Thursday, February 26, 2015

On Memory, Writing and Learning Stillness

This post was written in the run up for the publication of the Dutch translation of Hotel Arcadia. The Dutch and English editions are now available for pre-orders from the links above. I wrote this current post for Hebban.nl so you can read it in translation here.  I had a quite an unusual childhood and it continues to impact my writing today, in terms of themes, styles and content. I hope the customary readers of the blog will find this post interesting. And perhaps new readers will get a little insight into my life and my writing.


One of my earliest memories is of sitting near a bonfire, amidst mounds of snow, watching Tibetan soldiers clean their weapons.  Even now, in my mind’s eye, I can see the eerie brightness that snow creates at night, the orange-red licks of the flames, and the glint of metal against the olive green of the uniforms. Over the fire, a massive petrol can had been repurposed for a cauldron into which all leftovers were chucked, and its perpetual bubbling yielded the most delicious ‘everything’ soup.  And most of all, I remember the terror and sorrow, although I only understood it as an adult.

The year was 1971, and the soldiers were part of a specialised unit of the Indian army that my father led. They were heading to war and many – and I have never stopped missing them – never returned.

Another memory rises. From later in the decade. Of a bamboo hut with dirt floors and a freshly dug snake trench.  At night, I would peer through the green mesh that formed the walls, watching for the wolves and foxes that came to forage in the garden.  When we came home from playing, my mother would make us stand beyond the snake trench and empty out our pockets before letting us into the shack. With no toyshop for miles, wildlife – often of the creepy-crawly kind – tended to be our playthings.

Much has changed since those early days of living in cantonment towns and remote border posts.  By the time I entered my teens, my father had changed his job, albeit still within the Indian government. Instead of isolated villages on the Indo-Tibetan border, we started moving to places like Islamabad, New York, Windhoek.

Yet some things remained the same as the family grew, and moved. My parents were always most excited about travelling, exploring, learning, and these are loves they passed on to me. I remember learning basic Swahili by candlelight with my father in that bamboo shack because he was being prepared for a posting that never materialised. And then doing the same in light of a storm lantern for Urdu, and then with greater difficulty, for Xhosa.

For many years now, I have travelled on my own, although my parents get perhaps more excited about my trips than me.

I used to think that those early days had been left behind, that I had outgrown those early memories. But increasingly my writing goes back to those impassive, kind faces that I loved and lost as a child. I want to know those lives, if only in my fiction, and learn about what they loved, wanted, feared. And I want to understand where they found that silent, unending well of courage.

A final memory. I am five and the Tibetans are teaching me to remain still. They are soldiers and monks so the lesson is two-fold, for physical survival and spiritual progress. I protest that stillness is frustrating, difficult, may be even futile. They tell me I can only master the enemy, the world, and myself when I learn to be still.  In my writing, and my life, I am still trying. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

On Hotel Arcadia: Disaster Can Bring Out the Best In Us

As many of you know, my new novel Hotel Arcadia will be published in March (bit of a sales plug, it can be pre-ordered here with a discount off the cover price). The Dutch edition of the novel is planned for the same time and can be pre-ordered here. It is my very first translation into Dutch so am particularly excited. This week I wrote a blogpost at Hebban.nl (translated into Dutch - my language skills don't stretch that far!) about what inspired the book and what I hope I have achieved. Below is the English version just in case: 


I have studied and analysed political violence for over twenty years and have long been aware that ‘bad guys,’ ‘heroes, and ‘victims’ are never quite simply so.  I have always been struck by how so many of the people who survive, even live in, violent situations are also amongst the most generous, compassionate, hospitable, and kind.  Through Hotel Arcadia, I wanted to explore this amazing human contradiction where our best qualities seem to go hand in hand with the worst living situations. 

In every violent, awful situation, the heroes – in my experience at least - are ordinary people doing extraordinary things. They don’t want to be heroes, or even think of themselves as such, but given extreme circumstances, find amazing strength, courage and self-lessness.  For Hotel Arcadia, I drew on these everyday heroes to create the character of Abhi.  He has never wanted heroics, has walked away from any chance of it, and created a comfortable life. However, when he is forced by circumstances, he rises instinctively to the challenge, motivated not by glory or reward but vast compassion.

At the same time, with Sam, I wanted to put a thoroughly modern woman on the pages, and see how she copes with the pressures of balancing career, love, ambition.  I also wanted to write about the women I know and love – the ones who seem to be towers of strength and yet terribly fragile all at once; the ones who must juggle all the myriad aspects of the modern life.  And of course, I wanted to explore how love rarely follows boy-meets-girl, fantasy wedding, dream home, babies pattern. I wanted to explore modern love in all its messiness, where it must play tug-of-war with all the other things we want, love, and pursue. In that sense, Sam is the character closest to my heart: she cares too much. About everything. 

Of course, there were other ideas I wanted to explore in this book. I wanted to investigate how we look at violence. We see so much of it on our screens, between news, films, video games that I wonder if we are able to distinguish between these anymore.

Finally, as a former journalist, this book is very personal. How do we cover war and violence? Is bearing witness enough? As a journalist, I always struggled to balance the distance required for reportage with my worry that I should have been helping instead.  I stopped being a journalist because I could not retain the distance that was demanded from me.


As a novelist, Hotel Arcadia, was my opportunity to explore this moral dilemma more intimately. I still don’t have an answer for myself, but am glad Sam and Abhi found theirs.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Where Books Go: Crowdsourcing the Travels of Hotel Arcadia (and Other Books)

So I had a crazy idea this morning and am reaching out to see if you can help. It hasn't been terribly well thought through but it just feels great to launch right into it. It's a crowdsourcing plan to figure out where books go and who reads them. It isn't about reviews or reactions, but a simpler - and for me - a little fantasy I have clung to since childhood. 

You can probably guess that I was a rather bookish child - or a kitabi-keeda (bookworm), as was the term in my family. I also had a hyperactive imagination which meant I got into constant trouble for daydreaming (letting the milk boil over while I was 'watching' it was a particularly regular crime), had regular and terrifying nightmares (though I blame my father's military exploits for that one), and came up with way too many odd, whimsical ideas.

Early on I realised that the books I read - or at least the stories in them - came from far off places in the world - Mumbai, Delhi, London, Paris, New York, Moscow.  I wondered constantly if the writer knew I had their work, if they knew I held a piece of them. And yes, I was pretty clear quite early on that a book was a piece of the writer, perhaps even a little shiny bit of their heart, a visual reference I probably picked up from Mera Naam Joker

In those pre-internet days, and growing up in a small tiny town in India, it was pretty impossible to find out much about authors, or to get in touch with them. And even if I had tracked down an address, my pocket money wouldn't have gotten far enough for the postage to America or Soviet Union or Britain. Especially not with trying to buy more books at the same time. 

Regardless, I wrote many letters to my favourite authors, in the back of my school notebooks, or in the many diaries I started and never filled, and in my head. In some precocious cases, I offered them advice - mostly about not having sappy women/girls, or expanding parts for the characters I loved, or writing me into the narrative (an early recognition of the lack of nonwhite characters and stories, I guess).  In those letters, I explained how I hid under the bed to read because my grandmother worried I didn't play enough, that I covered them in brown paper to resemble text books so I could sneakily lose myself in the pages during a boring school lesson, and how much I loved the weight of them in tucked into the sash of my dress. But for most part, I wrote the letters just to tell the writers how much I loved the stories, and in doing so, let them know that at least one little piece of their heart was safe - and cherished. With me. 

This is why I always wondered about the people who pick up and read my books. Not only for feedback and reviews, but those little glimpses into their lives and homes. To wonder if they read the books in the park, or by seaside, or tucked into a favourite chairs. In my mind, each reader is a story, and stories are always magic. So I am constantly wondering how to share in a little bit of that magic.

Fortunately, internet - and social media - have made that magic a little more possible. I realised earlier in the week, when I received the first copies of Hotel Arcadia, that I may be able to figure out where some of the copies would go. I posted a snap I took at my publisher's office, and later from home as we toasted a copy with bubbly.  And this morning, I logged on to twitter to be informed that one of the first - if not the very first - review copies had arrived. Dave Hardy had kindly posted a photograph on twitter for me:

Suddenly, someone I don't know in real life, and have only recently met on twitter, had given me a little glimse into their life. The edgy, night city-scape backdrop to their twitter account, the monochrome bed-linen in the photograph, and the careful, thoughtful framing of the correspondence - the addresses of all concealed, but the compliments slip just peeking out - evoked an entire life and character in my mind. And to me, that's magic! 

And from that comes this rather whimsical idea. I am starting a hashtag for twitter and instagram: #wherebooksgo. I will also use it for my FB page posts to upload, RT and share photographs that readers send me, and hopefully at the end of it, there will be a big shiny, magical, red heart that all of us share - one that holds the magic of reading, and writing, stories. 

So may I please request anyone reading Hotel Arcadia to please send in a pic with the #wherebooksgo hashtag? Tag me or the book and I'll find it. If you want to share another book, by another author, simply tag them instead (makes it easier to find).

If you are author, please feel free to use the hashtag for your own books and readers. It would be so wonderful to create a big celebratory magic that comes from sharing stories and our love for them.