Archive for the ‘Thoughts on Life’ Category

The Cages of Mumbai’s Red-Light District

Saturday, April 9th, 2016

Last night I went to see the LA premiere of SOLD, an extraordinary film based on the true stories of girls sold into prostitution. The film opens in Nepal, where twelve-year-old Lakshmi is deceitfully taken away from her home and forced to work in a brothel in Kolkata, India.

The film is heartbreaking and violent. How did we as a society get to a place where we’ve allowed the abduction and serial rape of the poorest and most vulnerable? Who are these men who thrill at causing such brutality and suffering? It’s said that every eight minutes, a girl disappears into sex slavery. And yet, throughout the film, there it is, the light of humanity, in simple kindnesses between the girls in the brothel, in their camaraderie and caring, in the ways in which they resist, and eventually, in the act of sacrifice that saves them all.

I wrote about the red-light district of Kamathipura in my first novel Haunting Bombay. I had walked those streets with a group of fellow students, and later had done interviews and research to learn more in order to set my story in the 1960s, but time seemed to have stood still there, adding only more decay to the peeling painted wooden buildings, the lower sections fitted with bars behind which the prostitutes beckoned. Garbage festered in the corners, the tang of sweat and desperation saturated the air. My heart felt as if it might burst from my chest. I felt drained of hope just being there. How could anything ever change?

In my book, my minor character Chinni had been sold into prostitution upon her husband’s untimely death, her infant son taken away from her. Her first thought was to kill herself. But the madame, experienced with breaking-in girls, chained her to the cot by her ankle and promised that she could see her son after half her debts were paid off. Of course, debts are rarely paid off. The brothel, 24 Falkland Road, is fitted with velveteen drapes and rexene-covered sofas. Behind the drapes lie tiny cubicles where girls and women have access to nothing but a filthy toilet pit and a bucket of potassium permanganate diluted in water to be used as a postcoital antiseptic, or in more concentrated doses, to induce abortions.

Years later, Chinni’s son eventually shows up at the brothel, a gangly, pimply-face adolescent, with his uncle, the man who had sold her into slavery, eager to take his first prostitute to bed. Chinni’s story is a thread linking the centers of power to the peripheries, showing how we are all culpable, how we are all connected in this dynamic that allows such depravity. In the end, she does what she can to break the cycle, stealing a knife and murdering her son, her betrayer, and then taking her own life. Fifty years ago in Bombay, this is the only way she could bring an end to her suffering, never mind the massive juggernaut of pain and abuse that continued on beyond her.

This is why the film SOLD, now in the midst of its 21-city tour, and the work done by so many in the ensuring years to end sex slavery and give survivors a new chance is critical, as is the rising tide of compassion and consciousness in each one of us. Change is happening. We can bring an end to this global crime. Death should not be the answer but life. Life, hope, renewal.


All I Really Need To Know I Learned From My Cats

Thursday, March 17th, 2016

IMG_5385As a kid, I never really owned a pet, a real pet like a cat or a dog. We had the odd goldfish brought home in a plastic bag from birthday party, and those strange tiny sea monkeys we ordered from a comic book. We briefly had a pair of gerbils that escaped under my parents’ antique bookshelves once too often. I assumed I’d continue this trend once I became a mom, though I sought to make up for it by bringing home the class rabbit, or taking my kids to see newborn pups, or babysitting my neighbor’s clutch of chickens. Animals were a lot of work. They were messy, and smelly, and needy. I was very clear that I didn’t need more complexity in my life. Right about this time, two kittens were abandoned on a doorstep and my kids begged me to take them in. “No way,” I said, “it’s not happening, I’m allergic to cats, let’s go for ice-cream.”

It’s been five years now since we adopted Poppy and Prince. They are outside cats, which is possible here in Southern California, though they have an insulated cedar cabin complete with a warming mat. Poppy is a scraggly, obsessive-compulsive creature. He’s always shadowing me about, harassing me for food. If I’m in my office, he’s there on the fence, meowing in rhythmic intervals like an alarm clock without a snooze button. If I move to the kitchen, there he is, framed in the window, intently licking his anus while I’m trying to cook. If I sneak to the living room, not daring to open the blinds, I hear him, an insistent scritch-scratch at the screen. He’ll break in at every opportunity. Just this morning, I discovered vicious slash marks on a bag of kibble. Let me be clear, he gets plenty of food, and the good, grain-free, high quality stuff. Yet, he always agonizes about his next meal and prowls about, getting into scuffles with rival cats.

Prince, on the other hand, is fluffy and fat. Nothing will pull him from a slumber except for the sound of his food bell ringing, and even then, he can’t seem to muster the energy to jump the fence. He’ll wait to be lifted over. Once in a while, he may channel his inner tiger to swipe at a butterfly. If he misses a meal or his sibling steals his food, he’ll sit there like sphinx, slowly blinking, knowing that at some point, more salmon pâté will be served. When a squirrel races by, having stolen an avocado from our tree, he may give brief chase to show who’s boss, then he’ll plop down with a yawn and doze off. Occasionally he’ll get locked in the neighbor’s garage, but even that doesn’t faze him.

Poppy and Prince are brothers, and they looked very similar as kittens, but their personalities have influenced the way they’ve grown into adults. Poppy has a lot of health issues. Fleas, worms, parasites, you name it, he’s the one we’re carting off to the vet. Prince, on the other hand, is glossy and robust. I believe it all comes down to their world view. Poppy is always searching, always wanting, always worrying, whereas Prince is content with whatever life brings. He trusts in the day. Even if he spends two nights shut away in the garage, he knows we’ll come looking for him. Life brings hard times, but so does it bring the good. Worry wreaks havoc on the body. Better to be like Prince and trust. Receive the gifts of the day. Frolic in the rosemary. Find a sunny spot and sleep.

My Auntie’s Lemon Pickle And Writing

Friday, March 4th, 2016

Today I received a jar of galgal pickle, lovingly made and sent to me by my mom’s sister, Geeta masi, all the way from Amritsar in North India. The galgal is a large, thick-skinned, cold-hardy lemon that grows only in the winter. It’s neither pretty nor pert, but bake it in the sun a while – and wow.  Writing books is a lot like making lemon pickle. You start with a raw, inedible idea and you do the long, hard work of preparing it. In the case of galgal, you have to wash, cut, and dry the lemons, ginger, and chilies, and then stuff them into a big jar with salt and spices. Lidding the jar at this point will cause the pickle to rot. Instead, you cover it with a cheese cloth and bake it in the sun. This is the critical step, for the sun wicks away the moisture, breaking down those raw lemons into soft, pliable pieces which can then steep in and soak up all the flavors.

Likewise, you have to let your manuscript sit for a while. This is where patience comes in. And trust. You’ve done your part, now you have to trust in a force beyond you, like the sun, to do its part. It’s easy to think, my book is done, time to sell! But it’s too early to lid it and send it on its way. Beware of rot! When my books haven’t had time to pickle, the characters are too raw, connections aren’t made where they could have been, and there’s too much extra moisture in the pages weighing them down. I’m grateful for the time my stories have had to marinate and rest, and for the passing of days that have compelled them grow more potent. I’m grateful for the ways in which this painstaking process has allowed layers to be revealed, for the needless to be wicked away, and for inspiration to seep in. In the end, the hope is that reading my finished book will be a captivating experience, powerful enough to make your nose run and eyes tear up. Just like my auntie’s lemon pickle.


Casper The Friendly Indian Ghost

Monday, February 29th, 2016

I never set out to write a ghost story, not in the traditional sense at least. For me, the story of an infant mysteriously drowning in the home of a wealthy Bombay family, and the repression of that tragedy spoke to me more of the nuances of memory and how truth can never be fully buried. It finds it way out, somehow, someday, speaking in the intangible languages of the body, heart, and soul. Sickness, for example, can be a truth wanting to be released – and once it is, the body can finally heal. As I began to write Haunting Bombay, the little ghost of the infant who died began to gather itself from the vapors, coalescing into form, in order to tell her truth. Pipes began to rattle, water dripped, faucets gushed, but the ghost remained fundamentally contained, like an Indian version of Casper, friendly and inert. I knew she couldn’t stay like that, but where and how was she to get where she needed to go? I needed to hear her voice. I needed her to tell me. I wrote in the night with a candle flickering beside me, the ghost urging me to dive into dark places, into my own past and consciousness. It’s not easy, this journey into murky waters, but when I came up for air, the ghost had grown into a wondrous character, mighty and powerful, able to harness the monsoons to wreak havoc upon the family who had locked her away. She wasn’t boxed in, she was in and out and everywhere, flooding the past and present, her fluid presence indisputable, compelling grief, pain, and forgotten memories to finally rise up and break open. The horrific truth of her death, for it was no accident, washed over that family like a blessing. Friendliness only gets you so far, Casper, the real riches lie below the surface.

My Encounter With A Medium

Monday, February 22nd, 2016

When I was on book tour in 2009, Ryan Ray invited me to be a guest on his TV show Wake Up!, about people who have awakened to embrace their best life. I, however, seem to be in a constant flux of waking up one day, and falling asleep the next. Halfway through the episode, we were joined by a medium. I was casually picking up my coffee mug and waxing eloquently about how the coconut in Indian culture is symbolic of the human ego and thus why we break it open at the altar of the gods, and next thing I know Ryan was asking me if I had any questions to ask this psychic. Is she the real deal? I sat there aware of the camera, internally debating this question, wishing I could break open my own coconutty ego. Meanwhile, the medium, perhaps sensing my discomfort, went on to regale me with flashes from my future. “Your book will be a movie.” Well, that sounded great. Big smile. “You’re writing a trilogy.” I continued to smile but inside I thought, no way. Years later, however, I decided I was perhaps writing a metaphoric trilogy. My first book, Haunting Bombay, was my water book: an infant who drowns while being bathed, a cursed fisher girl who’s cast out of her community at the onset of her menstruation, a ghost that haunts a bathroom and wreaks havoc when the monsoons break over the city… My second book became my fire book, all heat and passion, but then somewhere along the way, I realized I was indeed carrying a trilogy in my head. My first book isn’t part of it; it’s something entirely new. So there you have it. Now all I have to do is wait for that movie deal.