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The last few weeks have been different: I’ve started reading just for the pleasure of it again. After a long time. Let me explain.

In the past few years, since I started writing seriously, I have somewhat lost my way around reading. Writing takes up a lot of my time and energy, which means I have that much less of both to put into reading (serious readers know that even if reading is something we cherish, it doesn’t always happen without conscious time and effort on our part). So, I read less than I did before I began to write.

Books-books-books

The two-fold irony of the situation doesn’t escape me. I’m acutely aware that: a) I became a writer because I’d been an avid and eclectic reader my entire life and b) one of the habits that adds depth and body to my writing is reading regularly and voraciously across all genres.

Be that as it may, reading had eventually become work. Well, sort of. I read—fiction, nonfiction, craft-books—to “learn” (what NOT to do as much as what to do), or “improve” (my craft), or “critique” (in case of my CPs’ work) or “build” (up my writing muscles and keep them flexed). In all this—even though I was aware that it was happening and bemoaned the fact in one of my earlier blog posts—I’d lost my best friend of decades: reading just for the joy of reading.

And then a few weeks back, I woke up to a new day, shiny as a freshly-minted penny. Having just finished a major revision and packed off the WIP to my agent, I was a bundle of nerves and energy. So, idly, I picked up a book my daughter had read and recommended: SHE WOULD BE KING by Wayetu Moore. And I promptly plunged into a rabbit hole of the most pleasant, multi-pronged and diverse kind possible.

The book had all the qualities that I adore: a well-written historical with a touch of magical realism, but its best feature? It introduced me to a time period in the history of a region (West Africa) I hadn’t read much about before. I devoured that book in a couple of days and haven’t looked back since.

(If you’re interested in exploring the history and narratives of the various West African countries through fiction, I also highly recommend HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi and PURPLE HIBISCUS by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, though I must warn you, reader, each of these books will rip your heart into little pieces and then put it back again bit by bloody bit. But be prepared for the grief and heartache—and horror from the depravity of humankind against its own—to pulse just beneath your skin’s surface for a long time.)

Next up on my immediate TBR pile: THINGS FALL APART (a masterpiece set in Nigeria) by the lauded Chinua Achebe, UNTIL THE LIONS (retelling of the MAHABHARATA, one of the most acclaimed epic texts from India, from the viewpoint of its hitherto minor or sidelined female characters and in such stunning verse that the book demands more than one read) by Karthika Nair, REALM OF ASH (the second installment in the fantastical and fantastic BOOKS OF AMBHA series, also set in India) by Tasha Suri, and more.

(Can you see me drooling yet? 😊)

Wish you all, my readers, a very happy and contended (by your own definition) year ahead.

May you all find compelling rabbit holes into which to tumble headfirst—or to paraphrase Jane Austen: find more lanes hereabouts in which you may lose your way again to-day—willingly and willfully.

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Each time I re-visit Philadelphia, I fall deeper in love with the city. It’s because the city does something very right, something I wish more cities in the US did: Philadelphia celebrates its past with an almost reverent abandon while it has its feet firmly planted in its present, all the while focusing a steady gaze at its future.

Here’s a brief chronicle of the impressions and memories I gathered the few times I’ve been in the city.

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If you want to explore the different facets and histories of a city, there’s no better way than to go directly to its honest (and unvarnished) roots. And how do you do that?

  • By seeking out the varied and mouth-watering local produce and homemade goodies in its farmers’ market(s)
  • Or walking through the hallways of its long-standing monuments or along the well-worn cobbled streets in its residents’ shoes (or in their ancestors’ attire, as the case may be 😊)
  • Or adding your own colors (not literally, of course) to the murals of its walls that bear a silent and detached testimony to the changing times and mores
  • Or delighting in the hidden gardens you happen upon, which you didn’t know existed
  • Or…the best avenue yet: losing yourself in its quaint independent bookstores bursting at their seams with treasured books. I’ve lost my heart to these rare gems of bookstores at first sight and will definitely re-visit them whenever I’m in their neighborhoods

I look forward to adding more pages to my continued discovery of this wonderful city.

How do you make friends with a new city? Please share!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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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The southern tip of India is a peninsula, and the whole east side of Andhra Pradesh (which is on the south-east slice of India) is a coast, overlooking the Bay of Bengal. I’d left Hyderabad — a completely landlocked city — and clicketty-clacked over in a train to my grandparents’ town, which is a little over 10 miles from the bay.

This town is famous, among other things, for a centuries-old temple that sits smack dab in the middle of town. Its 125 ft gopuram (the tall

This picture honestly does injustice to the temple and its grandeur. It was a festival day when I took this picture and I couldn't get any closer to it because of the mad rush of devotees visiting the temple. Also, the crisscrossing electric wires make a nasty backdrop, unfortunately

cone-shaped tower made of stone) looms over everything else in sight.

The temple was built by Chalukyas in the 1400s. (Chalukyas were one of the most powerful and enduring dynasties to rule over parts of southern and central India.)

Every inch of the tower’s surface is sculpted with gorgeous figures depicting stories from the Hindu mythology.

Growing up, when we went about our daily lives, spending time with cousins or visiting friends, we always passed by the gopuram. It was like the moon: it followed us like a shadow everywhere we went, watching over us.

Picture taken from: manasasancharare.wordpress.com

When I think about it now, never once did I stop then and reflect upon its past and history. I was definitely not apathetic to it: I always wondered at its height (craning my neck to catch the glimpse of the very tip of it) and the beauty of the engravings; it’s just that I took it for granted that it has always been a part of the town and always will be.

Simply put, in India, history is a way of life. That also explains why even ancient structures are not cordoned off from the public and protected.

They have existed, as part of people’s lives, bearing silent testimony to the passage of time for centuries and will continue to do so in the future.

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I had a grand time sharing memories of my vacation with you all in bits and pieces for the past few months in this blog . Thank you for taking this trip with me!

I’ll leave you all with pictures I took as I went about different towns and cities trying to gather together memories of my childhood…

If you look closely, you can see a few monkeys on a couple of the rooftops. It is common for troops of monkeys to descend upon the town suddenly during the day. They sit on top of the roofs or trees with stoic expressions on their faces, observing the activities of their cousins the humans, before moving on as silently as they had appeared

 

Notice the little huts in the back? Isn't that a lovely way to live, so close to nature? Thoreau would probably have loved the seclusion of this spot

 

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