In Conversation with Dr. Harshali Singh
Story telling is an art and this art form has been prevailing from around 700 B.C. and there is even evidence of the first recorded stories like the Epic of the Gilgamesh and the Iliad by Homer. And these stories became extremely popular and spread widely because of having being recorded in those times.
But apart from the oral tradition of story telling which is popular till day, there is this written form of recording the tales and compiling them as books, which are popularly known as ‘Novels’ or ‘Work of fiction’. Novels are the gateway to a complete another world that a narrator creates through words. Great plot, characterisation, metaphorical sense, vivid description, imagery, idioms and many other things combine to make a great novel. A great story must be such that it should haunt one even after the book is finished, and while reading it must compel one to read further and keep the readers hooked. Novels are a complete world in themselves which allows the reader to peek into the writer’s make believe world subsiding into it slowly feeling it to be true. This here reminds of the saying of another great women novelist of her time, Jane Austen as she has rightly said,…
“It is only a novel... or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language”
― Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
Nonetheless, characterisation is also important and considered as the heart and soul of a story. A great character shall make one cry, laugh, think and even make the readers restless. Such is the power of great narration and our novelist Dr. Harshali Singh has used this element to her full luxury and has created the most unique character who becomes the story-teller in her book “A Window to her Dreams’ which is the first one of the nine books of her Haveli Series. She has used the mansion or the Haveli as the old sentinel who narrates the story from his eyes along with the other life like characters whose stories can also be witnessed taking place side by side in the book.
Significantly; Dr. Harshali Singh is a New Delhi based Member of the Consumer Grievance Redressal Forum- BYPL, a former member at the Consumer District Redressal Forum, but also an Author, a Poet, an academician, a teacher trainer, an Occupational Therapist, an avid reader and a passionate Painter. She has written in several literary genres ranging from poetry to fiction, columns to essays. She is the contributing author in several anthologies and regularly writes for e magazines. Her Novels ‘A Window to her Dreams’, and the recently launched ‘The Anatomy of Choice’ form part of nine books series comprising the ‘Haveli Series’. Her poems are part of a woman centric bilingual anthology of poems called ‘She The Shakti’. She has won the prestigious ‘Write India- Season 2’, a short story Contest organized by ‘The Times of India’ Group on Chitra Banerjee Divakaurni’s prompt. The Times Group has recently launched the book at the Times Lit Fest in Delhi and Bangalore amid much fanfare. She has also chaired discussions with eminent personalities in their chosen fields of World Peace, Meditation, Infertility and Social Causes and stalwarts in the field of Writing.
In this exclusive interview with Plethora Blogazine, Dr. Harshali Singh reveals that one has to make time for the things they love to do, however she seldom feels a day should have more hours and cringes for some extra hours to do what she loves to do for she is a multi faceted woman. Plethora Blogazine thus puts some light upon her as an artist and writer both through this candid interview.
PB. You are more of a novelist. Do you apply any particular scheme or discipline to narrate your story? Like I have seen or even heard that novelists first chart out their characters, make a rough sketch of how the story will take shape. Do you even do such things or you just let the quill flow and write the story as it keeps shaping into your mind?
Harshali Singh: Since the books ‘A window to her Dreams’ and ‘Anatomy of choice’ that I have written and the one I am currently working on form a part of ‘The Haveli Series’, a series of nine books. I had to start out with a story in mind which then gets divided into nine books.
Whilst I am essentially an organic writer and start my story with an idea or question or a topic that intrigues me; letting the characters speak and take me on their journey, I realise the importance of having a plot line in my mind. The first draft is a free-flowing story with a start, a middle and an end. It is in the second draft during which I re-write and cut out parts to make the story tight.
I don’t think an author can exclusively be only one kind of writer. As an author one cannot let the story take over or the story would just ramble around endlessly. And nor can you treat the story like a formula, as that would lead to a story without a heart. It has to be a fine balance of the two. I too had to learn the fine art of plotting while editing, keeping myself within the confines of the directives I give myself so that the story arch is clear.
‘Begin in delight and end in wisdom’ as someone has said.
PB. As I know that you are a painter too besides being a writer. Have you designed the covers of your last two novels from the Haveli Series? If yes, then is it the painting first that inspired the story or the story first that helped to shape the art on the cover page of your book?
Harshali Singh: I painted the first cover while I was writing the story about Aruna and how the window in the Haveli is her haven. I found myself painting her standing there thinking her thoughts. And as both the painting and the book progressed I realized that both my creative pursuits were feeding off each other.
While I painted, I would imagine this young woman, Aruna, standing on the cusp of a new life looking ahead with trepidation hoping for a simple future with her second husband while looking over her shoulder at her violent first marriage.
While I wrote I would visualize Aruna’s expressions as she thought of all that she had undergone and was expecting. Her fears, her anxieties, her hopes and her dreams.
The book took nine months to finish and when the publisher asked me if I had any ideas for the cover I showed him the painting. The decision was unanimous and we went ahead with the cover.
The second book has part of my painting at the back. The front is designed by the Readomania team. It is a painting I had done some time back and it fit one part of the book. Noorie a long dead courtesan whose mausoleum rests near the haveli waits still for her long-lost love and is tied inexplicable to the story of the second daughter Bhavya. Her troubled life and her struggles form the backdrop of Bhavya resolving her own problems. We wanted the main cover to show the protagonist straddling both the era’s and the design that was finally decided upon, encompassed the story beautifully.
PB. How do you balance it all? I mean you are doing so many other things like you are a teacher trainer, an Occupational Therapist, an avid reader and a passionate Painter. Amid these when do you find time to write and which are your most preferred hours to write or paint?
Harshali Singh: The one thing I would wish for is more hours in a day to do all the things I love doing.
But I believe if you love something, you make time for it, prioritize it. Usually I write in a frenzy sometimes through the night and my family supports my passions so we all work around each other’s schedules.
When women say, ‘Oh I don’t have time to do this.’, I hear, ‘This is not important enough’. It tells me that they put their own needs way down the priority pyramid.
This need to put ourselves last can be sometimes justified. If one has small children, ailing parents or family member it makes sense. But even then I want to tell them, draw that picture, fly that kite, sing that song, meet your friends, have that cup of tea alone if it makes you happy, you will only come back rejuvenated for it.
As I also work full-time, I write when I can, I paint when I can and the rest falls into place. I don’t think I am indispensable. So barring a few crazy cleanliness drives (where my family hide in their rooms) I am mindful of the fact that this rigmarole of life will continue even when I am no more, so why stress.
PB. Your novel ‘A Window to her Dreams’ is a narration through the mouth of an old Haveli? Why did you choose this medium, a Haveli to narrate a story? And though it’s a fictional story, still is there any incident or any character in the book that has been adapted from a true life event or a person’s behaviour, somewhere?
Harshali Singh: In college, I once visited the streets of Old Delhi in winter. There I happened to see this Haveli of the hundred doors. When I entered the foyer, I saw a sunbeam with dancing dust motes fall near my feet. It was surreal, the tall columns, the peeping roshandans and curly grills. That pictures got saved in my subconscious.
I have also always wondered what the walls of our houses see when they look at us, the people before and the ones that come after we leave. What would they say if they could talk, would they have friends… and so many more questions? And that is how the Haveli became a character or a sutradhar in my books.
The first book talks about the underbelly of marriage, domestic violence, marital rape, emotional manipulation.The second book talk about live-in relationships, threesome and the consequences of these decisions.
The reason we relate to a character weather in a book or a movie is only when the character is authentic. This roundedness develops after hours of research or when we have met someone similar.
In my case it was both. I knew of people who were facing such situations and what it does to them and I also researched about the psychological aspects that come into play when one undergoes trauma or makes a choice that has difficult consequences.
There are several incidents that are from my life, like the constantly flowing chai. Tea is our saviour, we drink tea because today was a good day and we drink it because today should come with a backspace tab.
While growing up there were cousins who came and stayed at our house for years, they studied, worked and then moved away. I took my experiences from my childhood to build Gaurav and Suresh uncle.
Many such small nuances are intertwined in the book because either they happened or I wish they had happened in this way.
PB. Do you feel that Indian literature from the time of women writers like Sarojini Naidu, Toru Dutt and then coming to names like Shobha De, Kiran Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri, has come to a great form of transition? How do you think it has or how much it impacts the present day writing of women writers?
Harshali Singh: Each generation leaves its imprint on literature. From the pioneers of poetry and literature we can only learn in reverence. These are stalwarts of a time when people bled on paper. Each word evokes an unsurpassed emotion. We go back even today to draw inspiration from their work. The women authors and poets of our times only take the torch forward.
Transition is inevitable as change is inevitable. The challenges that women were struggling with at the time have only been added to today.
As a woman writer most of us want to write books that are honest, authentic and responsible. This feeling of accountability comes from a knowing that we are carrying the legacy of the women who started on this path against all odds.
PB. Which one do you prefer to read, the Elizabethan era, the Victorian one which is predominantly the rise of romanticism, or the Indian literature? Is there any particular era that can be seen more dominating into your writings or you simply find the millennial way best for expressing your work?
Harshali Singh: Reading keeps me sane hence I read a lot. From the classics to the contemporary. Most of William Shakespeare to the Phillipa Gregory series. I found the series more engaging and pacier. There are still a number of books from the Elizabethan era that are on my wish list.
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey is the one I open to get my fix of Victorian romance. Indian Literature is my life blood so I buy and read Indian authors in equal numbers if not more.
Though I write contemporary fiction I find elements of all the era’s in my books. From the old Haveli that thinks with an era gone by mindset to the new age expressions that we hear all around. Further, as authors we learn from each book, searching for ways to express ourselves to garner greatest impact from the reader in 70,000 words. This takes some practice and a lot of editing.
I find myself using lyrical prose in my writing which is most likely the influence of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ or the more recent ‘The mountains echoed’. These books taught me the impact of good language to evoke emotions.
I read everything now. I found that a genre that I would never pick up surprised and delighted me. It was at that point that I switched gears and allow myself the freedom to read what comes my way. I go by recommendations of a select group of friends who read eclectically.
Book clubs help in leading you to books one would otherwise never approach.
PB. Who are your most favourite poets and why?
Harshali Singh: Rumi is an all-time favourite. His insights into what love can or be or should be, keeps me going back for more. Sylvia Plath I go to for the torment that drips from her words and Gulzar I seek out when I am exhausted with life.
John Keats, Rudyard Kipling, Oscar Wilde I have liked and re read occasionally. Lately a friend has started translating Rabindranath Tagore’s poems from Bengali to English and she sends them. I find his writing ahead of it’s time and very lucid. Amrita Pritam is another poet who has had an influence on my perception.
PB. Do you wish to account any incident that has played a major role for you starting to write the Haveli Series? And are those nine books still in the pipeline out of which you have already completed two.
Harshali Singh: I am a firm believer of, things happen to us when they are destined to and not a moment sooner. Some would say that thinking like this is a crutch, saving oneself from disappointment. One can look at it either way.
Also I think I am writing this story from a place of anger. I want to lay threadbare all the crimes against women that are not being addressed. I want to make people delve into their own self and question their intent when they judge a person. Who is to say what is right and what is wrong for another person when in our own lives we move the line that separates right from wrong constantly.
So there was no ‘one’ incident but a combination of many small and big occurrences, that I had observed as a girl and then as a woman in Indian society that I felt compelled to write the books. The fact that there are nine, tells us we have a long way to go to address these important issues.
PB. Do you have any particular favourite corner too just like the protagonist Aruna of ‘A Window to her Dreams’ has that particular window? Where do you like to spend the most of your solitude time when you are at home?
Harshali Singh: I did have a window at my parent’s home with horizontal black bars out of which I used to look out and dream while watching the world go by. In my house there is a sofa on which I have my tea that looks out into the balcony and the sky. On most days one can find me there practicing my sitar or finding a minute to wind down in that corner.
PB. Do you agree that you are a feminist writer? And why do you think that feminism is a phrase that is still considered a social constraint in our society?
Harshali Singh: I am very much a feminist author if by feminism you mean equal rights, equal opportunities and not privilege. But more than that I believe in humanism first. If we cannot be kind to our fellow-men or woman, the point of this whole exercise of existence is lost.
People largely view feminism as a woman’s movement in which we are out to prove ourselves superior to men. Sadly, a lot of women too have fallen prey to this notion of male bashing equaling feminism. And hence society views feminism in the light of a paradigm shift in the status of men. As a consequence, the word ‘feminism’ has become associated with aggression and belligerence.
The following interview has been conducted through the online mode by Founder & Chief Editor Monalisa Joshi and the whole interview is going to be part of the upcoming Coffee Table Book, Volume 1.