Process Talk: N.H. Senzai on Secrecy, History, and Fiction for Young Readers

History is contentious in the Indian subcontinent, so often determined by religious and national identity, by borders. But “to breathe the air and touch the soil where your family originated…” That is the closing of a circle, a moment that feels practically sacred. That search to find self and family is the driving force in Ticket to India by N.H. Senzai. I asked Naheed Senzai to tell me more.

[UK] Secrets figure largely in Ticket to India—family secrets, hidden grief and looming over the whole journey, the huge, unspoken secrets of Partition. What did it mean to you to bring secrecy and secrets into the light of fiction?

[NHS] My family, like most families, have secrets. Most are incidents, actions or emotions that are secreted away because they emote grief and loss. Over the years, when I talked with my mother, aunts and uncles about our family history, I learned that one of the greatest turning points in their life was partition – a great deal of suffering and loss was generated by physical displacement, economic upheaval and the loss of community and country. 

I learned that secrets don’t stay hidden – they affect the very fabric of a family’s structure and manifest themselves in subtle and painful ways. My grandfather always said that he was ruined twice – one when migrating to East Pakistan, then moving to West Pakistan during the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971. These tragedies stayed with my grandfather and affected how he interacted with us, and the world. 

In writing Ticket to India, I wanted to honor our elders and highlight the memory of their sacrifices – they hid painful secrets to make sure that the next generation succeeded, as Maya’s grandmother does. 

[U] How does your Maya fit her name? 

[NHS] I have always loved the name Maya and I think if I’d had a daughter I would have chosen the name.

[UK] Me too! No daughter but I too had a character named Maya in my very first novel. Something about the name…

[NHS] For my main character in Ticket To India, I wanted a name that was global, crossed boundaries, religions and ethnicities.

The name Maya proved to have those characteristics;  Maya is an old Arabic word, means princess, it translates into eternal spring in Hebrew, and love in Nepali. There have been extraordinary Maya’s throughout history; Maya was the mother of the Greek god Hermes, and the founder of Buddhism. Maya is also another name for the Hindu goddess Durga, who is believed to be invincible as the power behind the creation, protection, and destruction of the world.

[UK] It also means illusion: the power by which the universe becomes manifest; the shifting appearance of the material world, a sense that things are not as they appear. Understanding that sense of shifting reality is a huge motivation for your Maya, as she longs to make sense of her family’s fractured past. Talk about why the past matters—to you, as well as to the lives of young people. 

[NHS] I love history and have always been struck by the saying by writer and philosopher George Santayana ‘Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.’ Only by knowing your history can you make knowledgable decisions on how to move forward. Also, current events do not happen in a vacuum, they are influenced by years of history. 

[UK] Very true. Your earlier novel, Shooting Kabul, explores a more recent history, of an Afghan family trying to make the United States home, and a boy desperate to make that family whole again.

[NHS] Most of my books  incorporate history and the importance of knowing where you come from and how it impacts your life today. Ticket to India delves into the impacts of colonialism and the coming partition. 

[UK] You and I both have connections with the subcontinent. What would you wish for that region of the world?

[NHS] Benazir Bhutto, Prime Minister of Pakistan, once said “There is a little bit of Indian in every Pakistani and a little bit of Pakistani an every Indian.” 

My maternal grandparents are buried in Pakistan and my paternal grandparents in India. Before partition the people of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were one. And although the people of those regions are highly diverse, they were one and coexisted for the most part. That is the beauty of the region and I wish they would remember it today when there is so much intolerance and far right activity in the subcontinent.

I wish that too. Thanks, Naheed!

Pictures: Possibly 12,000 Years Old

Before there were books, before there was writing, there was art. We don’t know why that instinct welled up in early humans to make a mark, to render their world in images, but we know it did because the results endure today. In the Ratnagiri District of the Indian state of Maharashtra, I saw petroglyphs carved into the porous laterite rock beds that lie scattered among fields, in this area famous for its distinctive Alfonso mangoes.

Here is an elephant, its eye-folds delicately marked, its tusks and ears and trunk clearly defined, recognizable even after millennia of exposure to sun and wind and blowing sands:

Ukshi.jpgDocumenting the petroglyphs has been an entirely voluntary enterprise, led by two men, both engineers by profession, both with deep connections to the region and with driving interests in birds and butterflies respectively: Sudhir Risbood and Manoj Marathe. With the help of volunteers, they have located up to 1,500 discrete images at over 50 sites. They’re also speaking to local villagers about the importance of the sites and the need to protect them–and trying to decide what form such protection would take.

Some of the carvings are bold and representational. Here’s a monkey. Ukshi2.jpg

The seashore’s pretty close, so as one might expect, there are fish.  Ratnagiri3.jpgAnd peacocks, and tigers, and rhinos as well, in an area far from current rhinoceros habitat. And then there is this strange figure, stylized and enigmatic:Rajapur.jpg

There are other sites with prehistoric rock art elsewhere in India–the rock shelter paintings of Bhimbetka,  the carvings in the Edakkal caves in Kerala’s Wayanad, and others.  We don’t know yet how the Ratnagiri sites fit in with all those others. That is yet to be studied.

What now? What do you do when you have a treasure like this on your hands, scattered over a large area, across a patchwork of private and public lands? Marathe and Risbood both speak of a holistic  vision–of a region designated not only as a site with historical and cultural significance but also a biosphere, rich in plant, bird, and butterfly species, and home to people with real-life stakes in the place. Stewardship is only possible, they argue, when you create it from the ground up. It can’t be imposed by governmental fiat and it shouldn’t be dictated by politicians and bureaucrats who don’t understand local concerns.

As we left the last figure–who is it meant to be and what is it saying? No one knows–I felt strangely moved. When a vast work of art lies at your feet, almost too large for your eyes to take in all at once, you cannot help but think about the mind or minds that dreamed it up, and the hands that held the chipping quartz. You cannot help but wonder what meaning we should draw from this human urge to think about the world around us, to recreate it in stone.

As the documentation and protection of these sites progresses, Sudhir Risbood can be contacted via old-fashioned post at the following address:

B-09 Shri Datta Sankul
Ghanekar Alley
Subhash Road
Ratnagiri 415612

Dear Mrs. Naidu by Mathangi Subramanian

When I wrote Book Uncle and Me, I was seeking to enter a conversation of books and children and civic life and the intersecBook_Uncle_and_metions therein, all of it taking place in an urban setting in India. Now I’m delighted to come across Dear Mrs. Naidu, an epistolary novel for young readers. This book feels as if its continuing that very conversation.

Twelve-year-old protagonist Sarojini writes to her long-dead, famous namesake–India’s celebrated poet and freedom fighter Sarojini Naidu. What begins as a school assignment becomes a life journey for our young hero–I use the word “hero” advisedly rather than its more submissive feminine counterpart.

Dear-Mrs-Naidu-lo-resThe structure is tight and the pacing sound, but it’s the heart of the story that beats in sync with the reader’s concerns for the young people in this book. Subramanian nails an Indian preteen sensibility securely, right across the class and religious markers of urban society. Here is a novel that does not flinch from facing social issues but manages to avoid being about those issues. Dear Mrs. Naidu is a wonderful offering from Young Zubaan, a publisher known for their innovative titles for young readers.

Note: I read this book in a pdf version from the publisher. A fuller review will appear shortly in the online desi literature journal, Jaggery.

Process Talk: Padma Venkatraman on A Time to Dance

Padma Venkatraman is the aa time to dance cover - large fileuthor of YA novels Climbing the Stairs and Island’s End. Of her latest novel, released to starred reviews in Kirkus, Booklist, VOYA and SLJ, the Kirkus reviewer writes:

Venkatraman weaves together several themes so elegantly that they become one.

I traded e-mails with Padma about her writing and in particular this book.  

[Uma] Talk about what made you a writer, and how you ended up writing for young readers.

[Padma] I got a doctorate in oceanography (nothing to do with reading or writing) because I like numbers, and I wanted to choose a profession that would give me financial independence. But I’ve always loved writing, and as life progressed, that love only deepened. So finally, I became brave enough to give up oceanography and try my hand at writing a novel.

 Thus far, my three novels are for the young adult audience – partly because I feel that books are more likely deepen a young person’s empathy and compassion; older readers are more set in their ways – they’re less likely to change (as people) because of something they’ve read.  It’s also in part because the movies in my mind have thus far featured teen protagonists as stars. Then again, right now, I’m working on a novel for adults, so I do sometimes hear older voices in my head.

 [Uma] Your books all draw upon the Indian subcontinent—its history, its lesser known stories, its social dynamics, and iconic character types that reflect everyday life in the region. Will you tell me what the importance is of setting to you? How much of it is craft and how much a personal exploration through fiction?

PadmaVenkatraman3 [Padma] I’m American and I love my American home and my family. But India is where my journey as a human being (and thus as a writer) began, because it’s where I lived when I was young. My childhood was rather horrid in many ways – but then again, there were moments of beauty and love even during tough times, and the Indian culture left an indelible impact on my mind.

I also read many Indian writers (poets and novelists) as a young person and I’m still fascinated with my origins, I suppose, which is probably rather self-centered! So yes, it is a personal exploration. But I’m also starting – after decades of living in America – to “own” the American culture – and am, in my current work in progress, exploring it.

[Uma] What are the origins of Veda’s story for you? 

[Padma] When I was 19 years old, I was bitten by a Russell’s Viper – one of the four most poisonous Indian snakes – on a trip back to India. I almost died, and it’s a miracle that I survived without having to have my leg amputated (it had turned all the colors of the rainbow and looked rather like something Renoir might have painted for a while). That experience – of nearly losing my leg, not to mention my life, and of being so close to death – solidified within me a sense of spirituality (without necessarily any religiosity per say). I didn’t realize this until recently, but Veda’s story was born of that experience.

[Uma] Why is this a verse novel? How does form affect content in this story?

[Padma] The easy answer: because when Veda’s character possessed me, I heard verse. Of course, nothing’s as simple as that, is it?

Scan 1

Young Bharatanatyam dancer. Photo source: Padma Venkatraman’s personal collection. All rights reserved.

I fought against writing A Time to Dance in verse  because although I love and read poetry, I’ve never studied it. Luckily for me, Richard Blanco (who later read at President Obama’s inauguration) let me sit in on a poetry workshop he was doing at the University of Rhode Island’s Ocean State Summer Writing Conference, and his friendship and faith in my ability helped me overcome my fear of experimenting with this form. Other wonderful poets: Scott Hightower, Peter Covino, and Peter Johnson also encouraged me, as did my marvelous agent, Rob Weisbach and my star editor, Nancy Paulsen. Along the way, another editor whom I deeply trust, Stephen Roxburgh, provided insights that were vital. His confidence in me felt like permission to try lean, spare prose.

Finally, on my 101st draft or so, I had an epiphany. Stories that feature a character’s spiritual growth are rare. It was the core of Veda’s story. As was her love of dance. A character’s spiritual growth is incredibly hard to write in verse. It’s virtually impossible to capture in straight out prose – or was, for me, for Veda. Spiritual growth – and the power of art – especially of dance – two key themes in A Time to Dance – go beautifully with verse.

In this story, rather than form affecting content, it was the other way around: Veda’s voice (content) dictated form. And I’m glad she spoke in verse, and I’m grateful to all those who trusted that I could listen to her properly, including my wonderful husband, Rainer Lohmann. It was really a tremendous relief that it’s been so well reviewed. I’m glad not just for my own sake but for the sake of the many differently abled (disabled) people I interviewed during the process of writing the novel. It’s their story, not mine.

[Uma] Thank you, Padma! Much luck with this and future projects.