– ‘The Magic of Wor(l)ds’ blog is a hobby, reviews and other bookish stuff on this site are done for free. –
Today I’m on the ‘You Beneath Your Skin’ blogtour, organised by Random Things Tour.
About the Author :
Damyanti supports Project WHY, a programme that provides quality education to underprivileged children in New Delhi. Her short stories have been published in magazines in the USA, UK and Asia. She also helps edit the Forge Literary Magazine. Her work is represented by Ed Wilson from the Johnson & Alcock agency.
Damyanti’s reading journey started at the age of 3, and the obsession continues. Her most precious memories of her childhood are of summers spent reading books of all sizes, for all ages. Her favorite authors form a never-ending list that features names like Truman Capote, Kate Atkinson, Lionel Shriver, Margaret Atwood, Anton Chekov, Tana French, Jodi Picoult, Jo Nesbø, Amy Hempel, Toni Morisson, Gustave Flaubert, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Even as a child, she has always been intrigued by the lives behind the faces, the contrasts between appearances and reality. Most of her stories happen at a point of crisis in a character’s life because it is then that the layers peel away and the real person emerges. She’s been a reader of true crime, and books like ‘In Cold Blood’ by Truman Capote inspired her to write crime stories — narratives that would document the unravelling of characters, their relationships, and the society they are part of.
Apart from being a novelist, Damyanti is a blogger, animal-lover and a spiritualist. Though she loves dogs, her travel schedule doesn’t permit her one. She contents herself with keeping fish and is able to take care of them enough for them not to die on her watch. Except once, when someone happened to turn off the oxygen pump. There will be a story about it someday.
Damyanti enjoys working out of busy cafes and food courts, as that helps her focus. When not pottering about with her plants or her aquariums, you can find her nose deep in a book or baking up a storm.
Her ambition has always been to live in a home with more books than anything else, and she continues to work towards that.
All author proceeds for the book go to @projectwhydelhi and @stopacidattacks
LIES. AMBITION. FAMILY.
It’s a dark, smog-choked new Delhi winter. Indian American single mother Anjali Morgan juggles her job as a psychiatrist with caring for her autistic teenage son. She is in a long-standing affair with ambitious police commissioner Jatin Bhatt – an irresistible attraction that could destroy both their lives.
Jatin’s home life is falling apart: his handsome and charming son is not all he appears to be, and his wife has too much on her plate to pay attention to either husband or son. But Jatin refuses to listen to anyone, not even the sister to whom he is deeply attached.
Across the city there is a crime spree: slum women found stuffed in trash bags, faces and bodies disfigured by acid. And as events spiral out of control Anjali is horrifyingly at the centre of it all …
In a sordid world of poverty, misogyny, and political corruption, Jatin must make some hard choices. But what he unearths is only the tip of the iceberg. Together with Anjali he must confront old wounds and uncover long-held secrets before it is too late.
First of all thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions, I really appreciate it. Here we go! 🙂
Can you, for those who don’t know you already, tell something about yourself and how you became an author?
I started writing 12 years ago, with my blog Daily (w)rite. It started as a daily ritual, and I wrote freelance articles for a while. When my editors said my writing was too poetic for the articles I wrote, and I should go to a workshop to get rid of this ‘writing bug,’ I did. The rest is history. Most of my training has come from workshops and online writing classes–I’m not a formally educated writer.
My short stories have been published in anthologies and journals in many countries, and You Beneath Your Skin is my debut novel.
Which books did/do you love to read as a child/now as a grown-up?
My father was a reader, so I had a very early introduction to Shakespeare as a teen. That I was the time I also read the complete works of Bernard Shaw, a fair bit of Chekov, I sneaked Anna Karenina behind my science texts, and the same with Madame Bovary. The book I keep going back to even today is Old Man and the Sea.
I’ve mostly read fiction: short stories by Italo Calvino, Primo Levi, Garcia Marquez (his novels, too), I loved reading Elena Ferrante, Margaret Atwood, Ali Smith, Isabel Allende, Adiche, and so many more. I have a weakness for Japanese fiction so a lot of Murakami, Ogai Mori, Yasunari Kawabata, Mishima, and lately, Hiromi Kawakami. I’ve read Indian authors as well, from classics like Rabindranath Tagore and Munshi Premchand to Jhumpa Lahiri, Anita Nair, Vivek Shanbag. I’m currently reading Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi.
Is there a writer whose brain you would love to pick for advice? Who would that be and why?
I’m ambivalent about this—there are so many writers I’d love to listen to—not specifically for advice, but to pick up bits and pieces from their journey that are meaningful to mine. Sometimes, at a random talk at a gathering, an authr’s words resonate. I remember once confessing to the wonderful Deborah Levy that her book Swimming Home made me want to stop writing. It was so gorgeous, and what was left for me to say? There’s a place for all voices, she replied, for all perspectives. You have something to say, so say it. That has remained with me, and often speaks to me on dark days when the words wouldn’t come.
If you could, which fictional character (from your own book(s) or someone else’s) would you like to invite for tea and why?
I don’t want to have tea with any of the characters from You Beneath Your Skin because I’ve had dozens of teas with them already in my mind—that’s how I managed to write them. That is how I learned of Jatin’s misogyny, of Maya’s insecurities about her appearance, about Sakhi’s longing for her mother.
For an interesting chat over tea, a pair of characters that occurs to me is George and Del Cossa, from Ali Smith’s brilliant novel, How to be Both. It would make a fab conversation, because of who they are—their apparently fluid gender identities, how separated by space, time, ages and language they are, but united by their losses and ideas.
Do you have some rituals or habits whilst writing?
I either put in ear plugs or listen to white noise. Sometimes, when I’m stuck, I write by hand. There’s some manner of tea involved.
Where do you come up with your idea(s)? Do people in your life need to be worried? 😉
I never start with an idea. It is often a sensory input like a smell, a sound. At times, it is a voice. You Beneath Your Skin started with Anjali’s voice, who went on to become one of the protagonists. She kept appearing on the page in my writing exercises, and I kept asking what ifs. For instance, what if this woman obsessed with perfection is given only imperfect things in her life?
Like with most writers, characters who appear on the page have had some version in my real life—but they change completely over various drafts. I pick up mannerisms I’ve seen, habits I’ve noted, appearances– but never from one person—in the end the character becomes an independent unit, and I know her as I would a friend or family member, feel her joys and sorrows, be moved by her, and write in her voice.
Are you a plotter or do you go with the flow, as a pantser?
My writing life began as a pantser. That’s still the way I write my short stories. I ended up drifting into crime writing, though, and that meant knowing the sequence of events. I’ve now developed a method of plotting via index cards—but it is a very fluid thing. I call myself more of a plantser now: I plot, but also write by the seat of my pants and it all somehow (easily, or painfully, depending on the story) comes together. Not sure if the process will hold for all the novels I write, but this is where I’m at right now.
Can you give novice writers some tips (do’s/don’ts)?
This always gives rise to a lot of laughter at my book events, but my primary question is how long have you been writing? If only for a few months, there’s still time to back out!
I say this because the writing life is hard, and many writers come into it with unrealistic expectations. Very few writers have all three: fame and money, peer approval, self-satisfaction, and yet we all seem to think we all must have these or we’re failures. So asking yourself why you’re beginning the writing journey is important. Acknowledging honest answers prevents a lot of future bitterness, and helps you work towards the kind of writer you want to become.
The most clichéd responses have proven to be the most useful to me: read a lot, write a lot—there’s no easy way to master writing. You have to discover your own writing goals, your own writing process, your own voice, and the only way to do that is to persevere. There’s no one-size-fits-all advice for all writers.
What are your future plans as an author?
No fixed plans. I’ll keep writing—whether it is novels or short stories or flash-fiction, mostly because I can’t help it. I envy authors for whom writing is a source of unbridled joy, and who love writing—I’m firmly in the camp of ‘I love having written.’
Over more than a decade of writing, I’ve come to understand that it has come into my life to stay and there isn’t much I can do about it. So I guess I’ll keep writing short stories and hoping to place them, and keep writing novels, hoping my agent can sell them–but I’ll keep writing irrespective.
Last, but not least : Can you give my readers one teaser from your book, which is featured here on my blog, please?
Anjali Morgan wanted to get hold of Nikhil and smack him. He could have hurt himself jumping out of the moving car.
I told you he’ll be the death of you one day, Mom’s voice played in her ears. You never listen.
‘Get back in the car,’ she yelled at Nikhil, but he’d disappeared, leaving Anjali stranded at the narrow, sloping exit tunnel of the capital’s largest shopping mall. Two drivers honked behind her. She wanted to turn and yell at them but held back. You know better than anyone else he can’t help it.
She needed to clear her head before she spoke to him again. He wouldn’t go far. Deep breaths. She leaned out of the car door and inhaled, only for the petrol fumes to hit her, along with the smog and that dusty smell unique to New Delhi. She forgot it most times, but now she choked on it and coughed.
Anjali stepped out of her car, the yellow overhead lights blinding her for a moment. Five cars now queued up behind hers. The driver in the first car had seen a teenager throw a tantrum in front of his harried mother. He slammed the horn and the rest followed suit. She spotted Nikhil’s gangly form down the slope, cantering away.
‘Madamji.’ A short Nepali guard in a beige uniform hurried up the slope towards her, his whistle shrieking. ‘Yahan parking allowed nahin hai.’
‘I’m sorry.’ Anjali tried to remember the Hindi words, but they’d fled, along with her composure. ‘My son has run away.’
She was about to sprint after Nikhil when the guard overtook her and blocked the way.
‘No parking here.’ He pointed at the cars queuing up behind her. ‘This is “Exit”.’
Down the slope behind the guard, Anjali watched in horror as Nikhil turned into the parking area and disappeared. The cool air of a November evening made her shiver.
‘I need to go get my son. What part of that can’t you understand?’
Anjali loosened the scarf about her neck, parted it from her jacket. In her last therapy session with Nikhil, the two of them had been taught to cup their hands and take deep breaths when in a trying situation. She tried it now, but terror clogged her throat. Her breaths came gasping, short.
‘Big boy only, mil jaega.’ The Nepali guard gestured towards the main road and spoke in a mixture of Hindi and broken English, ‘Make one round and come back. Where will he go?’
How was she to explain to this man that she couldn’t afford to lose sight of Nikhil? By now he might have tripped and fallen down an escalator, screaming like a horror movie hostage, or thrown a fit when a stranger brushed against him in the evening crowd.
‘Move your car.’ Another guard appeared, his eyes trained at her chest instead of her face. ‘You are making jam.’
A supervisor. Making jam, indeed. Strawberry or apricot?
She needed to get past the honking cars, the petrol fumes in the exit tunnel, and this cranky supervisor eyeing her up.
‘Get into car, madam,’ the supervisor continued. ‘Gori memsaab,’ he muttered under his breath in Hindi, ‘samajhti kya hai apne aap ko?’
The sight of a light-skinned, blonde-haired woman, taller and broader than him, had clearly pissed this man off. Twelve years in Delhi and it still got to her. The guard didn’t know she understood his comment: ‘What does she think of herself?’ and the way he chewed on the words ‘gori memsaab’ behind his moustache. White Madam.
She wanted to punch his face, show him what a big ‘white madam’ might do, but that wouldn’t get her any closer to Nikhil. Quite the opposite. Two more guards jogged towards her from the parking lot.
‘I will find him, madamji,’ the Nepali guard spoke up in order to be heard over a renewed spate of honks, ‘you go and come back. I saw him. In black t-shirt and jeans, hai na?’
‘Yes. But please don’t touch him, he gets upset.’
Anjali scrabbled through her bag. ‘Here’s my card. Call me, please, when you find him.’ She dropped it. ‘Sorry!’ she snatched it up again. ‘Oh, his eyes are blue.’
The cars blasted their horns, and the supervisor edged towards her. Anjali stepped back, her hands shaking. Would she lose Nikhil the evening after his fourteenth birthday? She slid back into her car and drove off. Speed-dialling Maya, her landlady and best friend, she crashed her gears. Maya might not have found a taxi near the mall entrance yet. She could help look for Nikhil.
Anjali tried to steady her fingers on the steering wheel. Stuck amidst other cars in the afternoon traffic on Mandir Marg, with bikes edging past her and picking their way to the front of the congestion, it would take at least another ten minutes to turn back into the mall’s parking lot. She prayed for Maya to find Nikhil before he got into trouble.
Should have checked the child lock on his door, Mom’s voice piped up inside her head. But how was she to know Nikhil would run? No point in worrying about that now—she needed to breathe through this. Anjali had grown up with Mom’s voice, and even though she had moved thousands of miles away, Mom still lived within her. Anjali counted her breaths, which took her back to Lamaze classes, days with Nate Morgan sitting behind and breathing right along, days when Nikhil was a part of her and couldn’t kick other than from inside her belly.
She could no longer shelter her son within her body or absorb his punches and tantrums. Even as a baby, he’d refused to nurse. Later, he lay alone, keeping his gaze on the red toy airplane buzzing in circles over his crib, unhappy when Anjali picked him up for a nappy change.
Anjali watched a woman stirring a pot on the pavement not five feet away from the traffic, her baby’s feet hovering over the fire. Be careful, Anjali wanted to tell the mother, please be careful. Despite the cold, toddlers ran barefoot, in torn sweaters. Wrapped in wide, shaggy blankets, elderly men sat smoking beside flimsy homes fashioned out of tarpaulin and cardboard. Pedestrians sidestepped makeshift beds and hurried past migrant children who came to the capital in search of a better life: outsiders, like her, only far less fortunate. Behind them, a huge, lighted hoarding showed pale-faced models in tuxedo suits and gowns next to large television screens.
Sweat beaded her upper lip. She didn’t feel very fortunate right this minute, merely stupid. Why hadn’t she taken that guard’s mobile number? Like an idiot, she’d told him about Nikhil’s blue eyes. Nikhil usually kept his gaze to the floor—what if that guard tried to get a look at Nikhil’s eyes and he freaked? We’ll find him, Maya had assured her on the phone not ten minutes ago, don’t panic. Maya was more family than friend and good with Nikhil, so she was a good bet to locate him. Anjali tried to reach Maya again and listened to the unanswered phone. Instead of a ring, Maya had downloaded a caller tune, a peppy Punjabi number.
Catching sight of her face in the rear-view mirror, Anjali flinched. Faded make-up, wrinkles under her eyes, greasy hair. Mom would have cackled had she seen Anjali like this. Stay with the face God gave you. Vanity is a Sin. Nikhil had aged her by a dozen, no, twenty years. Long work sessions at her Bhikaji Cama clinic, taking him for group therapy sessions with Dr Bhalla, and now this shopping trip from hell. She thumped her hand on the horn, emitting a series of sharp honks to hurry along the cars at the green light.
What if this was her punishment for letting him skip lunch today, following a tantrum? Dr Bhalla said she must remain consistent, not give in when he went into a meltdown during his daily routine. Nikhil was bound to be hungry by now, after a chocolate shake and not much else for lunch that afternoon. No, Anjali, focus. Find him first. She sighed and dialled her friend again.
Maya finally picked up as Anjali turned into the mall parking area.
‘Can’t find him, Anji. I’ve looked everywhere. He’s not at the toy shop. Should I call Bhai?’
Anjali sprinted up the escalator, two steps at a time, sweating despite the chill. If they didn’t find Nikhil soon, she must get the mall security to make an announcement. He might have lost his way to the toy shop, a long walk and three floors up from where they’d parked. Trying to look calm, she approached the handbag-check, where the lady guard in a khaki saree delicately swirled the metal detector through her bag, as if stirring a curry. Wanting to scream with each wasted second, Anjali crossed through the sliding doors and headed for the information desk. She had taught Nikhil to look for one if he got into trouble. Would he remember?
Reaching the main courtyard, Anjali squeezed past a bevy of perfectly-coiffed women in salwar-kameezes, laden with shopping bags. Out of breath, she stopped beside Nando’s, where a family sat with two kids about Nikhil’s age. To manage an episode, Dr Bhalla said, use the right aids, at the right time. Nikhil did not allow touch. Anjali grabbed a smiley squeeze ball and his favourite blue blanket out of her handbag and scanned the crowd for a skinny boy with tufts of hair jutting up at the crown, a shambling walk, hands fisted.
She spotted him near a hair salon. She wanted to call out his name, but that would scare him into running or throwing a tantrum.
He started when she touched his sleeve, but the face was a lot older, filled out, with a moustache. Not Nikhil but a salon employee, a bright red tag on his black tee-and-jeans uniform. Anjali blurted out a stream of hurried apologies and sprinted on.
Nikhil wanted to get to Hamleys and buy that airplane. He already owned one in black, but he wanted the red one, he’d said, and the blue. Anjali should have said yes, instead of handing him a squeeze ball and showing him his schedule for today. It specified that he could stay in the mall from 6.30 to 8.30 pm, pick one slice of Black Forest cake at the pastry shop to eat after dinner, and buy one airplane of his choice. Not two, or three, just one.
She called Maya. ‘Did you see him?’
‘Not yet. I’m at Hamleys. I think you should go to the information desk.’ Maya paused. ‘Bhai called to ask if I was on my way. I had to tell him.’
Great. Within minutes of each small crisis in her life, one of Delhi’s top cops knew. Mr Jatin-Worried-Bhatt, Maya’s doting older brother, would call any minute now. Please, not him, not now.
She cut the call. Stopping to catch her breath, she closed her eyes. She needed to collect herself, not panic. A low whine floated up, but once she opened her eyes there was only the buzz from the throng of shoppers around her.
Isn’t that a great reason to pick up this book and to find out more?!
Thanks once again for this lovely interview, Damyanti Biswas.
The Magic of Wor(l)ds
P.S. Are you an author (or publisher) who also wants a FREE interview like this? You can always contact me via e-mail!