Stories from the Kitchen

I believe I am a strange writer for I work at my kitchen table surrounded by sensory catalysts.

Seated in the center of my kitchen, my eyes catch the enticing red of apples, the bright yellow of bananas, the rich green of broccoli and deep purple of cabbage. My nose is tickled by the minestrone soup simmering on the stove. Chai cools in a tea cup while my fingers enjoy the feel of the keys on my computer.

I’ve tried other locations, a coffee shop, the library, a quiet corner of the house. My husband even bought a perfect writer’s table which he placed by a window with a lovely view. Nothing worked. The words in my head seem to dry up unless I am in my kitchen.

So I always end up at my favorite worn table, encircled by food, where I type out the ideas that have been percolating in my mind.

I’ve heard the general wisdom that writers should find a quiet place, set up an office and then free of distractions, allow the ideas to spill forth. Somehow, that doesn’t quite work for me.

I find that my ideas come at the oddest moments, sometimes while I’m seasoning a pasta salad, sometimes in the middle of cutting up a fruit salad, and very often, as I am eating. Something about titillating my taste buds awakens my brain. My concepts get nudged along by smells and tastes. And that’s the ideas part. What about translating those notions into words?

For me, it’s imperative to have easy access to my computer; it allows the ideas to grow into words on the screen before the thought disappears. The thoughts begin as nebulous notions, but the sensory stimulation in the kitchen allows the abstractions to find form, depth and dimension.

So, yes, I am a strange writer. I’ve often wondered why I’m not as disciplined as I believe other writers are, why I work so differently. Thus, I embarked on some research.

Lo and behold, I find some famous writers who have used quirky writing places.

Wallace Stevens apparently could not sit down, and wrote his poetry on slips of paper while walking. His secretary would later type them up.

Here’s another strange source of stimulation. Friedrich Schiller had a bizarre preference; he found the smell of rotten apples from a drawer in his desk inspiring.

The renowned bestselling author Dan Brown believes hanging upside down is the cure for writer’s block. According to Brown, when he does inversion therapy, it helps him relax and concentrate on his writing.

Victor Hugo wrote without clothes. Faced with a tight schedule for his novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he instructed his valet to take away all his clothes so he wouldn’t be able to leave the house. Even on the coldest days, Hugo only wrapped himself in a blanket while writing the story.

Gertrude Stein found that the driver’s seat of her Model T Ford was a perfect place to write. She found shopping expeditions particularly productive. While her partner, Alice B. Toklas, ran errands, Stein would stay in their parked car and write.

Of course, I am not in the same league as these famous authors. But they offer me both courage and confidence. They tell me it is okay to write where and how I feel comfortable, in a location where my ideas find the best incubation, where my thoughts become words and take the shape and form of a story.

They tell me I am not strange for wanting to write in a kitchen filled with sensory stimulation.





Writers Digest

Ambushed by Beauty

The members of my writing critique group comment on my manuscript. That’s what they’re there for: to offer suggestions, to help steer me in the right direction and to give me their gut reaction to my work. Most of the time, I heed their sage advice. This last time, however, while I recognized they were giving me a safer alternative, I didn’t want to accept their prompting.

You see, I’d become attached to the words in question.

Five words in my story were encircled for being rather obscure and therefore a distraction. Which, a couple of them said, made it harder for the reader to delve into the story per se. I understood the need to capture and keep the attention of the reader, but I believed the words belonged where placed and conveyed exactly what I wanted to say.

Specifically, the words in question were palaver, garrulity, torpor, perfunctory and procure. My writing cohorts offered, as replacements, the more commonplace and therefore, more readily absorbed speech, talkativeness, sleepiness or idleness, casual or careless, and the unpretentious get. No, there’s nothing wrong with the words they suggested. But I believed my usage was not incorrect either. So, we arrived an an impasse.

I must admit, rather sheepishly, I pondered after the meeting if I’d been too hasty or obstinate in my insistence.

Still mulling on this subject a few days later, I entered my car, put the key in the ignition and heard a man say, “So writing well is the same thing as thinking well. Let me repeat that. Writing well is the same thing as thinking well. That is how we express our thoughts and our feelings.”

“Oh my God, are you talking to me? It’s true, so true,” I shouted. I’d left my radio tuned to the local NPR station on when I parked the car. Turning up the volume, I drove slowly as if to extend the spaces between his words. I didn’t know who I was listening to, but his iridescent words resonated.

With me, thinking and reflection are as vital a part of the creative process as the actual writing. I’ll wander around with the characters, the setting, and the words in my head for quite a while before I type out the first word on my computer. Even after I’ve given the thoughts alphabetic dimension, the ideas continue to percolate and people my everyday life: in the shower, when I sleep, when I cook, when I read.

The corollary, then, is thisthe words in a story are chosen and well-thought-out, not arbitrary.

Soon enough, I found out I was listening to best selling author Dr Charles Johnson, the 1990 National Book Award winner for Middle Passage, on the Diane Rehm show. His new book is titled The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling.

“When I read something, I want to be ambushed by it’s beauty, whether it’s non-fiction or fiction I want to be ambushed by its beauty. I want the writer to have such a command over the English tongue that he or she teaches me how to use English better. That’s what I want in the things I read.”*

Exactly! There is luminescence in the right words.

I’ve always loved words. I am a reader, and have been one far longer than I’ve been a writer. When I read, I do look up words I don’t know. It excites me to add one more gem to my collection. Often, I garner the meaning of a word from the context, just like I did as a child.

The writer and the reader can work together to keep our language pulsing and robust. I also believe most people know more words than they realize. And yes, I’d love for my reader to be fully engaged in my story, be viscerally connected to my characters. For that to happen, the right word makes all the difference.

Thank you Dr. Charles Johnson for sharing your thoughts on writing.

Not that he’s ever going to read anything I write, but I intend to keep his wise words embedded in my work and in my heart.

This post also appears in Dead Darlings.

The Write Flourish


I remember signing my name over and over as I attempted to get the right flourish and the right curve, the cursive script an art I needed to perfect. The covers and insides of my books flaunted twists and curls I  practiced endlessly in my quest to find a signature as individual as myself. My hand turned into an embossing machine striving to make the autographs identical.

That was in fifth grade, at age ten. I paid careful attention to the writing of my name for I believed then that the two words were an extension of myself and embodied my spirit.

. . . Until signing became a chore and thus, meaningless.

It happened soon enough. Starting with high school tests and the college application form.

I am overwhelmed by the number of times I’ve had to put my name down in the process of living: when I filled out job applications, when I opened bank accounts, when I signed a contract releasing the other party from legal responsibility and every time I purchased something. Often, putting my name down on paper meant an acknowledgment of rulesa rental lease for example. The sign became a commitment, a promise, and a verification of my identity among other things.

There is no enjoyment in such routine activity.

What’s worse is that, in this digital age, we are abandoning the pen-written signature. The computer carries the typed or screen-squiggled name to the recipient without the semblance or pretense of anything personal.

Then, my first book came along and a reader requested an autograph.

I was mystified. Why did a reader want my signature? I am a relatively new and unknown writer. Only famous people sign books. Only famous people receive autograph requests.

In adulthood signing my name had devolved to automaton mode, it’s something I did routinely several times each day. I signed when I purchased something, not the other way around. It’s the same two words I’d transcribed a million times in my life, without sparing an extra thought to it. Now, someone had bought my book and was asking for my signature. I remember staring blankly at the person in front of me, thinking, “You want my signature? For provenance? I did write this book!”

It dawned on me, much later, that readers want me to write out my name for entirely different reasons.

They want the author’s name on the book because it is something from the writer that they can take with them. The book is printed with the author’s name on it; but when it carries an autograph, it becomes personal. And therein lies the value. It is a memento of their brief encounter with the writer. It is also how they remember the person who wrote the book. The signature makes it valuable, not in dollar terms, but in making the book unique.

In today’s digital age, e-books are popular for their convenience and portability. But, they cannot be signed or made personal in any way.

Signing a book is now my pleasure. I am honored when people buy my book, and I consider it my privilege to sign it. In an age where signatures have mostly become meaningless, an autograph in a book remains one of those old-fashioned arts that retains its charm.

A New Dawn is Here!


The day of a book’s official release is not unlike the birth of a child. As a writer, I know it’s coming. This is what I’ve prepared for over the past few years and I am both excited and joyful with anticipation. I’ve even seen the previews through the edits and the cover design process.

Then, when I actually touch and feel the book, I am as proud as a mama with her new baby. This thing I hold in my hands is something I’ve created. And with the help of my editor and publisher, the product of my imagination has become a beautiful and real presence in the physical sense of the world. Such a wonder!

My new book, A New Dawn, has always been real in my head. Now, with the formal release of the book, the characters I’ve written aboutand lived with for the past few yearscan exist beyond my heart and my mind. They live in the pages of A New Dawn thus mingling with others, the readers the world over. Go! Go with blessings, my friends Usha, Raja, Arjay, Marcy and Veena and bring as much joy to others as you have to me. I will miss you, but you will forever be in my heart.

Pictures for the Imagination

The stories I read come alive in my head.

My mind does not merely read the words in a book. It form pictures in my brainof the characters, of their clothes and even their expressions. Crying and laughing with them, it’s as if I’m inhabiting their worlds, making me a shadow character with super powers that allow me to move from scene to scene, from character to character.

It’s a private world that I’d hate to have shattered, especially in terms of the characters with whom I develop a relationship. I’ve seen them and felt them as no one else can. I’m sure this is true for all readers.

But how about the settings, the locales where the stories are set?

My imagination can transcribe an author’s paragraphs, capture them in images. For example, I can visualize the fictional setting of Wessex in Thomas Hardy’s work. From more recent times, I can envisage the Ireland described by Donal Ryan in The Spinning Heart. Or I can picture the small town Indiana setting in Lee Martin’s The Bright Forever. All three are places (although Wessex is fictional) I have never visited and I rely on my intellect to draw the scenes for me, using the author’s descriptions.

There are times, though, when I’d appreciate a little prompt. A little nudge to my imagination that allows it to flourish, like a bit of yeast to help bread rise, without taking anything away from the my internal, confidential relationship with the characters.

Let me explain. My upcoming novel is set in the desert southwest of the United States. For those living in other parts of the world, the summer heat, the cacti with names like saguaro, ocotillo, prickly pearand dry landscapes will be unfamiliar. The main characters meet on the fifth floor of the large central library, a singularly beautiful structure.

It occurred to me, then, that a few photographs might help my reader, offering their already rich minds a tiny bit of extra fodder. With this in mind, here are a few images that will fit into the scenes of my upcoming novel, A New Dawn: the cacti, to convey the vibrancy of the desert landscape and the view from the fifth floor of the library, to capture where the protagonists first meet.

Prickly pear
View from the library

Is the Stunning National Library of Finland a Library or a Museum?

I’ve been shushed by a librarian several times in my life, but never has a library rendered me speechless – until recently. The National Library of Finland, in Helsinki, is in one word – breathtaking. While this library is an architectural marvel, it is in some waystrue to all things Nordicunderstated. The sign on the door of this majestic building, for example, is tiny. The sign makes it hard to locate, but once I entered the imposing library any frustration that I harbored, fled.

I walked into the Cupola Hall, my eyes riveted on the intricate cupola above. And that’s not all. The hall’s other details included artistic pillars and awe-inspiring art. For some moments, I forgot this is a research library, my gaze captured by the sheer grandeur of the place. It might well have been a museum, or even a palace. But a glimpse of the shelves reminded me: this is a library.

The Cupola Hall connected to a second grand hall, the Rotunda, where I found a young man lucky enough to be surrounded by such beauty every single day. He was helpful in providing us with some details about the library.

Construction on the structure began circa 1840 and the library opened its doors circa 1845. A new extension was completed in 1903. This library, he told us, is the repository of every thing that’s been published in Finland. While I could see books stretching up the spiraling six floors, the bulk of the collection, he informed me, is stored in Kirjaluola (Finnish for Bookcave), an underground bunker ( yes, under the ground! ) drilled into solid rock, below the library.

“So, can people check books out of this place,” I asked the young man since it didn’t seem likely.

“Yes,” he said, “Books published after 1950. But you can study or work on research here as well.”

 Not a bad place to do that, I thought.

I had to ask him this, “How do you bring people into the library?” I meant not to just look around. as a tourist would, but to really use the services of the library. These days, with so many electronic sources, fewer people seem to go into a library.

“We have events,” he said and directed us up the stairs where an impressive exhibition on the life and works of Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik Von Wright unfolded.

Upstairs, computers hid in quiet corners behind the shelves, a subtle reminder of the times we live in.

I’ve tried to capture the many facets of this gem with my camera, but I’m afraid I do it little justice. If you’re ever in Helsinki, even if you’re not a bibliophile, this library is well worth a visit. Had Usha, the protagonist of my new novel, A New Dawn, worked in a library like this one, she’d have been ecstatic.

Knowledge Should be Free

As far back as I can remember, libraries have been a part of my life. They evoke several emotions: wonderment, knowledge, comfort, warmth, and an escape into the hitherto unknown.

I recall walking to the little corner store called the library, in India, at age ten. Clutching the fifty paise my mother had given melosing it would mean I wouldn’t have a book to read that night—I would enter my hallowed, but dusty heaven. From the higgledy-piggledy piles I’d choose one book, delighted to borrow the passport that would open new worlds.

They called it a lending library. My parents paid for a membership and in addition, we paid every time we borrowed a book. If we kept one beyond the seven day limit, a fine accrued. Never mind that the books went through so many hands, they were dog-eared, scribbled upon, cover-less, or in tatters. The lending library meant business to the shop owner.

The owner may or may not have read the books and he certainly didn’t organize them alphabetically. Still, he knew them all: the authors, the subject matter and the summaries. Some of the high-demand ones went on a wait lista ledger into which he inscribed names. If you paid him a little extra he could move you up on the list.

At school, from the relatively paltry library collection, we were allowed to take a book home on library days. The school didn’t have a large library but they did treat their books with a little more respect than the owner of the lending library.

When I got to college for my undergraduate studies, I got my first glimpse of a real library imposing, and hushed, where patrons paid homage to the universe of learning, knowledge and possibilities. Still, we mostly spent brief periods of time inside the library with reference books, using them to write essays.

Later, when I came to the United States for graduate work, the university library took my breath away. It wasn’t just the size and the limitless access that astonished me. I marveled at students spread out on the library lawns, reading, eating lunch or relaxing in the shadow of the library. And then, there were those inside. It amazed me that students would enter a library and find a spot simply to do their homework or study there, as if to spend time with booksnot to borrow themhanging around them like they were friends. Knowledge transferred by osmosis, perhaps? I learned then that libraries furnish more than books: they offer solace, quiet, peace, and room for reflection.

And best of all, it was all free, the books and the serenity. I now possessed an actual card and I didn’t need to pay to borrow anything.

The concept of a library has metamorphosed over the decades. In my lifetime, I’ve seen the corner lending library, the school library, the college library, the university library and the wonderful public libraries that populate every county in the United States. With the advent of the Internet, as a member of a public library, I can now download books on to my Kindle, or Ipad. Online borrowing is here to stay.

Today’s libraries bring you much more than books: music, movies, magazines, events, workshops, readings and authors. Long, long ago, in Hindi class, I had to write an essay on a famous quote (the author’s name escapes me):Sahitya Samaj Ka Darpan Hai. Roughly it translates, literature is a reflection of society. I extend that concept to include the library it, too, reflects evolving society.

While in elementary school, my daughter, upon hearing some adults comment on the high cost of college, remarked, “Knowledge should be free.” We laughed, then, at her precocity. Now I wonder, was that wisdom from a child’s mouth? The public library makes that happen for all of us, it offers free knowledge. In addition to so many other things.

Libraries have been a part of my life as long as I can remember, in many avatars. Small wonder I’ve chosen to set my next book, A New Dawn, in a public library.