Monday, 18 February 2013

An Enchanting Evening With Two Women Writers

On Saturday evening, my local library, Easy Library, had arranged yet another fantastic author meet with not just one, but TWO women writers whose works reach out to all of us. They were in conversation with Shinie Antony, who needs no introduction to Bangaloreans. The first of these was Sheila Kumar, a journalist and travel writer, from an Army background, whose book of short stories, Kith and Kin, is a collection centred around the individual members of a single Keralite matriarchal family, the Melekat family. The second author for the evening was Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, with books like Earning The Laundry Stripes, The Long Walk Home and, more recently, The Taj Conspiracy.

The evening started with the two writers talking of their own backgrounds and that of the characters in their respective works. Manreet comes from a corporate background and gave us a delightful insight into her former wherein she was the Area Sales Manager for the biggest consumer products company in India. She explained how the scheme included not just sales stints, but also a factory stint (so the sales personnel could understand the manufacturing processes) and a rural stint (as the heart of India lies in its rural hinterlands). Everywhere she went, she could see how "Women in rural India are in a bind". She said being in sales gave her a great insight into India - the real India. Her book Earning The Laundry Stripes draws heavily on her own experiences in the corporate world. In a way, The Long Walk Home too is an outpouring of her expression, hailing as she does from a border town. She grew up in a town closer to Lahore than to Chandigarh and Partition had a profound effect on most lives in the town. Almost every elderly person in the town had a story or two about the ravages of Partition. Manreet also grew up in the Khalistan era...The Long Walk Home paints a picture of Punjab over 80 years, from pre-Partition to the current times.

Manreet's latest book, The Taj Conspiracy, required extensive research and she came up with some really intriguing facts about the Taj itself! For instance, I am sure its news to most of us that the Taj, an iconic symbol of India to the rest of the world, was measured for the first time in its history only in 2001 - and that too by an Austrian Indologist! She also uncovered that the Taj was originally meant to be approached from the North, over the river, in the Mughal era, not from the South side, as contemporary visitors to the monument do...Manreet proudly declared that the Taj is a truly Indian monument as it not only is an Islamic monument, but also has Hindu aspects interwoven into its construction and architecture. She also believes that around 99.9% of Indians today know nothing much about the Taj except the story associated with its creation!

Sheila Kumar then took over and explained how, in her collection of short stories, while each story is about a particular individual, the matriarch, Ammini Amma, ties them all together. She is the central force of the book. These are all slice of life stories with all the 19 stories about the same clan. Sheila jokingly admitted that she used to come across all sorts of "life stories" when she was regularly handling the Agony Aunt section of Femina, the women's magazine, for years! When quizzed by Shinie as to how Sheila wrote about Pain without being "cloyingly sympathetic", Sheila explained that the catharsis was three steps removed as she was writing someone else's story. She deliberately kept it light as Life throws all sorts of things at people; some characters are in perpetual denial.

Shinie also complimented both writers on possessing a "quiet intelligence" and of keeping their writing extremely fresh. She felt both Manreet and Sheila firmly belonged to the School of Anti-Cliche! To which Sheila willingly admitted that she was definitely rebellious, while Manreet declared that all her works deal with the two Fs - Fundamentalism and Feminism. Sheila also explained that as a journalist, it was expected that the next step would be a book...

The talk then moved on to the use of dialects and the vernacular in their works. This was a rather animated part of the session as there were divergent views! While some present felt that English works HAD to use only words in English, others spoke out for the peculiar brand that is Indian English...Shinie felt that one is no longer apologetic about using the vernacular, as Sheila has used a lot of Malayalam words and phrases in her works, while Manreet too has peppered her books with regional flavours. Manreet defended the use of these as much is learnt from the context itself, while Sheila has used a mini glossary to justify her characters' use of language. The discussion then moved on to whether we are on our way to having multilingual works. Sheila felt that while her own use of colloquialism was for entertainment, Manreet's was for instruction...

Being held so close to Valentine's Day, the session ended with a light discussion on the place of Love in the books by these two authors! In Shinie's words, both authors were teasers on this subject...

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