Hello Harshali, thank you for being a part of IWI’s Incredible Women Writers of India 2016, and sharing your journey as a writer.
How would you define yourself?
I think I am a fairly empathetic, non-judgemental and a discreet person.
I live and let live and believe that what goes around comes around. I dislike rudeness and love smiling. Strongly believe in civility and avoid drama. I like conversations, wine, good food and sufi music.
What was your childhood like? Any incidents form your growing up years that shaped you as a person?
A middle class upbringing, sandwiched between an elder sister and a younger one was how I grew up. A very ordinary life. The upheaval happened when I married at the young and impressionable age of 21 years with stars in my eyes. The inevitable stumbling, falling and eventually rising up was the bedrock that formed my personality. It all turned in my favour, eventually.
When did your journey as a writer/poet began?
I used to write poems and thoughts on bits of paper and hide them. Then forget where I had hidden those scrapes of paper. Crazy days. So practically, I began writing earnestly 5 years back with poems and short verses. Stories were visualised in my head as I stared out of the car window. The scenes forming a large part of impromptu stories I told my children.
Do you have a muse? If yes, who or what acts as a catalyst to your writing?
The Muse- I would have to say, emotional people. I am lucky to be surrounded by them. Complicated relationships and their nuances form the catalyst for my expression.
Connections, Percept and choices of individuals who have been brought up in a similar environment. Especially, families and their fabric, each individual tied and yet free. People do things that shock me, overwhelm me and make me wonder about my own reactions, if put in a situation such as this.
My role as a Member Judge in the consumer forum, a mentor and a teacher trainer affords to me a wide arena from where to draw insights and understand people better while continuously broadening my own acumen and perception.
The convolutions and impediments that these relationships bring to the table are immense and intriguing, to me. The ability of some to handle these difficulties while others are constantly at war with themselves and others. These tricky connections are keenly witnessed and absorbed, sponge like, to be detailed at a later date, on paper.
The way our mind works, the different set of rules we judge others with, the drawing of moral lines by individuals… all these aspects of human nature stir me and make me wonder, make me question. I enjoy figuring out people and their workings. I see beautiful lives wasted by their own self-doubt, talents wasted… I could go on.
Painting is another way that I am able to find inspiration. It gives me the time to build stories around the piece I am working on at the time. A fresh start I would like to believe. In my head there is a back story to all my paintings. I am looking forward to compiling them, at a later date.
Do you plan out your work or just go with the flow?
I am a, go with the flow kind of person and I think that reflects in my writing. The structure has to be clear in my head, in terms of the beginning, middle and end along with what I want to say. Beyond that I don’t control my thoughts while I am writing the first draft. The restrain comes while reviewing.
Sometimes I will just put pen to paper and let it go , let my thoughts take me where they want, I will just follow them gently climbing down valleys or running to the peaks. It makes for a fine read at some later date. Surprises lie in the folds of our mind.
For you, what’s the easiest thing about writing and the hardest thing? Do you have any weird/funny writing rituals?
The easiest thing, is the writing the first draft, the hardest is, reviewing that first draft.
I like absolute silence when I write and therefore it is done in the middle of the night or when morning is just breaking. I recently found that my mind cleared up and there was complete clarity of thought in the hills, I wonder if that would also be the case if I headed for the beach… Goa calling…
Another quirk that I am still struggling with is that, strangely the best catch lines and the correct treatment of a difficult character will come to me as I am at the cusp of sleep or just waking up and usually they are crystal clear.
The hard part is how to record them.
I have tried the notepad next to the bed, but who can write at the time, an audio file but how am I supposed to figure out the intricacies of a mobile phone when I am half asleep. The only thing that seems to work, for now, is shaking my poor husband awake to rattle off the details to him and then sinking into blissful sleep with the instructions to remember the details and repeat them to me in the morning. He is probably going to throw a fit at some point but for now, he is cooperating, albeit reluctantly.
Do you get writer’s block? How do you battle it?
Having just started out I haven’t met with writer’s block, so far. The time constraint is a stumbling block though, for sure. With all the other roles to essay it takes some major juggling to find the space and freedom to give my mind free rein. And then there is always music to lift me out of the ennui if it makes an appearance.
How have you evolved as a writer since you have started? If you could give one advice to yourself, what would it be? What are you working on now?
I was scared of writing down my thoughts initially, the constant fear of discovery and what will people say dodging me every time I ferreted away a thought or a question (plots in the making). The reason being the lack of privacy afforded to us by the elders in the family.
Having a curious and questioning mind is not always a cakewalk. And so there was no journal that I kept except whatever I could retain in my mind. The story brewed for years changing form, adding characters flowing through the experiences I was accumulating, being coloured by them in some places and taking on the inevitability of life at others, becoming what it is today.
When I started writing the words came in bursts of creativity so even though there was lucidity of plot I couldn’t seems to find the same on paper. Frustratingly I tried several times realising that there was something…I couldn’t catch the essence of how I wanted to present the story. It was at this time that I attended a workshop on writing and there I found the missing link, The Structure.
Understanding the structure gave me the framework to make the story come alive on paper and literally gave me wings and the story a solid base for us to be viable, together. Realising that the discipline of writing every day, even though you may delete everything you write, gave me the opportunity to stay connected to my story. That was what had been missing before.
Evolution as with everything else creeps in without us realising its presence. The words come easier, the thoughts flow with less ambiguity on most days and then some days the horizon is so large and the mist so dense that sometimes it’s just an uphill task and nothing seems to work.
I can therefore safely say that I am a work in progress.
The advice I would give myself is write more, much more.
Currently I am working on the second book in the series.
What’s your opinion about the future of writing/reading/the publishing industry in India?
We all have stories to tell. In the last 10 years the younger generation has woken up to the fact that one does not need a certain kind of academic background to write. As long as one is true to their style of writing their work will find recognition. More Indian writers are entering into the arena and picking up the pen to write about the issues that most affect them or what they identify with. Writers exploring the mind-set of the other gender with panache and boldness.
Hence the assault of the young well-read authors with the internet at their fingertips, who decided to write their stories without worrying about the nefarious voices that command us to follow rules… There is no rule, in my view.
If I want to tell my story I will, is the new mantra. More power to them, I say.
In the future, I hope to see more content driven writing, newness in the treatment of the old plots with age, language or means not being a deterrent to expressing oneself. Though I wish for this event based writing to die a slow painful death…
As a reader however, I protect my right to read books that interest me. You can write whatever you want, I shall read what I want. I do like to dip my fingers in genres that I would normally stay away from, having burnt my fingers and in equal measure have also been fascinated, so I go by recommendations only.
It is rare but known to happen that I will pick up a book with a fascinating and quirky title or cover. In my observation, we are in an age of the informed reader with limited patience and therefore not everyone will like your work… so be it.
I see a rise in readership, the format is changing notably with people reading on the go more often than not, nonetheless, I am optimistic that the paperback is sacrosanct.
So far as publishing, I will trust the publisher with the book … completely. There are a few touchpoints that I am firm with but beyond that there is flexibility.
Publishing needs to be a partnership rather than them doing the author a favour. I would gladly go with a pleasant person representing a small publishing house rather than a rude know it all from a well-known one. That’s just me though.
There is hope in me for a better and more informed author who goes to pitch their work, being met with a kind denial that doesn’t scar the poor soul for life or question themselves and their motive for writing. The new publishing houses that are starting up seem more approachable with the stiff upper lip, missing, thankfully. Here’s hoping for many more.
Favorite food… Biryani
Favorite Book… The summerhouse by Jude Deveraux and The alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Favorite author… Nora Roberts
What are you afraid of… Losing a loved one
What makes you angry… lies and reaching late
Childhood crush… Boris Becker
Things that you can’t leave the house without… Cash and keys to the house, duplicate key to the car, a back- up book
Any message or advice you want to share with our readers?
Silence the voices that doubt, do what feels right. Read and re read if you like. Make your own rules. And if you feel there is a writer in you, take the jump and the net will appear.
Excerpt from Second Chances, my first novel:
It is a shadowy, murky night.
I stand as I have stood for many decades, concrete and firm. One of the six daughters of the family that inhabits me now, calls me Anwar. Fittingly, I suppose.
As the family that inhabited my cavernous interiors before the partition of this great country had a child. My namesake, playing in my greens till the very end.
Those were terrible times.
I eavesdropped in horror at the unspeakable atrocities that were talked about. The big living room, home to many a discussion. Some even effected within my walls. I am witness to rivers of tears of anguish and loss and ever so often I fear my walls have absorbed that pain and torment that I have beheld through the years leaving it to slowly seep into my very foundations. I fear this despair has slowly spread itself over the palms of my current inhabitants webbing their destiny with misfortune, making me in some way responsible for their adversity. People have come and gone leaving behind only empty rooms to an onlooker but to me they are crammed full of reminiscences, some good and some unspeakable. I rarely look too closely at my the memories that are embedded deep within my foundation but sometimes, a gale of laughter or a trickle of a wet hiccup beings forth the remembrances in a uncontrollable surge. The family that inhabits me now, has gone through its own valleys and peaks and somehow this time, I am unable to stand unaffected…why I wonder…how are we connected …
I am the Haveli with the hundred doors.
My claim to fame.
In the 150 years that I have weathered the living in this old colony of Naugraha, witnessing old Delhi’s lanes grow narrower, the out cropping’s and illegal constructions almost choking the lanes where once horse carriages rode confident in their self-possession.
A large ostentatious water fountain stood once in this courtyard, its trickling water perfumed with itar. The perfume so sweet that there was nary a day when butterflies didn’t flutter around the lovingly tended bushes of flowers. Mehfils and Mushairas saw laughter and art being celebrated with delight. Such busy days they were and so short lived.
The pandemonium that followed was better than the loneliness of the slow deaths of the lives that surrounded me. The absence of sound turned to an overwhelming under current of noise that shook me to my very foundations and obliterated many of my counterparts.
It all seems lost in the grains of time.
We were nine Havelis, once.
Slowly the families moved away, leaving nothing but memories of a bygone era fresh in the blows that we have withstood. Blows of ignominy and changing dynamics of the times. The objects and furniture moved away but the nostalgia lingered haunting these once sprawling mansions.
Dust motes are the only inhabitants of the ones which are still left standing, the rest converted to go-downs and office buildings.
My counterparts slowly grew silent, their voices reduced to mere whispers and musings about their families. Only, the haunting voice of Noori, emanating from her mausoleum reminds me of the bygone era that I miss with an ache sometimes. In the center of the nearby park she lies, deserted and lonely, as in her lifetime.
We both were saved from the sad fate called ‘Development’. I by the good fortune of geography and she for her prop value. Rather like she was in life. One could also assume that the only reason we survived was lack of monetary interest.
Nevertheless, here we stand, together in our melancholy. A melancholy that is echoed by the people of the Family that thrives here now, sometimes relieved in fragments.
The Sharma Family is a large one but I have always felt it is the large ones which are the most interesting.
Arun, the father of the Sharma family came as a boy full of spirit and grit. Happy as a child should be. His father’s heavy handedness and dreams crushed under the passage of time made him the man he is on this day, passive and resigned.
His wife, the devout Uma, though lame due to a past illness is full of gumption and an emotional strength which I would be hard pressed to recollect seeing in some men, who have crossed my threshold.
The children came in quick succession, Aruna the eldest daughter, Bhavya the one in the middle and Charu the third.
I had thought they had given up but knowing Uma, I should have known better. She had wanted a son and despite Arun’s misgiving they tried one last time.
The success of bearing a male child, the Heir, had lasted on Uma’s face for many years. Not that she loved her daughters any less, but it’s just one of those things I have come to understand as I silently watch this spectacle before me. That women crave, to give their families a male child. At least the women whom I have known.
Of course it could have been just as simple enough a thing as being validated as a fertile women. After all she needed to bear a son to prove that she was usefully productive, bearing daughters was just not enough. It was the times, with that kind of societal norm. The kinds that will wear your good sense down to a nub. The irony is telling but not so much as that it is the women who sometimes perpetuate it and most times endorse it.
And so Dheeraj, the son after three daughters became the heir apparent, set to succeed to the Saree shop that Arun’s father had inherited from his father in law. The compensation for marrying Arun’s mother.
They called it dowry.
Now some would say, ‘So much trouble for a saree shop,’ but you see therein lay the rub.
All seemed right after Dheeraj’s birth for a few years. The children grew up happy and a strong familial bond was forged within my walls as time ebbed and flowed. The years seemed to pass happily enough and then came the announcement.
Uma was pregnant again.
Oh! What a vicious fight it was between the parents. The children huddled together scared of the words being thrown around expecting the worst. Their fears were unfounded, of course. Uma managed to convince Arun, once again.
God’s gift, she said.
Arun only saw it as another mouth to feed.
It was too late to withdraw from that decision as life threw another curve ball their way. I heard Uma contemplating an abortion the day they found out it was not one child, but three. It was Arun this time who mollified his panicked wife.
And so the already big family became enormous with the advent of the three angels, as they are lovingly called by their indulgent family.
Etti came first, a second later it was Fanny and then came Gina.
Tonight, the angel lights that hang illuminating every nook and cranny of my dark recesses seem superficial and fake. For even as the family prepares for the second marriage of the eldest daughter, there is no cheerfulness and delight, only a deep seated worry that seems to have seeped into my foundations that have held me strong for so long.
She stands tonight, alone, wrapped in worry.
This is Aruna’s story.
Please Note: This interview has been conducted online via emails by Rhiti Bose for IWI.