Curry Is Thicker Than H20 says author, Jasmine D'Costa

Summer is just around the corner and, just in time for Kirti, the South Asian Literary Festival to be held in Chicago this June, I'm getting up to speed on my reading of South Asian North American writers. I'll be interviewing them and doing reviews of their books all summer long, so stay tuned!

I began Jasmine D'Costa's collection of short stories Curry Is Thicker Than Water(sold on but not yet on, expecting to read fare that's now oh-so-typical about the sub-continent and those of us from it. It tends to be realistic fiction set in India, tales about "immigrant angst" or about growing up brown in a white world.

D'Costa, a recent immigrant to Canada, however, surprised me. Her stories are set in India, but also have an element of the fantastical, reminding me of Salman Rushdie (who, too, is of South Asian extract) and his novel, Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Costa's writing is pithy and her characters stay with you long after you're done reading, but don't say I didn't warn you -- a suspension of disbelief maybe a prerequisite.

Readers have said her writing is evocative of R.K Narayan's work. "That is an immense compliment, though a bit of a stretch I would think," says D'Costa.

An excerpt:

In the meantime, no one knew what to do with the elephant sprawled on the highway. It was about 8 p.m. Finally, when word went round that the road was blocked, the traffic was diverted. The police summoned a vet from a nearby veterinary clinic. A very reluctant man who had only treated little Pomeranian dogs in his career arrived on the spot. He looked at the animal from a distance, bobbing his head in all directions puzzled. All governmental offices were closed and they did not know under whose jurisdiction the elephant fell. The municipal offices were closed and the forest officers could not be located. "Tomorrow," they thought, "tomorrow someone will decide how to go ahead. Maybe the elephant will just wake up and walk away." Meanwhile, unconcerned with their dilemma, the elephant lay like dead. Meanwhile, unconcerned with their dilemma, the elephant lay like dead. That night, Anand, who slept on the sidewalk nearby, walked up to the elephant. He sat on his haunches, curious to see an elephant at such close quarters.

"Sit down with me," the elephant said. Anand was afraid for his sanity. He had been hearing voices in his head for several weeks now and thought he was going insane. He looked at the elephant and thought he imagined a wink.

1) The stories are very different from each other and from what one has begun to expect of tales set in India. How did you decide to write this particular selection? Are they rooted in reality? Were you going for fantastical? For instance, the story about the elephant?

Jasmine: I have written a novel in very advanced stages of completion but felt that it should not be the first book I put out there. I keep writing small stories in between my work, and I thought perhaps a book of short stories would be more appropriate for my first book. It allows for variety, completion in short bursts of creativity and also captures my thoughts between times of writing a novel. I come from Bombay, where a writer will never dry up for want of stories.

I think all the stories have at least one element of truth and even the fantastical stories have the settings and cultural ethos that is very real and authentic. That makes the fantasy more real in a way. In the instance of the elephant, I had no story when I put the title, "Elephant on the Highway," on the paper and stared at it. All I knew at the time is the elephant in Kandivali in Bombay excited me so much that whenever I saw it I believed my day would go well. So he did merit a story. But the story itself just flowed without thought or planning and once they assumed a character, I was the elephant and the beggar in turns, having very enjoyable long streetcar rides, talking to each other in my head.

2) Was the elephant in Kandivali real?

Jasmine: Yes the elephant is real but, of course, the scenarios are all hypotheses in the event the elephant had really decided to sit it out on the highway.

3) What were the most challenging parts of putting this collection together?

Jasmine: I think some stories were more of a challenge and took longer to write because they had very many elements to them. "Eggs" and "Cobras and Pigs, Holy Cow!" were more complex and contain more complex ideas and structure. They also have sensitive areas that I had to wonder if it may arouse animosity. However, I am more at peace now that the feedback has not been negative. While controversies sell, they also hurt, and I feel I would like to get across ideas, entertain, etc. without hurting.

Many readers have got back to me saying they enjoyed it and one reviewer out of Halifax said he loved it and gave it to his mother, who loved it, so he thinks it deserves the highest praise and tells me that it will be in the Essential Summer Reading Guide of Halifax magazine. Most of them said that it was such an easy read and yet so philosophical. I think that as writers we are only as good as our readers, for they take the work beyond us.

4) What advice do you have for other aspiring writers?

Jasmine: Keep writing was the advice Austin Clarke gave and I think that is about the smartest thing I could say, too, to other writers.

5) The keep writing advice is easier said than done! How did you structure your day to make the time?

Jasmine: I write in the streetcar on little cards, I write in my head, I write in notebooks at events, I type into idea files that I store in my computer and when I am ready I sit and type continuously, sometimes even as much as 5,000 to 6,000 words a day. Passion and joy is important.

What can keep you going in hard times and motivate one to continue is one's faith and passion in what they are doing. So you need to be passionate and take joy from the writing.

6) Any details about getting a publisher or agent? What was involved in that, and it's an uphill battle so what are some tips to keep others going?

Jasmine: Once I decided I would be writing and acting, I set out about researching the two industries and acquiring skills, networking and meeting the industry and taking courses in acting. I joined writing groups, and am now the president of the Writers and Editors Network. I had taken creative writing courses in India and was always in touch with writing, though it was economics, banking and corporate finance, it still disciplined me on how to organize my mind and thoughts and put them on paper.

I would say it is very important to know the industry very well, understand that there is no glamor about what most people think is "creation." It is about the product and the marketing of the product that is the issue here and the major gains go to the person who invests the money. If the publisher puts in funds, then he takes more than the writer, and stores who invest in infrastructure make the money. So to writers who are looking at this being their main income will have to be more realistic and be willing to do a lot of marketing of their product or have a plan B to fall back on.

I approached the publisher directly without an agent, because I felt that at my age I want every thing as of yesterday rather than languish, waiting for things to happen with publishers and agents taking their own time. I did not want to hand over my life to the pace of the industry. I was, of course, lucky to get a publisher to take me on. But I am never one to curl up and die.

5) Do you have another novel or collection of stories in the works?

Jasmine: I am completing my book "Saving Ali" (working title, of course) and will hope to have it out next spring. The narrator is the 16-year-old Catholic girl Anna in my story "The Guest in my Grandfather's House." The story is set in the 1992 Hindu-Muslim riots in Bombay.

6) And what's your life's story?

Jasmine: I left India and moved to Canada in 2004, not for a better life but for life itself. I did it for adventure I do know that moving at 46 and starting life is an adventure itself. But I decided when I came here to do all that I am passionate about. Here I am an actor and a writer. In India, I was a banker and also guest faculty in one of India's top management schools. I have a Ph.D., and a post-graduate degree in banking and finance. I have moved from a comfortable life to one of hardship, but it's very gratifying to be able to follow your passion.

Our lives' narratives are neither singular nor linear and, like everyone else, I have multiple biographies. Through my childhood and growing up in India, any pursuit that did not put food on the table was considered a hobby. So of course, the more urgent need to earn a living suppressed my deeper desire to write. I earned a doctoral degree, and spent several years as a banker; but through it all, I felt trapped in a secure world that made me push the things I really wanted to do for "later." Moving to Canada was the best thing I could do, for this dream -- I am now a writer.

This is my "later."

Title: Curry Is Thicker Than Water
ISBN: 978-0-9783793-9-1
Publisher:Bookland Press Inc.


Released just a month ago, the reviews for Haunting Bombay , so far, have been pretty. Written by Shilpa Agarwal, Haunting Bombay is the winner of the First Words Literary Prize for South Asian Writers, and parallels are being drawn to the mysticism of Isabelle Allende and the spirituality of Toni Morrison as they are to the writings of other authors of South Asian heritage. "Agarwal's work will definitely appeal to fans of Monica Ali and Jhumpa Lahiri...but it retains a fresh, original feel that will draw in new readers with its own literary merit," says Library Journal.

Personally, I am surprised it took so long for a ghost story to be set in India. After all, it's a country teeming with belief in the supernatural, ghosts and witches. As kids we grew up hearing that we'd be taken away by them if we didn't behave, and there's always a family or two who've had prayers done to ward off the evil eye.

Set in post-colonial India, Agarwal weaves together literary fiction, a mystery, and haunting supernatural spirits in a story of power and powerlessness, voice and silence. The novel is a tale of three generations of the wealthy Mittal ( no relation to the Mittal Steel Multi-Billionaires!) family who have buried a tragic history and the ghosts of the past who rise up to haunt them, illuminating their deepest fears and desires and underscoring the singular power of utterance.

I had a tete-a-tete with the author:

Q: HAUNTING BOMBAY breaks with the tradition of the South Asian-American novel. How did you decide to go in that direction?

Shilpa: My book is an exploration of how the privileged can hear the voices of the dispossessed - about what sacrifices and risks must be taken in order to actually hear. The ghosts are metaphors for the dispossessed, those who have little or no power in a family, community, or nation. The novel has very suspenseful and eerie moments but it is also full of humor and lightness, especially in the interaction between the members of the Mittal household. I would say that it expands the boundaries of the Indian or South Asian novel. When I was researching ghost stories, I discovered fairy legends, mystical traditions, references to ghosts in the ancient religious texts, and a 115-year old English translation of Sanskrit Vampire stories which I've woven into my novel. There is such a rich tradition of the supernatural in India yet I didn't find any other English-language South Asian authors who were writing about it. Readers instead have connected my writing to the mystical and magical literary traditions of South American writers Isabelle Allende and Gabriel García Márquez.

Q: Without giving it away completely, can you tell us more about the novel?

Shilpa: Yes - the story opens with the drowning but as it unfolds and the ghost begins to haunt the household, the Mittal family's tangled memories of that drowning day - of where and what theywere doing when the child died - are revealed. The family and the servants all have secret desires and motivations - the ayah who was dismissed was in love with someone in the household, the father illicitly visits drinking dens while his children sleep, the driver maintains a relationship with an aging prostitute in the red-light district, one of the housemaids despised the ayah and so forth. There are a number of characters who could have been involved in the child's death. My protagonist's journey is about finding the truth of what happened but also finding the courage to face that truth because often times truth itself can be terrifying.

Q: Why did you set the story in 1960?

Shilpa: At the moment of India's Independence in 1947, Prime Minister Nehru had talked about how the nation, suppressed by centuries of invasion and colonialism, at long last finding utterance. I wanted to set my novel thirteen years after this moment, as the nation moved into its adolescence to explore this idea of finding utterance - of a national consciousness informed by the voices of the underclass. I also set it in the 60s because I wanted to weave in my parents' stories of their youth. My mom's family were refugees during the partitioning of India and I wanted to show both the loss and sense of hope at that time.

Q: As a mom of elementary school age kids with aspirations to get a novel published myself, I'm in awe of how you pulled it off. You have such young children yourself and still managed to get the words out each day.

Shilpa: I started writing the novel when I was pregnant with my first child. After that, I had to write in snatches of time - when my child napped, when I didn't feel utterly exhausted by sleepless nights and changing diapers and newborn colic. After my children began to sleep through the night, I began to write early in the mornings before dawn because that was the only time of day I could lose myself in my writing without fear of distraction. That time of day also lent itself to expanding my imagination especially in the supernatural realm - it was pitch black outside and eerily quiet in my office except for the clicking of my fingers on the keyboard. The most important thing for me was having a disciplined schedule, writing every day even if I didn't feel like it.

Q: The supernatural nature of your book lends itself to film. Have you thought about HAUNTING BOMBAY, the movie?

Shilpa: Yes, I'm very interested in developing a screenplay. One friend described the 'movie version' of my book as a "cross between Mira Nair and M. Night"!

Q: Are you working on your next book?

Shilpa: Yes I am. I am intrigued by the idea of crossings and in HAUNTING BOMBAY, I explore the crossing of the centers of powers with the peripheries and the intersection of the living and the dead. My second book also brings in mystical and magical elements but explores the crossing ofthe realms of heaven and earth.

Readers can reach the author via, and