100 Days of Writing

For the past four years, I’ve had these two things on top of my New Year’s Resolutions list:

  1. Write More
  2. Weigh Less

Well, I’ve been consistent with my resolutions, not as much with my efforts.

As 2015 kicked off, I saw someone start the #100DaysofHappinessChallenge or something of that sort on Facebook. I’d seen a lot of people post photos of cake and kittens and tag it with #100daysof Happiness-Day 99. I’ve also seen many people tag photos of flowers and sunsets with #XDaysofGratitudeChallenge-DayY. Which is well and good if it makes you happy and grateful for all things sweet and nice.  Being the gifted whiner and difficult person that I am, I could not imagine putting myself up to any such challenge. But I know that setting up such challenges and sharing them on public platforms are great motivators. My friend, Aditya, set himself a similar challenge (New Stories Five Days a Week) and produced a good amount of interesting fiction in that time. I realized I need to set myself some challenge if I were to ever meet any of my goals. So this year, I’ve decided to set myself such a dare- I call it the #100DaysOfWriting Challenge.  I think I can share my happiness and gratitude, my experiences and ideas, my stories and fancies by writing.

Why, you ask? Well, for starters I think it would make me a better person. There seems to be enough research that shows how writing can make you happier, smarter, sexier (kidding about that one! That one happens when you meet goal #2). I keep starting new blogs because I do love writing, but I never make any time to sit down and write. I wanted to write this post since noon today and finally got down it. Hopefully this exercise will help me resist the temptations of distraction and make time to something that I really value and enjoy.

When you’re on Facebook, Twitter and checking email 24X7, you are consuming information non-stop. When we’re not consuming information, we take irrelevant data sharing to new heights. I recently found this 2015 Reading Challenge which seems quite interesting and is a great way to push people to read. But what about producing? Are we creating as much as we are consuming? Are we spending as much time on writing as we do on reading or watching videos or viewing images?

The other big reason is to simply get better at writing. As part of my work, I see a lot of struggle when it comes to teaching writing to children. A part of it, in my opinion, is also related to the teacher’s skill and talent as a writer. We tweet, we share posts, we text and we send emails. We also maintain journals or diaries and take notes. But how often do we compose and craft deliberately? How often do we fret over our words and fuss over our sentences? How often do we set out to create a piece of writing that we can be proud of?  As I was writing this post and reviewing it, I could see how clunky my own writing has become. I’d like to get better at writing, so that one day I can actually be a writer.

So how will this 100 posts thing work?

Any post I write on any of my blogs, I will tag them with #100DaysOfWriting. I’d also love for others to join this and use this tag. It always helps to do such things with others so that you have some bit of healthy competition as well as feedback.

If I do the math, #100DaysOfWriting means that I write anywhere between 8-9 posts a month, which comes up to a 2-3 posts per week. If I behave, I might be able to keep that pace and post regularly. This should help in forming a habit over the long run as well. I’m setting some rules guidelines for myself so that I don’t cheat do this well:

  1. Write Slow. I must write only one post a day. I can’t reach December and do 3 posts a day to meet my goal. I need to write regularly and also give myself time. I need to plan my time out and enjoy the process of writing. Let the creative juices simmer and flow, instead of rushing to meet a deadline. I have enough deadlines at work, I don’t need to make this become a chore.
  2. Write Long. Whatever it written, must be a substantive piece of writing. Tweets and Facebook posts don’t count. There has to be some real effort into it. I don’t want to put a minimum word count limit, but I’d be ashamed if I wrote less than 300-400 words per piece. (At this point, this piece itself is about 706 words long and I’d like to keep such length!) It’s not that bigger is always better, but the way I enjoy #longreads, I must also attempt #longwrites.
  3. Write Different. I must write different things in different ways. To put it simply, I can’t just ramble and rant for 100 posts. I can’t do only haikus, or only fiction, or only reviews. I can’t keep sharing what I think about someone else’s writing for 50 posts nor can I masquerade sarcasm as satire for 20 posts. I should try new forms, be original and interesting. I know I tend to be whiny and ranty, so I also need to push myself to play nice for the most part.

That’s about it. 3 simple things to keep in mind while I write and to keep me anchored. This piece took me a good hour and bit of rush, but I feel it’s a decent start to #100DaysOfWriting. I hope on 31st December 2015, I can tell myself that I met this goal and set more ambitious goals for 2016.

Goodnight and good luck!

What to do with your time when you are traveling

Sketch by brother

Recently I’ve had to travel a lot and I am trying to figure out a way to best use or waste that time. So today after take-off, I decided to just scribble a bit about what most people do with their time. And what you can also do instead of vegetating.

  1. Take photos of stationary and moving things through stained windows.
  2. Read/ attempt to read that book you picked up last month/ pretend to read something that will make you look slightly more intelligent/interesting.
  3. Talk to random people and exchange life stories. Get a free therapy session done!
  4. Work, because you are too busy and you must be very busy since you’re working while traveling. Meeting deadlines while you are in a  high speed vehicle is its own thrill. (You can spot a Consultant by the white shirt and panic on their faces as they frantically try to work in planes, buses, cars and boats!) 
  5. Eat- the snacks you got packed, the snacks you will buy, the snacks others are eating and the snacks you’re thinking of eating.
  6. Count the stops if you’re traveling by train or bus. Count the number of times flight crew members strut up and down the aisle with food, trash and trash they are supposed to sell.
  7. Write/ draw/ doodle, revel in your artistic side when surrounded by people, for people. Nothing boosts creativity like people-watching, especially when they are strapped to their seats and can’t do anything about you watching them.
  8. Catch up on sleep. Nothing matches the wonderful swaying of trains or the fuzzy whirring of planes to put you to sleep.
  9. Catch up on sleep- that’s the best way to avoid people who want to talk to you.
  10. Sleep, it’s the best thing to do in that time. Unless you’re in a magical chariot with Michael Fassbender traveling through Middle Earth.

I did a bit of 7 and attempted to do lots of 8-10, but it was interrupted by a hoary voice announcing status updates about food, junk being sold on planes, temperature and whatnot every 15 minutes.


Today is Facebook’s 10th birthday.
Today is Saraswati Puja.
Today is World Cancer Day.
Today, Microsoft got a new CEO.
Today, the AAP completed a month in office.
Today, many people celebrated their birthdays along with Facebook.
Today, many people celebrated anniversaries. Just like Facebook I guess.

Today I spent most of my time on Facebook. I found out all these things through it. I had the same epiphany that I’ve been having for the past many years that none of this made any difference to my life, except for pushing me further into a spiral of boredom and procrastination. It’s not like I have nothing to do and have not been doing anything. I have, but it is with the same enthusiasm a bureaucrat employs while moving a file from one place to another.

Throughout the day, I have been wishing for circumstances that would make me work better. I wished for being left alone to my devices so that I could think and write. I wished to be spared the duty of stuffing myself with healthy wholesome lunch that has a crippling effect on productivity. I wished for having people like me to work with. I wished and wished and the day went by.

I read an awful number of things on the web and (realized, not very surprisingly, that I am a huge consumer, but a very meager producer) two pieces that stood out to me. One was about marriage. I have no intentions or inklings about it in my life right now, but I found the article very fascinating. The other was about an application deadline to the Fellowship programme that I was part of and for which I work now.  Thinking about both of these, I found something common and my mind wandered to this quote I had read once and found amusing enough to stick with me.

  Dreaming about being an actress, is more exciting then being one.download (4)
― Marilyn Monroe

I have nothing against dreams and dreaming. I think those are excellent ways to use our time and provide ourselves amusement, inspiration, thrills and whatnot. But it is the only dreaming part which I see often and often. We aspire and dream for ideals. We have very lofty ideas and noble intentions. We believe, with the honest to god innocence of children, that believing in ideals would bring about reality. But we are so blinded by the light from the shimmering surface, we never get to see the deep murky churning underneath.

Take marriage. It is the ultimate fantasy, the dreamland, the utopia of togetherness. I don’t for a second believe that it can never be all those amazing things that it seems to be in print and celluloid (and rare anecdotal evidence). But I also think that there’s lots of hard work, boring moments, disturbing revelations and undignified fights behind the pretty picture.  I know of many many people who have had their “dream wedding” thought out since they were an embryo or something and I don’t understand how. Popular culture leads me to believe this is a girly thing. Sure. I’d like to have a nice wedding day where I can wear a pretty dress and eat cake and be the centre of attention for a sustained period of time. But am I willing to go through the days after that? Probably not. And if I can get the same deal of wearing a dress, having cake and endless showering of attention any day, then I’m set for life.  Hence I am truly confused by this pursuit of togetherness. I am sure there are individuals who strike a good enough deal and are comfortable with such state of being, but considering the number of unhappy twosomes I see, I am more convinced than ever that people love the dream of being married than the actual state of being a married couple voluntarily joined for life.

This brings me to the other bit of news. The application deadline. The Fellowship is a tough programme. It is a full-time teaching position in an under-resourced, low income school that mostly caters to children from disadvantaged communities. And it sounds like such a noble thing to do. It seems so challenging and inspiring. All those pictures and videos of children and teachers, so happy despite the odds. What a truly wonderful thing! And that is what sticks. The big dream. That awe-inspiring ambition to change the country and the lives of million children. But I wonder if many dig deeper to see the hardships behind that dream.


Having gone through it I know that is a very fulfilling and motivating experience. It has given me some of the proudest moments of my life. I have experienced the thrill of enthralling a bunch of kids with ideas and information. I have learned things about myself and others that I hadn’t before. Forgive the cheesiness, but this has been the most challenging and inspiring experience of my life. But I have also learned that teaching can be very thankless job. It is not just singing songs and correcting few papers and having many vacations. I have had the most cruelly lonely, frustrating and defeating moments within those two years.  I have crumbled under self-doubt seeing a child not learn for months. I have cursed and railed against the “system” while handling endless paperwork. I have stayed up nights researching and making worksheets. Almost every teacher I know in the Fellowship has at some point or the other has strayed too close to starvation and sleep deprivation. For the children? Of course for them. But also to do the job well. Being a teacher is not the easiest thing and being a teacher in the Fellowship ups the challenge a few notches more.

Being part of this to do something good necessitates giving up on life as you know it.

That is a harsh truth to share. But that is unfortunately the truth. Just as being married can change your life, doing this means you are married to your work, your kids and your commitment to make a difference. If having a life means getting a good 10 hours of sleep every day, meeting friends every day to chill and hang or whatever it is that cool people do, watching movies and relaxing and all that, then having a “life” doesn’t always co-exist well with these aims.

We dream very beautiful dreams, wonderful ideals fill our dreamscape. We aim to do what we love. But doing what we want and love, involves doing things that are not always fun, or easy or even interesting. But we forget that in our passion and ambition. Aspiring is more exciting than acting upon things.

Am I saying we shouldn’t dream of an utopia? No. I think we all want to work towards an utopia. But it might serve us well to acknowledge that there is work to be done before we reach Arcadia.

This post serves as a reminder to myself to just get down to work without waiting for my ideal home-office to materialize.

Facing Fears

I know I need to do this. But this feels so challenging, so uncomfortable and so difficult. Like meeting long lost cousins with whom you can’t make any conversation and so you have to keep stuffing your mouth with food so that you have a genuine reason for maintaining stoic silence. Like sitting in an interview where you are nervous and trying so hard to impress that you end up claiming you know seventeen languages including the three your interviewer is proficient in. Like getting jostled on a crowded railway platform where you’re not sure if you’ll manage to board the train with body parts and personal belongings intact. Like being in front of someone you like on a bad hair day that is compounded with zits and bad breath and smelly stained clothes. This is what writing has come to be- utterly uncomfortable and inconsiderately awkward.

The cursor blinks on the blank page waiting for me to type. My brain comes up with a million diversionary tactics. Should check mail. Should look up a certain book. Should look at that author. Should read up on the writing habits of said author. Should adjust volume or change song on shuffle. Should expand my knowledge base by reading obscure things on Wikipedia. Should get some visual inspiration from things other than cats. Should get some laughs from others’ misery and failures. Should watch that cool video of people doing impressive things. Should watch another video. And another one, for ideas. Should allow the internet to make me a writer while all it does is keep me from becoming one. Should go walk around to clear head. Should drink water and coffee to feel awake. Should do everything possible in my power so that I can delay what I have to do.

Just by another half an hour. By a day. By a week. By a month. By a year. In a year you can come up with such a wealth of excuses. There was no time. Too much work. Friends take up all my free time on Facebook. Hangovers took over my weekends. There are so many books to be read. There were so many movies that absolutely had to be seen for the third time. My neighbours are too noisy. My flatmate listens to nasal singers and makes me listen to it. My office has a no-creative-writing policy. My house doesn’t have the right aura. My laptop’s so slow it takes a day to type a sentence. I ran out of paper. My fingers keep slipping on pens. I have no pens. It goes on and on.

And then you forget. You forget you wanted to write. You forget how to. And then you sit in front of your computer, feeling like a dog might feel in front of a dinosaur. Staring at the screen, willing your mind to think. And your mind does think. About the weather. About things on a to-do list. About that dress you saw in the store last week. About that joke you didn’t understand day before yesterday. About the Modern Family episode you saw today. About Gloria’s accent. About what you can have for lunch tomorrow. About clothes in the dryer. About chipping nail paint on your toe. About every insignificant trivial thing than can keep your mind from staying still enough to actually think about anything.

But why does my brain fear writing? Or is it thinking that it fears? It can’t be the latter. I’m always thinking of things. Things, not ideas, but thinking nonetheless. Then it must be the former. What if nothing comes out? What if my fingers get Raynaud’s disease and I’m left incapable of typing a tome? It might also aggravate that condition where pens keep slipping from my grasp! (I just spent 4 minutes 19 seconds looking that up.) What if I keep forgetting words? What if my computer crashes and all that I would have written gets lost? What if something urgent comes up? Like Notting Hill on HBO or Pretty Woman on Zee Studio. Then I can’t afford to sit here and write!

Enough! I just have to sit down and write. Let it flow. The words will come and fall into place. After a few false starts, words scoot and squeeze next to each other and try to make sense of what they are saying. They keep coming, lining up sluggishly, woken rudely from a deep sleep. Sitting squab, dull and drab. I must check progress and see what can be done to improve this writing experience. Maybe I should do something to remove these green lines that tell me my sentences are not correct. Maybe I should go look up some grammar rules. Maybe I should find a better word to replace this simple word and spend an inordinate amount of time proving to myself how I can use a Thesaurus. Maybe I should do some online research to add more details and lend more credibility to the trumpery put up. (Trumpery: Noun. Usage: Archaic. 1. (informal) statements or beliefs that are untrue or make no sense 2. Ornamental objects of no great value) Maybe I should re—re-re-read the measly two hundred words to see if they “flow”. Maybe I should just keep typing gibberish nonsense bunkum codswallop hogwash to inflate the word count? Like I did just now. Maybe I should just hit myself on the head and write. But that might injure me too much to write. So, without further distraction and drama, I shall carry forth bravely.

Alright, so what am I writing about? So far I’ve been writing about not writing and have done a very good job at not writing. I was supposed to be writing about facing my fears. My initial plan of facing fears by writing about it doesn’t seem to have worked out quite well, but at least I now know that I can waste one and a half hour (alright, two!) typing a thousand words (give or take a few words less- thirty to be precise), something which I had claimed should take no more than half an hour at most.

Now that I have at least turned to face my fears, I am sure with little less of internet (and distractions and laziness) and more of time (and efforts), I can fully face them and begin to become a prolific writer. Right now, I have to go ponder the very important question- what movie to watch tonight?

P.S : 4 years back, I’d written a post about How to get over Writer’s Block. High time I took my own advice, or at least entertained it.  


“If I ever want to get any work done, I will have to get out of this all-consuming relationship. Do you understand…?”

No answer.

“I’m thinking I’ll be better off with something short-lived, something lighter, more fun..”

No answer.

Finally I put it back in its place and picked up a collection of short stories.

The Fuss About One’s Favorite Fruit

I never like them too soft,
melting with the first bite.
An occasional challenge,
yes, even with fruits-
those mute pleasers-
can prove quite healthy.
That first bite of rawness,
crunch silenced by flesh inside.
The reluctantly sweet taste,
eager in its hurry to leave.

There’s a delicate balance,
of surfaces and secrets,
of insides and outsides,
of defenses and welcomes,
of skins and seeds, to strike.
Like caramel eclairs.
Like a crusty sandwich.
Like biscuit and jam.
Like any other mundanely
analogous example.

A twisted little game,
a treacherous threesome:
Imperfect, uncared-for molars,
sly, careful tongue, and
difficult, puckish seeds.
A wicked dirty dance,
pushing and shoving,
dodging and side-stepping;
A battle ending in inevitability,
no winners on either side.

A single careless move,
thanks to the greedy mouth,
disturbs the players’ dynamics
and turns the game around.
A lone slippery seed
with a vendetta of its own,
preying on those poor molars,
makes itself a nice home.
No matter how much it’s coaxed,
it refuses to come unstuck.

The tongue tires of its trials
to extricate the stubborn imp.
The molars painfully impatient,
curse their fates and the game,
and the fruit, and ME!
As if it was all my doing!
And thus begins the charade again,
to promise and commit to and swear,
with fickle intensity and honesty,
that I will never eat a guava again!

For Love, Honor and Glory

You would smile. And what would that smile not be? It would be anything you want it to be.  There is practicality to be taken care of, there are problems to be resolved, but you would let yourself be carried by the Code of No Rules. The highest principle of following your own voice, mind and heart.

The man who follows all of this should be your hero. And no one else. There is nothing he wouldn’t do. And everything will be his own to make and throw. He will be in plain sight, waiting to be found. You’d once believed he would lead you somewhere, and you still do. Waiting, as he does. To find and to be found.

The words will come to you, as will everything else. All you have to do is do something about it, wait, wonder and work. No, don’t worry about it. That won’t take you anywhere. You are already where you deserve to be. That line you hated will sum up your life for you, yet you will allow that to pass. And see what you let change your world for you. Or you can let it be, just as you said it would be.

But go and follow that scented breeze, linger a while at that frozen lake, watch the sun break the ice, and smile at the way things break down and come to be. Watch yourself melt and crumble, blend and spread, come together and form. Watch the seasons pass, the sun scorch, the rains wash, the leaves fall, the snow settle, the roads glisten, the flowers bloom and breathe in while these mundane miracles unfold.

Why are you even here? Go smile to yourself, for love, honor and glory.

Interview with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

I’d done an interview with Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, author of Mistress of Spices, Palace of Illusions and One Amazing Thing, after returning from the Jaipur Literature Festival’11 for BookChums.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

I’d read Palace of Illusions before heading to Jaipur and was mighty excited when I discovered Chitra would be one of the authors attending. That’s because Palace of Illusions was one of my favoritest reads of 2010 (I know, I know, review’s pending. Soon, soon) and she turned out to top my short list of Indian Authors I Like very soon.

The interview is finally up. Excerpts from the interview..

AM: Your latest novel, One Amazing Thing, tells the story of 9 people stuck in a crisis. I remember you spoke about how the idea for this book came to you at JLF. Could you give our readers a glimpse into that experience?

CBD: One Amazing Thing comes out of an autobiographical experience. In 2005, I, too, faced a natural disaster — Hurricane Rita was headed toward Houston, Texas, where I live, and we had to evacuate the city. There was a lot of panic, huge traffic jams, etc. It made me contemplate how human beings deal with catastrophe and the fear of death, and how we might be able to connect with strangers under such circumstances. That idea is at the heart of One Amazing Thing.

AM: Spanning a time of over 15 years, you have written 12 novels, contributed in various anthologies. You are often called a prolific author. Prolific authors sometimes tend to build a formula around their style and stories, but you have always taken up different narratives, even while keeping some similar themes. Where do you find the inspiration and the creative energy required to keep writing?

CBD: I don’t know. I only know that it’s important for me to set myself a new challenge with each book. For instance, with Palace of Illusions, I wanted to retell the story of an epic (Mahabharat) with a woman (Draupadi) at its center. In One Amazing Thing, I wanted to write a novel about creating community, and I used a disaster scenario as the setting.  In Mistress of Spices I used magical realism.

AM: We often see folk tales, myths and legends being retold in your various novels. Do you think as an Indian you have an advantage that you can mine into a treasure trove of stories that can be used as a trope in your narratives?

CBD: Yes, I feel very fortunate that I had a grandfather who was a wonderful storyteller and shared these folk/legendary tales with me. It gives me a very rich source to draw from, and I have used them amply, especially in my children’s books such as The Conch Bearer.

Palace of Illusions
Palace of Illusions

AM: Your novel The Palace of Illusions was a retelling of The Mahabharata through Paanchali. There have been several versions and retellings of the Mahabharata. Despite that, were you apprehensive with your retelling of one of our most sacred and beloved epics?

CBD: Yes. The original is such a great text, I wanted to do it justice & knew it would be the hardest task I’d set myself until then. I did a lot of research & reading in preparation.

AM: Following the same train of thought, Mahabharata and Ramayana are two of our most important epics. Both have women in a central role who have faced great injustice. What made you choose Draupadi over Sita?

CBD: I have always pondered about Draupadi, who is very timeless & modern (both) in her questioning of her role & rights as a woman. That said, I do want to write a novel about Sita.

You can read the full interview here.

Devil’s Workshop

They say an idle mind is the devil’s workshop. Who is the devil and what is an idle mind?

Is that wily creature who visits once in a while to sow seeds of discontent and doubt known as the devil? Is a mind that has overcome the problem of crowded thoughts and now seeks solace in temporary, and necessary emptiness, an idle mind? What’s wrong if Mr. Devil wants to squat on Idle Mind’s property? No one’s occupying it at that moment it seems. Are you worried about encroachment issues? You think Mr. Devil will never leave? You think Mr. Devil and his spawn will corrupt your blank mind?

You needn’t worry so much, you are already taken, by lesser delights and virtuosity.


(To be continued.. maybe after my meeting with Mr.Devil)

The Storytellers’ Secret


The sun had moved from over our heads and was making its journey westwards, towards the forests and she still hadn’t come. I had finished all my chores and was helping mother. But my mind was somewhere else, and my mother was going tut-tut at my distracted state. Though she pretended otherwise, I knew she looked forward to Nalini’s visit as much I did, possibly more. Why were we waiting for Nalini, you ask?
Nalini was one of the storytellers. She was one of them, those tellers and jesters, who traveled from place to place, village to village, telling stories, bringing news, providing a glimpse into the world outside our meager existence, offering relief. Storytellers’ tradition was such that they could tell a story to an audience of more than one, not less, ever. If you met a storyteller alone, and he or she, told you a story, it would not be a story, not a service, but something more and infinitely less. You could pay them whatever you owned, but even that would not be enough. They often held their sessions for a larger audience, where there was no chance of them breaking tradition. You could find the teller Prayag holding the villagers captive with his tales of battleships and kingdoms under the banyan tree near the temple. He was there once every week, and he would tell the same story, with the kings and places and the weapons changed, but the villagers all loved him. He was also very good-looking.  And his demands in return for a story were thus proportionately extravagant. He once asked for a cow, would you believe that? Mother never liked him, and so neither did I.
But Nalini, she was different. She would come to your house, talk to you, tell you stories on a whim, ask you for your favorites and retell them, and she never asked for much in return. A few kind words, some food and on occasion if you had any clothes or other items to spare, Nalini would be more than content with that. Mother said that she did actually ask for a lot when she asked after us, when she enquired about our life and living, and you never knew if she was asking because she wanted to know, or because she was looking for a story. As the saying went, “A teller can only tell what has been taken; taken is always what is given.”  One time, when I was telling Nalini about how our goat ate mother’s favorite ring, mother got very angry at me.  “Would you want the people in the next village to know that a woman can afford to let her goat eat her ring and still stay in this hut? Do you want to be a joke in front of strangers?” she yelled at me. After that I kept everything that could be taken, safe and secret. Sometimes, even from mother because I knew she would not like what I was thinking.
But I’m digressing, this is not about me. This is about Nalini. And there she was, one could hear her anklets falling in rhyme with her steps. I could hear it the moment she entered the threshold, and leave whatever I was doing and would run outside to check. And there she would be, taking off her bundle from her shoulders and resting it on the porch, shaking her head and muttering to herself, those gentle calm eyes, sweeping the surroundings as if memorizing the color of mud and the number of steps leading to our door. She would settle her eyes on me after an eternity, exclaim “Kairavima, how you’ve grown!” and rush to pat my head and validate if I had in fact grown as much as she had imagined, since her last visit. Mother frowned upon this showering of affection, but I liked it. I felt special, for I knew she greeted none of the other children in the village this way. Mother would ask us to hurry inside, get refreshed and begin, for she had many other things to take care of apart from dilly dallying with pleasantries.
Nalini would come in and sit next to the only cot, on the floor, while mother would perch herself as comfortably as she could on the cot and I’ll be left to find a favorite spot between the wall and the cot. Though Nalini didn’t belong to lower, nor higher caste than ours, she would sit at a lower position, and mother, the owner of the house, above. I could sit with my mother, as I did when I was younger, on her lap or resting my head on her lap, but now that I was no longer a small child, I could sit wherever I wanted, but not too close to the storyteller. And I had to sit like a proper lady, or as proper a lady from a place like ours could. A concoction of crushed herbs and lemon juice would be kept in front of Nalini for refreshment; she would sip it from time to time, taking pause from her story. I wondered what story she would spin today. The last time she was here, she had told the story of the Prince who wanted to be married to a swan in the royal ponds, and how he took swimming lessons and I had burst into fits of laughter at odd times for days afterwards. I hoped she would tell something less funny today, for laughing without reason, or because of past reveries was also one of the things not much appreciated.
Today she looked a bit tired and seemed to be as lost in thought as I had been sometime back. Mother began shaking her foot impatiently and making the cot shiver, waking Nalini from whatever daydream she was chasing. She took the hint and began. “What tale do you want to listen to today? The story of the King who wanted to learn flying from Jatayu, or about the Princess from the mountains who could stop rivers from flowing? Or do you want to hear the legend of the King trapped inside a mango seed that was eaten by fish? Or should I tell you about the girl who was born from the earth?” Nalini would often ask us these, but would tell a story of her own choosing. I suspected this was just her way to let us know what stories she had and give us a tantalizing glimpse of them and nothing more. “You know the tradition Nalini, the stories and the rules. Tell us what you please.” Mother would parrot her favorite line as the answer to this question, as she did every time. The storytellers, with all the stories and the places they visited, were trapped with many rules. And only they knew what those were, but one always heard rumor. One of the rules was that they could not stay with their families for more than a quarter of the year. They had to leave them and had to move from place to place and make their living. I don’t know why that rule was there, it seemed more like a necessity than a rule, but then as mother kept saying, there’s more that you don’t know than that which you know and don’t understand. I’m not sure if I completely understood that, but it was enough to intimidate me into silence whenever I got boastful in front of her.  
“Well then, let me tell you the story of the Curse of Minasmara. This one has never been told before, or maybe it has. You’d never know, but this is my story.” Sometimes she would tell the story from her own point of view, as if she was there, present, not just observing but also experiencing. I often felt that these were parts of her own life, and not some story passed down from tradition, and I also felt that it wasn’t just because she chose to tell it from her point of view. I’d see how her voice would go soft and slow and her eyes would dance with emotions when she told such stories, but I kept these observations of mine hidden, like the many other observations, from mother’s omniscient gaze.
“To begin, we’ll have to go back a long long way back in time. When I was just a girl as old as you are now,” she said, looking at me. I smiled at her, mother seemed to be suppressing something, but there was no time to look into that. “My father was a fisherman and I was the only daughter. My mother, they told me, had been taken by the lake’s deep waters, as a price for my father’s profession. My father took his living from the lake, the lake took my mother’s life in return. I was only a year old then. I don’t remember much of her, but father told me that she was very beautiful, like Ganga herself. It had been twelve years since my mother’s death. One night I got a dreadful nightmare. The lake, Minasmara, spoke to me, and told me that my father still had to pay his debt. I saw a woman thrashing and trapped at the centre of the lake, her silhouette in the sinking sun, her face invisible to my eyes. I didn’t know if it was my mother or me. But I saw her struggling to escape and was rooted helplessly at the banks all night, or was it all evening? The sun sank into the waters and dragged the woman with it. There was no dark figure against the sun, only the dark of the night descending in my dream. Daylight broke into my sleep and I woke up with a thudding heart and a very restless mind. I relayed my dream to father, as soon as I could. Now, when I think of it, it was perhaps not the best thing to do. Some things are best kept secret.” She looked at me, and I felt her eyes reading what I thought I had kept secret. This, fortunately, went unnoticed by mother, who seemed to be quite engrossed with the story.
“A few days later that dream left from my mind, for after unburdening myself of its weight, it seems I had passed on the nightmare to my father. Though he never admitted it to me, I knew he had not slept well at night. He would be distracted and lazy through the day, miss easy catch, get lowly prices for the fish and began to look like a defeated man. I’d try to help him, but being a girl, I couldn’t go and help him catch fish, nor could I go into the market myself and conduct the dealings. I was to stay home and look after the household chores. Summer was approaching and we needed to get whatever we could from the market, before the lake shrank. One evening, father returned from the market, with a woman. By what right was she to enter our house, I asked father. Her name is Harini, and as your new mother and my new wife, she had all right to enter our house and live with us, he said. I was deeply hurt. I felt rejected, a strong sense of betrayal was rising in my heart and up my throat and I threw a big tantrum, blocking the door and not letting them inside our house. Was the memory of my mother, as beautiful as Ganga, not enough for him? Was I not a good enough daughter to take care of him? I was myself nearing the age of marriage and he went and got married himself! What was he thinking? All my anger was directed at him. I didn’t know her, nor did I care. The way I saw it, she was here to take my place. And that was also how my father saw it. ‘You will be married soon, Nalima. Who will look after this old man, once you are gone? Do you want to leave your poor father, in his sick state while you start your new life with vigor and prosperity?’ That did it. He had put the guilt of selfishness on to me and my heart. What could I say to that? What choice did I have other than welcoming this woman into our house, our life and our world as we knew it?
“Days went by and I became friends with Harini. I couldn’t bring myself to call her mother. But I couldn’t call her by her name either. In my mind, she was always Harini. She was quiet and had the most beautiful eyes. I always thought she was quiet because her eyes said so much more than what could be said. It was difficult not to like her. She would help me with the household chores and tell me stories about her childhood in the forests, and how she had never seen the lake or the ocean and how scared she was of the fierce flowing rivers that winded around the forests. I used to make fun of her because of this, but she would take it well. I promised to teach her how to swim once the lake was filled with water again. She was more friend, and sister than my new mother, or my father’s new wife. That was something we never talked about, and never wanted to either.
“With the arrival of the monsoons, came the time for my wedding. I was going to be married to Iravan, who was the strongest and most handsome fisherman you would ever see. Despite the stern exterior, he was as gentle and large-hearted as the ocean. How we fell in love and how he got to ask my father for my hand is a thrilling story in itself, but I will keep that for some other time.” Her eyes had that brightness which convinced me that this was no mere story being recounted for the hundredth time in front of an audience.
“We were going to be married at the temple at the centre of the lake. That was where all our weddings took place. We would be married in the temple and then there would be a big feast at the bank of the lake, which was already decorated. As per our customs, we would get married at noon, when the sun was over our head and showered us with light and blessings in its full capacity. Since the temple was not very large and it was difficult journey and also because the monsoons had made it all the more difficult, only family members and the priest were to be present for the actual ceremony. It was an overcast day and we had no idea how we’d know if noon came and went.  Thus we got married under a hidden sun, and it seemed our feast would take place under a storm. But nothing could dampen my spirits, I was getting married to the man I loved, everyone I loved was around me and healthy. Harini had a glow around her face and a smile that spoke of fulfillment. I had asked her about it, but she had said that she would tell me after the wedding. In her words, she didn’t want me to go giddy with all the good news.  The clouds above had started gathering force and we began our hurried departure from the temple towards the bank. We were still a good mile or two away from the bank when it started raining. And such a gale it was! The likes of it I’ve never seen since. The lake and the clouds seemed equally angry and at war. Our boat dipped and rose dangerously with the waves. Iravan held me in his arms and I clutched on to him for dear life. My heart was beating with excitement and somewhere uneasiness was creeping in, but it got swept under the raging rainstorm that surrounded us. Harini was sitting scared, across me. I wished father would hold her, the way my husband held me and protect her. I wanted to say something to that effect, but didn’t know if my in-laws would find it appropriate for a daughter to speak to her father like that. I was just going to tell Harini to hold the flank of the boat tightly, when our boat gave a mighty heave and it seemed like the heavens and oceans had switched their places. There was utter chaos for moments and nothing could be seen or heard under the thunder and lightning. With another giant lurch, our boat settled back on a wave and seemed stable. And just as it had started, the storm was fading away. The clouds were fleeing as if a giant wind was erasing them away. The sun was making its descent into the lake, it was already evening and none of us realized. Neither did anyone of us realize that Harini was missing. I couldn’t believe how I didn’t notice immediately and then the creeping fear inside my heart exploded. I looked at the helpless figure thrashing about in the middle of the lake, against the dying sun. I wanted to jump in and swim across and drag her out. I had risen up and was screaming her name, but strong arms were holding me back. I beseeched my father to go in and save her, but he looked helplessly on. I begged and pleaded with others, for someone to go and save my mother, my sister and my friend. No one wanted to displease the lake. No one would interfere; no one would save its victim. ‘Why don’t you save her, she’s your wife? It’s your duty!’ I bawled at my father again and again. ‘I could only save you’ was all he said and as I saw Harini drown and sink into that bottomless depth from where there was no rescue, no respite, another truth sank into my heart. The heavy truth of betrayal. My father hadn’t betrayed me by bringing her into our life, he had betrayed her. And she had trusted him, she had trusted me. And what did we give her for her trust and care? We gave her to the lake, as a price, as our payback for its gifts. We sold a life for a living, with treachery. My father had not just tainted his life, but mine too. For I had shared the burden of my nightmare with him, and now he would share the burden of this crime with me.” 
“Careful Nalini, be careful. Kairavi, you too.” Mother’s voice interrupted us. I was sitting open-mouthed at the unfolding of events in Nalini’s story. I had expected this turn of events when the nightmare was mentioned, but to see it, to imagine it happening as expected was still a blow.  Mother got up from the cot and went into our kitchen. Though I was almost on the verge, I didn’t dare to cry in front of the storyteller, and even worse, in my mother’s presence. The look that mother gave me when she got up promised flaying if I broke the rule. This was one of the most confusing, yet strictest tenets of the storytellers. They were not allowed to make you cry. That’s putting it too simply. They weren’t allowed to affect you too deeply. They could entertain you, inform you, even preach, but there was a line and that was not to be crossed. They could not evoke emotions that would have no way to be paid for. They can make us laugh, make us angry, keep us in awe, keep us confused and questioning, but to make your audience cry, shed a drop of tear, was the gravest crime. They had no right upon that personal and private feeling.  Allowing that brought upon heavy punishment from the Keepers of Tradition of the tellers and there was gossip about storytellers who had been banished from their faction and used their storytelling skills for black magicians. I wasn’t worried about that, I was more worried about what mother would say and do, if I broke it. For it was a rule binding on both the teller and the listener. Both had to know their place and be aware of the boundaries. As mother had once tried to explain, when you let that innermost emotion be shown, be shown to a storyteller, it puts you in a bond and gives the storyteller powers over you. They would know what your innermost fears and desires are and would play with them to his or her advantage. The storyteller then could control you, your mind and your heart, for what lay inside was now for everyone to see, and exploit. I thought that rule about storytellers never seeking audience with one person was probably created to enforce this complex rule, but I wasn’t too sure. For now, I was primarily concerned with avoiding the wrath of my mother. Then to see if there was more to the story.
Mother came out and kept a plate of rice, some lemon pickle, and water in front of Nalini. She asked me if I wanted to eat, it was too early, but I didn’t want to refuse. She kept another plate of rice and pickle for me. “Eat and continue with the story, if there is anything left to it.” She went on to light lamps around the house, and after a while I heard her sitting further inside in the house, next to the pots that had been made in the morning. I didn’t know if she was going to begin working on them now, it was already dark and she could hardly see in this dim light. But I didn’t enquire, and sat and ate my meal quietly.  Nalini was eating as if she had not eaten for days. The rice and pickle had disappeared even before I had finished my third morsel. I kept my eyes to her plate, not wishing to go and meet her eyes. I wanted to tell mother that maybe we should give her more, but mother seemed to have read my mind and asked me to offer her some more. I gave her some more rice and extra pickle, she seemed to like that. I also gave her some more of the lemon juice concoction. I was going to sit and begin eating again, but I had no stomach for it, so I went in and emptied the rice back into the pot and ate up all the pickle. With all the scurrying around, I figured mother would not notice. I sat down, and for a minute there was no sound other than that of Nalini eating.
I went back to what mother had warned about, it seemed Nalini would continue only when she had finished. I looked at her and didn’t think she would take advantage of me, or bind me with her powers. It was hard to believe that she would make you cry, just to get some sense of control over you and your destiny. I sometimes felt that she could look inside my heart and tell me the stories that it wanted to listen to with furious longing. Her stories had brought peace and hope to my restless mind so often, had enlivened a bleak day so easily. How could that ever be a bad thing?
Before I could answer, Nalini indicated that she had finished. I took her bowl and plate outside, where it would be washed with the other vessels and gave her some water to clean up. She returned and sat down just beyond the doorstep. She spoke softly, I don’t know if mother could hear her or see me and I inched closer.
“Following that incident, I could never go back to speaking with my father. People told me I should be thankful to him for saving my life. When I asked them, ‘At what price?’ they would say nothing. I was resolute and didn’t talk to him till he was on his deathbed. Weakened by age and grief, he died just months after my marriage. I sat next to him like a dutiful daughter, but could provide no calm, nor comfort, nor peace in his last moments. His last words to me were, ‘I hope I saved you’.  I don’t know what he meant by that, and even if I did know somewhere in the back of my mind what it meant, I refused to go there, for it brought back the memory and guilt of betrayal. Something within me had died with Harini’s death.
“It had been three years since I had been married and yet we had no child. His parents blamed me, and I too blamed myself. There were sacrifices and ceremonies made, but to no avail. Iravan’s spirits were low and it seemed as if he cared for nothing but a child. Was I of no value to him? Perhaps I wasn’t but that thought still rankled in my mind. I feared he might leave me, or get another wife. That was nothing new; one could always get another wife to bear your child. I put all my heart into prayer and visited the temple in the lake every day. I prayed for one and only thing, for a child.
 “One day, Iravan came home excited and gave me the most exquisitely beautiful white lotus. He said they had found it stuck in a fish’s mouth and that it must have come from the temple. Yet it looked as if it had grown from the fish itself. He instructed me to eat the seeds of that lotus; it was bound to have magical properties. It might just help us conceive a child.”  Magical lotus from a fish’s mouth? White lotus in a lake first of all? My belief that this was indeed Nalini’s story began to falter, but another part of me remained stubbornly faithful.
“I believed in prayers, but I was always wary of miracles. Though I didn’t really believe that the lotus was magical, to humor him, I did as instructed.” This time, she definitely gave me the most fleeting of glances and I was glad we were safely hidden from mother’s gaze. “The thought of this magical lotus left my mind after some days. I had immersed myself in prayer again and would spend hours sitting at the temple, sometimes just sitting on its steps and looking for answers from the lake, the lake that held all the answers to all the problems in my life. One evening, after prayers, I was sitting on the steps when I heard Harini’s voice. I first thought I was just hearing voices inside my head. Then it came again, and again, and it seemed to be coming from the lake itself. And I looked down and there she was, looking up at me, with those eyes of hers. I thought the steps would vanish from under me and I’d fall into those waters, never to breathe air again. I was feeling breathless. I wanted to tell her how sorry I was, how foolish I was, how I had never realized. I wanted to hold her and cry with her. But she kept asking me to take something from her. I didn’t know what to make of it. All I wanted was for her to come back and be with me, or that I could go and be with her. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I kept walking down the steps into the lake. Before I knew it, it was cold and dark and everything seemed empty. I didn’t know if the lake had swallowed me, or if the lake was inside me.
“When I woke up, I was back inside our house. Iravan was sitting next to me looking worried and excited at the same time. He told me how some fishermen had seen me and had rescued me. They had seen me floating. ‘Floating on what?’ I asked. He said they didn’t know. They just saw me floating near the temple steps and had hauled me up and brought me home. And that I had been unconscious for hours. All this while, there was a bright spark in his eyes, as if he was very happy. I felt a rush of affection for him, imagining that he was happy to see me alive. Before I could say anything to that effect, he burst out with the news that was making him so happy. ‘And you are going to be a mother Nalini. And I’m going to be a father. Everyone is so delighted. We are going to hold a ceremony soon.’ I should have been happy, I think I was very happy, but I was more worried than ever. I felt slighted by the importance given to the news of me being with child and not that that I was saved, but I decided I was being too self-indulgent. It was my child, and he or she, too had been saved along with me. I had no recollection of what had actually happened at the temple steps. I sometimes tried to recall, but I would be left blank and restless.  I decided to instead be happy for my child, and for my husband.
“As the days turned into months, the memory of that evening faded. I was busy making arrangements for the child, busy getting pampered by Iravan. Monsoons arrived and the baby started kicking. Just another month the elders told me. Iravan would spend all his evenings by my side. He would rush home even before the sun had set, and would talk about his plans and dreams for his son. He was convinced it was going to be a boy. I disagreed, but didn’t express my disagreement. Any day now, the mid-wife who came to look after me told me. She was a young woman called Prakshi and she came from a far-away village. Though she wasn’t old like the other midwives were, I knew she would take good care of me. I would get horrible cramps every night.  Prakshi would give me a potion of juices made from herbs every night to help the pain, but those attacks still persisted. One night, I had the same dream that I had once, a long time back. The lake wasn’t satisfied. This time it would be my husband’s debt. And I saw the woman again, thrashing and screaming against the sun. I didn’t know if it was my mother, Harini, myself or my daughter. Or was it going to be another hoodwinked stranger. I woke up with terror in my heart. Even though it was as dark as night, I knew it was nearly morning. My heart beat rapidly with fear and my body was convulsing with pains. Prakshi, who was staying with us now, came to check on me hearing my screams. Iravan was out, preparing for the day, as he did every day, before the sun rose. It was only me and Prakshi. I hoped she knew what was to be done. I had no idea what was to be done and I wondered if I could survive the night.  White light was blinding my eyes and I feared I would cry myself to death. She helped me control my breathing and got everything ready. She held my hand in one hand and asked me to put all my strength and willpower in helping my child come out. After what felt like days of torment, we heard the first cry. It was a boy she said. He was to be named Divit, as decided beforehand. Iravan was right, it was a boy. It could also mean that my nightmare might never come to be true. I was happier than I could imagine. I just wanted to sleep, the ordeal was over. We all might live happily ever after. Prakshi shook me and woke me up from my drowsy state. ‘There’s another baby’ she said. I couldn’t believe it. There were two babies? I had been carrying twins and I had never realized. What was this supposed to mean? Before I could ponder upon this question, the pains returned. I was to go through that process once more. Again, I pushed and panted and a shrill cry broke out in the air.
“It was a girl, Prakshi said. I didn’t know what to call her. Though I had imagined from time to time that I might have a girl child, we had never decided upon a name. Worse, I was gripped by the fear of that curse following her. But what could I do? I asked Prakshi to help clean up the babies and set everything to order. I told Prakshi that she can put the babies to sleep and that I needed to rest a while. While she did that, I looked carefully at her. She was gentle and caring with them. I knew she would take good care of them. I pretended to be asleep. I wish I had forgiven my father. I got up before the sun was properly up. I dressed hurriedly; even though I felt weak, I knew there would be no other opportunity. I bundled up the girl, I had named her Saumyi in my head. I took her into my arms, and she was there, looking at me with those eyes and already speaking to my mind. I looked at Divit, resting peacefully, calm and confident like his father, and I knew he would be safe. The price had been paid for their lives. I left the threshold knowing I’d never return, I left the only place that could have been home. I knew Iravan would marry Prakshi after appropriate time had passed and they would live happily, for as long as it was possible. I understood that the curse was not of the Minasmara Lake, but of human heart. Who was going to pay the next price?”
I never knew Nalini had a daughter. What happened of her? Or was this really her story? Why did she tell us this story, to what purpose? What was she getting at? I knew maybe, but I didn’t like the answer one bit. I had a feeling everything had changed in the house. My mother came out of the darkness, and gave Nalini a pot to take with her and walked out with her. My mother asked her something, and she replied, though I couldn’t catch any part of that exchange. I watched as Nalini left and my mother returned home, having broken the rule and broken, otherwise.
As I looked at those gathered around me, I suspected one of them was about to break today. It wasn’t going to be easy, but it was necessary. And they never really understood the rule, their heart betrayed them much before their eyes, or their face, did. I knew there was going to be another storyteller joining us soon.