t read, or that I only read occasionally. I am interested in their content, but I don’t like the format. Below I’m making a list of the type of newsletters, in the order of those that I like best.

  1. The type I always read, is one that opens completely in the body of the email. I don’t have to click on a link, but can read everything straightaway. I don’t care if there are pictures or not, this is the type that always gets read.
  2. Those that provide the first para of a topic, and one has to click on a link to read the whole. If there are several such topics, I’ll rarely click on all–maybe just one or two.
  3. Those that provide a link, with a very brief idea of what it contains. I’ll read this if I am really interested in the topic.
  4. Those that hardly provide any information in the body of the email. A click on a link opens to a video, where some so-called expert is speaking–and the video goes on and on, with the information at the end. I can never wait till the end of the video, and once having tried it, I never click on similar links again.

What kind of newsletters do you like? And what topics interest you? I’d really like to know.

Posted in writer, Writing

Why I write…

I have written quite a few posts on writing, and see myself as an eternal writer. A writer is a watcher, a recorder, an analyst, a thinker. All these are intrinsic, and sometimes I refer to myself as ‘a watcher in a dream’. In Advaita, it is said the world is unreal and it often seems that way–people fighting battles, entering conspiracies, hiding their true selves, for what? Then people trying to forget by watching television, meditating, talking, drinking.

Gurdjieff had said that the whole world is asleep. Is the writer’s role to keep one awake? On a more mundane level, I write because I want to share what I know, and sometimes what I think. Knowledge that comes from reading and understanding, but begins with thought. I want to make this specialized knowledge simple, easy to access, and I want more people to know, to be less ignorant, because that too is one way of bringing about change. I’ve  written books on history and religion to share this knowledge.

Initially I was more interested in personal writing, in writing for myself.  It helped me to focus, plan, understand and forget. Personal writing continues, but nowhere near the same extent. It is still useful, but I can do without it.

 

Posted in Books, History, writer

Signing other people’s books!

 

I am not sure if any other author has experienced this—Recently I was invited to a book fair held at a local school, and an announcement was made that I was available to sign books. A few people did buy my books and bring them to me to sign, but many more brought me other authors’ books! At first I refused but they seemed so disappointed. A compromise was worked out. I would sign at the back of other authors’ books, and in the front for my own. Then there was someone who kept waiting, he said, for my signature, even after I had signed. He expected a fancy and complicated signature, not the simple way I sign.

One 12th class student announced, as she gave me another person’s books to sign, that she had finished with history as she was going to be an accountant. Can one ever finish with history? That may be the topic of my next talk. I had earlier spoken to them about sources in the context of Ashoka, his grand inscriptions, and his policy of dhamma. Could one ever forget him, and so much else of the past?

Posted in Dehradun, Uncategorized

Where do you live?

Does where you live influence your writing?  I have been living in Dehradun, in the northern state of Uttarakhand, India, for the last three years, moving here from Delhi, and have been wondering if a change of place affects one’s writing.

Dehradun has around 600,000 people compared with Delhi’s 16 million. Everyone is somewhat laid-back. People drop in unannounced, and stay for hours. There are steep slopes to climb, tall trees, and in the background, the Middle Himalayas, glittering with lights in the dark, very occasionally covered with snow. In the monsoon there is incessant rain.

The city is rapidly changing, the trees being cut, high-rise buildings being constructed.

But there are beautiful buildings too, such as this Buddhist temple.

A little distance behind the house, the Johri forest still survives. With increasing encroachment, monkeys descend from there in hordes, one hears about leopards prowling, and yesterday I saw a jackal.

Rather than traffic, I hear donkeys, pigs, chickens, dogs, and the sound of rain.

Does where one lives affect one’s writing? I don’t really know, but the circumstances in which one lives, has an effect.