Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Doodler of Dimashq – Kirthi Jayakumar

“The moon had been appeased. The sea grew gentle again. The butterflies danced in the space between the two. Peace had been made.”

Ameenah, a child bride from Dimashq, or Damascus, yearns for peace her entire life. However, peace is as elusive as a little bird on a tree just beyond her reach. Apprehensive at first when she marries Fathi and moves to Aleppo, she finds happiness with him, his parents and his grandmother, who she “would make my own, cherishing that bond dear till my last breath.”

Fathi keeps his promise to Majid, her brother, and sends Ameenah to school. However, Ameenah has a special gift, the art of doodling, of bleeding ink over the sheet in ornate lines and intricate designs. Through her doodles, she attempts to make sense of the violence that is soon to become a constant part of her life as she gets embroiled in the Syrian war, losing the ones she loves most in life. From then on, it is a constant struggle to use her doodles to give solace to children who have felt the sorrow of loss.

It is easy to fall in love with Fathi – he is gentle, understanding and kind, a lover of beautiful poetry with which he woos his child bride. Above all, he has Tete, his grandmother, “as old as the hills” with “that timeless quality that wisdom had – ever silent, but present, always reliable but never seeking to be sought.” When Tete tells Ameenah to pursue her hobby, and do whatever she wants, our hearts melt at her understanding of the young girl’s passion.

“You have a heart; you have a voice. You have a story that you keep adding to, everyday.”

Ameenah’s life is buffeted by the winds of destruction as the war in Syria continues its killing spree. However, she comforts herself by saying, “Wounds have a way of settling, even if only enough to let you function and move on with life. Nothing changed in the world around me. Life was spiralling on, like a feather caught in the wind, being blown about this way and that.”

When another brutal blow orphans Ameenah all over again, little Maryam comes into her life. “Do two alones make a together?” She turns into the one bright spark that urges Ameenah to stay strong, as resilient as a creeper that bends, meanders, dances and waves about to fill the spaces that she is forced into.

It is now that Ameenah begins to doodle pieces of her heart that had “names, faces and stories behind them”.  She throws herself into the task she has chalked out for herself, “the dream of being able to bridge grief and peace of mind with doodles”.

How simply Kirthi Jayakumar drops the name of Rami at various junctures in the book, till he lands up in Aleppo, looking for the girl who doodled to keep peace in the middle of war. The doodler strives to find her own life, and love, in a brave, new world. Is the war finally over for her? Will she be able to follow her dream to tell the world what destruction looked like, and how she had left her doodles behind at Dimashq, at Haleb and finally at Latakia?

Kirthi Jayakumar has a poignant voice that plays on one’s heart like a lyre, soft and serene at places, but which suddenly rises into a crescendo, creating raw sounds that wound with the graphic images that go with them. She writes beyond her age, a wise soul who is rich in experiences and compassionate beyond words.  

“The storm does nothing to you until you are in the eye of it – for it is then that the calm settles, and you see the destruction it brought in its wake, and you will see the destruction it would leave as it leaves.”

Thursday, September 28, 2017

A Window to her Dreams by Harshali Singh

“She stands at the window every night, a bystander to the life that surrounds her.”

The haveli with the hundred doors, a silent sentinel that has stood over the decades, speaks of despair absorbed, heated discussions, reminiscences, of a family that “has gone through its own trials and tribulations.”

The head of the Sharma family, Arun, is the breadwinner, passive and resigned to his fate. His wife, Uma, is the real strength behind the family, full of gumption and emotional fortitude, as she protects her offspring in various ways. “He handled the world outside the wall and she, within.”  

Aruna, Bhavya and Charu are born in quick succession, but it is only when Dheeraj is born that Uma feels usefully productive, for she has produced the heir apparent. However, then comes God’s gift to Uma as Etti, Fanny and Gina make their appearance.

Aruna, the eldest, separates from her first husband, the cruel Rafi after his “never-ending onslaughts on her persona”.  The window of her dreams, (“it was a part of her”) is her own corner, a swirly grill in blue, where she had woven dreams of a soul mate. She marries Bhuvan Thakur, a safe and steady man, “to validate herself to a judgmental world”.

Bhavya is “an epitome of uniqueness and diversity”, and the sisters have gone through an ordeal which pushes them apart. When they meet again, they are both apprehensive, “unsure of how to deal with the water under the bridge… and yet not.”

Harshali Singh writes with feeling of the various vicissitudes that the exuberant family goes through, as Gaurav, Bhavya’s colleague, enjoys “the affectionate bonhomie, the lack of formality, the strange warmth and proximity of this large family. He could sense undercurrents, but they were buried.” And that is exactly what the book is about, undercurrents between Aruna and Bhuvan, between Arun and Dheeraj over the latter’s career choices, between the sisters, and over wise little Charu, who sees more than she actually sees.

Aruna, who carries the baggage of her first marriage, is like a fragile flower. Just as she begins to bloom again, her past threatens to catch up with her. Bhuvan treats her with gentleness, this beautiful girl “one minute transparent like glass, the next instant an opaque mirror.

The characterization is subtle. Bhavya, the warrior princess; the troubled young Dheeraj who “had plans to make and dreams to catch”; Charu, “wraith-like, with enormous, beautiful, silvery eyes” who was born with “a gift and a curse”; the stoic Uma, who makes difficult choices despite her bleeding heart; Suresh, Arun’s childhood friend who is part of the family now and Arun, whose forbidding exterior shields the love he bears for his family. Rafi comes across as the villain of the piece as his presence hovers across the book, a reminder of the malevolent effect he has had on the vulnerable Aruna.

Harshali Singh’s imagery brings the story to life. “To her, the blue swirls represented waves in the sea or a soft zephyr bestowing a feeling of openness and beauty. Transporting the person who stood at the window to any imaginary world that only they had a gateway to.” These words bring the cover image of the book to life, suggesting that much thought has gone into its choice.

As the blurb suggests, does Aruna take control of her life and save her marriage? Or does her past shackle her all over again? Do read ‘A Window to Her Dreams’ to find out.
 I received a copy from Writersmelon in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

 Questions to the author, Harshali Singh

 1. Would you term your protagonist, Aruna, a strong woman? Do give your reasons, either way.

2. What made you decide upon the haveli as a character in the book? I think that was a brilliant touch.

3. Who is your favourite character in the book? For me, it would have to be a tie between Bhuvan and Uma.

Thank you, Harshali, for an interesting read! Here's to many more books!

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

A Warrior Woman For All Seasons

Do people get better at what they do as the years go by? Does a warrior woman get more mettlesome as more and more thunderbolts are thrown her way? If so, Mrs. Nalini Chandran must be one fierce warrior, at the age of eighty!

When did it all begin?

Did it start when she was a young girl, travelling around the country, finding wonder in everything she saw? Her father was a Railways employee, and he enjoyed taking his family around by train. Nalini and her brothers looked forward to these journeys, and they watched the world whiz by as they sampled the train food thalis that changed with every station they crossed. Her mother was the disciplinarian, who tamed her children with love, but her father was the one Nalini hero-worshipped, as he guided her into reading the classics, Shakespeare, the Bible and beautiful poetry.

Nalini learnt Kathakali for seven years at a time when girls were not encouraged to go on stage and make spectacles of themselves, as a few envious souls put it. She gave several shows in Mumbai, blossoming out into a dancer of rare repute.

Her first major battle against the world came when she fell in love with Eashwar, a boy who was her closest friend, an ally who understood her. His only crime was that he belonged to a family of slightly lower standing in society. However, love knows no barriers, and despite stiff opposition from her grandmother and her aunts, Nalini went ahead and married the love of her life. Her parents stood by her, but her grandmother took seventeen years to reconcile with her favourite, but headstrong granddaughter.

Eighteen years of marital bliss later, and three daughters who were deeply loved, Nalini had to face the unkindest cut of all, the death of her beloved husband, Eashwar, at the age of forty-two. She was a young widow of thirty-nine, and her daughters were still studying, the youngest one just seven at the time. Just a year ago, Eashwar had suggested that she start a school of her own in the tiny town of Thrissur, in Kerala. He was due for premature retirement from the Army himself, and had plans to do poultry farming and live a relaxed life with his beloved family. Unfortunately, Fate had other plans.

So, this young widow stood strong in a town that was, at that time, still conservative enough to throw brickbats at her. While there were a number of people who supported her, there were the diehards who condemned her ‘mummy-daddy’ school, mainly because she believed that, while the mother tongue was absolutely essential, every child had to learn English as well, if he or she had to survive in a world in which barriers opened up if there was a common language.

Many were the times when she had young men standing with black flags at her gate, protesting in violent syllables, even as they struggled to brave the heat of the sun. It is then that the humanitarian in her would take over, and she would saunter to the gate with glasses of cool sambharam (lassi). “Here you go!” she would smile. “Quench your thirst so that you may have the strength to continue shouting slogans.” Needless to say, she won over a number of them with that one gesture, reminding one of the well-loved quote by Abraham Lincoln: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

Thus, the warrior woman battled on, living for her school, turning discipline into a catchword, busy in creating students who were not bookworms, but true citizens of the world. She coined a slogan that exemplified her school. “Let the peal of harmony be the appeal of all religions!” This was something she believed in implicitly, as all religions were given equal importance by her. The school choir could burst into melody at any given moment, and render bhajans, carols, mapla pattu (Muslim songs) and patriotic songs at the drop of a hat.

One would have thought that this grand lady could have rested on her laurels at the age of seventy, ten years ago. However, an unexpectedly vicious storm was awaiting her, and once again she had to take up the cudgels, this time to fight for her own school, the institution that she had built out of her blood, sweat and tears. It is a fact that beginnings are always tough and take a lot of strain and upheaval; however, once an enterprise is thriving and running on its own steam, there are countless usurpers who are ready to take credit for its success.

This is exactly what Nalini had to go through. One fine day, she found that a handful of people, whom she had full trust in, had turned against her, and wanted to oust her from her own school. This time, she was badly hurt, almost broken, but her indomitable will and the support from her true friends came to her aid. Besides, “this crazy old teacher”, as she often referred to herself, must have done something good, for without exception, almost her entire band of teachers, the parents of her students, and many of the townsfolk stood staunchly by her, and kept her afloat. Maybe, it was a homage to the way she had nurtured all their children and brought them up as young adults well able to stand on their own feet.

Today, at the grand age of eighty years young, with a slew of awards under her belt, Nalini hopes that her battles are behind her. Her beloved school is considered one of the top ICSE/ISC schools in the country. Her principles and her methodology are being followed by many other schools, and around fourteen schools in Thrissur itself have principals who have been trained by her, no small feat by any standards.

What is it that keeps her going even now? Maybe, it is an amalgam of many beautiful qualities: her will power which does not allow her to give up, her optimism (“Remember the tea-kettle; it is always up to its neck in hot water, yet it still sings”), her amazing sense of humour which allows her to find joy in the tiniest of things, and of course, her multi-faceted personality that makes her excel at poetry, drama, dance and choreography, academics and sports.

But above all this, it is her innate goodness that makes her so well loved by all. This is exemplified in one of her favourite poems, titled ‘Abou Ben Adhem’ by Leigh Hunt, where the moral is beautifully clear. "I pray thee, then,/Write me as one that loves his fellow men." For that is what Nalini Miss or Nalini Valiyamma (big mother) does best of all! May her tribe increase!

The Tournament:
When a Greek pirate ship sails in to loot the wealth of the Cholas, it is brutally defeated by the navy and forced to pay a compensation. A  payment that includes a twelve-year girl, Aremis. Check out this new historical novel Empire ( with a warrior woman, Aremis, at the heart of the novel.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Interpreting the World

The Piano #FridayFotoFiction

The unearthly music echoed around.
“She’s playing the piano again!” breathed Namita, rapturously.
  A proficient piano player, Ujwala had performed across the country. However, after her beloved husband passed away, she had locked away the piano along with the love in her heart.
“Ujwala, we long to hear you play again,” pleaded her friends. She had shaken her head.
Two years flew by, but no music had echoed in the cottage. Till today.
Ujwala welcomed the group in, as the music played on.
“Who is the magical artiste?” asked Namita, surprised.
“How well she interprets the world through her music!” added Annie.
Ujwala led them in. They gazed at the delicate girl whose long fingers tripped across the keys.
“Naina!” called Ujwala softly.
The music ceased; the girl turned, smiling.
“How well you play!” Annie suddenly stopped. Shocked, they gazed at Naina’s beautiful but sightless eyes.

The Piano #FridayFotoFiction

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Snowbound by Olivier Lafont

What can Adam and Zach do to revive Christmas? Do read Snowbound by Olivier Lafont to find out.

Print Length: 339 pages
Publication Date: May 18, 2017
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
Language: English
Genre: Young Adult Adventure/Fantasy 

Christmas is dying.

The last Santa Claus had triplets who each inherited a portion of his father’s power, and that split is now tearing apart the soul of Christmas.

Niccolo Vecchio, the eldest, has fortified the North Pole into a citadel of ice and metal.

Santini, the middle brother, is in hiding somewhere in the Mediterranean.

The youngest brother, Niccolo Piccolo, is raising legions to reclaim his inheritance.

Two of the triplets will have to renounce their claim in the next forty-eight hours, or this Christmas will be the last one ever.

And it’s up to Adam, underachieving teenager sub-ordinaire, and his brand new jock bully Zach to make that happen…

It would be great if you can add this book to your TBR

Olivier Lafont is a French author, screenplay writer, and actor. His novel ‘Warrior’ was published by Penguin Random House, and was shortlisted for the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize. He has just released his new contemporary romance novel 'Sweet Revenge' exclusively on Kindle. 'Purgatory: The Gun of God' is a fantasy novelette published in South Africa. 

Lafont has written a number of feature film scripts before. The first film he wrote opened at the Toronto Film Festival and went on to win seven awards at film festivals worldwide. 

As an actor Lafont has acted in Hollywood and Indian films, in TV serials, and in over 80 television commercials. He acted in ‘3 Idiots’, one of India's all-time blockbuster hits, the critically-acclaimed ‘Guzaarish’, and the Lifetime film ‘Baby Sellers’, amongst other films. 

Lafont graduated with two degrees in acting and writing from Colgate University, USA, with academic distinction.

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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Yours To Love Yours To Take

Yours To Love Yours To Take by Reshma Ranjan

A Heartwarming Saga of Love and Sacrifice

Print Length: 202 pages
Publication Date: July 21, 2017
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
Language: English
Available on Kindle Unlimited 
Genre: Romance 

As if losing her parents and her voice in a childhood accident wasn’t cruel enough, Anita Batra now has to come to terms with her twin’s death and help her sister’s partner get a new lease in life. 

Adopted by the Verma Clan after his parents died in an accident, Dr. Salim Verma finally finds love and a chance to be happy only to lose it in an accident he himself survives. 

When fate strikes a final blow and brings two strangers together, Salim can’t help but punish Anita and make her tread through the hell he himself was in, while all Anita wants is to help her sister’s partner start afresh, no matter what the cost. 

Will Salim ever be able to ignore Anita’s resemblance to his dead girlfriend and fall in love with her instead? Will Anita be able to reveal the real Salim hiding behind the monster? Will they be able to embrace their tumultuous attraction for each other despite their terrible start? 

Yours To Love Yours To Take is a heartwarming saga of love and sacrifice that will reinstate your belief that love conquers all. 

It would be great if you can add this book to your TBR.

Here is a passionate romantic who loves literatureand has created many happy ending in her imagination, for every movie or book with a sad conclusion.

She soon began to create her own characters and situations, creating plenty of romances and happy endings to satisfy her imagination. "But for my laziness and diffidence," says Reshma "I would have penned umpteen stories of unexpected pairs meeting and falling in love, overcoming troubles and hurdles to unite for a lifetime."

A voracious reader, Reader, Reshma is a poet as well, and feels that she would be blessed as a writer if she could bring a happy content sigh on the readers lips.

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Frankly Speaking - An Evening of Immersive Theatre

Script: Kirthi Jayakumar   Direction: Samyuktha PC

Performed by: Keerthi Pandian, Kirthi Jayakumar and Aparnaa Nagesh

It was a performance that left its audience with goosebumps, a performance in which the stunned lookers-on played a pivotal part, as, in a dim-lit room, to the background of staccato gunshots, three young women played out a macabre repertoire of genocide in various war-ravaged countries in the world. As they spoke, intoned, sang and wailed, the horror of violence and the anguish of death were keenly felt in every heart. At intervals, however, the quotes of Anne Frank acted like a balm, much akin to an oasis in the midst of tremendous turmoil.

Kirthi Jayakumar is much like Anne Frank herself, as she strives to come to terms with a world where "men have lost their reason". Maybe, this is why she put so much of herself into 'Frankly Speaking', a touching piece of writing which was directed by Samyuktha PC, and staged on June 12th (Anne Frank's birthday), at the Goethe Institut. It was staged once again at the Lady Andal Auditorium. Both performances wrung the hearts of the audience, as they immersed themselves in the lives of the protagonists from different countries. 

It was an honour to speak to Kirthi about the actual process of writing that went behind this amazing performance.

1.      What role does Anne Frank play in your life? You have been party to many lives, histories and biographies across the world. Why did you choose this young girl and base your moving narrative on her?
Anne Frank has been an enduring presence since the time I turned thirteen. I read her diary first in grade nine, when I had just turned thirteen. At the time, it seemed amazing and that's about all. But each year, since, something made me return to the diary every year. With time, I began connecting the diary with things that I saw happening around me. Each year, the diary sounded and felt different, and meant new things. I suppose in the process, Anne has lodged herself into my subconscious.

2.      Tell us about the actual writing process that gave rise to this powerful piece of poetry. When did the idea of dramatizing it strike you?
I was on a Skype call with Drew Kahn, the founder of the Anne Frank Project in Buffalo University, under the SUNY system at NYU. In his project, as a teacher of theatre, he gets his students to internalise Anne and her story and produce pieces that are responses to her. After the call, I sat from 11:30 PM to 2:00 AM and wrote out the whole play without a second glance at what I had written. The next morning, I wake up to this piece and I'm astounded because I couldn't believe that this was what had come out of the exercise. I showed it to Aparna Nagesh, who is a dear friend and a fellow Sagittarius - so as is wont to happen to anyone born under that sign, she jumped in with both feet. We went to Samyuktha and she was amazing - the rest, is as you see!

3.      How did you prepare for your roles? (All three of you) Was it a stringent pre-course to the actual performance?
Samyuktha PC is much more than a director. She is incredibly humane. She welcomed and celebrated the fact that the play, the lines and the emotions meant personal things to each of us. She gave us amazing impetus to explore the lines, to internalise genocide and its occurrence, to do research and to be there for each other. Each day, we spent time on the facts of each genocide, and I would share stories of real women from each of the conflicts. That helped us internalise. On the day of the play for both shows, I ate half of what I normally eat so that the Hunger my characters felt real. I wore clothes one size looser with folds so I would feel the heaviness. Through the journey, I wrote letters to Anne, telling her whatever came up each day.

4.      Before the start of the performance, when people were walking into a dim-lit room, you were there, yet not there, veiled in silence. You did not speak, or respond or even acknowledge the crowd. Was this part of the pre-course?
Absolutely. The idea was to maintain character and to send to the audience a powerful message. There are three women who have ears only for the war sounds, and yet, around them, people are chatting, talking, giggling and going about their daily lives. Just the way we handle life, even as atrocities continue, the world over.

5.      How closely did you work with the director? Did you all accede to her suggestions or was this a fluid integration of thoughts and ideas?
Samyuktha is easily the most amazing human being I know. The depth of passion for her craft, her warmth and her empathy still sends me chills. Nearly everything you saw us do was her brainchild. Where we had ideas, Sam had us articulate, and then, she heard us out completely. We would discuss the feasibility and logic of it all. I don't think any idea went unheard or unincorporated. Sam is exceptionally democratic and inclusive, and that came through.

6.      What is the significance of the names of all the fictional characters, who, yet, had their moorings in reality?
All the women are named according to their cultures, but their initials are AF, like Anne Frank's initials were. Every first name means peace in some form, or mindfulness / mindful thought.

7.      The refrain that appeared at the end of every narrative added to the poignancy of the lives of the women. Was this a conscious effort, or did it flow onto the narrative on its own?
I think it was a subconscious line, because every survivor I have spoken to, talked about how the ones punished were punished for an identity, or an ethnicity, and that was truly not a sin, at all. And since genocide is so calculated, a part of the process is to render it invisible. So before you know it, it's over. Thus the refrain, "But it ends, ends before it begins... for the punished ones have no sins, except for being Tutsi or Yazidi or Rohingya, or Muslim or Black or Tamil or Arab or Mayan Ixil.

8.      Do tell us about the songs in the performance. How did you pick them up?
The songs were a very interesting inclusion. We originally wanted to establish ethnicity through the headscarves and headdresses. But in one rehearsal, I brought to the team a song by the Mayan Ixil community. Soon, I remembered a song I had recorded by a Syrian refugee in Vienna last year, with her permission to listen and learn and sing it. That was part of the ensemble too. Then Kothbiro came up - it was a DholuoRwanda song from the film The Constant Gardener. During one of the rehearsals when I was doing the lines, I sang it subconsciously. Finally, seeing three poems with a song, we decided to even it out with a song for one other poem, when I found a beautiful Palestinian lullaby, Ya sitti, which we learned.

9.      The voice of Anne Frank in a dim room made her come alive throughout the evening. What is your hope for a world, war-ravaged and violence-ridden?
I hope every day for a return to peace. And I'm sure that it's not difficult because, like Anne says, "In spite of everything, I still believe that people are good at heart."

10.  Women hold up one-half of the world, and yet, they suffer most in a patriarchal world. Will there come a time when this imbalance will be rectified?  Do you see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, and a world in which people are still good at heart?
I wish the horrific crimes against women would end. I suppose it is a function of patriarchy that operates on a greater scale during war. It's something I try to feel hopeful about when it comes to dreaming of a changed future, but I also feel upset at how rampant it is, and thereby how stifling its occurrence is to the process of peace.

11.  How different will it be to perform on a larger stage as compared to a small, dim-lit room? Will you make any changes to the narrative or the performance in any way?
Having done it twice, I can honestly tell you that each experience is chillingly different... in the last round, I found myself choking up on each poem. It's like opening up a wound all over again and feeling it bleed! But you also see so many people around you imbibing the truth, and that helps stitch up that wound.

And as she paused, I wondered at the heart of this young girl whose actions live up to Anne's joyful words, "How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world."