This article first appeared in Rover, an independent review of arts and culture on 25.04.2013 and subsequently on mybindi, an online magazine of South Asian arts, entertainment and lifestyle.


Publishing a book is like having a baby. We’ve all heard that one, right? Do you recall where? I don’t. It’s an omniscient statement like don’t get wet in the rain, you’ll catch a chill. Or, don’t get involved with a married man, he’ll never leave his wife (not sure what they say for married women, hmmm). Don’t become an artist, you’ll starve to death.

When I first came upon that book-equals-baby pearl, my immediate reaction was, “what a silly exaggeration.” Though not a mom, I have always felt that I know exactly what it is to have a baby. I was 10 when my busy, doctor mother brought forth my baby brother, and everyone’s life went for a toss. (This was small town India.) I think I had the most fun because of his arrival, but I certainly learnt that a baby makes incredible demands even as it brings leaping joy.

When I found a publisher, Guernica Editions, for my first fiction collection – Bombay Wali and Other Stories – after about eight months of marketing and as many rejections, I felt I had fared not too badly. My near and dear ones were thrilled and hearty with their congratulations. The book (baby) would squirm its way into a cruel, indifferent world in Spring 2013. This pregnancy was going to be almost as long as an elephants’, so I decided to put the end result out of my mind.

The bleak and bleary November of 2012 arrived and brought with it the proofs for The Book. What! Already? By the end of the month a heavy cardboard box containing 50 shiny copies had arrived at my door. Having already contributed in innumerable ways, my long-suffering partner lugged it up the stairs.

This baby was a premie. Great – I could take copies to India for my mother, brother and my artist friend who had done the lovely cover. We were visiting that December. Wait! – I had put a website address on Bombay Wali’s jacket. My partner and I quickly added a section to my existing site before catching the plane.

“Hope your book becomes a bestseller,” e-mailed an innocent friend. “When will it come to India?” asked another one. Unfortunately, people, who will hopefully buy your book if they are so fortunate as to lay their hands on it, don’t know the difference between small and big publishers. For most, publishing is Penguin, Random House and Harper Collins; books travel far and wide, their authors taken on grand tours by their multinational masters with huge promo budgets. I had no such delusions for myself.

Instead, I went overnight from glowing new mom to a neurotic mess. The book was here, but so what? When would it get to the stores? Would it even get there? What about Amazon, which was already slashing the pre-order price and had the number of pages wrong? Given the zillion books – prize-winning fiction by new and established authors, non-fiction about Climate Change! Economic Meltdowns! War in Afghanistan! all kinds of trendy stuff that appeals to the average North American reader – who the heck will care about Bombay what and Veena who? Incidentally, Bombay walli means a woman from Bombay.

Why wasn’t my style post-modern, I bemoaned. And with so many bookstores closing down, would I even get to read anywhere? Even if it got reviewed and somehow arrived in the stores and I got to read in public, no one was interested in short stories, right?
Worried sick about my baby’s survival, it seemed to me that infant mortality rates for books by first time authors was as bad as that for sub-Saharan Africa. It’s only a book, Veena. Chill. I tried various tones of voice. Standing before a mirror. While doing Downward Dog. No good. I was as nervous as the proverbial Nellie.

PS: I have become a zealous promoter. Bombay Wali must live, thrive even! Friends and acquaintances are buying and commenting favourably. Reviews and interviews have been promised and readings scheduled. Communities I belong to are taking it on. (It’s not my sole responsibility, it seems. Phew!) The book is on Amazon.

I am not sleeping like a baby yet, but one of these days hope to.

Gd size BW cover

Photos taken at Mount Saint Hilaire, Quebec, not the journey I write about below, but the images are appropriate!

Bewitched, bedazzled, amidst trees that reflect gold, russet, yellow, red, orange, brown. Hues without count. Colours that have transformed the countryside into a wonderland. I am on a train, moving through bog, marsh, stream, lake, pond. Cliff, meadow, rock. Branches have fallen into the water, branches rise out of the water. Grass, and moss covered rock – green-black. Tracts of bare, exposed earth – black-brown. The leaves are thick on the ground and cover the ledges of roofs.

Water reflects sky, at times dissolving it, at times giving it clarity.

There is still some green to be found in this landscape, the green of late late summer; and grey, black and silver tree bark. Without these reference points, would my spirit not become one with the scenery? It would be easy to loose oneself in this surfeit of colour. A welcome erasure.

Behold the leaves in the act of falling, drifting! They seem so delicate and fragile, yet each seems complete in itself. Unique. Having served their purpose, they fall gently to their rest. To be pinned to a branch one moment and down on the ground a few heartbeats later. What a change of perspective that must be! I am sure, somehow, that they don’t mind going, down onto the ground, moist from last night’s rain.

Some nearly naked trees with a few, dry, curled-up leaves still attached to the branches. As the breeze blows through, they dance. How entrancing, this nature’s version of the dance of the seven veils. The words “I love you” form on my lips and phantom hands extend to caresses the fine-veined leaves.

Soon these leaves too will drift down and clothe the earth.

Stretches of field, with a dwelling – near or far. A faint blue line of mountains against the horizon.

Suddenly a blaze of gold, followed by a dazzle of orange. Low hills covered in forests of colour. Oh fall, you have dressed the trees and the forest so splendidly!

A vast inland sea lapping at our feet – Lake Champlain.

A bird high up in the clear blue sky. Egrets sitting on stones that are poking out of the water. Graceful and watchful.

Meditation and water, colour and ecstasy.

I could never tire of this landscape. This is my most enchanted train journey. Montreal to New York and back, on the Adirondack – eating and breathing fall for 12 straight hours. I had thought it would be too long, but a trip through paradise, getting drunk on the season’s inimitable beauty, is outside the bounds of clockwork time. I understand that expression – getting drunk on beauty – as never before, today.

The light is mellow, warm and liquid. It fills me with delight. I rejoice. I rejoice! I ignore the smoke stacks, the appearance at times of buildings, vestiges of civilization – so-called. I can ignore civilization from here. Fall fills me so entirely that I cannot attend to anything else. Perhaps this is how a Bhakti poet or a Sufi saint feels when they talk about union with God, with the Universe.

Such inexpressible beauty! Ah there I go again. Another cliché that I can now fathom entirely. (And yes, all the while I am writing!) We humans are given to expression, are we not?

This is nature playing Holi. I had such a desire, a longing, to see these colours, to be drenched in them. And I have been granted that wish.

I am replete.

Thank you Life. Thank you premeditation. Thank you immensely.

Written on 24 October, 2011.

I never met my mother’s father – my aajoba. He died before I was born. His photograph, sepia-toned, hangs in the large, central hall of our wada chirebandi (stone house). This singular image has been a constant in my life since childhood. The wada celebrated its 75th birthday in May 2012. It is in Nasik, India, my mother’s birthplace.

In an age of the image where every teenager clicks away with his or her Smartphone and uploads the photos endlessly on Facebook, it is strange indeed to have this one and only one image of my aajoba. In it, he wears a pagdi (a headdress) and has a serious expression. There is a watermark, a stain on the photo. That, the pagdi and his expression all speak of an epoch that is long past.

Happily, though he passed away over 50 years ago, he springs to life through the memories of his daughters – Suman (my youngest aunt), Pramil (my mother) and Kusum (my oldest aunt). Thanks to their words, I have come to know, love and respect this grandfather whom I never met.

My mother speaks of a man who was wise, dignified and just. He was a judge. Having started as a lawyer, he had the intelligence, work ethic and integrity to rise to the office of a Judge. Kusum mavshi speaks of a man who was disciplined and regular in his habits.

My mother remembers childhood pranks like trying out a bicycle that they were not supposed to use. She fell, and tried to hide the prank from her father. Aajoba learnt about it anyhow. He called her to him, and told her not to be afraid, but to always speak the truth, no matter what. A lesson she never forgot, and transmitted to me.

In an era when girls were married off without an education, my grandfather educated all his daughters. Both Suman and Kusum mavshi became teachers; Kusum mavshi rising to the distinction of being a school principal. As for my mother, my grandfather encouraged her to study medicine in Pune, which meant living away from home all by herself in a hostel. Not something that was common in those times.

My mother told me about another incident the last time I was in India. In medical school she was unprepared for an exam and wrote to her father that since she was going to fail, she saw no point in taking it! He promptly wrote back: I think you should take this exam anyhow to gain this new experience of giving such an exam, no matter that you fail.

No big drama, no but why didn’t you study? Did I send you to Pune at all this expense to hear such words from you? Etc. This man obviously kept a cool head. And chose to send out a message in courage, in facing one’s fears, in learning and being open to new experience.

This then was my aajoba who built the wada chirebandi that has stood solid over 75 years, just as his integrity and dignity shine through after all this time. Was my grandfather perfect? I hope not! I am confident he had his faults. But that does not detract from his greatness or humanness. In fact, it adds to it.

Even though I never met him, I have practiced truth telling in my personal and professional life, as a journalist and writer. I have tried to be courageous, and open to learning and new experience. Unfortunately, I almost entirely lack his diplomacy! But perhaps that will come with time. I am an optimist!

My love for justice may also have trickled down from him to my mother and then down to me. It has led to working with non-profit organizations that advocate peace, equality and a respect for the environment and nature.

Isn’t it fascinating how legacies get transferred? Here is a legacy that consists of values and ideas, not things material. What a precious one!

Thank you aajoba for the inspiration, for holding up such an ideal. It is well worth reaching for.

I won’t be blogging for a while because I got a grant to write my first novel – an intense, interesting, challenging and somewhat scary experience! I started writing this blog because I wanted to experiment with this form. I enjoyed doing it and some of you seem to have enjoyed reading it. Thanks for communicating and appreciating.

The setting for the novel is a Canadian international development project unrolling in an African country. Against this backdrop, I plan to tell the interwoven stories of a range of characters from starkly different backgrounds, often with conflicting needs and desires.

My aim is to make overt some of the contradictions, challenges and possibilities inherent in international development, and life! More than anything, I hope that this will be a compelling story and will actually get done!

I started reflecting more deeply on international development and taking notes for this novel in 2007, as I was finishing up a two-year posting with a local NGO in Tanzania.

Meena Kandaswamy. She breaks the mould. Listen to her read from her two poetry collections and provoke critical thinking.

Will be back in action next month. Ciao till then.

My 4th and final blog about the Blue Met. Lit. Fest”

Day 3 at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival:

Blogging from the Blue Met. Lit. Fest.

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