BWW Star: The Street

He tries, albeit unsuccessfully, to stifle the yawn that seems to rise out of nowhere from inside his body.  His head has been throbbing for the last five minutes, he hasn’t shaved or showered and there is a persistent itch in his left armpit that is desperately pleading to be tended to. Reeling in the throes of misery at not being able to wake himself up at the designated hour in the morning, courtesy a late night movie on TV that he did not even like, he decides to rid himself of at least one of his grouses and slowly lifts his right hand, even as his eyes dart around restlessly, convinced that what he is about to do is a largely uncouth act and any witnesses for the same would be absolutely undesirable.

He likes to get to the stop much ahead of the scheduled time and so almost all of his fellow private-offices-bus-stop-mates, save the pimple faced man standing under the gulmohar tree and the bespectacled girl who like every other day seems to be too occupied in her own world to even register his presence, have not turned up yet. Not in any way threatened by these two, he manages to get the hand under the troubled armpit and makes a clumsy attempt to cover his at-work fingers with the other arm.

The pimpled man’s bus arrives by the time his hands are back in their original position. He knows all the buses and their vendors by heart now. Bespectacled girl’s bus is air conditioned with slightly tinted glasses, pimpled man’s bus is rickety with clear scratches on its painted exterior and a perpetually lopsided motion that gives it the appearance of a camel out on its walk. His own bus is painted in a fresh mix of sky blue and white and has a name that he considers to be the ‘sexiest’ amongst all its counterparts, ‘Miss Mary’ being that name.

Many of his bus-stop-mates have still not arrived and so has the slim girl, who regularly boards the city transport’s Volvo from the neighbouring bus stop. He has a mild crush on the girl and likes stealing glances at her from time to time.  Some days she lets her hair free and he enjoys watching her walk along the street, as her hair sashays  alongside the mild breeze.  Her absence bothers him and he looks in her direction, desperately hoping that she turns up; but she doesn’t.

He notices a new hoarding amidst all his gloominess. It is a picture of a white young couple who look far too young to be the parents of the two little kids who are accompanying them. He dislikes such advertisements, considers them disrespectful towards the country, its people and yet he also knows, hardly anyone would really be bothered by the same.

A group of 5 girls gets to the stop just then, their giggles and self-mocking  banter, taking his mind off some of his anxiety. One of them turns around and smiles at him. He smiles back too. She was a junior at his college, a fact that she finds a need to acknowledge in those half-hearted greetings, every time she sees him. He finds this prolonged familiarity taxing; and yet finds it impossible to stop himself from being mildly relieved every time she ends up prolonging it through another smile.

As if celebrating that relief, he lifts his hand and touches the uncomfortable stubble on his jaw and looks towards the other side of the road. A young man, approximately his own age, is standing right opposite to him,his hands tucked into his pockets, earplugs neatly plugged in and his eyes downcast. A woman and her two school going children, possibly waiting for their own school bus, are standing right next to the man. The woman is clearly disconnected from the attention, her younger son is trying to seek . He thinks of his own mother and his own childhood.

He always walked to school and his mother had her own ways of practicing disconnection.  A bike with its silencer seemingly non-functional, for his eyes scrunch in displeasure at the sound it makes, stops right in front of the young man, almost at the same instant. He watches more onlookers scrunch their faces, as the bike zooms away from there almost instantly,as the magnets on it in what seems to be less than a second.

He follows the bike for as long as he can before noticing an old man, trying hard to drag a cart loaded with bananas. The exertion on the man’s face is clearly visible, even though all the distance. A  middle aged man, dressed appearing insanely funny to him, courtesy the blue shorts and the white sleeveless vest  he is wearing, wheezes past the banana man, causing him to almost lose his balance with the cart. He looks away the very second, embarrassed and guilty for the banana man, and tries hard to distract himself by focussing on the closed shutters of the stores, beauty parlours, laundries and other establishments that line up the street. The morning hasn’t begun for all of them and he envies them that freedom to start their day at their own time, in the closed comforts of their little havens. They don’t have to drag pathetic carts along the road or they don’t have mandatory hours of work to log in, day after day.

Just then, he notices the long haired girl he has a crush on, walk towards the bus stop. She is not alone; a boy walks besides her, her right hand holding onto his left wrist, they are engrossed in some conversation that makes them almost miss the bus stop, for they don’t stop there and continue to walk. But he soon realizes, it wasn’t a mistake. They are merely walking up to the zebra crossing so that they can cross the road, all through, their hands still held together and their conversation still intact. He watches them get on the other side and then get inside an empty rickshaw and disappear. The bored mother and her two children have disappeared too, and for a few seconds, he is worried that he has not seen the school bus arrive. But a closer inspection reveals that the mother and her sons are still there. They are just seated on the steps to one of the stores, the little boy’s head resting in his mother’s lap,even as the mother is busy staring into the space.

His train of thoughts is broken when he hears a couple who has just got down of one of the public buses,  as he can figure out from the multitude of bags with them, busy arguing with one another. The woman is accusing her husband of stealing her money when she had fallen asleep in the night. The man denies the charge. The fight has by now gained everyone’s attention, even the bored mother. The man, gradually losing his patience, puts the bags in his hands down and surges towards his wife, ready to land a slap on her face. The woman flinches at that mild slap, almost anticipating a repeat, but before that can happen, some of the onlookers have pulled the man aside. Before they can land a rain of slaps on the man’s face,  his wife takes everyone by surprise. She rushes to her husband, holds his hand and holding onto all their bags, walks away from there.

He watches their receding backs only to notice Miss Mary approaching from the other side, in all her blue and white glory, earlier than usual, disappointing him and surprising him too, much like the rest of the day would.

BWW Star

The dream of every writer is to be read. And to be read and appreciated by as many people as possible. BWW makes that dream a reality.

BWW Star is a writer who has worked with us at BWW and whose work amused, moved, inspired, and/or made a difference in our lives. We are sure you will enjoy and be encouraging too

Here, we present Prashila Naik from the the Yaks batch of 2013. A technologist, who is an observant writer. Her writing encapsulates reality and showcases an eye for detail.

About Prashila Naik

IMG_01051Prashila Naik was born and raised in Goa and yet she dreams of retiring into the idyllic landscapes of Ladakh and longs for a day when every child in India will have two full meals to eat and a permanent school to attend to. When not dreaming or longing, she continues to extend her repertoire as a technologist, who also happens to write, and occasionally manage to get herself published. She has Scoliodentosaurophobia (fear of lizards), and likes to call herself a pesceterian.

Encourage our BWW Star 

Read and post a comment. Share and tell the author what you liked about her story!


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Shikha Malaviya on Geography of Tongues

Author Photo Shikha MalaviyaPoet Shikha Malaviya, considers herself a morpher. She was born in the U.K. but grew up in the US and India. Raised in a family where books, good food, music, art and candid conversations always took center stage, it is no surprise that she took to poetry at a very young age. Her grandfather was also a poet. Shikha loved school and is a life-long student. With English as her favourite subject, she started penning poems since she was nine years old.

Geography of Tongues is her recently published anthology. She says, “Geography of Tongues, the title poem, really encapsulates the spirit of the book and my journey as a poet so far. Pineapple Pastry Flashback, Lingua Franca, 1984 and Silver Bangles are a testament to family, culture and identity.”

Here she talks to Chaithali Pisupati from Team BWW about her journey, inspirations, and challenges.

Why poetry?

There is something powerful yet compact about poetry that appeals to me the most out of all literary genres. I find poetry akin to meditation. Poets are ruminators that are constantly taking the pulse of the world through words. I try not to be bogged by one form of poetry. I let the theme and mood of the poem dictate the structure. One has to surrender to the muse/feeling/experience.

Tell us about Geography of Tongues?

Geography of Tongues is an exploration of family, cultures and the idea of home/identity. My hope is that the poems in it have touched on the universal, through a narration of the personal. They are a fusion of East and West, from the years I’ve lived in England, India, and the United States. I like to experiment with style and so it contains prose poems as well as lyric ones. I am very excited to see how it will be received.

You mention that Geography of Tongues is a collection of a range of poetic forms, what made you incorporate different forms in one collection?

My poems are a combination of the lyric form and prose poetry. I feel using a combination of both forms helps emulate the changing tenors and topographies of the subjects/themes in my poems. I also like using internal rhymes and alliteration, along with powerful imagery.

What is the poetry scene in India?

I think the poetry scene is vibrant yet scattered. So much is happening in different corners of India. The North-east part of India has some fantastic poets. But we don’t hear of them as much. We need more venues for poets to meet and share their work. I can’t comment on regional languages as I don’t know enough, although there is quite a bit of activity here in Kannada poetry. Mamta Sagar comes to mind.

Tell us about your process. How do you start a poem, and how long does it take you to finish?

It is a very organic process and often, the decision isn’t up to me. The subjects, events, and emotions often show up like a friend at my doorstep that I have to let in, not knowing or able to ask how long they’ll stay. My poems are mostly autobiographical and inspired by family, history and mythology. All of these are intertwined in one’s day-to-day living. Typically, each poem goes through a few drafts—mostly tweaking in the form of changing a word, fixing a line break or clarifying an image. I ruminate over most poems/themes in my mind for a few weeks before I commit them to paper. Revision is every writer’s not-so-secret weapon that turns a piece of coal into a diamond. I have a few poems that I have held on to for ten years, because one word doesn’t sound right or the rhythm is off. It’s a very intuitive process. If and when a poem flows out without needing any changes, it feels like a gift from the divine.

Why did you choose to publish your first collection through The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective? Why did the Collective come about?

The idea of a collective really appeals to me for so many reasons. I’ve always loved collaboration in the creative process, and to work with other poets who share a powerful vision for advancing Indian poetry has been a dream of mine. I’m also fascinated with the process of publishing and design. By publishing collectively, we don’t have to deal with the bureaucracy of a traditional publisher; the poets have control over how their own work appears. The fact that I can be part of the entire process, beyond just the writing aspect, feels very empowering. I’m excited to empower other poets and to discover and publish new voices. There are very few serious outlets for publishing high-quality books of poetry in India, and the Collective was created to bridge this gap.

What can we look forward to from The Great Indian Poetry Collective in 2014?

We are so excited to be publishing 2-3 more books in 2014. Minal Hajratwala’s book of poems, Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment, is slated for release in March 2014 followed by Ellen Kombiyil’s Histories of the Future Perfect. We will also be doing anthologies with multiple poets. Stay tuned for some fabulous Indian poetry in English.

Publishing poetry is a challenge. Would you agree?

Poetry indeed has its challenges, despite being a very old art form. Publishers feel it isn’t marketable and the audience is a more selective one. Poetry also has a reputation for being too cerebral and/or esoteric. If a poetry book is published, the returns are barely enough to reinvest. So, whoever is a poet, is definitely in it because they love the genre. Also, in India, there are no formal writing programs and that leads to an uneven standard of poetry. But things are definitely improving. BWW is definitely on to something, by providing a platform for writers to learn about writing and hone their skills.

What would you say to someone aspiring to publish their work?

My experience in publishing has been a very positive one. One of India’s top agents accepted my poetry manuscript. But by the time she got back to me, I had already decided to be part of a poetry collective. It feels wonderful to be part of something that is collaborative and that will help bring out new writers. I’m so glad I took the leap to be part of a new press. My advice is:

  • Make sure your manuscript is as complete as possible. Do not send half a manuscript or a proposal. Poetry requires the whole book.
  • Do your research before approaching publishers.
  • Have people read your manuscript.
  • Find a mentor/guide to help you.
  • Take feedback seriously, without feeling wounded or defensive.
  • Presentation is key, along with tight editing. I’ve received very sloppy submissions where the point size and font of each poem is different. Be consistent.
  • And last but not least, read, read, read, write, write, write. I cannot emphasize that enough!

 Any mistakes in hindsight with regard to publishing your book?

There are no mistakes. Everything is a learning experience. We were so into the process of editing, design, and printing that we didn’t realize that setting up online distribution would take time. Also, we were having trouble getting the right paper for the cover. What we learnt is that all processes take time and that we must accept and work with that.

What advice would you give to aspiring poets?

No fear! I would advise any upcoming poet/writer to read as much as possible, to write and experiment with as many different forms and to not be afraid to take risks.  Anthologies are a great way to explore many voices in one place. I also believe it is very important to understand one’s literary/poetic history and legacy. Who were our literary forebears? Why did they write the way they did? What can we learn from them? I also believe that revision is the most powerful tool a writer can have. Revise your manuscript once, twice, fifty times! Poetry, particularly, is like sculpture, which you have to chip away at until you see its true form come through. Most great poems/stories have been written many times over. But all the audience sees is the final product. I think it is very important for all to understand that writing is hard work and that it isn’t simply about stringing together a bunch of words. Also, I would like to add to the infamous writer’s advice phrase: Write what you know. Write what you know, write what you don’t know and would like to know, or write what you think no one knows. It’s all about creating worlds, real and imagined, that touch us somehow.

Get in touch with Shikha: and/or

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We are looking for an intern!

Bangalore Writers Workshop (BWW), the city’s most thriving writing community and creative writing workshop, is looking to add some more spunk to their tribe. We’re looking for an intern to grow and learn with us. Us would be the creators of BWW, Rheea Mukherjee and Bhumika Anand.

What does that mean? 

A person, preferably with a degree in communications, English, journalism, or PR. But if you are the right candidate we won’t hold your degree against you. 

What will the BWW intern be in charge of?

Update the BWW blog with available content (two posts per week) 

Source content for the BWW blog by networking and following-up with published authors and writers

Promote BWW within the city by putting up posters in various areas of Bangalore (5 posters per week) 

Own, develop, manage the BWW Course Books publication and distribution 

Manage and update content on the BWW website 

Evolve a Twitter strategy for BWW

What will it take? 

Passion for writing with a great command of the English language (spoken and written)

Strong communication and presentation skills along with clarity and consistency

Creativity, confidence, being result-oriented with excellent planning and organizational ability who respects strategy as well as execution 

Ability to work independently and meet deadlines in a fast-paced, rapidly-changing environment

Someone who can have fun on the job 

Will this pay?

Not really. It’s an internship but if you grow with us there might be opportunity to come aboard with something substantial.We pay a small stipend but we assure you, it won’t pay for drinks. You’ll gain tremendous work experience, hone your communicative skills and entrepreneurship insight while you work with the two women who founded the BWW community from scratch. If you have as much fun as we do, you’ll be sure to gain a lot of professional experience. We do promise great recommendation letters if you stick with us for the ride.

How many hours a week will I have to commit to work?

We estimate upto 10 hours a week. Timing is flexible. We expect you to work from home mostly. Yes, you would need to have your own computer with internet connection. 

To apply mail Rheea Mukherjee at 

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Shom Biswas on Getting Published

To start with, I am in no position to advise you on writing. I am a decent writer, but so are you. But the last month has been glorious in terms of getting published. I have got published or accepted in two very reputed online journals – in India and Singapore, and two other rather well-known ones. And this time might not come again, so here are my observations:

(Caveat: I assume that the reader of this piece is also a writer, and one who wants to get published at online journals and literary magazines. If not, this is not for you.)

  1. There is writing time, there’s edit time, there’s peer-review time, and there is submission time. Don’t jump steps.
  2. You want to get somewhere. You want to get published at ABC LitMag (and let’s not make it unrealistic, let’s not make it The New Yorker. Not yet at least). How good you are at this writing thingie has much less to do with you getting there, than how badly you want it, and how much you are willing to work for it.
  3. Read the offer document carefully before investing. If they say no multiple submissions (like QLRS does), don’t. If they ask for poetry, don’t send prose. If they ask for a thematic piece, don’t send something diametrically different.
    [Caveat: Multiple submission, however, is a good thing. It gives you hope. And no editor is ever offended if you ask to withdraw your piece which has been published elsewhere (unless clearly stated in the submission guidelines). If anything, they are happy.]
  4. A rejection = A certain editor has rejected a short story that you have written. NOT YOU.
  5. Think of yourself as a warrior. Rejects are battle-wounds. Would a warrior ever be ashamed or sad at his/her battle-wounds?
  6. Rejoice in rejects. Get a band of merry men and women together, and celebrate your rejects. Keep count. Have a rejects-competition. Stop taking yourself seriously.
  7. Never, never, never, never, never give up.  I got rejected by 32 editors, before I was accepted at Out Of Print. Since you are awesome (and you really are, believe me), you will take fewer rejections before your pieces are accepted. However, that fewer number is not 2, and not 6. You are not THAT MUCH better than me 🙂
  8. Short of the editor calling you names, nothing should be considered brutal criticism. I’d much rather the editor tells me specifically why my piece is rejected, than pander to my ego and tell me sweet nothings. I don’t need validation of my existence, I need the editor to fuckin’ publish me next time.
  9. You wrote an awesome piece, and XYZ is an awesome Lit-magazine. It’s a perfect fit, right? It might not be. Every LitMag has a certain bias in terms of language, theme, content and context. I am sure your piece IS awesome, but if it does not fit the specifics of XYZ magazine, it would not get published. Send it to multiple places, right until it’s accepted somewhere. (Personal experience: My favourite piece had been rejected by 7 places, before it found a home. I continue to be very proud of it.)
  10. Keep writing. And after you finish a story or a chapter of your book, IM me on Facebook. ‘I’ve got a story done, and you’ve written nothing. Shom, you loser’.
    Do it. Inspire me. Inspire us.

Guest Post
In this section, we invite writers we’ve had the pleasure of interacting with to talk about the writing process. Shom Biswas is a graduate of BWW with wonderful insights on publishing in literary journals simply because he is like a hound on a scent about it. We hope this article was as useful to you as it has been for our community.

About Shom Biswas


Shom Biswas

Shom Biswas

Soumyadipta ‘Shom’ Biswas is an engineer/MBA from Bangalore, India. His short stories have been published in Out of Print, Reading Hour, and Spark magazines. He is a collector of antique sports books, a lapsed quizzer and is consistently one of the best EPL fantasy football managers in the world. He is an active community member of the Bangalore Writers Workshop. He can assure you that he is NOT in the process of writing a novel.

What other insights do you have? Share as a comment.

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BWW Star: Pragmatic

This is my first blog post and I would like to tell you all a story. I am a Border Security Force soldier and I am writing this blog post from one of the most violent places on Earth. I shouldn’t have made it, but I did. We soldiers are invincible until we get shot in the face. These events happened to me when I was posted at Poonch where the insurgency movement was on the rise. Few days ago, we detected movements of people who were supposedly spying on us for the insurgents. They were supplying information about the BSF and Indian army positions. We were supposed to take the spy alive. My team and I got near to the town they were hiding in. We asked the shopkeepers to shut shop for a few minutes and asked the people to vacate the streets. We were moving slowly towards their position when two armed insurgents who were protecting the spy fired at us. After a brief firefight we neutralized them.

I went after the spy who ran  through the town. I entered a house in which I saw him run into. The house was dusty and I could not see clearly. As soon as I walked in he swung his knife at my neck with a loud shriek. I wasn’t ready for the knife. I saw the swing and I felt my neck tighten. I waited for him to strike at me. But he missed my neck by an inch. The knife struck the wall behind me and fell off his hands. Before I could react he drew out his handgun and shot at my head. He missed me this time too. I took his arm and drove it to the edge of the door, and then drove my knee into his arm breaking it. He dropped his handgun and the knife after which I arrested him and sent him in to the nearest army establishment for treatment and questioning. My men and I were awarded medals for taking the spy alive, and the operation was declared a success. But like I mentioned in the beginning I wasn’t supposed to make it. I had felt the heat of the nozzle when he pulled his handgun at my forehead. But he shot away from my head at the ceiling like I wasn’t his immediate danger. I was twice lucky that day. I feel protected now. That’s all I can say about it.

I was born in Coorg. So were my friends Krishna Appacha and Ashwini Muthamma. We were schoolmates. Krishna liked Ashwini since childhood and she like him too. He was obsessed with joining the Border Security Force ever since I can remember. His attitude rubbed off on me too. During school, we took part in sports, the NCC camps, and went on weekend trips to Mangalore beaches. We did everything together. Our weekend would end with dinner at Ashwini’s house. After his studies, Krishna went into the BSF for his training. I had to wait because I had issues at home. After his training, Krishna got married to Ashwini.

‘If Krishna is your brother, I am you sister-in-law’, Ashwini had told me one day.

‘I know, we were always family’, I had replied.

However his honeymoon was cut short and he had to leave soon for his posting at Odisha. One day he left for a mission and he never came back. I don’t know the details of how he died. Maybe I didn’t want to know and so I did not find out. All I know from the papers was that he set out on a mission to rescue some foreign tourists who were kidnapped by the naxals. The tourists were rescued unharmed, but, he died in the battle. He was hailed as a hero here in Coorg. I was told that our school named an award after him for being good in sports. I was saddened by his death but I did not lose sight of my own goal of getting into the BSF. ‘Keep yourself together, no matter what happens. We are soldiers’, Krishna had told me before he went to his posting.

To my surprise, Ashwini held herself together. I guess even she had embraced her fate. She had a heart defect since her childhood which got worse after Krishna’s death. I kept my personal problems aside and went in for my BSF training. After the basic training I was trained in countering insurgency, after which I was posted at Andhra Pradesh. When I got there I even found a room near the borders of Ananthapur and Kurnool district. It was very difficult to get a room to stay but I got one. The room was previously occupied by a BSF officer who had finished his deployment here and had gone home. He had left all his belongings in the drawer. All of them were labeled Bhijarnia. After I finished my deployment at Andhra Pradesh, I went home for a while. I was disappointed that I had not seen action, unlike my friend. I was not in a hurry though. I know my friend fought bravely before he died. After my brief vacation I was deployed at a town at Poonch district in Kashmir. When I got there I was sent word that Ashwini had passed away. I had nothing to look back to after Ashwini passed away. When I was traveling to Poonch my paperwork said that I was put in a temporary unit belonged to Subedar Major Bhijarnia, who did not travel with us. Was it the same Bhijarnia? If it was the same person then it was a coincidence. But what became of him? Did he make it out of Andhra Pradesh? I didn’t know the answers.

Well, when I got to Poonch, the travel party was split up and I was sent to a sector where my unit was placed. I was named the new unit commander of the team as I was the highest ranked. There were eight people with me.

‘Give me Rani’, I heard a fellow soldier tell the driver of the truck when I reached there. I asked him what he was talking about.

‘It is a custom around here that we name our guns, Sahib. The possibility of getting lost is high. At least I can talk to Rani when I am alone’, said the soldier. ‘Sahib, I’ll tell you how we name guns. A name is written on a piece of paper and put in a box of cartridges before this truck leaves the ammunition storage and gets it here. When you open your cartridge you will find a name in there. The first name you find on the piece of paper will be the name of your weapon.’

I liked the idea. After the truck unloaded the arms, ammunition, and the groceries the soldier showed me around the camp and explained the hardships of living in this area and also about the possible movements of the insurgents. After the briefing he handed me my weapon, my sidearm, and the cartridge boxes. I asked the names of the weapon everybody had. Weapons were named Aishu, Bharath, Priya, Vrij, and other different names. After freshening up I went into my tent. I opened the cartridge box for my sidearm. The piece of paper read ‘Ashwini’, which was pretty shocking on the heels of my sister-in-law’s death. I kept it on the table and pulled out the piece of paper from inside the cartridge box of my rifle. I read the piece of paper and went wide eyed. The paper read ‘Krishna’. Was this a coincidence too? Both Krishna and Ashwini had a strong belief in the afterlife. However I never believed in it. Perhaps this was their way of telling me that their spirit was still around to protect me. Whenever I go in for a mission I know I am safe. And yes, I talk to them everyday.

BWW Star

The dream of every writer is to be read. And to be read and appreciated by as many people as possible. BWW makes that dream a reality.

BWW Star is a writer who has worked with us at BWW and whose work amused, moved, inspired, and/or made a difference in our lives. We are sure you will enjoy and be encouraging too.

Our Kishor, from the Wolves batch, can write like a mad man. Pages and pages. His plots are full of action intrigue, mystery, and sometimes a dash of romance. His pulp fiction is a genre of its own. You can bet you will see him at the next BWW event, he rarely misses a chance or event to support the BWW community. 

About Kishor V R

Kishor V R

Kishor V R

Kishor works as a technical writer in an IT organization in Bangalore. He loves reading suspense and thrillers, and browsing on the internet. He wishes he had all the time to travel, see the world, meet people, and learn languages. Cooking up stories is what he thinks he can do best and he aims to be a successful novelist. Kishor was born in Bangalore and raised in Mangalore. He loves fish.

Encourage our BWW Star 

Read and post a comment. Share and tell the author what you liked about his story!

Posted in BWW Star, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Jeet Thayil on Narcopolis and poetry

I met Jeet Thayil on a wonderfully nippy, December evening in Bangalore. I had read Narcopolis a month back and was desperately hoping he would win the Booker because it had been long since a book had thrilled me so much that I didn’t want to leave its world. It ought to have been one of those meetings where you are awe-struck and thinking of really clever things to say because you admire the writer so much. It was supposed to be an evening with a blend of nerves and awful self-consciousness.

Instead we sat across the table and spoke easily of cities, literature, music, and food. He knew just the right dish to order from the menu although it was his first time at the restaurant.

We had planned to meet for an hour or so.

Meeting with Jeet ThayilInstead we spent a really pleasurable evening, leaving the restaurant only because of the Bangalore curfew at 11 pm, with him answering my questions and sipping his red wine as I got high on the company and the delightfully sweet whiskey amarettos I had ordered.

We kept in touch. 

I later read These Errors are Correct and decided that I must try to get him to do a poetry workshop at Bangalore Writers Workshop (BWW). I did just that when we next met. It was another delightful evening. This time we spoke about poetry. Subject to terms and conditions, this might just happen.

But for now, here is Jeet.

How did you start on the novel? What were the first lines?
I don’t remember the first day, because the novel started as a book of non-fiction. Then, while on a residency in Bellagio, on Lake Como, I started to write the chapter that begins Book Three, ‘A Walk on Shuklaji Street’. It was like opening a vein: all kinds of things I had no idea I remembered came back to me, bits of music and conversation, a face glimpsed for a moment thirty years previously, long-gone images I didn’t know I’d stored. I knew I was on to something and I knew what I had to do: follow where the writing led.

Most writers in India are very apprehensive about writing a literary novel. Yours is very literary and one could say iconoclastic. Thoughts?
It wasn’t deliberately iconoclastic; it was deliberately literary. The literary novel has a long tradition of formal innovation. I don’t think I did anything new. I allowed myself to approximate other kinds of literary or artistic endeavour: the poem, the song, the proverb, the list, the line drawing, a description of an imaginary book or movie. I’m often full of doubt; but there was a moment early on when I knew the story was worth following as far as it led. It was after I wrote the chapter titled ‘A Walk on Shuklaji Street’. It opened up an arterial vein. The poet said poems are never finished, they are abandoned; I think that may be true of a certain kind of novel as well.

What was it like writing an entire novel and moving away from poetry? Is it an easy transition to make?
I’ve always written prose. It’s just that I didn’t have the ambition or the discipline or the resources to finish a long-form piece of work. Every time I’d attempted a novel I’d given up at some point, given up in frustration at how slender and unsuccessful my efforts had been. In 2004, I gave up drugs and regular employment; I became a full-time writer; I ran out of excuses.

There is a long list of poets who turned to prose, for example, Roberto Bolano, Denis Johnson, VS Naipaul, Michael Ondaatje. Of course, Naipaul may not agree with that description, but he did write poems very early in his career. I suppose the discipline of poetry teaches you economy if not parsimony, and the power of compression, and it shows you the portmanteau possibility of words.

Talking about the possibility of words, is there a subtext in the word ‘Narcopolis’? Reading it, I felt there was an echo of ‘necropolis’. Am I reading between the lines?
For me, Narcopolis is a city of the dead and a city of intoxication. I thought it was an apt title because under it, like a secret title, is the word, necropolis; the book exists, then, as a kind of memorial on which certain names.

Ostensibly about drugs, I do think the novel has political overtones. How do you view it?
I am always disappointed when people refer to Narcopolis as a drug novel. The drugs are a frame, a hook on which to hang a tale about Indian society.

How have people in India responded to the novel?
With a notable lack of enthusiasm.

Have you faced any rejection from publishers especially in India? How did they react when they heard about the subsequent Booker nomination? What does that say about the literary establishment in India?
There has been an about-turn in the tone of the Indian media after the favourable reviews from the west. It tells us that India’s literary establishment—though that may be a misnomer, let’s call it the world of Indian book journalism—is as colonial as it has ever been: we still need white men to tell us what is worthwhile about our own culture.

How different is Jeet the poet, from Jeet the novelist?
Writing a novel is work, sort of like a nine to five job. You have to be at it every day, you have to be fit and alert, and you have to be willing to live in your mind for long anxiety-ridden periods. And it is manual labour. In comparison, poetry is play. Also, the returns are much – quicker. However long you may work on a poem, however many drafts it may take, at the end of a few weeks or months you have something to send out into the world. With a novel, the process is delayed; it plays itself out in long, solitary stretches of time (I’m using, advisedly, the terminology of prisons). It’s the loneliness of the long distance runner against the ecstasy of the sprinter. That said, poetry, fiction, a libretto, it’s all the same: it’s all writing.

Your works—I’ve only read Narcopolis and These Errors Are Correct— predominantly explore addiction, memory, mourning, water as salvation, damnation. Correct?
It’s true that a lot of the themes that occur in my poems also occur in Narcopolis, but I think there is a reason for that. Your obsessions don’t change from book to book. The themes you’ve mentioned occur in Narcopolis in varying degrees, but so do others. Death, sex, madness and transformation are fairly constant motifs. And there are references to imaginary works of art, usually books, but also music, film and painting. I’ve always thought that sex and drugs were Bombay’s secret history, hidden between the lines of its official history, which concerns money and glamour. In Narcopolis, the city of intoxication, the secret history is paramount. Every character in Narcopolis is an addict of some kind. Most are drug addicts, but there are also violence addicts, god addicts, sex and alcohol addicts, beauty addicts. For the people in the world of the book, addiction is the only means of exaltation and of escape.

Tell me more about addiction. In the book, Dom Ullis says that the opium pipe told him the story of the book. How are opium and heroin crucial to the story?
In the course of forty years, between 1800 and 1840, Bombay was transformed from a collection of seven malarial islands to India’s premier metropolis, thanks mainly to opium. It was from Bombay that the East India Company exported opium and raw cotton to China. The city’s economic rise and eventual emergence as the financial capital of India had everything to do with opium. This is something most history books omit. Not to mention the fact that the East India Company was the biggest drug dealer in the world. The Company worked with a group of Parsi ship owners to send thousands of chests of excellent product to China every year. They became inconceivably wealthy and inconceivably brutal. Like all drug dealers, the Company knew it had stumbled on the ultimate product, a product that created its own inexhaustible demand, a perfect market. And they milked it for all it was worth. This is the background to the opium story in Narcopolis. Since I was writing an opiated history of Bombay I had to find the right form, and of course it would have to be a form that eschewed the simple declarative Hemingwayesque sentence for longer dream-ridden open-ended ones. I wrote the six-page sentence that begins the book about halfway into working on it, and when I realized I’d hit on the form, I rewrote everything. In that sense, the book dictated its own form, the pipe is the book’s ‘“I’” more than Dom Ullis is.

Which novelists and writers were you reading while writing this book?
I have a list somewhere of the books I was reading in those years. But the writer I kept returning to was Dostoyevsky, and the book I returned to was The Brothers Karamazov. I wanted to write a kind of Russian novel, with digressions, insanity, exaltation, ecstasy. There’s something about the Russian novel that is uniquely suited to India:, the feudalism, the religious preoccupation, the passion and hysteria, the regard for the written word. The chapter ‘Stinking Asafoetida’ points to the ‘Stinking Elizaveta’ chapter in Karamazov. I also read poetry, though I didn’t write any while I was working on the book. It occurred to me, somewhat late in life I admit, that the thing about the novel as a form is its capaciousness. It can include anything:, poetry, history, line drawings, a digression on Blade Runner, a comparative study of the sari versus the burkha.

Why Russian novelists in particular?
I’ve admired the Russian novelists of the nineteenth century. I’ve always admired novels that try to encompass an entire universe within two covers. Of course, it is an impossible quest, doomed to failure, but the failure is success in its way. Russian novelists have this quality, they have an anarchic variety of voices and forms, and allow themselves an absolute freedom. (“If nothing is true, everything is permitted.”) The Russians take no prisoners. Each Dostoyevsky novel was written as if it was his last, as if he’d never write again and he has to put everything into it. As a strategy, it is far removed from the novel as we know it today.

What’s your relationship with Baudelaire? Especially in ‘To Baudelaire’ in These Errors Are Correct. I think even in Narcopolis there are a few explicit references to Flowers of Evil.
When I first started to write, it was in imitation of some of the poems in Flowers of Evil. I did a few translations at that time, at the age of fourteen, from French to English. There was something about the voice in those poems that struck me as absolutely modern and urban and timeless. And there was something about his life that struck me as the prototype for the tragic poet, the poète maudit, the doomed artist who burns with a brief high flame. Much later, I thought of the young poets I knew, who drank and drugged in imitation of their heroes, and, unlike their heroes, didn’t produce very much work, because they were too out of it to write. When I wrote ‘To Baudelaire’ it was a statement of independence. I wrote it after I’d cleaned up my own act. It is addressed to Baudelaire but it speaks of a certain kind of self-destructive literary lifestyle. It begins, ‘“I’m over you at last’,” though, as any recovering addict will tell you, nothing’s ever over.

How important are dreams to the form of the novel?
Dreams are very much part of the form because the point about opium is the dream. And the introduction of dream creates a kind of dream latitude, a circle of dreams, and a verticality that you can’t always engender in a straight narrative. While writing the book I became a miner off dreams. I read dream journals and studied the mythology. And for most of the writing of the book I had a system. I would work late, then get some sleep and wake and go to the computer while I was still in a bit of a dream state. Invariably, things would happen first thing in the morning that would not happen later in the day. Dreams leak, as Dimple says, via Rashid, from person to person, but also from the oneiric state into waking life. It can be a very useful thing, an aid.

Staying with form, there are many voices in the book. How did you go about constructing this play of voices?
Writing a book in the first person can be limiting. You can’t enter the heads of other characters. But there were parts of the book that had to be written in the first person, the opening sentence for instance. It was a problem, and I thought the way to solve it was to have multiple storytelling modes. There is first person and there’s third. And the conceit is that the voices you hear in the book are the voices of those who have smoked from the Chinese pipe that is in some ways the centre of the tale, namely, the voices of Dimple, Mr. Lee, Rashid, Rumi, Dom.

O Dimple. She is unforgettable. Is it based on a real person?
Dimple is based on someone I saw in an opium den on Shuklaji Street in 1980 or thereabouts. She was making pipes, briefly, for the customers and for the owner of the den. She was charismatic and elegant and then she disappeared. I never forgot her. There’s also something in her of a pipeman called Aziz who worked for a time at Rashid’s, which was a real opium den on Shuklaji Street.

Are there more such people in the book?
Rumi was modelled on two people I knew, friends of mine, one of whom is dead. Though the evil side to him is entirely of my own making. While writing Rumi, I understood why actors enjoy playing villains. There’s something about letting the worst of your own impulses out into the light, and using it to create art, that is liberating and cathartic.

Rashid and Bengali are both also modelled on real people. They’re both dead now and there’s no one who will remember them except a few people who were around in the opium dens of Bombay in the late seventies and early eighties. One reason I wanted to write this book was that I wanted to create a kind of memorial, a way of inscribing certain names in stone. As one of the characters says, it is only by repeating the names of the dead that we honour them. I wanted to honour the people I knew, the marginaliszed, the addicted and deranged, people who are routinely called the lowest of the low; and I wanted to make some record of a world that no longer exists — except within the pages of a book.

Mr Lee. Why China? Deliberate?
I knew China would be a part of the book. I didn’t know how big a part until I started to write the section that came to be titled, ‘Story of the Pipe’. It is an unexpected Russian digression into China, but the title of the section tells the reader why it is there and how it feeds off and into the main narrative. I grew up in Hong Kong: I lived there for most of the seventies. It is difficult to live in close proximity to the Chinese without being affected by how encompassing and far-reaching the culture is. This happens to Dimple too. Her connection with Mr. Lee becomes one of the two defining relationships of her life; a family relationship.

The section set in China, which is about a quarter of the book, is a way of charting the course of the pipe’s voyage, via Mr. Lee, from China to India. I wanted China in the book, because no story about opium in India would be complete without it. India and China were the twin poles of the opium trade, though the drug caused more damage in China than here. The section is a way of telling that story — through the story of Mr. Lee’s father and how his life unravels, and how Mr. Lee then flees to India. I was accidentally and uniquely placed to tell it, because I grew up in Hong Kong and spent much of my adult life in Bombay.

Did the den of Mr. Lee really exist? 
Mr. Lee was again based on someone real, a gentleman of the same name. He ran an opium den off Shuklaji Street that was a secret and a legend. Indians were not allowed, except for me. Why he made an exception in my case I have no idea. He died of cancer the following year. Most of the people I knew from that time are dead. Many of those who survived are not exactly readers of literary fiction; and even if they were I doubt if they would be impressed.

So is Narcopolis autobiographical?
There is an autobiographical element, but it is mostly in the details. No amount of research can uncover some kinds of information; you have to have been there, doing it. Particularly in the descriptions of Shuklaji Street, I wanted to paint a picture of Bombay at its peak, when it was still Bombay, not the city whose name is never mentioned in the book. In a sense, the book is an autobiography of Bombay, over thirty or so years.

Is that why you included Pathar Maar?
In one way, the Pathar Maar is a stand-in for the crushing city, in that he kills the poorest of the poor and nobody notices because the poor do not exist in the consciousness of the middle and upper classes. He kills them while they sleep by crushing their heads with a stone. There is a suggestion in the novel that the Pathar Maar’s actions were socially motivated: he is trying to end the suffering of the poor. One of the characters, Rumi, has a special affinity for the Pathar Maar. Rumi enjoys violence for its own sake, and he uses the fear and chaos generated by the killings as a kind of smoke screen for his own ignoble murders.

You’ve used the novel-within-a-novel technique. Tell me more about this.
There are many books within Narcopolis. For example, Prophecy is one, a story by a man who has nothing left to lose. It is part of his legacy for his son, and what a legacy it is, a book and a pipe, reading and intoxication, interchangeable states that allow a man to transcend the narrow confines of his life. Narcopolis is also a book about reading, and these passages – , the imaginary books that occur within –, are a way of widening the narrative, of pointing to the future and inhabiting the past. That said, I had a lot of fun with these sections, the cameos by books. It was a way of allowing the imagination to take up residence in the book.

The characters play many roles in the book. How important was this?
The first and most fundamental role of roles that the characters in Narcopolis play is that of the addict, which is a role that becomes your life. (To subvert the twelve12-step dictum: you fake it to make it.) This is a pose of course, but a life-changing pose that brings with it many benefits. Addiction eliminates the hegemony of time; it eliminates boredom and general confusion; it puts all existential questions in context. There’s no time to wonder about the meaning of your life when you are caught up in something bigger than yourself, something that has its own compulsions and demands. This is the lure of the drug —: it flattens the world into something manageable, something that is seemingly within your control. Though in truth nothing is.

There are some very funny parts in the book. Does that come naturally, it seems effortless. Is there something about the form of the novel that perhaps allows the writer to be funny? How important are humour and comedy to you?
Thank you, I’m very glad it appears effortless, because it isn’t. The point about the novel, as opposed to the poem, is that there is room for more than one kind of voice. You can switch from tragedy to comedy on the same page, and it doesn’t have to seem contrived, it can carry the reader along. I enjoyed the freedom of it, of using everything you know, including from jokes and songs, and poems and eccentric extemporaneous digressions.

What sort of research, if any, did you conduct, especially when writing about the underworld?
Well, about fifteen years of first-hand research in the drug subculture of Bombay, which, as you know, is closely related to the underworld. The interesting thing about the crime bosses of Bombay, particularly in the context of an opium den, is that they left their business outside the door of the khana, though their personalities were always in evidence. These were guys who rarely spoke, and, if they did, everybody paid attention. They were almost invariably emotional, in that they displayed their emotions and they weren’t shy of appearing sentimental. It had everything to do with being aware of their mortality, which made each day a gift and every conversation special. Opium has that effect, it bonds the people who use it; it makes them feel as if they are part of a rare brotherhood or priesthood.

Did you write the book in Bombay then?
I started to write it in Delhi in 2006, then in Bangalore and finally in Bombay. I’ve moved seven times in the last seven years, including across continents. It made little difference to me where I was. I was living in a city in my head, a city that no longer existed. In a way, it was better to not be living in Bombay. And when I neared the end of the book and found I was back in Bandra; it didn’t feel to me as if I was living in the city I was describing. That’s the thing about fiction, you use the true detail to create something imaginary, and the details make it convincing. A little bit goes a long way. I don’t think it matters where you are as long as your rituals and spells and touchstones are in place.

So what is your relationship with Bombay?
It might have been difficult if I’d chosen another city to write about. Of the many cities I’ve lived in, I’ve lived in Bombay the longest. I’ve lived there off and on, more off than on, if you know what I mean, for more than fifteen years. There are parts of the city I know very well. I’m thinking of Colaba, Bandra and Bombay Central. And even today there’s that thing that happens when I get off the plane in Bombay, the instant knowledge that I am in my place. I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to call any city home, but if you put a gun to my head and ask me to name one, I would probably say Bombay.

It’s a very honest, even brutal book.
As one of the characters says, ‘“If you want to make something genuine in this climate you have to think about indolence and brutality. Also: unintentional comedy’.” I was always suspicious of the novel that paints India in soft focus, a place of addled nostalgia and loving elders, of monsoons and mangoes and spices. That idea had little or no connection to the country I knew. To equal Bombay as a subject you would have to go much further than the merely nostalgic will allow. you to. The grotesque may be a more accurate means of carrying out such an enterprise.

Why Delhi, now?
I moved the week after I finished Narcopolis. I was glad to not be in Bombay when the book came out. The rightwing in Bombay, who will be angered, among other things, by my use of the old name, do not write bad reviews when they dislike a book (not that they read books to begin with). They come to your door and break your legs, or, more likely, your writing hand.

Do you labour much as a writer? Are there many revisions? I read somewhere that you wrote most of Narcopolis in a hallucinatory state. Is that even possible?
I wrote none of it in a hallucinatory state. I’ve been in hallucinatory states and the last thing you can do in those moments is write, and even if you do write it is incoherent, not to mention illegible. What I might have said is that I wrote early in the morning, when I was still partly in a dream state. I find it is a useful time to work through structural problems: you make connections that will not occur later in the day, when your logical workaday brain is the boss.

I rewrite a lot. I like to take time over a novel. I don’t like to hurry. I find when you work on something over several years, time deposits layers, alluvial material, a richness, like tree rings. There are passages of Narcopolis I did not rewrite much, for instance the prologue, but such passages are rare. I wish I were the kind of writer who produces immaculate prose at one go, but I’m not. I’m in Robert Lowell’s camp: “I’m not a writer, I’m a rewriter.”

What was the idea behind the one long continuous sentence in the Prologue?
The Prologue is told by the narrator, Dom Ullis, as well as by a pipe; and the entire book is told in the course of a single opiated night. That was the opening premise, though of course premises change or grow. So the prologue had to have the rhythm of an opium dream and for that a single sentence seemed to me to work best.

Can you talk about the circular end in the book?
I had the ending long before I finished the book. I knew it would begin and end in the same place, as so many things do. In this case, an opium room, as a pipe is being made, the last pipe on the last night of the world. And I knew the book would begin and end with the same word, Bombay, which is the novel’s true protagonist. I also knew I wouldn’t tie up every loose end or provide easy answers or a pat moral. You don’t get those things in real life, why should you in a novel?

Are you working on your second novel? What is it about? Is it related in any way to Narcopolis?
I’m working on a novel with the working title of The Book of Chocolate Saints. Chocolate here is skin colour, not a food group. The central character is Newton Xavier, who appears for a chapter in Narcopolis, though it is a long chapter and he owns it and people have asked why he disappears; well, it is this book that he disappears into.

About Jeet Thayil 


Photo Credit: Basso Cannarsa

Born in Kerala in 1959 and educated in Jesuit schools in Hong Kong, New York, and Bombay, he is a graduate of Wilson College, Bombay. He received an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, New York. Author of four collections of poetry, including English (Penguin/Rattapallax 2004) and These Errors Are Correct (Westland 2008); and the editor of Give the Sea Change and It Shall Change: Fifty-Six Indian Poets (Fulcrum 2005), Divided Time: India and the End of Diaspora (Routledge 2006) and THE BLOODAXE BOOK OF CONTEMPORARY INDIAN POETS (2008). 

His poems have appeared in magazines and newspapers such as Fulcrum, Verse, Agenda, The Independent, Stand, Poetry Review, Drunken Boat, the Cortland Review and Poets & Writers.

Narcopolis is his first novel. It was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, the Man Asian Literary Prize (2012), and The Hindu Literary Prize (2013). Jeet Thayil has received awards from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Jeet Thayil is one half of the contemporary music project Sridhar/Thayil. They have performed in India, at the Galle Festival in Sri Lanka and at the Great Escape Festival in Brighton, UK among others and were hailed by Rolling Stone magazine as ‘redefining indie music in India’ (July 2009).

In 2004, he moved from New York to India, and lives in Delhi.

About Bhumika Anand
Bhumika Anand is the co-founder of the Bangalore Writers Workshop (BWW).

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BWW Star: Budo

The students of the great master Winfang Li came up to him and said, “Master, the villagers feel that Yokomita Kuwahara, who lives in the mountains, is the greatest martial artist alive.”

Winfang Li, a seventh generation martial artist, who lived in the woods, merely smiled in response.

The students continued, “But that’s not true, master. You are the greatest martial artist ever!”

After a protracted silence, the master said, “There is no greatest and there is no smallest. We are all children of nature and she sees no differences.”

“What if the other person thinks otherwise?”

“A true martial artist does not worry about other people’s thoughts but only responds appropriately to the situation.”

“Isn’t it our duty to correct his attitude? He claims to be a great master. Remember you said that there are no bad students but only bad teachers. If the teacher has the feeling that he is the greatest, then what will happen to his students?”

“How do you know what he has claimed? Have you met him? Do you even know him?”

“No master, we it heard from his students.”

“Students say that out of love for their teacher. Just like how you say things about me.”

“But master…”

“Let us train.”

The master silenced them, but only for a while. Time and again the topic came up and every time, the students’ argument got stronger. On one occasion, they said, “Master, the students of that Kuwahara are creating nuisance in the village. Today they beat up a village boy for no fault of his. You must do something about it.”

“Did you see that happening? Do you have all the facts before you make a judgment?”

“No, we heard about it, but why would anybody lie about such things?”

The master did not respond but the students continued, “Master, you should fight Kuwahara in public and show that you are greater. Then his students will know that they were following a wrong teacher. You should show them the right way.”

At some point the master gave in. He thought that perhaps there was some truth in this and he might solve the problem by meeting with Kuwahara, if not sparring with him. He gave his consent.

Up in the mountains, pupils of the venerated Yokomita Kuwahara had been saying similar things about Winfang Li, who lived in the woods. The master paid no heed to them. And so, when his students told him that Winfang Li’s students have invited him for a public fight with their master, he was amused, not shaken.

The two masters met at the appointed place and time. All the villagers had gathered in anticipation of an exciting contest. The students of both sides were cheering and shouting slogans. Winfang Li entered first and took his position on the mat. Yokomita Kuwahara entered next, with unhurried steps, and stood calmly in front of his adversary. His mind was nowhere in particular.

A single glance into the master’s eyes and Winfang Li realized his mistake. Here was no martial artist tainted with ego. Standing in front of him was a wise man who emanated peace from his very being. How to fight against a person who is ego-less? The idea is absurd. And so, when the gong was struck and the fight was to begin amidst much noise and fanfare, Winfang Li bowed respectfully to Yokomita Kuwahara, pointed to the direction of the village market, and said in a gentle voice, “Sensei, please join me for a cup of tea.”

BWW Star

The dream of every writer is to be read. And to be read and appreciated by as many people as possible. BWW makes that dream a reality.

BWW Star is a writer who has worked with us at BWW and whose work amused, moved, inspired, and/or made a difference in our lives. We are sure you will enjoy and be encouraging too.

Hari Ravikumar, from the fifth batch of BWW, is a man who wears many hats. Some of which include, musician, teacher, philosopher, writer, and translator.  He is an avid reader of the classics and adores the fiction of Saki. His last assignment with BWW was to date someone and base a story on the date. We have been waiting for a comprehensive report since then.

About Hari Ravikumar

Hari Ravikumar

Hari Ravikumar

Hari Ravikumar aspires to be a writer, musician, martial artist, designer, and polyglot. After transiting from being a Mechanical Engineering student to a Software Programmer to a Content Manager/Editor, he is now semi-retired and spends most of his time in solitude figuring out ways to simplify his life. He is also the co-author of ‘The New Bhagavad-Gita: Timeless wisdom in the language of our times’ with Koti Shreekrishna.

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