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Critique Group

Posted originally on April 21, 2010, but the content has since been slightly edited for better context.

 

The art of writing — though on some days, writing feels more like a science experiment gone wrong — is a slippery slope. The faster you try to scale the incline, the faster you lose your foothold and scramble downwards.

I believe writing is something that you discover, experience and learn over time and with patience and perseverance.

As I gather information about literary agents, editors, submission guidelines et al, I keep hearing two words – loud and clear – again and again. Critique Group. That seems to be the mantra today in the writing business, and rightly so!

As the publishing industry stands today, most of the houses are refusing to accept unsolicited manuscripts. In plain speak, they are not accepting manuscripts that come directly, if they are not exclusively requested by them, from the author. They will only look at manuscripts that reached their tables through a literary agent. This guarantees, for them, that the manuscript has gone through at least one round of checking for marketability and viability, along with some editing.

Literary agents, I hear, in turn want to make sure that the manuscript that they consider has at least been objectively reviewed. And this is where our two magic words come in.

A critique group consists of, as its name suggests, a group of people (writers in this case) who come together to critique each other’s work, objectively. Now, that last word is key. So, who constitutes a good critique group for you? A group of writers who are serious about writing, and are willing to be interested in your work enough to be critical about it.

Choose a group that fits your personality and your expectations of the level of critique. This is very important, or you’d be left being part of a group that does nothing for your learning process. It also helps to have the various members of the group writing for different age groups and in various genres. This provides for a better scope of learning.

I have been part of a face-to-face critique group for several years — I’ve been lucky enough to find peers (now my dear friends) who enhance my writing experience in all aspects. This may not always be the case. In which case, try different groups until you can find one that suits your needs.

Online critique groups are in now. And why not? They have some advantages (along with disadvantages, of course) over the traditional group. They eliminate the need for meeting in person at a fixed time – you can work at your own pace and time. The same point may also sometimes work as a drawback. Due to lack of a restriction in meeting time, others things may bump critiquing down the list when your plate is full.

It is also advised that you belong to more than one group in order to get as varied and in-depth an input on your work as possible.

This is what my critique group has been for me when it came to my writing:

–          My support group

–          My coaches

–          My cheering squad

–          My fellow-students

–          The harshest critics of my work

And I wouldn’t want them any other way. I have been fortunate enough to find a group where everyone is serious about writing and is committed to the mutual growth of every member as a writer.

In short, your critique group is a big part of your writing family.

Here are some basics that my group follows implicitly:

When you are offering a critique:

  • Begin the critique you’re offering with positive feedback.
  • Any comments (even the negatives you bring up) can and should be made constructively. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to wear kid gloves every time you offer a negative comment, but it doesn’t hurt to modulate it.
  • Offer your opinions as such and not as hard facts, because they are just that – your opinions.
  • Critique the work and not the writer. Refrain from using words like: “You said here…”. Instead, say, “This character sounds older than his age.” etc.
  • Remember that if a character expresses debatable opinions, that does not necessarily mean that the author subscribes to those opinions.

When you are receiving critique:

  • Be open-minded. You are asking for feedback, so be prepared to hear both positive and negative comments. In fact, be hopeful that you will receive more of the second kind, which will help you better your work.
  • Remember you are not your work – learn to effectively divorce yourself from your writing. This will allow you to receive comments/critiques much more openly.
  • Be respectful of others’ opinions. You have asked for them.
  • Finally, week after week, if all you hear is “Wonderful work”, “Nothing amiss” etc., then it is time to look for another group.

Did you notice something?

The principles above do not necessarily apply to only writing. They hold equally well to any other situation in life.

Consider the following scenarios, for instance:

–          You are required to review a technical document written by a peer.

–          You are discussing right and wrong with your child.

–          You are trying to pitch a new idea to your boss.

–          You are bargaining for a car at the dealership.

Aren’t the above rules relevant to these settings, too?

I think that’s the beauty of belonging to any group that thrives on the principle of give-and-take. It provides you with the discipline needed not only to have a better life in a particular field, but a better life. Period.

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Below is my interview (alongside my mentor Holly Faur) with details of my writing process, my takeaway from Pitch Wars revision process, how I connected with my literary agent Jaida Temperly, and a few fun facts about Holly and me. (This interview was first published in Brenda Drake’s website on June 21, 2017.)

Here’s Part 1 of my experience as a mentee of Pitch Wars 2016.

Hema Penmetsa

Hema Penmetsa. Twitter: @hemapen

Hema is the author of BEYOND THE CARVED WALLS, a novel set in the famine and war-ravaged Mughal India of the 1500s. She writes historical fiction on an intimate scale that shines light on the lives of unsung heroes: women who embody courage and grace and rise above their restrictive circumstances. As a compulsive writer and lifelong devotee of the world’s vibrant cultures, she is committed to promoting diversity in published novels. She lives with her family in Texas—locked in a perennial battle against the heat to keep her precious garden alive—but she grew up in India to bedtime tales involving its rich past and alternate histories.

Hema, what was it about Holly that made you choose to send her a Pitch Wars application?

The first time I read Holly’s wish list, I couldn’t believe my eyes—it was as though she was asking exactly for my novel.

Then I researched her Twitter presence and author website, and like I mentioned in my previous Pitch Wars interview, I found that she was easygoing and had a wonderful sense of humor (two crucial qualities in someone with whom, with any luck, I’d be working closely for the next two months and hopefully developing a lasting friendship).

So, Holly took the top spot on the list of my mentor choices (along with five other fabulous mentors who were also looking for themes like mine). As I began working with her, I realized that I couldn’t have chosen better, because Holly has this way of infusing you with self-confidence and a quiet purpose that helps you to keep moving forward.

Holly, what was it about Hema’s BEYOND THE CARVED WALLS that hooked you?

The query hooked me right away since it was filled with everything I wanted: places new to me, strong women, and diversity. Her pages proved she had an amazing sense of story and I was caught up with the MC on page one—and she hadn’t even tempted me with descriptions of Indian cuisine yet! But what I loved the most was the obvious care and respect in which she wrote about a difficult time in India.

Hema, tell us about the revision process for Pitch Wars?

Holly first sent me an edit letter with suggestions of over-arching changes and structural improvements. After she line-edited half of my whopping 400-page book (so that I could carry over the edits through the rest of the book), she sent me a second edit letter with detailed suggestions that were specific to scenes and individual character arcs.

Once we discussed (over emails and phone conversations) our mutual vision both for the big changes and smaller tweaks, every time I added a new scene or made huge alterations, I’d send her the word file (with track changes on) at the end of the day. She’d read the additions and suggest tightening them in places. I believe this micro-critiquing helped the process of final line edits that much smoother and kept it all from overwhelming either of us. Once I finished revising the entire book, I sent it off to Holly again. She graciously read it one more time and gave some more line-edit suggestions, which I finished quickly.

And that was how I ended up with a novel that was shiny as a new penny by the time the agent round rolled in. Although it was a grueling and exhausting two-month period of non-stop writing, revising and re-editing, I wouldn’t change a single thing about the process.

Holly, tell us about your experience mentoring Hema.

I learned so much! One reason I love manuscripts like Hema’s is that I’m always looking to learn about and embrace the world in new ways, and what better way than by story? We also brainstormed a lot, finding ways to move scenes around, or adding more feeling and descriptions. We kept going, even after the agent round, and I’m so excited this manuscript has found an agent home.

Hema, after Pitch Wars, you signed with Jaida Temperly of New Leaf Literary and Media Inc. Please, tell us about “The Call.” We love all the details about the offer, how they contacted you, how you responded, celebrations, emotions . . . How long did you have to wait and how did you distract yourself? Anything! We love hearing about all of it.

Suzie Townsend, Jaida Temperly’s colleague at New Leaf, was one of the agents who had requested my full manuscript as part of Pitch Wars agent round. But she soon decided that my novel might align better with Jaida’s tastes and shared it with her. Within a week, Jaida read my full and absolutely loved the setting and my voice, but she believed some plot points needed further fleshing out. After an exchange of a couple of emails, we had an hour-long phone conversation during which I got to learn not only just how much Jaida believed in my novel’s premise but also how well she understood “story” at both macro and micro levels. By the end of the call, I was determined to revise based on her input asap. Which was exactly what I did and updated her (and all the other agents who already had my full either through Pitch Wars agent round or my cold queries) with the revised version. Much to my pleasant shock, within two days I received an offer of representation from a (different) fabulous and noted agent!

I couldn’t have timed “The Call” better myself if I’d had any control over it, because I was scheduled to leave on vacation early the next morning. Things got pretty hectic that day once I hung up the phone, because I had to send a million “I have an offer” nudge-emails to all the other agents who had my full and also those whom I’d cold-queried and hadn’t heard from yet. Although I had to field quite a few emails with questions, new requests and regretful step-asides from agents while I was on vacation, going away with family and enjoying the sights of a new city proved to be the best distraction. I also had a long and (quite fun!) chat with an established client of the offering agent and that conversation helped settle my nerves because it reinforced my own impression that the agent was not only wonderfully professional but also personable and kind. Once I returned home, I received three more offers (for each of which I am still humbled and immensely grateful), which led to more phone calls, obsessive online research, frantic comparison of agency contracts, and more back and forth emails.

One of those latter offers was from Jaida. She emailed saying she loved re-entering the world I had created in my book and hadn’t been able to stop thinking about it since she’d read it first a few weeks ago, and she was thrilled to offer me representation. I talked to her at length again, where she outlined a detailed vision (which totally matched mine again) for revisions. She also came prepared with a list of editors and imprints to whom she’d like to submit once the book was ready. That clinched it for me, and I soon signed with her.

Hema, how do you feel Pitch Wars helped with your success?

Pitch Wars has made a huge contribution to where I am today as a writer. I learned not only better revising and editing techniques through the process, but I also became aware of my strengths and weaknesses (which is invaluable for a writer like myself who’s in it for the long haul). Also, the several requests I garnered through the agent round led me to believe that my story has a market, which helped me to keep faith and stand true to my premise. Ultimately, I connected with Jaida—even if a bit indirectly—through Pitch Wars!

In addition, I made wonderful and lasting connections. Holly has been—and continues to be—a huge support; I’m seriously awed by the mentors’ generosity and commitment to helping virtual strangers succeed. And I made several new friends from among my fellow mentees, which is brilliant.

To me Pitch Wars represents everything that’s positive about the writing scene in the US.

Now for some fun! The following questions are for you both to answer.

If you could live in any fictional world and take everything you love with you, where would you choose to live? What would you do there? And why this world?

Swiss Family Robinson TreehouseHema: I grew up in India on a steady diet of classics. So, I happened to read THE SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON by Jonathan David Wyss very early on and that book set my imagination on fire. Oy! Just the thought of living permanently on top of a tree and setting off on a different adventure each day made me starry-eyed. I’d love to experience that setting (minus the distress of being ship-wrecked, of course) in real life. Imagine my delight when I accidentally stumbled upon the Swiss Family Treehouse at Magic Kingdom in Orlando (no one had told me that it was one of the attractions!)—I wouldn’t shut up for the next two hours until my family fully appreciated the significance of my find.

Holly: Not fictional really, but Prince Edward Island has held a place in my heart since I first read about Anne Shirley.

Somewhere in the (known or unknown) universe, you’re in a high-speed chase and have to escape the bad guys. Who are you running from and what fictional character is your side-kick?

Hema: In a fantastical universe, I (in my gallant queen avatar) am being chased by enemy troops, and once I have them exactly where I wanted, I’d turn around and decimate them, mwahaha! A witty poet and court jester like Tenali Rama would be my side-kick—a light moment or two to help me and my soldiers relax would be just the ticket.

Holly: I’ve obviously thwarted some evil plan in which I must now escape, but Wonder Woman has my back so we’ll be home in time for tea.

What do you think is the most fascinating invention from fiction and what book is it from?

Hema: The Flying Carpet from THE ARABIAN NIGHTS: being able to fly with wind in your hair, not to mention lotsa legroom and no restrictions on luggage? Priceless. 🙂

Holly: Books themselves are the very best inventions! Helene Wecker’s THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI has a golem come to life (and a jinni) and I love the process.

Share with us your writing process. Do you write every day, in sprints, early in the morning, in the bath, pen and paper? What works for you?

Hema: Being only two books old, I don’t yet have a set writing process, per se. Since I write diverse historical fiction (where I drop my made-up characters into the midst of real historical figures and time-period and have them respond to the circumstances), the process I have going now is rather front-loaded. I research extensively and frenetically about the social, political and cultural aspects of the time period so that the norms of that era become as familiar to me as those of today. Then once I sit down to plot and subsequently write, I tend to get lost to the real world for the next few months as I write, write and write some more each day. I’m not big on word-count; rather I focus on finishing a scene or two per day.

Holly: I do prefer mornings, before the house is awake. I write in small chunks, but sprinting does not work for me. I’m nearly always researching or reading a book on the subject I’m writing about, or browsing Pinterest for inspiration. Sticky notes are everywhere.

You have one day to finish the last pages of your next bestselling novel. What food/drinks do you get and where do you go hide out to meet the deadline?manasarovar

Hema: Ideally, I’d retire to my cozy cottage at the foothills of the Himalayas with an unobstructed view of the Manasarovar Lake. And I’d have an endless supply of chai and warm scones with clotted cream. But IRL, I find a quiet corner in one of the local libraries (or get comfy at my writing desk at home) when I’m getting ready for a stint of writing. And, boring as it may seem, a big bottle of water is my trusted friend on these sojourns, because in addition to keeping me hydrated, it forces me to take breaks and walk around, which I tend to forget to do once I’m in the zone.

Holly: I’d hide out in Ashville tea and almonds if I could. But reality would be my dinning room table as it has always been (no office here) and my stash of chocolate.

What or who keeps you motivated, inspired, or is your biggest support to keep writing?

Hema: My family. They’re my biggest cheerleaders and support system. I also have wonderful friends who encourage me to keep going, especially when the going gets bleak. Writing is a lonesome vocation, so I’m immensely grateful for the faith my friends and family place in my work—it keeps me motivated to step determinedly forward.

Holly: My husband, not because he’s the loudest cheerleader, but because he’s never doubted me. My children cannot imagine me as anything but a writer, and always tell their friends I write “books”, so that in its own dear way is a huge encouragement. I also have a merry band of writer friends who keep me level and heartened.

Please, share any last words you would like to add.

Hema: My two significant findings so far as a writer are: Perseverance is key, of course, but so is trusting your instincts and standing your ground if you believe in your story.

Holly: When it feels like you’re just spinning your tires and getting nowhere (manuscript troubles, agent hunting, awaiting submission) make sure you take the time to enjoy the view.

Thank you for reading!

I Have News!

Those of you who have been following my blog for some time know that I’ve been working for the past few years at getting my writing published. I have now signed with the fabulous and inimitable literary agent Jaida Temperly at New Leaf Literary and Media Inc!

This is a dream come true and a huge step in the right direction for me. I’m currently sharpening my historical fiction manuscript BEYOND THE CARVED WALLS (find a few tidbits about it below) to its best shape possible before Jaida can approach editors.

I connected with Jaida, even if a tad indirectly—more details coming up shortly in my next article on this blog—through the Pitch Wars competition founded and hosted by writer-extraordinaire, Brenda Drake.

I’m seriously awed by Brenda’s and all the Pitch Wars mentors’ generosity and

PitchWars-Logo

commitment to helping virtual strangers succeed. The competition not only helped me hone my craft but I also made lasting connections with several wonderful fellow-writers who are as serious about publishing as I am.

Pitch Wars for me, in short, is everything that is positive about the writing scene in the US.

Pitch Wars 2017 is right around the corner, so those of you who are serious about writing and are in it for the long run, do check out the Pitch Wars website and #Picthwars hashtag on Twitter for more information.

I’ll leave you with a short interview (which was first published in Brenda Drake’s website on October 27, 2016) I did along with my fantastic mentor Holly Faur.

Pitch Wars Interview with Hema Penmetsa and her mentor, Holly Faur

Hema: Why did you choose Holly?

Holly’s wish list, her elegant yet quirky website, and her mentoring style indicated that she was easygoing and that she had a wonderful sense of humor (two crucial qualities in someone with whom, with any luck, I’d be working closely for the next two months and hopefully developing a lasting friendship).

Although none of Holly’s favorite books were the same as mine (no problem. It only meant my TBR list just grew more mouth-watering), we had a lot in common when it came to favorite writers and TV shows.

And then her “List!” This was when I got really excited. Each of her requirements read like she was talking to me about my manuscript:

  • Historical – check
  • Strong women – check
  • Diverse characters – check
  • Complicated “unlikeable” people done right (my MC turns into a loathsome woman for part of the story because of circumstances, and if I hadn’t done her right, then I hoped Holly would see the potential and set me straight) – check
  • Cultures and countries around the globe – check
  • Polished and professional manuscripts written by serious and professional people – check

By this time, I was close to swooning with giddiness at the “match factors.” And this is how my submission shot through the ether and lodged into Holly’s Inbox.

I am beyond excited and humbled that among all the sparkling submissions Holly has received, she placed her faith in my writing and chose BEYOND THE CARVED WALLS!

Holly: Why did you choose Hema’s manuscript?

I chose Hema’s manuscript because it would not leave me alone! Besides being everything I wanted–rich in culture and diversity, strong female lead, “foreign lands”–I literally dreamed about it when I was on fence between a few MSs. Sounds silly, but I woke up knowing I HAD to mentor it. Then after talking with Hema on the phone after picks, it just felt like kismet.

Hema: Summarize your book in three words.

Survival, Self-discovery, Redemption.

Holly: Summarize Hema’s in three words.

Betrayal. Strength. Hope.

Hema: Tell us about yourself. What makes you and your MS unique?

Although I currently live in the US, I grew up in India to bed-time tales about its rich past and alternate histories. It gives me great pleasure to acquaint my newfound home with my original homeland through my stories.

I grew up in the regions of India where Hinduism and Islam jostled each other over centuries and settled into their own grooves. This provided me with a singular perspective into the disparate traditions and practices but also similarities in the day-to-day routines of the two religions. This vantage point, twined with my love for history, gave birth to BEYOND THE CARVED WALLS, an adult historical that traces the epic journey of a Hindu girl sold into the Mughal (Islamic) harem in the famine and war-ravaged 16th century India.

Holly: Tell us about yourself. Something we may not know.

I do not own a single book case. As you can imagine, this is a very serious problem. I collect coffee mugs and tea cups. I once won a “sexiest lips” contest. Molly Weasley is my patronus.

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Thank you for stopping by! Hope you enjoyed this little glimpse into my writing world, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Change.

A hankering for change is what people claim got us into the situation in which we are today in the US. BUT that’s not what I’m going to discuss now, not in this post anyway.

Instead, I want to highlight a positive concept which is on the other end of the spectrum from change: Constancy. Steadfastness. Permanence.

This is the concept that comes to one’s mind when they mull over how India has dealt with foreign cultures that have found themselves on its shores through invasion or seeking refuge. India is known for its practice of the tenet “live, and let live.” So it has assimilated the non-native cultures into its own over the millennia, thereby resulting in its maddeningly and gorgeously diverse civilization.

This absorption and amalgamation can be evidenced not only in India’s long and varied history but also in its everyday food scene today. These are the aspects I explore often in my writing both here at the blog and in my novels. And I plan to dig deeper into these in my future posts.

Until then, I’ll leave you all with pictures of Indian food.

Why? Because pictures are fun, and pictures of food are even more fun. But mostly because the most accessible route to experiencing a culture is through its food.

Originally posted on October 6, 2010

Ever notice that each well-written book has one quote or an instance of narrative inside it that embodies the essence of that book?

I was skimming through some books, which I recently read/re-read, paying closer attention to the authors’ style and characterization techniques, and voice and the way they played with plots and sub-plots.

It is during this exercise that I realized what true talent it takes to be able to distill the whole plot, purpose and theme of a novel into just a few short, well-chosen bouquets of words.

Here are some true gems, spoken or narrated by the (a) main character in each of the books.

  • Julian smiled. “Not quite,” he said. “Let us say that I am as American as pizza pie. I did not originate here, but I am here to stay.”

                    — The View from Saturday, E.L.Konigsburg

  • He liked to forget he was Luke Garner, third child hidden in the attic.

                    — Among the Hidden, Margaret Peterson Haddix

  • “This case is as simple as black and white.”

                    — To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

  • His father thought. “No, I don’t think so. Of course the Elders are so careful in their observations and selections.”

                    — The Giver, Lois Lowry

  •  The rain is a cool kiss on my sleeve as I link my arm through hers. “We’re all damaged somehow.”

                    — A Great and Terrible Beauty, Libba Bray

  • “Ever since I was little,” Mullet Fingers said, “I’ve been watchin’ this place disappear – the piney woods, the scrub, the creeks, the glades. Even the beaches, man – they put up all these giant hotels and only goober tourists are allowed. It really sucks.”

                    — Hoot, Carl Hiaasen

  • I don’t make up lies for no reason. I just move the truth around a little when it gets in my way. What’s the big deal about that?

                    — Notes from a Liar and Her Dog, Gennifer Choldenko

  • “It’s less a matter of looking the other way than of closing our eyes to what we can’t stop from happening.”

                    — Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden

  • Finally, I’m a grown-up! Finally, I’m a child.

                    — Deliver Us from Normal, Kate Klise

  • “A woman’s place – our place, Roshan – is behind the veil, behind the zenana’s walls, and if you want to do anything at all, do it here, in this space. But,” Jahanara added, unable to be kind to a sister she did not like, “you can do little, Roshan, you are but a second daughter. Stay away from the jharoka.

                    — Shadow Princess, Indu Sundaresan

Do you have a favorite quote from a book?

I’m currently on a culinary pilgrimage, and a darn fascinating one at that. Here’s Part 1 of my quest.

Without further ado, here’s the recipe to the world’s oldest curry. I extrapolated it from this video and adjusted it slightly to my own taste. That’s the best thing about Indian cuisine in all its regional variations: with a little imagination, it’s easy and fun to customize recipes to your liking.

Ingredients:Ingredients-1

  1. Small purple eggplants (the smaller the better for taste), slit: 7
  2. Unripe mango, peeled and flesh chopped into small pieces: 1
  3. Ginger: an inch-sized cube, peeled and grated
  4. Sesame oil: 2 tbsp
  5. Cumin: 1 tsp
  6. Turmeric: 1 tsp
  7. Sugar (used instead of sugarcane powder): 1 tbsp
  8. Salt: to taste

Process:

  1. Add oil to a heated pan, then add ginger, cumin and turmeric to it. Let simmer for a minute, or until the spices give out their aroma.Cooking-Curry
  2. Add the eggplants and turn them over every few minutes until they’re roasted on all sides.
  3. Add the chopped mango, sugar and salt. At this point, you might need to add about ¼ cup of water to help the eggplants cook. Cover the pan with a lid so the steam can do its magic.
  4. Within about 10 minutes or so, your curry is ready.

The recipe is rather simple, as prototypes tend to be, but it’s unbelievably delicious. No wonder it has sustained over the millennia without major upgrades or changes—it bears the hallmarks of a basic preparation from an average Indian home of today:

  • Locally grown/procured vegetables
  • Vegetables in season
  • Basic spices, each chosen with care for not only taste but their beneficial effects on health
  • Cooked with minimal fuss with the most scrumptious and healthy results

Anything else added to this recipe (like chillies, curry leaves, sliced onions etc., which are later discoveries or imports to India) is an embellishment to bring out an appealing variation. There’s no harm in this, because where’s progress without experimentation, right?

I would’ve loved to make the curry in a copper or earthenware pot for authenticity, but because I didn’t have either handy, I chose to go with a cast iron pan (although iron wasn’t available during the Indus period).

Depending on their socio-economic status, sections of the Harappan society would’ve probably used copper cooking utensils, while those who couldn’t afford copper would’ve gone with baked earthenware pots.Rice&Curry

I also cooked brown rice to be served with the curry as Harappans would’ve done. Okay, there are two schools of experts when it comes to domesticated rice and Indus Valley. One school believes that the people of the Indus Valley cultivated rice as a staple food grain and the other (the minority) doesn’t think so. Given this situation, I did what any self-respecting enthusiast does: aligned myself with the school that complies with my own beliefs. (I mean, how can I imagine an Indian subcontinent without rice as a staple?) The alternative carbs at a Harappan home would’ve been wheat/millet flatbread or barley porridge.

So, there you have it, my journey to the heart of an Indus home: its kitchen.

Wouldn’t you like to give this recipe a try? I’d love to hear about your experience, if you do.

For a different take on this curry and its history, read Ambika Sambasivan’s Cooking Up a 4,000-year-old Curry. While there, be sure to check out and support Yali Books’s commendable efforts at bringing to life books that highlight South Asian cultures.

I have always loved making connections in my day-to-day life to traditions and routines I’d read about in a history book or heard as a child from my great-grandmother’s stories (as so much of history and tradition is still passed down from one generation to the next in India). I appreciate a deep sense of preservation and kinship in the knowledge that despite all the technological advances, we, as humans today, aren’t at our core that removed from our earliest ancestors. This is also why I explore predominantly historical themes in my writing.

So, when I received a link recently from Ambika Sambasivan, an advocate of South Asian cultures at Yali Books, inviting me to try out an experience, my curiosity was piqued. I clicked the BBC News link open: it was a video explaining how to cook a curry that was routinely made over 4,000 years ago in the kitchens of the Indus Valley homes. I almost swooned from excitement.

See, ever since I was a young child, the Indus Valley Civilization (or Harappan Culture as it’s also called) that flourished over 4,000 years ago in the Indian subcontinent fascinated me no end. Heck, I even wrote a full-length novel set in the Indus city of Mohenjo-Daro during the time period that the civilization was at its peak.

What is this Indus Valley Culture, you ask?

In simplified terms, the Indus Culture was a Bronze-age civilization (3300 – 1300 BCE) that spread over a vast area of what is today northeast Afghanistan to Pakistan and northwest India. The culture flourished in the fertile basin of the Sindhu River (whose name has morphed into Indus River in modern times) and other monsoon-fed rivers. The culture was highly evolved, and its people are noted for pioneering urban planning—cities that had elaborate drainage systems and one and two-story buildings made of baked-bricks!—and technology for metallurgy and sustained farming among other things.

Unfortunately, compared to how long the civilization thrived, and how successful it had been, we know very little about the culture, religion and day-to-day lives of the Indus people.

During my extensive research for the novel, I learned that the Harappans cultivated, and perhaps exported, grains such as wheat, barley and rice; fruits such as melons, dates and grapes; and produce like sesame, green peas, ginger, garlic and turmeric. However, I had no idea that they knew of aubergines (eggplants) until I watched this BBC video.

And, what’s more, the video gifts us with the recipe for the world’s oldest proto-curry (isn’t that a brilliant word?). Two scientists unearthed this recipe, by use of starch analysis, from the pot shards found at one of the Harappan excavations near the modern-day Delhi. Thank you, Science!

I can imagine a Harappan man or a woman hunched over a cooking fire, fanning the embers to adjust the heat-level, and roasting the eggplants in sesame oil to perfection. This recipe—because food transcends time and place, and nothing draws people together quite like food does—symbolizes the tenuous, yet in its own way tenacious, connection I have with my forebears from so long ago. Just the fact that I can follow the recipe to the last detail and attempt to experience even the tiniest bit of their daily routines fills me with awe and hope.

Because, to me, history and traditions are less about rigid customs and more about deepening ties and understanding.

I’m off, in search of ingredients for the world’s oldest-known curry. I’m going to post here my observations from this compelling exercise of recreating the proto-curry next week. Hope to see you all soon!

P.S: Did you know that “curry” might not even be an original Indian word, at least in the context it’s globally used? Indians don’t necessarily apply that word for their preparations unless they’re using it in a Western/larger-audience context. There are several theories as to what actually constitutes a curry and who originally coined that word. Another post for another day!

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