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Original Essays | August 20, 2014 0 comments
Saint Paul, August 2014 Dear Professor Fitger, I've been asked to say a few words about you for Powells.com. Having dreamed you up with a ball-point... Continue »
A Reader and Writer Beby Indu Sundaresan
I don't remember wanting to be a writer when I was young. It simply wasn't a profession touted in extended family circles as legitimate. Medicine and engineering were considered the most job-worthy? I deviated from the trend by choosing economics. I would have dearly loved to do literature for my Bachelor's degree, but it lay pretty low on the totem pole of education, just above history (and below economics).
I do remember that reading ? almost everything my two older sisters and I could lay our hands upon ? was a very important part of our upbringing. These were pre-TV days (no, we're not that old, the technology just hadn't infiltrated to where we were) in the far-flung Indian Air Force bases of our childhoods. When we did acquire a television set in Pathankot in northwestern India, the only available program was something called The Bionic Woman. It was beamed to us, via our much-tweaked antenna, all the way from Lahore in Pakistan. And in traveling this far, across the heat-smothered plains, the picture gathered a vast amount of snowy flurries; I still don't quite know what the actress looked like.
Books, then, were our major distraction, a habit our father had, and one we gladly picked up from him. We were so obsessed with reading that every Sunday afternoon, tired with seeing us noses-in-books, Dad would pile us into the car and take us out for some fresh air and sunshine, with the strict requirement that we could not bring our books along.
Dad also told us stories, a talent he acquired from his father. They would rival each other for our attention when my grandfather came to visit, and my childhood is filled with these tales ? from Hindu mythology, about people they knew or had worked with, or, my favorites, tales of Jumbo the elephant, and Silver the horse. These last were part of an ongoing saga that my father made up to keep me entertained at bedtimes, and with a flair for the dramatic (not unlike Scheherazade), he would stop the story midway, at a climax, leaving me to ponder upon how it ended, and what happened next. My father taught me how to tell stories in my head long before I learned to put them down on paper.
The summer after I turned ten we had a house full of guests. We were ten kids in all, the three of us, and seven cousins, ranging in age from nine to seventeen. My parents were the only adults around. I remember a fun-filled month of food, fighting and making up, playing cards and Scrabble. One afternoon, bored and looking around for something to do, we decided to stage a play ? Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. It was in Hindi, a language we were all somewhat fluent in, though it is not our mother tongue.
My Delhi cousins were the directors since they knew the play. I use the term "knew" loosely, since we did not work with a script, made up our own dialogue, and when the day came to stage the play, had not finished even one complete rehearsal. This did not deter us however; with the ignorance and confidence of children, we winged the last quarter of the play onstage, made up dialogue on the spot, bumped into each other and merrily missed our cues. We actually had an audience that night ? most of the officers at the Air Force base had turned up along with their wives (I think now it must have been to please my father, who was their Commanding Officer!).
The first scene ? for some reason not rehearsed before ? was a disaster. Ali Baba went to chop wood in the forest on his donkey. The "forest" was a twig tied to the badminton net pole; the "donkey" was our Labrador retriever, Simba, who took great offence at being sat upon, promptly plunked on the ground and refused to move. When my cousin Ali Baba raised the ax we had borrowed from the gardener, he almost brought the badminton net pole down along with the twig, felling the "forest" in one blow. The audience erupted with laughter.
We were woefully short of personnel ? the older four refused to act in the play, though they did help set the stage and manage the stage curtains which were my mother's drawing room drapes. So six of us played all the roles, and when the thieves went into the forest to their cave, they numbered three in all (another cause for mirth from the audience) and not forty!
During another scene, Ali Baba cried over his brother Qasim's body at the tailor's house, where the body was sent to be sewn into respectability before Qasim's wife could see it. I was the tailor; I was also Ali Baba's wife and one of the slave girls in Ali Baba's household (don't ask about the logistics of this). So, in the brother's death scene, one of my cousins, doubling as a thief and Qasim's dead body, lay under a bed sheet. When Ali Baba bent over his brother's body, he tweaked the sheet and pulled it off my cousin's face. Greatly enraged, she sat up, glared at him, pulled the sheet back over her head and lay down again.
The audience roared.
I remember looking up from sewing the body, hearing this laughter and thinking, "But this is not a comedy, why are they laughing?"
Looking back now, just as The Feast of Roses comes to bookstores, I realize that this was early training in reader reaction and book reviews! In fact, the whole play was an exercise in imagination fieldwork, for we took a kernel of an idea, from a fable of our childhoods, and transformed it into something that was uniquely and entirely our own (Poor Ali Baba!).
Dad was so proud of us all that night. He passed around orange and lemon squash during the intermission, a now pacified Simba sticking close to him, and happily took compliments on our efforts.
Two months later, my father died. After his fighter jet disappeared off the radar screen and the control tower lost radio contact with him, it took the officers two days and nights of trampling through the nearby jungles in a thunderstorm to find the crash site. My cousins and sisters had returned to their homes and colleges by then. My sisters and I remember our father, of course, but I am glad we had that summer month together, for he forms a very fond part of my cousins' memories, too.
When we left our Air Force life, I was not allowed to forget my legacy of reading. My mother and sisters devised a scheme of buying books for me a few years later, when we had moved to Bangalore. India was, and is, quite possibly, the world's greatest recycling machine, long before it became popular or fashionable to recycle. Every two months or so, we sold our accumulated newspapers, cans and empty bottles to the raddiwallah. He weighed all these items in his tin scales and gave us either money or steel vessels for them. My mother decided that I would get that money as long as I used it to buy books. We held a family conference on what to buy, then one of my sisters took me to the local bookstore. It was a place called The Book Cellar, because it was underground, though not damp or dank or dreary, just filled with wondrous books. Every time we shopped in the vicinity of the store, I would drag my sisters or my mother inside so I could drool in anticipation over my next acquisition ? I could hardly wait for the newspapers to pile up. And thus I got my library of books that are still favorites on my bookshelf ? all of Jane Austen's works, some Thomas Hardy, the Bronte sisters, Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mocking Bird, and George Orwell's 1984.
Many years later, while at graduate school at the University of Delaware, a bout of homesickness led me to the university library in search of books on India. And it was then I was first introduced to my heroine, Mehrunnisa, or Empress Nur Jahan as she is better known today. I was absolutely fascinated by the amount of power she wielded over the Mughal Empire in 17th-century India ? an empire that gathered within its boundaries modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and a massive chunk of northern and central India. Mehrunnisa lived in a time when women were not seen and rarely heard outside the walls of the imperial harem. More importantly, she was Emperor Jahangir's twentieth wife, very low in the harem's hierarchy upon her introduction into the harem, and the daughter of a Persian refugee who had fallen into disgrace at court.
The love story behind this important marriage was intriguing. Mehrunnisa had too many obstacles to surmount for this to be a mere political alliance ? she was thirty-four, had been married before, had a child by another man, and her brother had attempted to assassinate Jahangir and was put to death for that. In The Twentieth Wife, I explored her early life, the events and circumstances that made her Jahangir's wife. In The Feast of Roses, you will see Mehrunnisa as Empress, witness how she gains her power and how Jahangir and she grow indispensable to each other, until he makes her sovereign in all but name. I think that as much as The Twentieth Wife is a story of a love between two people, The Feast of Roses is even more so ? showing this love to be substantial and lasting, worthy of an implicit and unshakeable trust.
The irony is that I was always bored in history class as a child, tired of having to mug up dates of battles and years of reigns. I gave up the wish to do literature in college for a field that was considered to have slightly more prospects. And now, I have written two novels about a historical character I fell into love with nine years ago. So much for my formal education.
The one constant, however, is this: I have been influenced and inspired by so many writers over the years, but the biggest influences on my writing are the four people who encouraged me to read ? my father, my mother, and my sisters.