A Busy Time in West Bengal

For the last couple of months, during Lockdown and its easing, I have spent an awful lot of time up in the Himalayan foothills of West Bengal.

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Okay, that’s not strictly true, but for most of that time I have spent my working day revising, re-writing, and editing A Good Place, my novel set in a fictitious hill station there. I have some new characters to weave in, some old ones to remove, and the story line to alter in several major ways, including a different ending.

I finished the first draft some nine months ago, but there were parts I didn’t feel entirely satisfied with then, and my beta reader unerringly picked those out for major revision. I then spent a while thinking about the story line and took out nearly all the final third of the book and chucked it.

That left me with a lot to rewrite.

Much of the problem stemmed from the fact that after I published Making Friends With the Crocodile, which is set in an Indian village with peopled with all Indian characters, I wanted to write a novel dealing with the British who remained behind in India after partition. A kind of balance to my writing. That was all well and good, but I began writing the novel before I was completely satisfied with the story line, and the more I wrote of it the less I liked it. So I kept changing the story line as I wrote rather than doing what I really should have done, which was delete the whole thing and go away and write something completely different, waiting until I knew what I really wanted to write. But I’m now content that I have the story I want to tell, rather than Just A Story.

Consequently, I have been virtually living in West Bengal during these days, inevitably leading to yearnings to be there in person. Which does nothing to ease the feelings of frustration at enduring the travel restrictions of Lockdown.

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However, one of the advantages of having several projects on the go at once, which I always have, is that I can switch to another for a while when I need to. Last week, then, I spent one day giving a final edit to a short story which gave me the opportunity to spend the day (in my head!) in rural Sussex, which was very welcome. Especially as that is somewhere we can get to now, with a minimum of hassle.

And A Good Place? I’m glad you asked. I think I’m close to finishing the second draft, which will be a blessed relief.

Just so long as my beta reader doesn’t throw her hands up in horror when she reads it…

Wordy Wednesday 1

Many bloggers post photographs on Wednesday under the heading ‘Wordless Wednesday’. Me? I’m going to write a few posts about words – specifically words in English borrowed from languages of the Indian Subcontinent.

I’m just plain awkward, but you knew that, didn’t you?

I am currently editing the first draft of my novel A Good Place, which is set in a hill station in Northern India. And in that hill station live a number of English who remained behind after Partition.

‘I’m sitting on the veranda of the bungalow in my pyjamas.’ Well, no, no one says that in my book. But if they had, what is the significance of that sentence?

The significance is the number of words borrowed from Indian languages.

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Veranda is an Indian word, but coming originally, perhaps, from Persian. The Oxford Dictionary suggests two derivatives, either from the Hindi (varanda) or from the Portuguese (varanda). Digging a little deeper, if I refer to Hobson-Jobson, the Anglo-Indian Dictionary that was published in 1886 and traces pretty well every word or phrase borrowed from the Sub-Continent, I discover a very long entry on this word. It begins by dismissing the possibility of it being derived from the Persian beramada, and goes on to state that it appears to exist independently in both Hindi, and in Portuguese (and Spanish). It then traces the possible routes the word might have taken to reach the English language, before then saying, surprisingly, that it could have its roots in the Persian after all. This seems quite likely to me, since many Persian words made their way to India especially with the Mughals, and it suggests a possible route to the Spanish peninsular when the Islamic armies arrived in the early eighth century.

I tried typing it into Ngram Viewer. This is an online tool that searches through the entire database of books that Google can access online (including ones still under copyright) published since 1800. Looking at the results for all books in English, it tells me it was barely used in 1800, although it does exist, rises steadily to a peak about 1910, and then falls away slowly, although it is still in common usage. Unfortunately Ngram has not been set up to search books in Indian languages, or even Portuguese. I tried Spanish and the pattern was similar, except that after peaking just before 1910 , it dropped sharply, but since then the trend has been upwards. I then noticed something. I had actually looked at the trend in American English. So I then tried British English, and this gave me a rather different pattern; The curve rose gradually until it peaked in the 1950’s and then fell away sharply. Why? I think it must be due to a surge of historical / biographical / nostalgic writing, both fiction and non-fiction, after the British left India.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to go into that sort of detail with other words.

Next, bungalow actually refers to a ‘Bengal style’ house (often with a veranda!) that the British frequently chose to live in.

And pyjamas are loose cotton trousers worn in India which were ‘adapted’ for night wear by Europeans.

Okay, class, lesson over. Be sure to wash your hands before eating your snacks (samosas and pakoras today, of course).

Nice To Meet You!

It’s been a difficult time. There’s been stuff. And we all know what stuff does, don’t we? Well? Don’t we? Yes, you at the back, boy! Tompkins Minor! Well, what does it do?

‘Gets in the way, Sir.’

Louder, boy!

‘GETS IN THE WAY, SIR!’

That’s right, Tompkins. It gets in the way.

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Stuff getting in the way.

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Stuff not getting in the way.

And with all this stuff flying around, stuff I’m finding it rather difficult to deal with, sometimes it’s as much as I can do just to leave a ‘like’ on a post. Even posting a comment seems too much like hard work, although I want to. So I press ‘like’ to simply show my appreciation of the post.

But I’m working on it. I haven’t gone away, I’m just a little snowed under with…stuff.

And because it’s a new year (oh yes, Happy New Year to you all. Have you broken all your resolutions, yet? I have.), I’m thinking it might be a good time to re-introduce myself to the blogging world. So, this is me:

I have published one novel, Making Friends With the Crocodile, which is set in rural Northern India and is about the way society treats women there (and, by extension, in most places still). This has had good reviews, and I’m especially pleased with the ones from Indian women, who obviously know a thing or two about the subject! It is available as e-book as well as Print On Demand paperback.

The first draft of my second novel, provisionally titled A Good Place, is completed and I shall begin to edit it at the end of February. This story is set in a fictitious hill station in Northern India populated by a mixture of the English who remained in India after Partition, a few English travellers, and, naturally, the indigenous Indians there. In the meantime I am also working on another novel, the first in a series of 3 or 4, provisionally titled The Assassins Garden and set in both Persia and India in the 1600’s. This one I like to think of as being a mixture of ‘The Arabian Nights’ and Neil Gaiman. It starts innocuously enough, but rapidly becomes darker. The later books will also have elements of Gothic fiction and Victorian Detective stories in them. Possibly rather ambitious, I admit, but I have already written quite a large proportion of several of them.

I also write short stories and occasional poetry. At least, I call it occasional, but I do seem to be writing more of it than I used to.

And then I paint. I try to sell some of these through my shop on Etsy, although in the past I used to exhibit regularly at exhibitions and in various galleries (and sold quite well!). Perhaps I should investigate that route again.

There are links to Etsy and to my books on the sidebar, if you wish to go and have a gander.

And, when I can, I travel. Preferably with my wife. India and Nepal are favourite destinations, but so too are places closer to home in the UK, especially long-distance walks.

But, that’s enough about me for the moment. Possibly a little more next time.

The First Draft

It’s November. And I’ve set myself the target of finishing the first draft of ‘A Good Place‘ by the end of the month.

What is a first draft? No one seems to agree with anyone else on this one. And my use of the term here is a little different to most of the definitions I have come across.

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A hill station in Northern India photographed by my father during WWII. How is this relevant? read on…

Ideas of what constitutes a first draft seem to vary from, at one end, a sketch of the story arc with most of the characters written in, a mixture of great and awful writing, plot holes and loads of inconsistencies to, at the other end, the story pretty much as the author imagines it, but with minor inconsistencies to iron out, prose to polish and some information dump to delete.

I imagine that any single writer’s idea of a first draft will depend upon what type of writer they are. Being a pantser myself, i.e. NOT beginning with a carefully planned storyline and characters, but making it up as I go along, I think the first draft has to be closer to the finished article than if I were a plotter. This is because it is a little harder to see when I have reached that destination.

So my personal idea of a first draft is the book written from beginning to end, no obvious plot holes, no gaps, and nothing I think is glaringly wrong.

When I come back to revise, plot holes will reveal themselves, and I’ll deal with them then. What I shouldn’t be doing is coming back to a work with a huge gap where I found it too bothersome to write the dialogue in the first place.

So it’s mainly dialogue I’ll be working on. There are two scenes which need a lot of work on them still, and quite a lot of smaller gaps in the final third of the book. The draft currently weighs in at about 85,000 words, which is almost twice the length of Making Friends with the Crocodile, and feels to me to be the right length for the story.

It’s taken quite a while to get here. I know it’s generally accepted that the second novel usually has a far more difficult birth than the first, but the storyline has changed tremendously over the couple of years I have been working on it, and has become something I had not foreseen at all.

I’m not quite there yet, though.

And what is A Good Place about?

I’m so glad you asked.

It is 1988, and an Englishman arrives at a small hill station in Northern India. At first he appears to be no more than just another tourist, but gradually we learn he lived in the town as a child, during the time of Partition. A couple of years later his family moved back to England in a hurry, and he suspects it might have been due to some dark or ignoble reason and has decided to do a little research.

The human landscape of the story is the mixture of characters living there, the good and the bad, the well-off and the poor, the weird and the apparently normal, especially the English left behind after Partition.  It also happens to be the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the town by the English, and amidst the planned celebrations there are predictable feelings and tensions over this.

And the main character’s private life is a bit of a mess…

Back Again

Well, I am back.

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I never seriously contemplated abandoning my blog, although I admit there were times I felt tempted. And although I regularly visited my Facebook account, I didn’t post anything to my author page and only really visited to stay in contact with some people.

My sharp-eyed viewer will notice a couple of new pages on this blog. There is now a page with links to all the short stories I have published, to make it easier to locate them should you wish to read or re-read them.

There is also a page of links to all the poems published on here – I had no idea there were so many!

You’re welcome.

There was a lot going on in my life and I needed a lot of space to just try and sort some of it out. Some of it is still on-going, but I think I’m in a position to come back and give a reasonable amount of time to blogging.

But, as well as doing life, I have been busy writing. Probably the main thing I have managed to do is take my stop-start novel set in a fictitious hill station in Northern India from around 35,000 words up to the point where it is an almost completed first draft of just over 70,000 words. And I have a working title for it: A Good Place.

I’ve half-written a few blog posts, although I had intended to prepare lots more. Oh well. For the moment I will go back to posting roughly twice a week and see how that goes.

And I’ve faffed around a bit with a short story. All in all, other than the novel, not a lot. But I am pleased with the novel so far. I sorted out the sub-plots and brought in a number of new characters. And it is finally at the point where I can allow myself to think ‘Yes, almost there!’

And I don’t think until now I’d really understood how absolutely driven it was possible to be when writing; how the Work In Progress can come to utterly dominate your waking life – incessantly thinking about it and tweaking and refining the plots and characters, almost to the exclusion of all else.

Clearly, I need to get it finished.

Southern India (3)

It’s been a busy week again. I don’t seem to have managed to write anything, take any photographs, or even think about drawing or painting.

The news? I try to avoid it.

And to top it all, I have a cold and I feel bleurgh.

It’s at times like this I usually travel somewhere exotic in my head.

So, a few more photographs from Southern India, then.

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Ganesh Temple, Kodaikanal. Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of prosperity, is one of the most popular gods in the Hindu pantheon and worshipped widely throughout India. This shrine is by the lake in Kodaikanal, a hill-station in the Palani Hills northwest of Madurai.

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View of the lake at Kodaikanal. Besides the better known hill stations of Northern India, there are quite a number further south, of which Kodaikanal is just one example, although unique in having been originally started by American missionaries in the 1840’s.

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Raj-era bungalows in Kodaikanal. These are on a ‘prime-site’ location overlooking the lake.

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Madurai skyline. The Sri Meenakshi Temple complex, dedicated to Shiva and his wife, Sati, dominates the skyline of the old city. Often called ‘The Heart of Tamil Country’, Madurai attracts up to 10,000 pildrims and tourists on any one day. This picture was taken from the Rooftop Restaurant Terrace at the Hotel Supreme, where we sat with a beer and watched a long procession of tourists wander across the roof to take the same shot.

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Entrance to the Sri Meenakshi Temple complex, Madurai. 12 huge gopuram towers, each between 45 and 50 metres in height, are carved in highly elaborate designs featuring gods, people, animals and mythical creatures which are then brightly painted. The whole effect is more like an enormous and eccentricly iced cake, or at least plaster-work. The whole of the temple seethes with pilgrims, tourists, trinket sellers and guides. And touts, who basically cover the last two categories.

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Carved statue of Nataraja, Madurai Temple complex. I am unfamiliar with this particular god, but I like the carving!

Save Naini Tal

A rather different post from me, today. This time I am requesting everyone’s help to save the lake in the Indian hill station town of Nainital.

I was alerted to this by fellow blogger Rajiv Chopra, who has the link to the petition on his Facebook page, but for those who have not seen it, the link is also here: Save Nainital

I have a special affection for Nainital, as I visited it in 2005 and only discovered afterwards that my father had also visited it during WWII when he was stationed in India. I have a couple of previous blog posts on Nainital which, if you are interested, you can find by searching my blog – I’m not putting up the links, since the purpose of this post is to garner signatures for the petition.

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My father on Naini Tal

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My first view of Nainital in 2005, having just stepped (groggily!) off of the overnight bus from Delhi.

So, what’s it all about? Simply, the lake is drying out. The causes for this are complex, but apparently high on the list is the simple fact that more water is being taken out by users in the town than the natural rainfall can replenish. Many trees are being felled to make way for too much construction – this increases the water run-off, and means even less water is retained in the ground.

Please click on the link; all the information is there – much more than I have written here. Again, it is here: Save Nainital

There are also many articles on this subject on the web, especially those by the premier Indian newspapers. Please sign.

Thank you.

Progress Report

Yes, I know. Could do better. *sigh*

But this is just about the writing…eh? What do you mean, that’s what you were talking about? Do you, by any chance, mean my tendency to skip from one writing project to another before finishing the first? Yes? You do? Well, okay, guilty as charged.

Perhaps I’d better explain.

I’ve got two novels on the go at once. I get a bit stuck on one, so I go and work on the other for a while. I’m making progress with both of them, but…just…not…very…quickly…

At the moment, I am back working on the follow-up novel to ‘Making Friends with the Crocodile.’ It’s not a sequel, since I regard MFWTC as a stand-alone work, so to speak. The new work, which I do not have a title for yet, is set in a fictitious Himalaya Hill Station, takes place in the 1980s (mainly), and is about the remaining British and the Anglo-Indians in this particular small corner of India, although the story naturally references a good deal more than that.

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Steam engine…yes, at a hill station in India. But, relevant to this post? No, not really.

It’s a little difficult to say much about the plot without risking spoilers, but the story is about relationships of various kinds – people with other people, with the land, with ideas and ideals. I’m probably about a third of the way through the first draft at around 30,000 words, and currently going strong.

Of course, this could be a really good reason for a trip to a hill station in the not too distant future. Purely for research, of course! Perhaps I could apply for some sort of grant?

My Father in India

They didn’t talk about it.

It wasn’t as bad as the First World War, when men who had nervous breakdowns were frequently shot for cowardice, but the men of the generation who fought in the Second World War were still reluctant to talk about the hardships they had faced and the horrors they had seen.

When my father did talk to me about it, and it was very rare that he would, it was generally to joke about the fun that he’d had on leave, or, after my first visit to India, to ask about places that he remembered from Delhi.

He had seen fighting in Burma, and stayed in India right up to the time of Partition. He certainly wasn’t going to talk about either of those. When pushed, he’d clam up about Burma, and would only say that what he’d seen in India at the time of Partition was horrible.

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I daresay he told me one or two things that I have forgotten; things that didn’t mean much to me at the time. Perhaps he told me where he had been when he was on leave and was photographed rowing a boat on a lake in the hills; almost certainly in the North of India. Nainital, perhaps? I have been there myself, now, and I’m not certain. If he had told me before I’d been out there, the name would have meant nothing to me, and so I wouldn’t have remembered it.

And by then it was too late to ask him, because he died before I returned for my second visit.

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Once he had returned to England, he never went back to India, and I certainly never had the impression that he wanted to. I guess that the bad memories must have outweighed the good ones.

I have a dictionary that he bought in Delhi, stamped inside the cover ‘Cambridge Book Depot, New Delhi’ with the price scribbled in pencil; Rs 3/12, and his signature. I also had some old Indian coins, once, that he had given me, but I’m not sure where they are now. Other than the photographs, I’m not aware that he brought anything else back. Certainly, there were never any ‘curios’. Although a part of me wonders whether there might have been once, and whether my mother, a staunch Christian, might have thrown them out after they married. But that is pure conjecture.

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And he was interested enough to read books on India’s history. I was surprised, occasionally, on the depth of his knowledge on the subject. He was, though, always interested in history, so I suppose that I shouldn’t have been really, and if he hadn’t have been born working class, I daresay that he might have had a university education, because he excelled at school.

Most of the photos are in fairly poor condition, although I have attempted to improve a couple of the ones that were particularly bad.

It seems strange to think of soldiers as tourists, but whilst they were on leave in India, that is, of course, exactly what they were. There are one or two photos in his collection that were taken of places I have been. One of them is of a view inside the Red Fort of Delhi that differs only in the size of the tree in the picture from one that I took in 1989.

He must have stood in exactly the same spot to take that picture, some 45 years before.

What does this small slice of family history mean for me?

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It does mean that there is a slight family connection to India, if not in the way that usually comes to mind. He had no family there, and had no responsibilities beyond his army duties, but just the fact of his living out there for a number of years, gives me this connection. Or so I like to think of it.

In the end, India wove its magic over me – nothing much to do with Dad, I suppose, although I expect that was in the mix somewhere. I think that part of why I may have gone out there the first time, was to follow in his footsteps. And now my family can say that they have a connection to India through the time that I have spent out there as well.