in the time of mango blossom

In the time of mango blossom

pain stabs,

a pale spear

sharp as the scented spikes

that weight the tree

as eager

breathless,

it awaits

fulfilment.

The yearly ritual,

the time of fruit.

 

Our time was a flower

that bloomed

and withered again.

But—

the seed remained,

dry, insignificant

almost unseen.

And yet—

it held promise

of life

of blossom.

Colour, fragrance

within its husk

The thoughtless wind

tears the flower apart,

scatters its petals.

But

the seed rides its back.

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Summer flowers

TO THE AMALTASH

Golden chandeliers

Under a fierce blue sky

Shading me softly from the sun’s heat

Swinging serene in the burning wind

Your movement a dance

Soothing weary eyes

Making me forget the scorching air

The sandpaper dust on my cheek

                               

Amaltash

It is almost worth the summer’s heat

To see you bloom so gloriously

And walk on tiptoe beneath your shade

Like a princess,

Under a canopy of golden lace.

 

The Game of Shadows

Scholastic India

Eleven-year old Anita’s world comes crashing down when her parents are abducted by a mysterious figure called the King of Shadows. She learns that they have been imprisoned in the Endless Maze next to the main city of Shadowland; and the only way to enter it and save her parents is to play the intriguing game of shadows.

Armed with a handy bag of tricks designed to counter almost all the dangers The Game of Shadows Cover.inddlurking  in Shadowland, and with her friends Choco and Sabena firmly by her side, Anita just might have a chance of surviving the evil king’s domain and foiling his sinister plans.

Written by the prolific children’s writer and poet Deepa Agarwal, The Game of Shadows is a thrilling adventure story filled with fantastical elements and larger-than-life characters. The Game of Shadows is part of Scholastic India’s Junior Adventure series, which includes books with riveting stories interlaid with games…

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Spinning Yarns…

There’s something in this collection for everyone—spine tingling spooky stories, thrilling adventure tales, thought provoking fables, even nonsense rhymes that will tickle you silly. Some stories could have been taken from your own life—stories of school and home, of celebrations and hard times, of light-hearted fun as well as heartbreak. There is a vast variety of fascinating, unforgettable characters to keep you enthralled too—clever girls, daring boys, foolish kings, understanding teachers, gutsy grandmothers and dogged shikaris.

Putting them together was a trip down memory lane, a delightful excuse to read, read and read, but I must confess it was not an easy task. What should I include, what leave out? When the decisions confronted me, I realized what a daunting task I had set myself. There was so much to choose from! It was heart-wrenching to leave out some truly wonderful works because there wasn’t enough space. That’s life for you–always those tough decisions to make…


But why did I find the tales in this anthology so special, so memorable? I felt they contained universal truths—an essential element of great writing. There are many ‘Aha!’ moments in these stories. For example, Big Brother in Premchand’s story with the same name, keeps falling behind his younger brother in school, despite all his hard work. However, when he says with simple dignity, ‘You are flying high today because you have stood first in your class. But you must listen to me. I may have failed but I am older than you. I have more experience of the world that you have…’ your respect for Big Brother goes up several notches—even failure has not shaken the roots of his self-belief. The warmth of understanding floods through us when Jim Corbett states at the end of his account of a long, gruelling hunt of the man-eating tigress: ‘There have been occasions when life has hung by a thread and others when a light purse and disease resulting from exposure has made the going difficult, but for all these occasions I feel amply rewarded if my hunting has resulted in saving one human life.’

These stories are rooted in our culture and history as well. We are reminded about the importance of the guru-shishya tradition in Sudha Murty’s heartwarming “How I Taught my Grandmother to Read”. In fact, two other tales dwell on the very special relationship of grandparent and child—Shankar’s fun-filled ‘Rain-making’ and Khushwant Singh’s nostalgic “Portrait of a Lady”.

There are many other thought-provoking themes. The power of the imagination is celebrated in Paul Zacharia’s “The Library”; and the peril of excessive attachment to worldly goods is playfully highlighted in Sanjay Khati’s “Soap”. Then there are those moments of realization—of understanding that we are all special in different ways as in Paro Anand’s ‘Eid’.

There are very real boys too, like Swaminathan in R.K.Narayan’s Swami and Friends, to sympathise with when they keep getting into trouble. There are also inspirational characters like Rajappa in Sundara Ramaswamy’s powerful story “The Stamp Album”, who decides to do the right thing, after doing a very wrong thing, even though it requires an enormous sacrifice. 

If you adore chills, there are two goose bump inducing tales—Satyajit Ray’s scary “The Vicious Vampire” and “The School” Ranjit Lal’s compelling tale of a very unusual school. A school quite different from the one in which we encounter the intriguing Mr. Oliver in Ruskin Bond’s engaging story, “Here comes Mr. Oliver.”

The eminent Ray family has contributions in both fiction and poetry in this volume. No matter how low you might be feeling, you cannot help but smile when Mister Owl says to Missus in Sukumar Ray’s hilarious poem:

‘All my fears all my woes
All my throbby sobby lows,
Are all forgotten thanks to you
My darling singing Owleroo…’

And as for Vikram Seth’s highly entertaining “The Goat and the Ram”, nuisances though the two characters might be, you cannot help but admire the resilience of the goat as it says after the farmer turns them out:

‘Things aren’t that bad. We’ve not been beaten.
We could have been, but were not, eaten.
Some time we’ll find some home somewhere.’

What else can I say? That there are stories of village life and city life, from the past and the present, set in real worlds and imaginary worlds; that this is one book you can read in one sitting or you can dip into it again and again.

So go ahead, enjoy—the road to wonderland starts right here! And do let me know what you liked best…

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Of Loss and Gain

The continuing saga of the history of the Opium Wars, which had its genesis in the poppy fields of India. The tide of history is poised to deposit a new commercial landmark on Asian shores, namely Hong Kong. An old regime struggles to maintain its sovereignty against a determined adversary even as we attempt to decipher the portents. The narrative, with its numerous strands of story, is as engaging as any of Ghosh’s earlier novels of which The Glass Palace with its tragic theme of dispossession remains my favourite. Once again Ghosh sketches a tale of the relentless onslaught of imperialism, with its main impetus  sheltering behind the righteous shield of Free Trade. He balances this rapacity with the gentle tale of the plant collector involved in a different kind of exchange, which promises pleasure rather than destuction.

River of smoke.jpg

It is the figure of Bahram Modi that looms largest among the motley cast that throngs olf Canton. Bahram, the once impoverished lad, caught up in the game of making more and more money, of proving his business acumen to his disdainful wife and in-laws. Like any businessman whose dharma is to reap profit, he struggles against the stirrings of conscience.

Ghosh handles the variety of dialect more comfortably this time, at least that’s what I felt, than in The Sea of Poppies. The rich embellishment of detail whether of food or clothing creates a complete picture but palls occasionally, as do Robin Chinnery’s letters to Paulette. One walks away with great sympathy for Bahram, which is exactly as it should be after reading any great work of fiction.

Grandma & Grandpa

www.deepaagarwal.com

Putting together a collection of memorable writing that would appeal to children, I couldn’t help but notice that at least three pieces were about grandparents. There was a story from Shankar’s all time favourite Life with Grandfather, and reminiscences about their grandmothers by Sudha Murty and Khushwant Singh. What a rich lode family relationships offer, I thought, for writers to draw upon! There must be hundreds and thousand of stories about grandparents, perhaps as many as the numerous collections titled “Grandma’s Tales”. Grandparents are a primary source for story, whether narrating them to their grandchildren or providing inspiration.


I must confess that I felt a little envious, since I did not have the privilege of my  grandparents’ company, no memories to share in stories. As a child I puzzled about this a bit. But not knowing what it was like to be pampered by a grandparent, did not feel particularly deprived. Of course, I was curious about them. But my mother lost both her parents in childhood and didn’t have too many memories about her own mother. All she could tell me was that my Nani had hair that came down to her ankles, and that she came from Pune. Both pieces of information were mystifying. It didn’t seem possible for anyone to have hair that long. And how did she manage to marry my Nana if she belonged to a place so distant from our home town Almora? I feel sorry now that I didn’t probe further.  It just didn’t occur to me while my mother was alive. I knew a little more about my Nana, my mother’s father. I was told that he was six feet tall, something very unusual in our area, and a worked for the government.


My father’s parents are much more clearly sketched out in my imagination.  My Dadi’s photograph occupied a prominent spot on the walls of our drawing room, more prominent than my Dada’s. My father lost his mother while he was in medical college and that was the first time he tasted whisky, he said. He also mentioned that she was the best mother in the world, the best cook and that while he respected his father, he loved his mother. This created the image of a stern figure in my mind–a man who demanded respect but did not evoke affection. But that was what fathers were like in those times. All the same, my older sister did share a scant memory of our grandfather once–of his playfully pulling her back with the crook of his walking stick just as she was about to pluck one of his precious roses. And a cousin recalls finding him in a room surrounded with baskets of apples from which he selected a juicy one and gave it to her. I remember the bower of roses–it survived him for many years, as did the apple orchard.

I have some facts about their rather eventful lives too. My father’s parents came from backgrounds as dissimilar as those of my mother’s. Dada was a rebel who converted to Christianity as a young boy and was consequently cast out of his community. But again, I don’t know where he encountered my grandmother, the daughter of an indigo planter and a Nepali lady, and how he got married to her. 

So many question marks, no tangible memories of my own…but enough material, I felt, to base a novel upon…the novel I have titled “The Hanging Tree”. Because, when you’re writing a story, I feel, too many facts can sometimes hamper the flow of your imagination. 

But how have family memories worked for you? I’d love to find out.

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12985888-life-with-grandfather
http://www.penguinbooksindia.com/en/content/how-i-taught-my-grandmother-read-and-other-stories 

Vengeance is mine…



When working on a biography of Chanakya, ancient Indian kingmaker, author of the Arthashastra,a classic treatise on statecraft, it struck me that the theme of revenge is a very absorbing one to write about, read as well. Chanakya may not be a fictional character, but the story of his vow to extract redress for an insult by King Dhana Nanda of Pataliputra by dethroning him, is as riveting a tale as any imaginary account of vengeance executed. Dhana Nanda was a ruler so powerful that even Alexander the Great hesitated to take him on, and Chanakya’s quest to get even is said to be behind the founding of the Mauryan Empire, when he placed his protégé Chandragupta on the Nanda’s throne. 



Amazing how far revenge can drive a person! This is exactly what makes it such a compelling theme. First of all, the deed that demands reprisal provides such strong motivation for the protagonist that it takes control of the major action of the story. Inner and outer conflict, the see saw of events that will propel you to your dénouement, all arise from it. There is fertile ground to create suspense as well. Is it going to happen now? Will she succeed or will he fail? Or will she/he have a change of heart? Repent eventually, or gloat?
A protagonist single minded or obsessive enough to scheme vengeance and follow it through to its bitter end is most likely to capture the imagination of your readers. They might sympathise with the character, or detest her/him but will certainly be interested in discovering the outcome of all that plotting.  

There are many novels both popular and classic with revenge as their theme that are memorable. One that comes easily to mind is Vendetta: A Story of One Long Forgotten by Marie Corelli, an author whose works I devoured in my school days, but who no longer enjoys the same following. I still recall the scene in which the hero Count Fabio Romani, who has been buried alive, returns to consciousness and how it made my heart thump in anticipation. Even more so the one in which he discovers his wife Nina and best friend Guido’s betrayal.  Count Fabio’s elaborate plan of revenge and its implementation was so gripping that it was a wrench to tear myself away from the book when my strictly enforced school routine demanded it. Count Fabio’s extreme misogyny was disturbing, true, but not enough to abandon the book. I needed to know if he actually accomplished his plan and how he felt when he had.

Novels of revenge must indeed be dark and brooding. But the way they take hold of us is intriguing. Who can forget Heathcliff, one of the most tragically mesmerising of fictional characters ever created? When I first read Wuthering Heights, also in my school days, I conjured up the image of a towering man with a tortured face that could never soften into a smile.  The graphic descriptions of this archetypal anti-hero create a vivid picture of his appearance: “Do you mark those two lines between your eyes; and those thick brows, that, instead of rising arched, sink in the middle; and that couple of black fiends, so deeply buried, who never open their windows boldly, but lurk glinting under them, like devil’s spies?”

 Heathcliff exudes gloom but vengeful personalities are fascinating because they are so obsessive. Chanakya is supposed to have exacted revenge to his satisfaction, though his own end was eventually violent. But the accomplishment of the deed does not always bring gratification or resolution.   

Remember the bizarre Miss Havisham in Great Expectations?   The jilted woman who brought up a girl, Estella, to be heartless so she could execute her guardian’s vengeance on the male sex. However, her plans go somewhat awry and she ultimately recognises the error of her ways. Our hearts go out to her, despite the fact that she used Pip, the protagonist, as a guinea pig in her scheme.


Heathcliff remains more enigmatic, even though a change begins to come over him towards the end and he does actually smile in his death. As the narrator Nelly Dean says: “His eyes met mine so keen, and fierce, I started: and then, he seemed to smile.”

Perhaps tales of revenge grab us because they help us to work out our own negative feelings about people who have treated us unfairly. While we long to retaliate, in real life few of us can pursue such a course wholeheartedly.  But many a timetoo, we feel gratified that we forgave and forgot because the revenge taker is mostly rewarded with only a sour satisfaction.

Girls will be girls!

On March 16, we celebrated Girlhood. Under the shade of a benign old tree at the Gandhi Peace Plaza at the India International Centre, New Delhi, we told stories about brave girls and resourceful women.

To remind children of outstanding real life heroines, Sunita Baveja conducted a quiz on  Indian women achievers, which had been put together by Devika Rangachari.  To our delight, hardly any questions remained unanswered.

Both girls and boys created amazing posters celebrating women power and talked about them. Girls spoke passionately about following their dreams and boys saluted the important contribution women made in their lives. 



Two wonderfully choreographed dances rounded up this celebration. One was contemporary in style and presented by the students of Delhi Public School, Rohini.

The other, in a classical dance style, focussed on the traditional theme of Shakti, the power of the Devi, and was performed by girls from Bal Bharati, Pitampura.

An uplifting celebration, indeed, made possible by the enthusiastic support of the programme department of IIC.

Surely, if we continue to celebrate girlhood with children, it would make a considerable dent on the patriarchal mindset which keeps girls unwanted and maginalised in our country and is responsible for numberless horrifying crimes against girls and women.

March is a month I’ve always had mixed feelings about. In my childhood it meant returning to boarding school–an end to the long, celebratory, indulgent winter vacation. Back to the rigours of routine, the claustrophobia of a disciplined life. But also the joy of the company of friends and the security of structured activity. And the excitement of proving yourself in class.

A thought just occurred to me. Who came up with the idea of boarding schools? I have never really tried to find out. Perhaps now I will. It seems a contradiction to the whole idea of family, of parents nurturing children, of cementing bonds that will last for a life time.

There are situations, I admit, when such institutions have their uses. In my case it was my parents’ eagerness to seek a higher quality of education for me than was available in our home town. They did their best for me, but as happens so often in real life–the gap between expectation and fulfilment remained. As one of my favourite poets Robert Burns said:

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley,

My stubborn, essential self asserted itself. I didn’t take up any profession that would justify the expense my education demanded from my parents. I guess deep down I knew myself, even at that unformed age. I knew I was not cut out to be a doctor or a bureaucrat. It was the allure of losing myself in a maze of words that was irresistible.  But the seeds of this too, were sown by my parents and took sturdy root in school with the help of encouraging teachers.

I never sent my own children to boarding school. Living in a metropolitan city, I didn’t need to. Also, motherhood was an extremely serious career for me.

In the end, who knows what’s best for children? There are so many things that will remain out of our control. In the end, we all find ourselves, one hopes.

March musings

2013 – a year of hope

The fireworks are ringing the new year in from somewhere not too far but I think it’s great that I’m beginning something new myself – a new blog.

All day I’ve been thinking about my resolutions:
1. Finish that book and start the next one (and please don’t get sidetracked!)
2. Lose at least 5 kilos (I’m being realistic here, knowing what I can achieve)
3. Get organized and throw out all the junk I don’t need.
4. This is really important – catch up with all the old friends I’ve been dying to meet the whole year.
5. Put all the poems I’ve scribbled in various notebooks into my computer so that I can publish my next collection.
6. This is really important too – update my website! Can you believe it, this resolution has been pending for two years? Shocking!
7. Keep a reading log and review some of those wonderful books that gave me so much food for thought.

This is my lucky seven and I hope going public will force me to stick to my goals.
I’m going to review this list in March and see how far I’ve maintained my resolutions.

And…since I see the new year as a year of hope, I have a wish list too:
1. Less crime reported in the daily newspaper. How I wish I didn’t have to encounter those heart rending rapes and sickening mindless murders.
2. Less noise
3. Cleaner public places
4. Sincerity in politicians and other public figures (is it asking too much?)
5. That the book gets published.

I’m asking more from myself than the world at large and hopefully I won’t disappoint myself.
The New Year is already 36 seconds old, I need to get cracking!
Good luck to all for their resolutions and wish lists!