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On Karma and spirituality: A chat with Acharya Prashant

Acharya Prashant, a Vedanta philosopher, an Advaita teacher, and the author of Karma, talks about his transition from the corporate world to the spiritual world. He also answers questions about Karma, a word as common in the spiritual lexicon as in the popular parlance.

Karma
Karma || Acharya Prashant

After studying at IIM and working in the corporate sector, you took respite into the world of wisdom and spirituality. How did you overcome the difficult period of ‘sorrow, longing, and search’?
The basic inner challenge that life presents to us remains the same, no matter what the circumstances are. The one all pervasive and ubiquitous challenge is to keep doing the ‘right thing’ even in the most difficult situations. So whether one is an MBA student or a corporate employee or a spiritual leader, one has to act rightly – which simply means to not act from a personal centre of greed and/or fear.

There has never been any tectonic shift in my life as such. As an individual, I have always aimed at gradually trekking higher and higher. So, this movement from being a consultant in the corporate world to leading PrashantAdvait Foundation, is to be understood as a process of elevation and not of renunciation. The shift was only towards something higher, towards something more critical and of higher caliber. And the search . . . it has not ended; it is very much there. But yes, the destination has changed.

 

Your book, Karma, was first spoken and written later. What made you pen down hundreds of questions that you’ve verbally answered in a decade?
Every project that the Foundation undertakes is in tandem with the needs and requirements of those for whose sake it exists. As an organisation and as a socio-spiritual mission, PrashantAdvait Foundation exists to serve and transform contemporary society. And one of its prominent objectives is to liberate spirituality from superstition; which could not have been possible without a total repudiation of the false beliefs linked with the concept of Karma – and this, we know, has been quite successfully achieved with the book. Because the Foundation believes in harnessing each and every medium/platform for the Mission, the idea to write books (and make them reach the masses on a wide scale) occurred quite naturally to us.

 

Why do you think what people know about Karma is wrong?
Unfortunately, today there is hardly any concept in spirituality which has not been both misinterpreted and misrepresented. The same tradition to which we owe gems like Sri Bhagwad Gita, has sadly become a vehicle for misappropriation. Real meanings and implications of concepts linked with spirituality stand obfuscated and distorted by centuries of misplaced expositions and self-appeasing translations.
So, instead of asking what is wrong in the contemporary definition of Karma, we should be skeptical enough to ask: is there really anything at all that is right about it? Because had there been even a single grain of truth in it, we humans couldn’t have been the way they are – violent, chaotic, depressed, loveless, faithless, and what not!

 

In your book, you’ve mentioned that one must do what is right and forget about the result. Is there an ideal way to work without expecting results?

It is not the expectation that is to be dropped, but the one with the expectation that must transform. If the actor – the doer, the centre from where the action is happening – is itself the one with desires and expectations, then no attempt to work without expecting results would be successful.
So do not look at the expectations, look at the one who is expecting. And having looked at it attentively, you might find the key to ‘Nishkama Karma’.

 

In one of the chapters, you have said, ‘Just be wisely selfish and help others’. Can you elaborate on what you mean by being ‘wisely selfish’? Does being selfish not count as bad Karma?

Selfishness is bad when the self is petty; but when the self reaches spiritual heights and the relationship with the other is of Love, then being selfish gets redefined as being compassionate.

 

Do you plan on writing another book? If yes, what would you like to focus on?

All I can say right now is that I will keep addressing issues that require attention, and books on those issues/topics/concepts will continue to be circulated to the masses.

On inspiration and art: Author and illustrator of Topi Rockets from Thumba

Menaka Raman’s fascinating book about the launch of India’s first ever rocket, Topi Rockets From Thumba, has charmingly beautiful illustrations made by Annada Menon.

In a delightful chat, the duo shared about their ideas, inspirations, and experiences of writing and illustrating the book.

 

Questions for Menaka Raman, Author

 

What inspired you choose this theme and instance from history?

The iconic photograph of the two scientists pushing the nose cone of the rocket on the back of a bicycle the starting point of this book for me. I just found something so moving about the image and when I started reading the story behind it I was hooked. I had to no more!

Topi Rockets from Thumba
Topi Rockets from Thumba || Menaka Raman, Annada Menon, Illustrator

What research went into writing this book?

So much research! This was my first attempt at creative nonfiction and I was so nervous. I wanted to make sure I got all the facts straight and the timelines right. Plus, the more I read about Dr. Sarabhai and the amazing team of scientists behind this historic moment, the greater a sense of responsibility I felt I wanted to convey what Dr Sarabhai was like, why people were so drawn to him and of course his infectious enthusiasm. My starting point was Amrita Shah’s biography of Dr Sarabhai and then I went on to read Lavanya Karthik and Shamim Padamsee’s children’s biography of Dr APJ Kalam, ISRO A Personal History by R.Aravamudan and From Fishing Hamlet to Red Planet by Dr. UR Manoranjan Rao. Articles, papers and interviews with people who worked at ISRO were all key to my research. I also wanted to get things like the names of the characters right, so I reached out to friends for help and advice on that!

Of course at the end of it all I had so much research notes that I had to decide what to keep in the story! That was hard!

How did you decide to compare the ‘nose cone’ of rocket with ‘topi dosa’?

When I first saw the photograph of the nose cone on the cycle, it really struck me ‘Wow! This looks like a topi doas!’ I must have been hungry at the time!

Are you planning to write another book on similar theme?

I would absolutely love to! Now that I’ve had a taste of it, my antennae are up for other great stories like this!

 

Questions for Annada Menon, Illustrator

 

What intrigued you about the story of Topi Rockets from Thumba at first? What made you illustrate it?

When I was offered to illustrate for the book I already was in the zone of being intrigued by the topic of outer space. I follow and have also read a book by the astronaut Chris Hadfield. He increased my curiosity of space and to this day does. Though I was aware of Dr. Sarabhai , I didn’t know details of his endeavours. His story and drawing it from the perspective of Mary, the charatcer in the book, was a lovely way to celebrate his work. I guess apart from that the idea of drawing rockets excited me. It poked the child in me to have fun on the journey of illustrating the book.

How did you finalise the style of art for this book? What other styles were your options?

This was actually finalised with the help of my art director, Antra. We actually wanted to go for a very textured yet slightly detailed approach to the illustrations. I like that the book has 2 spreads that are based on Mary’s imagination. The pages consist of what a rocket would like according to Mary to how a rocket is fighting a storm. I had to make sure these pages stood out from the raw look of the other pages to show the simplistic environment of Thumba. I actually didn’t ponder over too many style options. From the author to the editor, they wanted some of my existing approaches if drawing to flow into it. Hence I just went with my gut to execute it.

How different or similar was the first draft to the final version?

Well, the ideas from 90% of the sketch / draft stage were carried forward to the final stage. I think anything that changed while illustrating are mostly the technical aspects of the book. Since it is a STEM book we had to make sure scientific elements were accurate . I also had to make sure that the people of Thumba and the place itself looked close to what it may have been during the 1960s . There aren’t too many image references to these from the mentioned time. The tricky part is most of these images are black and white so representing or reimagining them in color was a fun experience.

What do you think is special about the illustrations in this book?

I actually don’t know if this a ‘blow one’s own trumpet’ kind of question (chuckles). Well, I guess what I can say about the illustration that it has been drawn with a lot of innocence and curiosity. The book is meant to subtly introduce a child to the beauty of space and a brief introduction to Dr. Sarabhai’s contribution to India’s space program. Since it is a light read the illustrations are meant to compliment the same. Also, in a subtle way the illustrations are an ode to nature’s elements water, earth , wind and fire (3 elements depicting Thumba and 1 depicting a rocket). I guess for me these little things make it special.

How to live a sustainable lifestyle the fun way-a chat with Sahar Mansoor and Tim De Ridder

  1. How do you think the Covid-19 pandemic has affected the way industries and individuals are looking at waste generation and sustainability?

-The pandemic created such a large amount of waste from the outset. However, it also rekindled intimacy with parts of our lives that we may have disconnected with. Examples include our kitchen, homes and nature. This reconnection found at an individual level is mirrored by many industries that have grown and/or launched during the pandemic. Specifically, food packaging and e-commerce businesses have developed new ways to operate in a changed world while reducing environmental footprints. In these ways, the pandemic has provided additional perspectives about the things that truly matter on an individual level and what can be innovated and developed at an industry level.

 

2. The zero-waste life is difficult but as your book has shown clearly doable especially for individuals?  Do you have some tips for larger families especially those with infants since infants do generate a lot of waste such as diapers etc.?

  • One thing that we have focused on in the book is to illustrate that choosing to make a change is the first big step and one that has been undertaken by individuals and organisations across the country. The examples we have used are there to highlight how doable these actions are and what resources are available. For families with infants for instance we have detailed some organisations that retail cloth diapers such as Bumpadum and Super Bottoms. Additionally, In the first two years of life, an average child needs 280 pieces of clothing, most of which are only worn for about two or three months. As a result, a vast amount of kids’ clothing ends up in landfills, losing value and creating adverse environmental impacts. Sharing/circulating clothes among friends and family or at clothes exchanges are ways to reduce waste while making your own gifts for your children and/or involving them in the creation is a unique and memorable way to reduce waste.

 

3. Capitalism is to a large extent dependent on obsolescence and therefore, on waste.  What message can you send to large business concerns that could inspire them to adopt more sustainable practices?

  • There is no doubt these days that sustainability and reducing waste is the way forward, there is so much research on this now. For businesses wanting to know how to do this make sure to keep it simple by designing out waste from your current system, this could include creating/using high quality products that have a longer life and can be reused in other fashions in the long term. A prime example is e-waste where the core elements of computers, phones and other devices needs to be reused because there is a finite supply of the raw materials. By incorporating models of reuse and refill into business operations each company can make a positive difference for their people, the planet and profit too.

 

4. Both of you have travelled extensively. Can you describe one incident or anecdote from your travels that really shaped your ideas on sustainability and its impact?

  • Tim: I’ve been fortunate to visit a number of remote and beautiful locations such as the Himalayas. Yet, when I visited there was always waste that polluted rivers and mountain tops. This impact changes the way that people live and needs to be addressed at a systemic level so that the livelihoods of communities and the environment can improve. I’ve witnessed community-based initiatives recently that promote the sale of sustainable and traditional products rather than imported plastic items that was one of the causes of waste in the area. This type of example illustrates a number of benefits of sustainability.

 

  • Sahar : Throughout my narrative, in our book I speak about my time working in northern Karnataka. This opportunity provided me with the opportunity to spend time in rural India and learn from communities that were choosing sustainable practices, including hand sewing traditional clothes designed to last a lifetime not just to be worn a few times and replaced. This type of practice fills my heart with so much love, it is a perfect picture of how sustainable practices value the environment, rural communities and experiences of travelers who are truly fortunate to visit these locations. There are many lessons to be learnt from people across our diverse country.

 

5. Bare Necessities has some wonderful recipes and DIYs using easily available ingredients that replace many less environmentally-friendly products. Let’s simplify these even further. Can you name 5 ingredients that you could survive with on a desert island?

  • This is a fascinating case study! I hope I never end up trapped on a desert island but if I did and wanted to create some of the DIY recipes I’d hope to find coconuts, bananas, yellow gram & green gam, along with honey and turmeric. Many of these ingredients form the backbone of the recipes we have shared and could provide sustenance too. For instance, coconut oil/water and the flesh of the coconut can be used for rehydration and if needed for personal care recipes for your skin, hair and teeth. Similarly, bananas, gram, honey and turmeric can be used for nutrition, cleaning and self-care. It’s pretty cool to think about but let’s hope we never get stuck on an island, I much prefer to make these products in Bangalore with my manufacturing team.

 

6. Have you noticed any positive impacts on your personal health since you switched to more sustainable personal care products?

  • There are many that I gained from the point where I made the shift to a zero-waste life. I would actually enjoy taking a deep dive into the benefits of the changes to my personal care routine through a longitudinal study now that I use organic face masks among other products. One area that doesn’t need a long-term evaluation is on the impacts in the kitchen. Many of the benefits I gained in my life combined both the decisions in my personal care routines for the things I placed on my body with the items I consumed. Overall my health improved markedly due to this combination of not using products with harmful chemicals while eating more raw and whole foods instead of packaged.

 

7. Which sector of the economy do you think will experience the most change as more buyers shift to sustainable consumerism in the future?

  • An area that we mentioned a little above with innovations from businesses aiming to reduce their environmental impact. Specifically, the creation of sustainable packaging is an area that is likely to experience significant growth. The use of hemp, mycelium and seaweed for example is seeing the development of alternatives to packaging made out of plastic and styrofoam among other harmful materials. This is an area of exciting change for the future and one that may well revolutionise business and increase the uptake of people involved in the circular economy, thus enabling a transition to a more sustainable/earth-friendly lifestyle.

 

 

‘We need to see inclusion as a basic human right’ – Lavanya Karthik

We have adored Adil ever since we got our hands on the book. We chatted with Lavanya Karthik, the author of When Adil Speaks, about her creative process, favourite books, and more!

 

How did Adil come into being?

LK: Adil was a little glimmer of an idea in my head for a long while. I wanted to explore the idea of communication in a picture book. I wanted to address the idea of diversity, as well as look at the little things that make us all the same – fear of not being accepted, shyness, wanting to be heard and seen.  And I was fascinated by sign language. I realised I could do all of this in one book and, slowly and steadily, these ideas developed into ‘Adil’.

 

What was your creative process behind a children’s book on inclusivity?

Front cover of When adil speaks
When Adil Speaks||Lavanya Karthik

LK: While the central character is disabled, I did not want that to be the focus of the book. Rather, it is his personality that stands out – he is fun, popular, a great athlete. I wanted this book to be about communication, and finding ways to connect. And what better way to connect than through art!

This book then evolved quite organically, as I imagined how the story of Adil and his friend would develop, and how they would figure out a way to ‘speak’ without words.  Comics seemed the obvious choice; whenever I visit schools or conduct workshops, I find that kids – from the quietest ones to the noisiest, from municipal schools and elite private institutions – love drawing comics. They dive right in, drawing themselves as superheroes, confronting demons, making great speeches. filling up pages and pages with art and ideas.  Then they would gather around, inspecting each other’s comics. What better way to make friends!

 

If you had to recommend a reading list on inclusivity for children (or adults!), which books would you add to it?

LK: This would really be a very, very long list! To narrow it down to a very short one,

Picture Books

  • I Didn’t Understand by Mini Shrinivasan
  • Guthli Has Wings by Kanak Shashi
  • My Travelin’ Eye by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw

 

Middle Grade

  • El Deafo by Cece Bell
  • Caleb and Kit by Beth Vrabel
  • Simply Nanju by Zainab Suleiman

 

YA

  • Five Flavors of Dumb by Antony John
  • There Will be Lies by Nick Lake
  • Dear Rachel Maddow by Adrienne Kisner

 

Inclusivity and the idea of embracing difference is still a severely stunted conversation in the country. Do you think some level of sensitivity training should be mandatory, particularly for people working in educational institutions?

LK: I think we need to see inclusion as a basic human right and not as an act of benevolence. We need schools and playgrounds, systems and processes that can be accessed by everyone, and that acknowledge diversity, not enforce sameness. Sensitivity training is definitely important as a first step to enabling this.

 

Moni Mohsin on Ruby, politics, and choices

Moni Mohsin sat with us for an absolutely delightful chat, and we just can’t get enough of her (and her book The Impeccable Integrity of Ruby R of course!)

 

South Asian literature has historically been seen as heavy and weighted, so do you feel a little more liberated working with a freer style like satire?

MM: It’s not that satire is lighter per se because you can go to really dark places with satire too. I choose to write social commentary that allows me to portray my society as accurately and as truthfully as I can while also exploring its more comedic side.

 

If you had to pick five desert island reads, they would be:

MM: Ah! This is a difficult one not least because my essential reading keeps changing, but if I have to give you top five today they would be:

George Eliot’s Middlemarch because it is so wise, profound and capacious.

Digging to America by Anne Tyler for its wryness, humour and subtlety.

The Complete Works of Shakespeare because God knows when I’ll be rescued.

Some David Sedaris to lift my spirits.

Nuskha-e-Wafa by Faiz Ahmed Faiz so I can keep myself busy by learning all of his greatest  ghazals and nazams by heart and stunning everyone with my brilliance when I finally get rescued.

 

How have you been spending your days indoors?

MM: Editing, writing, recording my podcast ‘Browned Off’ and watching tons of Netflix. And eating chocolate!

 

If you didn’t pick satire, what would be another narrative style that you might consider?

MM: I’d write funny romances and whodunnits.

 

Do you think social media can have a positive impact in a field like politics, or is that too positivist? In theory of course yes, it is possible, like anything else, but do you think the system and political structures create politicians and workers on ground level who could actually wield it as a constructive tool?

MM: Of course social media can have a positive impact. Many activists use it for just such a purpose: they speak truth to power and set the record straight. As with everything else, in using social media too there is a choice involved.

 

What would Ruby do if she were embroiled in today’s South Asian politics? Do you think she would play the system like a fiddle or is the current situation maybe a bit too much even for her?

MM: She would do exactly what she does in the novel: she’d start off believing she is doing good. But very soon, in order to prove her loyalty to her party, she’d find herself peddling misinformation and abusing anyone who disagreed with the party line. And she’d still believe she was doing good.

 

There is a general despondency that seems to have settled in amongst people, with the pandemic and the general world-politics vortex where something goes wrong every day. We find ourselves once again in an age of anxiety. Do you think satire has the potential to push society towards introspection at such a time? Or is it consumed more like page 3 entertainment because people are too tired?

front cover The Impeccable Integrity of Ruby R
The Impeccable Integrity of Ruby R||Moni Mohsin

MM: I don’t really know. I think for satire to act as a catalyst for reform, there has to be some consensus on morality – on what we deem to be right and what we believe to be wrong. But in today’s deeply divided world I’m not sure we have that agreement any longer, if we ever did. My own ambitions as a writer are more modest. I am pleased if I can make someone smile when they read my work or recognize something I’ve written as being truthful.

 

Power and age very easily sway younger, more impressionable people. It happens with Ruby as well, who listens to one speech by Saif Haq and completely discards her reservations about a figure like him. Was the affair between Saif and Ruby a conscious narrative choice from the very beginning, considering it echoes the #metoo movement very closely, or was it something that born later out of the sequence of narrative events?

MM:  It is not just the young who fall prey to the false promises of the powerful and the privileged. The affair between Ruby and Saif, while it is an actual thing in the book, is also meant to function as a metaphor for how we the public, who should know better, allow ourselves to be seduced by celebrity and by the intoxicating but divisive rhetoric of populist leaders.

 

Saif is said to have been modelled on Imran Khan, although he is an echo of several public figures we have seen. Did you have any specific figure in mind when you wrote him or is he more of an amalgamation?

MM: In creating Saif Khan I channelled the arrogance, entitlement and charisma of several populist leaders who are prominent in the world today.

 

The heightened focus on integrity in a field that obviously seems to have none is a very striking anomaly through the novel. In India for example politics seems to have given up on pretences and external polish. Do you think perhaps that morally bankrupt politicians are more effective when they work with the façade of integrity, parading the importance of being earnest? Or is the scene changing in that regard?

MM: I don’t think that Indian leaders have dispensed with their soaring rhetoric about purifying their country and returning to some mythical golden age while simultaneously stepping into a glittering future. Populist leaders never tell their adoring public the truth: that they have no quick fixes and that meaningful change comes only through hard work and sacrifice. The best they can do when their hypocrisy or incompetence comes to light is to either blame others (the opposition, or minorities, or bad neighbours or hostile super powers or the ‘lying’ media or whatever) or else, conveniently ignoring the truth.

~

The Impeccable Integrity of Ruby R is an exciting satire on the life and times of our current politics.

 

Writing the story of the man who saved 4000 lives

Bike Ambulance Dada, the authorised biography of Padma Shri awardee Karimul Hak, is the most inspiring and heart-warming biography you will read this year. Written by Biswajit Jha, it documents the extraordinary journey of a tea-garden worker who saved thousands of lives by starting a free bike-ambulance service from his village to the nearest hospital. The book is a must-read today as it will inspire us to do and be better in our lives.

In this interview, we talk to the author to understand his personal journey with the book and it’s story.

 

  • Where did you come across Karimul Hak’s story?

After I quit my job and came back from Delhi in 2013 to work for the people of my area in the northern parts of West Bengal. I first read about Karimul Hak in a local newspaper and came to know the amazing story of this tea garden worker who carried critically ill patients to the hospital on his motorbike – free of cost.

 

  • What inspired you to share this story with the world?

In 2015 when a friend of mine told me that she personally knew Karimul Hak, I felt an urge to meet this person. One day, I, along with my friend, went to meet Karimul Hak in his village much before he received the Padma Shri and much before he became a well-known figure. But I, at once, got hooked to this simple man who does such great work for the people. What amazed me is that despite being a tea garden labourer, he does such incredible work to help his fellow villagers without thinking much about his own family.

After that I started working with him to serve the poor. I made him the brand ambassador of my school which I started in 2017.

I felt people all over the world should know the story of Karimul Hak, who is living proof that you don’t have to be an extraordinary person to do extraordinary work. You can be ordinary and still do outstanding work for people. His life is an inspiration for all of us. When a tea garden labourer with a meagre monthly salary can undertake such a path-breaking journey, we all are capable of doing wonders.

 

  • Your own father was very particular about helping others. Can you share some incidents that stuck with you?

My father, from whom I got my first lesson to serve others unconditionally, was a primary school teacher and has always led a simple and honest life. From my childhood I saw my father helping others despite the fact that he was not a rich person.

front cover Bike Ambulance Dada
Bike Ambulance Dada||Biswajit Jha

So, the lesson about doing things for others and sacrificing your own comfort for someone less fortunate than you, I got from my father who, despite being not very well-off, did everything he could in his entire life for the betterment of society. He took on a frontal role in establishing three charitable schools in our village and also worked tirelessly to improve education in and around our village. It is due to his tireless effort that we got the first English medium school in our area. I did not have to go outside my own home to find inspiration to help others.

One incident that stuck with me the most, which I also shared in the book, is a story of a sanyasi. It was a sultry summer noon in the early nineties. Hungry and exhausted, an old sanyasi came to our doorstep. My father ushered him into the puja room. After my mother fed him, the sanyasi expressed his wish to rest inside the puja room. But the room did not have a ceiling fan as we couldn’t afford one in every room. Realizing the old man might not feel comfortable without a fan, my father got the ceiling fan uninstalled from his own room and fixed it inside the puja room so that the sanyasi could sleep well.

The second incident which I remember vividly is that every year there used to take place a fair in our village. Though thousands of people would come to the fair, in those days there was no facility for drinking water in and around the fair. People would suffer due to this. Seeing the sufferings of the people, my father started to carry water in big jars from our home to the fair and started distributing drinking water along with jaggery to the people for free. I was very small at that time but my brother and I also used to go with my father and distribute water to the people. After that he made it a routine of conducting this ‘water camp’ every year. This is another lesson I learnt from my father that whenever you see people suffering, you should come up with some sort of solutions in your capacity.

 

  • What was the book-writing experience for you? Particularly knowing you’ve always wanted to write?

I always wanted to write a book. But I did not know when that would actually happen. As I am a social entrepreneur and not a full-time author, writing a book was very challenging. Taking out time from my busy schedule was a challenge. After quitting journalism, I stopped writing for almost two years. That actually helped me. My urge for writing increased manifold during these two years.

When I had started working with Karimul Hak, I felt an urge to take this story to the people all over the world and inspire them. When you have such a mission to accomplish, no job in world seems a challenging. Rather, I enjoyed writing this story. I enjoyed knowing Karimul Hak more closely while researching for this book, talking to him and interacting with people of his close quarters. I was so engrossed with the struggles of his life that I cried several times while writing his story.

 

  • What was the biggest challenge in this project?

There were many challenges I faced while writing this book. The biggest challenge was to make Karimul sit and talk. Since he can’t sit for more than 10/15 minutes in a single place, listening to the stories of his life from him was a challenging task. Apart from that he does not remember many incidents of his life. He would keep on telling me only 5/6 stories of his life which were not enough to write a book. Getting information about Karimul’s childhood days was also a challenge. Apart from that I had to write within certain parameters while writing a biography or a real life story. But I wanted this book to be interesting to the readers also so that it does not become monotonous. So, writing a non-fiction in a fictional way was a challenge but I tried to keep that ‘tension’ alive throughout the book.

 

  • What made you switch professions, from a journalist to a social entrepreneur?

Like Karimul, I was also born and brought up in a humble family of a small village in Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal. I struggled my way into becoming a national level journalist. I hardly got any support while I grew up. But I wanted that no one should face the same ordeal which I faced in my childhood.

With this thought in mind, me and my wife both quit our jobs and well-settled life in Delhi and came back to my roots in the northern parts of West Bengal which is considered to be the backward area of the state. After that we started serving the poor and helpless people. I basically wanted to be a part of the difficult but successful stories of many struggling men like Karimul.

Apart from many other social activities I am involved in right now, writing this book on this unsung hero is one of my ways of giving back to the society.

 

  • How satisfying has the change been and what changes have you experienced in yourself after this switch?

Initially, it was very challenging. To start everything all over again was very tough. I had many sleepless nights. But I kept on doing good for the others in my tough days. That, I think, helped me overcome my personal troubles. When I found that there were thousands of people who did not have basic things like food, clothes and shelter, my problems seemed much lesser compared to theirs.

While working for the others, I became a much better person. I found my true meaning of life. I felt happy within. And when you start to feel happy within, everything around you becomes beautiful. That’s why in my second book, which is a fiction and will be published after my debut book Bike Ambulance Dada, I wrote that the only way to get happiness is to serve others unconditionally.

 

On writing and politcs: A chat with author Vinay Sitapti

How long was the research process for the book?

This took me three years. But I was also teaching during this period.

 

Why this subject in particular?

I am a child of the 1990s, and the two biggest political trends of that decade was liberalisation and the rise of the BJP. My first book, on P.V. Narasimha Rao, was a response to this first political trend. This book was motivated by the second trend — the political rise of Hindu nationalism — that I remember from my childhood.

 

What has been the most rewarding experience about writing this book?

Front cover of Jugalbandi
Jugalbandi || Vinay Sitapati

While writing the book, I immersed myself in the world of Hindu nationalism — talking to people, reading books and articles, going through archives — over its 100 year period. Then suddenly I began to see patterns and trends, for instance their 100 year focus on organisational unity. It was almost as if my vision had suddenly changed from blurred to focussed.


Any criticism experienced? How about any encouraging instances/incidents?

The most encouraging feeling is that even though the topic is so polarising, the book has not been slotted as ‘left’ or ‘right’. The book has not provoked anger, rather I think it has spurred understanding. That’s a lovely feeling. It means that scholarship, if done right, can bring people together. There have of course been criticisms — that I have been unduly harsh on Vajpayee for instance. I only request that the reader looks at my evidence and asks whether my conclusions flow from it.

 

What should we look forward from you, next?

I haven’t yet decided on what next. But I enjoyed not just the popular reception to Jugalbandi, but also the process of writing it. So whatever else I work on next must not just be interesting to the reader, it should be interesting to me.

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Up close with Krishna Udayasankar

If you just cannot get enough of The Cowherd Prince, you are not alone. Krishna Udayasankar’s prequel to the bestselling novel Govinda is a thrilling insight into the world of Govinda before he became the master strategist of The Mahabharata. We had a chat with the author and it was an absolute delight!

 

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We hear you’re a science fiction buff. Who are your favourite writers in the genre?

KU: I was a huge fan of Isaac Asimov as a child and teenager. I mean, I still am, but it’s difficult to say that now without asking myself questions about separating the art from the artist – after the allegations of harassment against Asimov. But I can’t stop liking what I’ve liked all these years, I can’t change the fact that I love the books and have been influenced greatly by them. So yes…

 

You characterise your protagonist Govinda very carefully. You have also said that consent is one of the most important things to learn from Govinda. What would you say is the importance of looking at mythological characters from a more contemporary lens?

KU: Fiction is a device by which we look at the world around us, all the more so for genres that deal with alternate worlds, like myth and history or fantasy. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that good fiction is always a commentary on the way the world is. When it comes to mythology, I believe that becomes even more important because it is a two-way thing – the way we understand our past, the way we believe things happened, are fundamental parts of how society functions in the present. And if we want to question our present or examine it, then we also need to examine our understanding of myth or the pre-historic past – all the more so because for a large part of our society, myth is the bedrock of defining good and bad, right and wrong.

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The Cowherd Prince||Krishna Udayasankar

 

We also hear that you hate spinach. If abandoned on a deserted island with only spinach to eat, which three books would you take with you?

KU: Haha! Since I would not eat a book or tear it up even if I were starving, I assume the question is which books can make the spinach go down easier? Traditionally, it would be Amar Chitra Kathas – since those were the spinach-y books of my childhood. But now my list would be: My entire Calvin and Hobbes collection, Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan and Asimov’s Foundation series. And maybe I’d try to sneak in Lord of the Rings too? And The Jungle Book. And … wait a minute, three books? I can survive on spinach but I can’t survive on only three books.

 

 

What are you reading now? What book are you excited to read next?

KU: I am re-reading Martha Well’s Murderbot novellas in anticipation of reading her latest – a full Murderbot novel next.

 

 

What is your favourite thing about being a writer?

KU: Hanging out with some amazing (imaginary) people. Living in other worlds. Travelling to places I have never been, vicariously doing things I can’t dream of doing otherwise in this lifetime (whether it’s flying a fighter jet or whipping up a six-course meal!) And of course, one of the best parts of being a writer is getting to share these experiences with readers – who often become friends.

 

 

How do you battle writer’s block?

KU: I don’t battle it, not anymore! All I do is show up every day, even if that means I’m doing nothing other than stare at a blank page. But that is when I am writing. I often go for months without writing, particularly between books. I’ve learnt that imagining new worlds, new stories is one of the best parts of writing (other than playing with words). I tell myself now, that its ok to do that, and the story will come to me when it has to.

 

 

What is your writing process like? Are you a planner, or do you wing it, or is there a third customized method that works for you?

KU: I’m a mix of planned, chaotic and downright clueless. I think I try different methods at different points on time in a book – usually winging it when I begin, then stepping back to plan a little bit, then just being instinctive about it again. I also work on multiple books, sometimes, so I could be following different processes at once. Like I said, clueless and chaotic!

 

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Krishna Udayasankar’s The Cowherd Prince is captivating and will keep you reading well into the early hours of the morning.

What attracted Usha Narayanan to Mythological Stories?

Usha Narayanan, author of Prem Purana, has donned many hats, before becoming a successful full-time author. In her glorious career, she has dabbled with genres like thriller and romance, before turning to mythology. Her works Pradyumna: Son of Krishna and The Secret of God’s Son have been praised as ‘Indian mythology at its fiercest and finest’. 
Her latest book, Prem Purana is about stories of love and extraordinary devotion found in Hindu mythology. On the launch of the book we asked her what about the mythological stories attracted her to write about them.
Here’s what she had to say.
The idea of writing mythological love stories was born during a conversation with my editor Vaishali Mathur at the Jaipur Literature Festival when she suggested that I should combine my strengths in writing mythology and romance. At that point, I was busy with The Secret of God’s Son and it was only after it was completed that I could think seriously think about this. I knew that our epics and Puranas focused more on the battle between good and evil, with heroic gods and fearsome demons confronting one another. Only a few love stories were widely known, such as the one of Kama shooting his arrow of love at ascetic Shiva, or of Arjuna winning Draupadi’s hand at her swayamvara.
I began my quest by re-reading all the ancient lore with an eye to discovering tales of the heart. As always, when writing mythological fiction, I wished to focus on untold stories, using my imagination to bring alive minor characters or lesser-known aspects of major ones. The first character who caught my eye was Ganesha. We think of him as the lovable elephant-headed god with a fondness for modakas. But who did he marry? People in the south of India swear that he is single, but others state vociferously that he is married. The images in temples show him either alone or with a wife or two. What are their names? Some say Siddhi and Riddhi, while others think their names are Siddhi and Buddhi. That was enough intrigue to stimulate my mind!
Another interesting layer to the story is the idea that Buddhi, Siddhi and Riddhi represent intellect, spiritual power and prosperity. As their names are merely mentioned in passing in most Puranas, I could give full rein to my imagination in portraying them. I endowed the three with distinct characteristics and showed Ganesha wooing them in different ways, according to their particular likes and dislikes. My Riddhi is sprightly, Buddhi is silent and deep, and Siddhi is fierce and opposed to the very idea of marriage! Their stories span three realms and four yugas, shedding light on many engaging aspects of Ganesha, the first among the gods. To add to the appeal, I discovered that in Bengal, during Durga Puja, Ganesha even has a banana bride!
I think readers will enjoy seeing Gajamukha in a refreshing new light in Ganesha’s Brides, the first of the three stories in Prem Purana.  
“Siddhi watched as more and more arrows struck Ganesha, causing blood to flow like a flood. Was he ready to meet death rather than forsake his promise to her? Would he sacrifice everything for the sake of his love?”
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For the second story, Mandodari, my inspiration came from the Ramayana. Ravana was Brahma’s great grandson on his father’s side and an asura prince on his mother’s. Choosing to follow the asura path, he pillaged heaven and earth, ravished women and abducted Rama’s wife Sita. What I found of interest was not his war with Rama, but his relationship with his wife Mandodari. How did she react to all this? Did she protest or did she submit silently to his actions? What was her background? Did the rakshasa love her? And the most exciting question of all―did Mandodari come face to face with Sita, the woman she regarded as the instrument of doom that would bring down Lanka?
I found no answers in the commonly available texts where Mandodari features in a mere two or three scenes. Fortunately, however, there are many Ramayana versions available. I followed the uncommon trails, used my imagination and fleshed out the queen’s character, placing her emotions at the centre of the narrative. The story also reveals startling new facets of Ravana’s character and motivations. I think Mandodari, with all its twists and turns, will be riveting and revelatory to readers.
“‘Snatching a woman by force or stealth is not an act of valour, Ravana. She is not an object of lust or a means to settle scores with your enemy,’ said Mandodari, her voice loud and clear. She would speak the truth regardless of consequences. It was a risk she had to take for Ravana and her people.”
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After delving into the lives of a merry god and a dire rakshasa, it was time to move to the human plane, with the story of King Nala and Princess Damayanti. She turned down the gods who courted her at her swayamvara and chose Nala as her husband. Though she chose love over immortality, Nala was driven by his own demons and abandoned her in a dangerous forest. Damayanti struggled to survive the perils that confronted her at every turn, but forged forward regardless. She did not give up hope and devised various stratagems to reclaim her happiness.
I was fascinated by her strength and also by the magical swan that plays a key role as the messenger of love. I named the swan Gagana, meaning sky or heaven, and created a charming and audacious companion to Damayanti. The Kali demon, who plays a major role in my previous books, Pradyumna: Son of Krishna and The Secret of God’s Son, is the enemy that Nala and his queen must confront. How can a mortal pair combat the power of the demon who reigns over a dark yuga that signals the end of the world? Love, loss, hope and despair form the chequered background of this poetic tale.
“‘Majestic Ashoka, whose name signifies one who destroys grief . . . Free me from pain and unite me once more with my Nala!’ cried Damayanti, sinking to her knees under a soaring Ashoka tree. Alas, the tree made no answer and all she could hear was the wind rustling among the leaves.”
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A major part of my excitement in writing these stories came from the opportunity to focus attention on the women in our epics who are often sidelined. We often find that a woman is regarded as a prize to be won, someone who is forced to watch quietly while her husband makes disastrous decisions. However, the heroines in Prem Purana are central to the action. They are strong, independent thinkers who inspire the males in their lives―god, asura or king―to do the right thing and live up to their responsibilities.
I hope readers enjoy reading these tales which provide a good mix of fervour and fury, heroism and heartbreak, set against a spectacular backdrop spanning heaven and earth.
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In Conversation with Osama Siddique

Osama Siddique has been a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, a lawyer in New York and Lahore, a policy instructor in various countries. He is also a legal scholar, university teacher and reform consultant in Pakistan, and a successful doctoral candidate and visiting professor at Harvard Law School. His most recent book is an acclaimed and multiple award-winning critical legal history of postcolonial justice systems. We spoke to him about his debut novel Snuffing Out the Moon.
 Below are the questions we asked him.
You are and have been a very successful lawyer and legal scholar.  Why did you decide to write a novel?
There are many kinds of legal discourses of course that allow much room for critical expression. Quite apart from more conventional work, as a lawyer and an academic I have always been particularly intrigued by how law can be and is manipulated by the powerful against the disempowered. Regardless of which era we speak about what goes by the name of law has always been a strong weapon for those who can use it – for better or for worse. Indeed I have explored this theme in my legal scholarship. There are, however, certain limits on expression imposed by extant conventions of style, structure and methodology. Fiction on the other hand is a very vast, rich and multifarious terrain that provides tremendous flexibility and license to explore this and various additional themes that I dwell on in my novel – themes that I had always wanted to write about. Themes ranging, for instance, from ancient political landscapes to omens of impending evil to lives of petty criminality to literature as a weapon of protest to social media as a medium for hate mongering to environmental apartheids of the near future. Only fiction allows engagement with all this in one book. Such is its largesse. Hence the novel.
Why did you situate the book in these particular six epochs of time?
In large part because having blessed access to their archaeological sites and cultural artifacts I have been greatly fascinated by them since childhood. I continue to fondly visit them, read about them, live amidst them. Mohenjodaro also because it continues to be such an enticing enigma and unsolved mystery. The Gandharan civilization because it has left such an exquisite artistic and architectural imprint on the Pakistani landscape. Lahore – my beloved city – appears in three contiguous eras, which are all reflected in its hybrid culture and built heritage. And the near future is of course the source of tremendous curiosity and indeed concern to all of us – given the highly troubling times and the various political, environmental and civilizational crises that we currently face as humankind.
Somewhere in the book you say something like: “all eras are driven by the same hopes and fears and passions and we continue to make the same mistakes.” — Could you elaborate on this and also your concept of “time.”?
While one can surely detect evolution in various spheres of human endeavor – political structures, organized religion, modes of technology – it does occur to me that across the ages our fundamental aspirations and imperatives remain very closely aligned, if not identical. It is fascinating to think, for instance, how hope, fear, love, hate, dissent and the resulting conflicts drive people to act in such similar ways, regardless of whether we speak of today’s milieu or one of four thousand years ago, from whatever we know of that distant era. Naturally, it causes one to wonder whether we are caught up in a constant cycle of repetition. Civilizations come, flourish, decline and ultimately vanish. Whether time is linear or cyclical. Whether we are headed somewhere or will the wheel of time continue to turn and turn till one day our kind will simply be no more. That we will simply vanish. Without even a whimper, let alone a bang. Without any explanation, let alone an apology.
What are your thoughts on the concept of “evil”?
Evil is such a vital and fascinating concept in every religious and cultural tradition as well as manifest, however you define it, in so many human catastrophes through the ages. One of the most compelling questions remains whether evil is just another name for our baser instincts, distinct external influences that corrupt and corrode us and compel us to do abhorrable things, or an actual physical embodiment – a virtual devil. What causes us to indulge in devilry and why has humankind failed in putting a stop to murders, pogroms, genocides, travesties and wars. These questions provide a vital undercurrent to my overall narrative and evil manifests itself mysteriously and multifariously in the lives of the different characters. Quite apart from the more analytical dimensions there is also something very emotive, something very sinister and forbidding about the concept that impacts our senses in a remarkable manner. The fear and foreboding evoked by the concept of evil has been depicted so powerfully in many great pieces of literature and it has always been something that I also wanted to write about.
Your protagonists are non-conformists who dissent and then pay a price for it.  Can you tell us more about choosing protagonists who are dissenters and the importance of dissent in human history?
Arguably, as critically as ever before in out history we face the challenges of curtailment and censorship of free thought and speech. What is also obvious is a globe-wide shift to harder governments, to despots, officially sanctioned histories, blind dogma and also now, alternative facts. The present epoch is as Orwellian as it can get. Meaningful dissent, therefore, is a precious but also much maligned virtue and hence all the more worthy of preservation. Mine is just one modest endeavor to underline how vital dissent is for societal sustenance and integrity. Even otherwise, dissenters make much more compelling and effective protagonists than conformists. Dissent has contributed tremendously to history and brought about significant turning points and breakthroughs in human thought and achievement. And yet the dissenters have often paid a tremendous personal price, which makes their entire endeavor all the more heroic. There is thus no way that I would have been tempted to choose protagonists who are not dissenters. Having said that those who habitually conform and capitulate are also curious in their own way. Perhaps in my next book if there is one.
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