Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Aau Jo

Chapter 1 

I took tentative steps towards the small corridor and trotted along quietly. For some reason, I felt anxious. I had walked through this same passage several times before. Then why did I feel agitated today? The passage was dark and right at the end there were two adjoining rooms. I knew which one I had to enter. It was the likely place where I would find her. But the room right in the front caught my eye. There was a soft, soothing tune of a female voice coming in from there. I walked towards it.

The room’s door was closed. But I could see inside as the door was half-wood and half-net. There was a really old man seated comfortably on a rocking armchair inside. He was wearing really thick glasses and a white dhoti and kurta. He seemed lost in his thoughts and was gazing outside the open window of his room at the skies above. Beside the chair, was kept an old radio on a table which played the mellifluous song. I could hear the words very distinctly now.

Tu jahaan, jahaan chalega…Mera saaya, saath hoooga…

Tu jahaan, jahaan chalega…Mera saaya, saath hoooga…

Mera Saaya… Mera Saaya…

Mera Saaya…

The song. The words. Where had I heard them before? Why did it remind me of someone?

Mera Saaya… Mera Saaya…Mera Saaya…

Tearing my eyes away from the scene, I decided to move to the next room. The place I knew I would find her. The door was left ajar and I could hear faint voices from inside. I pushed the door aside and entered.

“Arre Chiku Bhai…!” said an old man with a glowing smile. He was wearing a very simple grey shirt and navy blue trousers. There was a twinkle in his eyes which calmed my nerves. “Jai Shri Krishna Nana,” I mumbled quietly.

The room was quite small and looked very homely. There were two beds in adjoining corners there and clothes lay spread on it. Although I had been here innumerable times before, I stared in amazement all around it. As if I had found a lost treasure.

“You are up early today. What do you want to eat for breakfast? Should I make parantha? Or poha? Or would you prefer something sweet like seera?” came an old woman’s voice which broke my reverie. She looked plump and wore a purple sari. She was standing in the small area that was the kitchen.  

“No Nani, I don’t want to eat anything right now,” I said and continued looking around; feeling dejected. I had expected to find her here.

“Of course you do. You are just eight years old. Your body needs nourishment. You love sweets isn’t it? Let me make seera then,” she said with a final authority; not expecting another answer from me. Turning her back, she became busy in the kitchen.

The old man, meanwhile, smiled at me and became engrossed in a newspaper. Sensing that the old couple was busy now, I decided to slip away from there. “I will come back for the seera Nani,” I promised myself and moved towards the door of the room. I felt restless and stepped out quietly. Giving up was not an option. I had to look for her.

…Nazar aaau, Ya na aaau, Tere paaas hongi mai bhi…

Tu koiiii, janam bhi lega…Mera saaya, saath hoooga…

Tu jahaan, jahaan Chalega…Mera saaya, saath hoooga…

Mera Saaya… Mera Saaya…

Mera Saaya… Mera Saaya…

The words. Each of them was reverberating across my soul. I turned my head and saw the old man in the rocking chair. He was till gazing outside; staying motionless. I had seen him before. Why couldn’t I recall his name?

I chose to walk ahead. The words of the song were now slowly fading away. But it still felt like someone was calling out to me.

Mera Saaya… Mera Saaya…

Mera Saaya… Mera Saaya…

I now came to a large, open, area. A few people were seated on chairs here. Some were sipping tea, while some read newspapers. She wasn’t among them.

“We need to get some new coolers. Udaipur’s temperature this year is getting unbearable,” exclaimed a man wearing a blue lungi, while he read a newspaper. He had shiny white hair and a well trimmed white moustache. But despite that, he looked quite young. His eyes fell on me and he smiled.

“Had a good night’s sleep?” he asked politely, “Ready for the trip to Gulab Bagh today evening?”

I nodded shyly. A woman, who was sitting near the man, then remarked, “Ah...Look at him! He is just eight years old and already so tall! Mark my words. One day, he will even cross Amitabh Bacchan’s height.”

There was animated laughter at this comment. I, however, wanted to get away from the scene, but a young boy with curly hair accosted me.

“Hey, you wanted those comics isn’t it? Today, I will take you to my friend who has this comic library in his home. You will love it. You can choose as many as you want,” he said excitedly; as if this meant a lot to him.

I smiled. Normally, I would have been elated at this news. But today was different. Today, I sought something else.

I noticed that everyone was now engaged in their own conversations. Without making a sound, I moved out of the open area and walked towards the staircase outside. I had a strong feeling where she would be now.

One by one, I now began climbing the stairs, even as my heart pounded in excitement.

I came to the first floor landing. It was deserted. Only a lanky old man, wearing a loose, white vest, was brushing his teeth outside his room. He looked at me, but did not smile; just continued his task. From inside his room, I could hear the muffled noise of news being read in Hindi. I walked on; climbing the next set of stairs with anticipation.

As I neared the end of the stairs leading to the terrace, I heard the dulcet tones of a woman’s voice. My heart skipped a beat. I knew that voice as well as I did myself! With trembling legs, I climbed the rest of the stairs and came to the terrace. The voice now became more distinct. It was a chant.

Om Suryaya Namah! Om Suryaya Namah! Om Suryaya Namah!

Om Suryaya Namah! Om Suryaya Namah! Om Suryaya Namah!

That chant. I had woken up to it innumerable times. I was gasping for breath and could literally hear my heart thumping madly. I followed the voice cautiously and came behind a half-constructed brick wall. Steadying myself, I peeped out.

There she was! Finally! Clad in a peacock blue gown, she was chanting the shlokas rhythmically. Her eyes were closed and were facing the morning sun. Her palms were folded and she chanted so dedicatedly as if her life depended on those words. Her hair was damp and every other feature of her face glowed radiantly. She looked pristine.

Om Suryaya Namah! Om Suryaya Namah! Om Suryaya Namah!

Om Suryaya Namah! Om Suryaya Namah! Om Suryaya Namah!

Each syllable of the chant seemed to permeate every cell of my body. I stood there and gaped at her hungrily. I wanted to drink in as much I could of the moment.

Finally, her chants stopped and she opened her eyes. She looked directly at me, calmly; as if she knew all along I would be here. She smiled.

My lips quivered and I couldn’t hold back any longer. Hot tears began leaking from my eyes before I could even realize it. I wanted to say so much, but couldn’t muster the courage. Taking in deep gulps, I cried, “Maa…!”


Somewhere deep within the lanes of Kolkata, a 30-year-old man woke up with a start.  


Saturday, January 3, 2015

Interview with ‘mythology-fiction writer’ Anuja Chandramouli

There is something really fascinating about Indian mythology. From as far as my memory goes, I had always been captivated with the deliciously complex yet spectacular stories it told. Being an avid reader from a young age, the likes of Chandamama and Amar Chitra Katha really helped me compound my interest in Indian mythology. As the years rolled by, this interest never died and I have always sought different mediums that can help me quench my thirst for it.

Fortunately, from the past few years, there has been a sudden splurge in books pertaining to Indian mythology. The Shiva trilogy, The Krishna Key, The Palace of Illusions, Ajaya, Asura, among a plethora of other books, has really helped spark a keen interest in Indian mythology among Indian readers. Another book in the same genre, ‘Arjuna- Saga of a Pandava Warrior-Prince’ by 30-year-old author Anuja Chandramouli, had created quite a buzz when it had released a couple of years back (it was listed by Amazon India as one of the top 5 books in Indian writing for the year 2013). The book, which retold the story of the epic Mahabharata from Arjuna’s perspective, met with a favourable response from readers.

And now, Anuja, who apart from being a passionate writer, is also a classical dancer and mother to two little girls, is back with her second offering: Kamadeva: The God of Desire. Very little is known about Kama, who is more renowned as the Indian version of the cupid than a standalone God in his own right. Thus, a book entirely dedicated to him should be rather interesting. In this interview, the talented author from Sivakasi, Tamil Nadu, tells us more about the book, shares her views on this current fad of Indian mythology books, elaborates a bit on her fears as a writer and much more. Read on!

Excerpts from the interview

Q. Why choose Kamadeva as the title character of your second book? Was it a deliberate attempt to go for a relatively lesser-known God after Arjuna?

Anuja Chandramouli: I think it would be safe to say that Kama chose me rather than the other way around. In my ramblings through mythology, he had turned up here and there but I had scarcely bothered with him. Then, all of a sudden when I was mulling over possible ideas for a second book, he showed up seemingly out of nowhere and captured my imagination. There was nothing deliberate or even logical about my choice but while writing his story, Kama became very real to me and remains a special someone in my life.

Originally, I had envisioned him as a Casonova who was irresistible in a hard – edged sort of way. But Kama turned out to be sweet, sensitive and a thorough gentleman. He is the sort of guy women learn to appreciate after giving up on the bad boys!

Q. How confident are you that his life would be interesting enough to hold readers’ attention for 300-odd pages?

Anuja Chandramouli: Kama is a fascinating, thoroughly loveable character and like me, I am confident that my readers will not be able to get enough of him. Since he is one of the lesser-known Gods, both mythology virgins as well as scholars will enjoy thumbing through my tome, delighting in the nuggets of forgotten lore that my research has thrown up as well as the creative license that went into shaping his elusive persona.

Q. Have you received any genuine feedback for the book thus far? In fact, on the same vein, do you listen to your readers’ feedback/criticism and advice keenly and keep it in mind before you attempt another piece of writing or do you just continue the way you feel is good for you?

Anuja Chandramouli: The feedback, I have received thus far has been very encouraging. Barring one critic who accused me of trying his patience, most of my other readers have opined that I have grown as a writer. Interestingly, more than one has encouraged me to try my hand at pure fiction.

Regarding the next part of the question, I value all the suggestions and criticism meted out by my readers. Some of them are so encouraging that I can literally live off their compliments, whereas others are unafraid to point out areas in my writing that could use improvement and some have suggested that the best thing for me to do in life would be to retire my pen. Be that as it may, I enjoy hearing from readers. That being said writing to me is my alternate reality and private domain. It is a world where I am the reigning monarch and my will is the supreme authority. Therefore, it is not a position I am anxious to relinquish.

Q. What research did you do for Kamadeva, about whom very little is known from Indian mythology books?

Anuja Chandramouli: The research process was exhaustive and there were hairy moments for me on account of the dearth of material on the God of Desire. At one point, I was worried that Kama existed solely for lovers to declaim that they had been struck by his infallible arrows and I might be better off writing about the famous thunderbolt that struck Michael Corleone and led to such tragic consequences for the Godfather in waiting.

Seriously, though I have an obsessive – compulsive side to me and never has it been better employed! Long story short, the Puranas which are so dear to me did not let me down and my imagination aided by intuition made up for the deficits. Finally, at the risk of sounding fanciful and more than a little delusional, Kama helped as well!

Q. There has been a recent splurge among Indian authors writing on Indian mythology. Does that add to the pressure? Do you feel that you can carve out your own loyal reader base from this particular market?

Anuja Chandramouli: Most people would consider it a weakness to suck at number work and market analysis the way I do but as far as I am concerned it is a huge asset because my lack of awareness about such things liberates me from the attendant pressures and insecurities. People are forever telling me that it was clever of me to cash in on the hottest trend in the literary world and I nod politely or smile blankly but it was hardly a carefully thought out move on my part. Indian mythology is something I have been passionate about even as a child and it is something I’ll remain hopelessly in love with long after it is no longer fashionable to do so.

Q. On the same subject, why do you feel there has been this sudden interest in Indian mythology books? The TV serials don’t seem to work, but the books certainly do.

Anuja Chandramouli: This craze for Indian mythology exists for the same reason that has propelled the rise of the selfie and other assorted pop – cultural phenomena. These things just are and there is no explaining them.

Personally, though, it is my belief that India has rediscovered its mythology because it represents the zenith of glory we once attained while holding out the hope that someday we will recapture everything that was the best of what it means to be Indian. In today’s climate when there is so much about our country that is insupportable, be it the lack of safety for women or children, the rampant intolerance or the ever increasing gulf between the haves and have-nots mythology offers a certain comfort and reassurance that is hard to resist.

Q. Where did your interest in Indian mythology come from? What was your inspiration for it?

Anuja Chandramouli: My interest in mythology sparked at an early age since it is a treasure trove of the best stories that have ever been compiled. Like everybody who loves reading, books or stories will tell you, the mark of a good story is that you don’t ever want it to end. Indian mythology is exactly like that fabled saga. You can devote a lifetime to plumbing its unfathomable depths and you will never be done unearthing the delicious secrets it has to offer. Familiar yarns never become boring because there is always some insight, some detail which was missed the previous time.

Q. What is the best book that you have read in this genre?

Anuja Chandramouli: This one is a no-brainer. It has to be Veda Vyasa’s Mahabaratha. There will never be another storyteller like him.

Q. Indian mythology is so vast and complex. What other topics do you wish to write on from it?

Anuja Chandramouli: Fortunately, there are so many avenues for me to explore in this genre. Like Kama, I am hoping many more interesting characters will turn up in my world of their own accord and spare me the hassle of figuring out what I want to write about next!

Q. Western countries adapt their mythology very prominently into films and similar modes of entertainment. India has perhaps the most comprehensive mythology there is. Why do you think we aren’t able to adapt better stories from our mythology for films and television? And if given a chance, which Indian mythological character’s story would you like to adapt into a film?

Anuja Chandramouli: Honestly, I have not really thought about it. Possibly it is a good thing that Bollywood has not bothered with mythology because it would definitely be a daunting undertaking and few of the current crop of directors will be up to it, talented though they are. As a purist, I shudder to think of some chiseled wannabe Greek – God with 20 pack abs playing Shiva like a preening peacock or a simpering starlet in clingy couture playing Draupadi with spray – on tan.

Q. Would you mind if you would be labeled as a ‘mythology- fiction writer’ or would you want to change that by writing books on different genres as well?

Anuja Chandramouli: I’ll admit that it gives me a kick to be referred to as a mythology – fiction writer, a new –age classicist or whatever but it is not how I view myself. My first book, Arjuna was an inspired retelling while Kamadeva is a twisted romance so I don’t feel confined to any particular genre. In future, it is my intention to dabble in horror, psychological thrillers, historical fiction or maybe even a tragi-comedy!

Q. You had said recently that ‘The entire process of writing a book is extremely lonely’. Can you elaborate? And can you also shed light on how do you motivate yourself through these phases of loneliness?

Anuja Chandramouli: When writing, I tend to zone out and it feels like I am cut off from everybody even if it is largely by choice. But the thing is even when you write mostly for yourself there is a desperate need to be read by others and in the early days, my biggest fear was that nobody would care about my stories, that I would be doomed to spend a lifetime carrying out inner monologues in my head without ever giving the words a voice. It is terrifying to feel that way and I get over it by giving myself a swift mental kick or stress – eating like there is no tomorrow.

It is the reason why I appreciate all the readers out there who not only care about the stuff I write but feel the urge to reach out and share with me the feelings my books evoke in them, never realizing that my need to hear them say so is so damnably great.

Q. So what are your future plans? Would the plans for your next book be based on the response you get for ‘Kamadeva’?

Anuja Chandramouli: My next book is about a mysterious Goddess and it will be out in 2015. I am very excited about it, since it is unlike anything I, or anybody else for that matter has ever written about her. It will be very interesting to see how it is received and I am dizzy with anticipation!