Six degrees of Social Media!

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My cook sent me a friend request on Facebook the other day.

It was her all right. There was no mistaking that round, smiling face, red bindi plastered on the forehead and brightly coloured saree. The message ominously said “Shakti D wants to be friends with you.”

Below the friend request was a lineup of people Facebook thought I should befriend. They included my plumber, Acquaguard service technician and the cab agency owner I hire taxis from regularly.

As I stared at the screen in disbelief, I realized that six degrees of separation was not an abstract idea anymore. It had become a rather grim reality, in my case.

Now it’s one thing being connected to Kevin Bacon through someone or the other you may know in life. I mean, Footloose is one of my favourite movies. I’ve practically grown up watching it and drooling over Bacon and his dance moves. But the rest, I have a problem with!

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not me being snobbish and class conscious. I’m an intensely private person and the only thing I share with the world at large is my writing. It’s bad enough that my family and relatives have invaded my online space and I have to befriend them on various social media platforms and read and dutifully like their Whatsapp messages (read spam) on a daily basis so that they don’t get offended. Relationship quotes, inspirational sayings, funny videos and memes. Bring it on. My phone is struggling to function with the burden of the those.

But when I get a message and a picture of an ugly-as-hell bouquet of flowers from an unfamiliar number that says: “Didi, how do you like my latest flower arrangement? You can buy it from my shop” I have a problem. I mean, I’ve just ordered flowers from the guy once and he is already on my Whatsapp list of contacts behaving as though he were an old friend!

Delete. Delete. Delete.

Block. Block. Block.

As for my cook, I’m still wondering what to do with that invitation. I really don’t want to offend her. My life depends on her turning up to work at the right time and putting hot food on the table for the family. If I jeopardise that relationship, my life will be turned upside down. Literally.

I could live without my relatives but not my cook.

Kevin Bacon can wait. I will make do with Shakti D for the time being.

Unfaithfully Yours!

 

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Of late, everyone’s favourite topic seems to be infidelity. At coffee meets, book clubs, lunch parties – after a bit of polite conversation, an awkward pause and then, the inevitable. The latest scoop on who’s dating who, and who doesn’t know. There’s just no escaping it.

Just the other day, I was hungrily tucking into a dim sum lunch at a popular Chinese eatery when in walked a couple I knew very well. Desperately trying not to choke on my sui mai, I downed copious quantities of Coke in a hurry. You see, the reason for my discomfort was that “the couple”, in question, were not married to each other and I knew both their spouses extremely well. They even had two teenagersbetween them.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m no prude but I wished, at that very moment, that I was dining elsewhere.

“The couple”, however, did not seem to be bothered. Politely nodding their heads at us, the two seated themselves in a quiet corner, as far as possible from the rest of the diners. I marvelled at their quiet confidence, arrogance almost. Not worried that they would be spotted or that word would get back to their homes. “Is infidelity on the rise in Gurgaon?” my friend whispered across the table. “People are so open about these things these days.”

I shrugged. I really don’t know whether more and more people are allowing themselves to be carried away by reckless adventures of the body and soul in the Millennium City. What I do know, for a fact, is that it’s certainly easier to do so. Have a reckless adventure that is!

A certain man (middle aged by now), wherever he is, willcertainly agree with me.

Fifteen years ago, when I first moved here, all that Gurgaon had was empty spaces. Wide, open, empty spaces with or without green. A few condominiums and a handful of shops selling vegetables and groceries. One or two hole-in-the-joint eateries whose owners actually heaved a sigh of relief every time you told them you wanted the food packed to take home. No fancy malls, restaurants, lounges or pubs to hang around in. No place to have intimate dates, really. Just your own home or outside, in the lap of Nature.

Every evening I would rush home from work, make a pot of tea and sit in one of the two balconies that our charming little flat possessed. With not many buildings blocking my view, on a clear day I could see right till the airport. There was so much to take in. I loved it.

One such evening as I was getting ready to pour myself a cuppa, my husband yelled out, asking me to come to the balcony immediately. Slightly annoyed, I shouted back saying I would, in a minute, as soon as I had poured a cup for myself. He yelled out again, a strange urgency in his voice that I hadn’t heard before. “Now!”

I rushed out, my tea forgotten for the moment.

And, I will never forget the sight that greetedmy eyes, for as long as I live! A man was hanging from the balcony of the flat, adjacent to ours. Yes, you heard me right! He was hanging, clutching onto the railings, for dear life. A sheer drop of ten floors below him. Though he had his back to us, I could make out that he was quite young (possibly in his twenties) and well-dressed. Expensive shirt and trousers.

He was facing the inside of the flat. His head bent so that someone inside the flat would not be able to see him. Unless, of course, they came out onto the balcony. Sensing movement behind him, he jerked his head round and saw us gaping at him. Trying to look as nonchalant as possible (as though he was taking a stroll in the park), he went back to what he was doing, gripping the railings, looking down nervously once in a while. In those few minutes, I could make out that he was really scared. I mean, who wouldn’t be. One false move and you are history!

“Should we tell the security guard?” my husband whispered, sounding worried. “He may slip and fall.” I agreed. I didn’t want it on our conscience. We rushed down to inform the guard but by the time we got to the bottom of our block of flats and looked up, the man had vanished. Into thin air!

Poor, unfortunate soul who had risked his life for the love of a married woman. Whose husband had walked in on her! Just think, how much easier their lives might have been, had this romance played out today, in modern day Gurgaon. So many places to go to. To disappear to. Why, they might have even been eating dim sums next to me!

Whoever said falling in love was easy. Falling to your death, however, is another matter!

 

 

 

 

The Long and the Short of It: Writing Short Stories

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“Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.”

(Neil Gaiman)

Over the years, I’ve experimented with many different forms of writing but the short story has always eluded me. Always by accident, never by design. In the light of recent developments, I view this as a shame.

I have recently finished writing a collection of short stories and I find that writing short fiction is hugely enjoyable, at least for me! It holds a lot of promise. I would actually go so far as to say that short stories are, perhaps, the most challenging thing I have ever worked on in my entire career.

You may ask me why. Well, I’ll tell you why.

Brevity

You don’t have the luxury of writing till the ink in your pen runs dry or the battery in your laptop out of charge, the latter a more likely scenario. You don’t have the luxury of 50,000 words or more. Short stories are typically between 1,000 to 7,500 words though some pieces of short fiction can be as long as 30,000 words! But let’s forget about that for a minute. Say you have a limit between 2,500 and 3,000 words to tell a good story. You need to make sure you keep that limit in mind when setting out or else you may get terribly lost and waste precious time.

Plot

It’s always good to have an idea fleshed out into a tidy plot before you start writing. With a well-defined plot in hand (or in mind) you will find it easier to stick to the word limit rather than amble along as you may have in the case of a longer work of fiction or non-fiction. Figure out how the storyline will develop within the word count. I found it helpful to have a beginning, middle and end and have an approximate word count for each section.

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Characters

Don’t go overboard with a host of characters with complicated sub-plots. Keep it fairly straightforward unless you have a plan to weave all the different characters and their stories into your main plot. Remember, you are not writing a novel and it’s difficult even for an experienced writer to have different things going on at the same time. The story becomes heavy, clumsy and loses focus.

Twists don’t always work

You don’t necessarily need a twist to make your tale work. Often, there is great value in simplicity. Also, open endings work really well. The reader can interpret it whichever way he or she likes. That increases their engagement in the story and which author doesn’t want the reader to get engaged?

Short stories are good practice before you go ahead and write the longer novel if you haven’t written one already. You can write a couple of short stories and then expand them into proper novellas or works of fiction. One of my short stories was actually an idea that I had (inside my head for years) for a longer novel.

My head is already buzzing with more ideas for stories I’d like to write down. What about you? Go on, give them a try.

If you would like to read my short stories, do click on this link: http://bit.ly/2x7mBUm

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Grit and Grace: About Women Who Win!

 

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“No!” was my first reaction when I read the email asking me to be a part of the Women Writers Fest organized by SheThePeopleTV in Pune in August. “I’m still new at this, they’ll laugh me off the stage! What can I say that a hundred famous people haven’t already told them?”

Lots of espressos paradoxically soothed my nerves and a few hours later I pressed delete on my ‘Sorry, I won’t be in town on that date’ reply. I would attend!

My session would discuss ‘How are writers different from authors?’ The venue was a cosy, artistic hall packed with women of all ages. I saw gorgeous sarees, khadi kurtas, dresses and jeans. What was common was the palpable excitement in the air, the creativity zinging about the place. Off the page, I’m the quiet sort and love to eavesdrop. So I pulled my chair closer and listened to the mothers, wives, grannies talk about family, community and the muse. What struck me was how every woman there radiated power, she had overcome her obstacles of time, finances or self doubt and stepped forward to express her words.

The lovely and talented Melanie Lobo moderated our session and my fellow panelists were the well known panelists Saaz Agarwal and ex Indian cricketer turned journalist Snehal Pradhan. Saaz was the voice of experience and urged the ladies to be disciplined and work at the craft. She encouraged us all to read great books so we would know how far away we were from being good. If you know you’ve done a good job, self publish your work – retain control over every step – was her advice.

Snehal admitted she liked to add a bit of masala to make cricket more attractive. Still to become an author, she labelled herself. What we all agreed was our association of authors with having published a book. I’ve wanted to write all my life, being more comfortable with the written word rather than the spoken one. But I guess, when you become more professional about it, want to get it ‘out there’ and are willing to face endless rejection, you’re on the path to becoming an author. You need to learn to develop a thick skin, get laughed at and learn to market your work even if you can’t sell water to a man dying of thirst.

What amazed me was the honesty that flowed, from the speakers and the audience. We discussed blocks, heartbreak, self esteem and I realised I wasn’t alone. We all have overwhelming feelings of being a useless writer or jealousy when others get a huge advance, but we’re all in this together. In fact it’s the empowered women who empower others. The ones who refuse to share their knowledge, who cling to their contacts and reviewers and marketing tips – they’re the scared ones and they’re in a minority.

Ask for help, help others and let’s all be winners together!

By Shraddha Sahi Satav

Follow her on Twitter: @shraddhavs

 

 

 

 

Enter the Dragon!

 

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Where did you get the idea for the character of Dragon Aunty or Dolly?

Is Dragon Aunty someone you know in real life?

Are you friends with Dragon Aunty or someone like her in real life?

Are you Mrinalini in the book?

Ever since my book, Dragon Aunty Returns, was published by Juggernaut Books early this year, I’ve been living out the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. It hasn’t been very pleasant, let me tell you. A barrage of questions are invariably thrown at me. At lunches, dinners and get-togethers. Some of my close friends have been acting rather strangely around me, sniffing loudly and looking upset when any mention of the book comes up.

The other day, one of them (we will call her X) couldn’t contain herself any longer and accosted me when I was out for a walk. “Hey!” she whispered furtively from behind the bushes of a park in the block of flats adjoining mine. “I wanted to ask you a question.” I strolled over casually to where she was standing, wondering why she was hiding behind the bushes looking so secretive, all of a sudden.

“I wanted to ask you about that Dragon lady in your book,” X blurted out. “You aren’t writing about me, are you?” While there were many similarities between Dolly and X, I hadn’t thought of the latter when I was writing the book at all. But I didn’t know what to say so I burst out laughing. “Good god no,” I said, in between giggles. “What on earth made you think that?”

“Who is it then?” she persisted, with a petulant twist of her lips. “Is it someone I know?”

I met her stare without blinking. I wasn’t about to tell her anything. A writer never gives away her secrets. Or is it a magician?

“No, it’s not someone you know. So don’t worry,” I added hurriedly.

As I returned home that evening, I couldn’t help smiling to myself. Perhaps, the book should have come with a disclaimer: Any Resemblance to Actual Persons, Living or Dead, is Purely Coincidental. I’d better remember that when I’m writing the sequel!

This strange turn of events also got me thinking. When had Dragon Aunty made an entrance in my life? It would have to be during Durga Puja in 2013. I remember marvelling at the mind-boggling array of tattoos I had witnessed at the different puja pandals across Gurgaon. It had become a fashion fad to get inked and most women I knew were sporting tattoos in various shapes, sizes and colours. I remember writing a post about it in my blog, Gurgaon Diaries. The Aunty with the Dragon Tattoo. Soon Aunty had leaped out of the virtual universe, becoming a figure larger than life. There was just no escaping her. She was everywhere.

As for me being Mrinalini, there’s very little resemblance between Mrinalini and myself, other than the fact that both of us are Bengalis. Mrinalini is stuffy and a prude. I’m neither. In fact, I probably resemble Dolly more than Mrinalini. So it’s safe to say, some days I am Dolly, while I am Mrinalini on others. They are both my alter-egos. As for Panks and Guruji and the others, go figure! I’m not telling.

You must read the book to see if you recognize anyone else. Available on the Juggernaut Books app. You can download it here:

http://www.juggernaut.in/books/56d2433f9f924ad19654f05238d5d4cc

Naseeruddin!

 

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Every year, around this time, Naseeruddin goes home for a month.

Naseeruddin is a small, thin man with skin the colour of burnt earth.  He’s not someone you would ordinarily notice. Or even spare a moment thinking about, leave alone write about. I wouldn’t either. But he’s a Very Important Person in my scheme of things and it’s only fair that I dedicate a few lines to tell his story.

Naseeruddin is my chauffeur. It’s a job he’s taken up voluntarily. Rather forcefully, if I might add. For I haven’t officially hired him. I don’t really need a chauffeur. Most of the places I frequent such as the grocery store or my daughter’s school or even the neighbourhood shopping mall (if I’m feeling particularly adventurous) are within walking distance of my home. I don’t need transport to get there.

But there’s no getting away from Naseeruddin! He’s always waiting near the gate with his trademark toothy grin, ready to whisk me away, brushing aside my feeble protests. These days, I don’t even bother. As soon as I spot him, I walk across meekly to him. I climb onto the rickshaw carefully avoiding the torn leather that rises in the middle of the seat like the folds of a flower in bloom. Shreds of gaily coloured plastic, remnants of what was once a cover, hang loosely from the metal hood of the rickshaw. One tring of his rickshaw horn and we are off.

Naseeruddin is very different from others of his ilk. He doesn’t have an attitude, never grumbles or misses a day of work, except for his customary one month leave this time of year. But then, one can’t really compare him to other chauffeurs for he doesn’t drive a swanky Mercedes, Audi or Toyota. He owns a rickety cycle rickshaw, purchased for a “princely” sum of five thousand rupees,

“Where are you from Naseeruddin” I ask him one evening as we are returning from the little girl’s piano lesson. I am hugging the six-year-old close to me so that she doesn’t fall off the speeding rickshaw. Her chubby hands try to grab the plastic hanging from the hood of the rickshaw from within the confines of my arms, giggling all the while as she misses.

“Uttar Dinajpur, Didi,” he replies cheerfully. Uttar Dinajpur is a district in the northern part of West Bengal. One of the most backward districts in the country with a sizeable Muslim population. “Many rickshaw pullers in Gurgaon come from there. I came here three years ago to find a job, after selling off my flower business in the village,” he explains.

As he pedals, Naseeruddin tells me how, burdened by debt and unable to feed his wife and two daughters, he had decided to move to Gurgaon on the advice of a cousin who also worked as a rickshaw puller here. His cousin had loaned him some money to buy the rickshaw. Each month, Naseeruddin sends money home to his wife and daughters after keeping aside a paltry sum for his food and lodging.

“My wife Fatima tries to earn extra money by doing odd jobs in the village. Whatever she can get her hands on. My elder daughter, Nusrat, is eleven. The younger one, Chini, just turned five. Nusrat goes to the Madrasa nearby but Chini is still young. She stays at home, helping her mother with her chores,” Naseeruddin sounds happy when he talks of his family back home.

“I came here in search of a better life but it’s very hard Didi. I barely make enough to make ends meet. People try to cheat me all the time. People like you,” I can’t help wincing at this. “They travel long distances on the rickshaw and don’t give me enough money. Everyone tries to take advantage of you when you are poor.”

It’s a tough life. The man barely makes two hundred bucks in a day if he’s lucky. The uneven Gurgaon terrain makes the job a strenuous one to boot. The rewards? Getting shortchanged all the time by people. I feel guilty. That he comes from my part of world only makes it worse. Is there something I can do? Yes, for sure.

That is why I have allowed him to hire me! As his passenger, being carted to destinations I don’t need to be carted to. Being frowned upon and looked at with disdain by the Gurgaon women in their fancy cars. “God, look at her, so tacky in that cycle thingy! Whoever uses those?” I can hear them snigger.

Can’t say I blame them. Women like me (read: belonging to a particular demographic profile) don’t really use cycle rickshaws in Gurgaon. They either drive their own cars or get driven around by their chauffeurs, husbands, boyfriends, brothers … depending on who is available and willing. In the rare instance when transport is not available and they have somewhere to get to in a hurry, they may use a rickshaw making sure that a battery of excuses is ready. Just in case they bump into someone they know.

 “My car isn’t back from servicing yet and my husband’s taken his car to work.”

 “Oh no, I bought a car yesterday but left the car keys in the showroom. They were sending it to me but I couldn’t wait.”

 “Both my cars are busy. I’ve bought a third car but it isn’t here yet.”

 “My kid wanted to go sightseeing in a rickshaw.”

The excuses keep getting more and more bizarre. There seems to be a unspoken social code that people don’t want to break. One must not be seen in rickshaws in Gurgaon. If you are spotted in one, people will automatically assume that you are economically challenged. Quite ridiculous, isn’t it? But it’s true.

Frankly, I couldn’t give a damn. I choose my own mode of transportation, thank you very much. And while I’m perfectly able to walk (God knows I need that walk), and I own a car as well (and that’s not an excuse!) I’m not going to sweat it. If it’s the small change that’s making a big difference in someone’s life, that’s good enough for me.

Now where did Naseeruddin go? I need to make a quick trip to the grocers.

The shrill tring of the cycle horn and a familiar voice behind me. “Looking for me Didi? Hop on!”

The Man with the Tin Trunk

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The bell would ring at twelve noon. A couple of loud gongs and a horde of girls would flood the school courtyard. It was “tiffin time,” the magical half hour of freedom from rigorous school routine. The girls’ eyes would focus on a particular corner of the vast compound where a thin, moustachioed man with a wheatish complexion would be opening, what looked like, a medium sized tin trunk.

In the next couple of seconds, all hell would break loose. The girls would surround the man. Grubby, sweaty palms (a bewildering number of them) clutching shiny coins would be extended towards him and their eyes would gleam with excitement as they tiptoed to catch a glimpse of the treasures inside the trunk. The man would smile indulgently and reach inside to begin the day’s sales.

The man with the tin trunk or Walter as he was known in official circles had a very important job. He was our school’s candy supplier while we treated him as our very own Willy Wonka with a treasure chest of goodies: green peppermint sweets, stick jaws and fudge toffees. Each of these would cost fifteen paise and if you bought a rupee’s worth, he would give a discount and sneak a couple of extra in.

The green peppermint sweets were my favourites. Round and pale green, wrapped in cellophane paper, these were exquisite melt in the mouth creations that left a refreshing peppermint aftertaste. You couldn’t stop at one. The stick jaws were tricky and it was never a good idea to have them at lunch and land up for class with an immobilised jaw afterwards. Our teachers were not amused if you couldn’t move your mouth to answer their questions. The stick jaws were devilish things and I always avoided them. The fudge toffees would be sugary squares with a hint of chocolate but delectable all the same.

Every once in a while, I have a craving for peppermint sweets. Like now! I haven’t see one in ages. Though I believe there are still some bakeries in Kolkata that stock them. Perhaps on my next trip, I should get myself some. I often wonder what happened to Walter. He’s probably very old now, if he is alive that is. I wish him well, wherever he is. He brought so much joy to an entire generation of children.

Simple pleasures, fifteen paise a piece.