The Death Wish

A few months ago, in July this year, an elderly lady killed herself by jumping off the balcony in the condominium where I live. Her death haunted me for days and I decided to write something about it. The following piece was my original FB post which I have reproduced here.

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The chalk outline has been washed away, the orange safety cones removed and the greyish black concrete looks as though it has just been laid. There is no trace of her ever having lain there on the ground, cold and lifeless, eyes unseeing.

I have been sneaking out to the verandah every now and then, the entire morning, in between my writing spells to look down at the ground. Trying to imagine how she must have felt in the moment before she plunged down, ten floors, to her death. One moment of hopelessless, futility, unloved by the ones she cared for the most in the world. That’s all it took.

I hope it was all over for her in the flash of an eye. I hope she didn’t suffer or writhe in pain while we carried on with our lives within the comfort of our homes unaware of the tragedy that was playing out a short distance away. Our self-contained boxes.

I must have crossed paths with her as I went about my daily business in the condo. If I had known who she was or the anguish she was feeling, would I have been able to do anything about it? I wonder.

If only I had known.

I’m not a psychic like Tara, the protagonist of my novella, The Ghosts of Gurugram. Sometimes I wish I was.

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.

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

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.

Beauty is not skin-deep, thank heavens!

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“My facial should be cheaper today, it’s GST day!” the lady in the chair next to me at the beauty parlour cried out loudly. I turned around to look at her in surprise. Her face was covered in green and three salon attendants were tending to her nails and hair. Two eyes sparkled at me through the green goo. I wasn’t sure whether to smile at her since her mouth hadn’t moved. Possibly to avoid getting wrinkles. Still, I decided it was safer to nod at her in return.

The three attendants perked up from their duties and stared at her with interest. “Oh ho, GST Ma’am,” the wiry chap filing her nails said knowledgeably. “Woh Shuru ho Gaya?” (has it started already?)

“Of course,” the lady sighed and slumped back in her seat. “It started from midnight last night. The parlour should charge less now with the Good Tax, isn’t it?” The three men exchanged glances. I suppressed a giggle.

“There are different taxes for different things, isn’t it Madam?” the hairstylist paused with a strand of coloured hair in his hand. “18 %, 28 % …” The chap had done his homework well.

The lady looked at her reflection in the mirror. The eyes under the mask were round, incredulous. “Yes, yes,” she said quickly. “Different rates.” Her eyes met mine in the mirror. I could tell that she didn’t have a clue about the different rates or the tax! Or the fact that salon services would cost more.

Hours later, I could hear her arguing with the receptionist about the bill. “Arre, no change in your bill. You haven’t given any rebate for GST. This is not done!” before storming out in a huff vowing never to return.

I wonder what the poor woman had been expecting. With all the personal grooming services that she opted for, I’m not surprised she was served a huge bill. It’s a tax for god’s sake, not a discount for looking good.

Like all things, beauty too comes at a price!