Poetry, prose, books and more…



In Conversation with Saiswaroopa Iyer, Author of Abhaya.

An IITian and a former analyst with a Venture Capital firm, Saiswaroopa Iyer’s interests include Startups, Economics, Carnatic Music, Philosophy, Politics, History and Literature of India. Trained in Carnatic classical music, she won a state level gold medal from TTD in rendering Annamacharya Kritis. She currently lives in London.


In this post, I am proud to present a brief interview with the debutante author.

1. Your debut novel Abhaya was released on 24th November. Do tell us how you feel about it!

It feels great. In fact it still has to sink in! Reviews have started to flow and initial readers are really supportive.

2. Do share some insights about your writing journey – I’ve heard it’s been quite an awesome ride!

Abhaya you see on the Kindle store is the result of five years of work! The experience has taught me a lot. From writing on a whim or a surge of inspiration to writing as a discipline, the novel has taken me a long distance. I think I have finally learnt to fight the writer’s block (touch wood!) I have discarded around 3 full drafts and many more part drafts and each draft brought a lot of learning in terms of structuring and characterization. The whole journey also helped me balance my own thought process. Guess I can go on and on. All the reviews and warm praises apart, the process of writing, discarding, rewriting and editing itself has been immensely fulfilling.

3.The book’s title and front cover seem to tell a story of their own! Would you like to tell us more about them?

The cover was designed by Anoop Ravindran, an entrepreneur cum artist and a great friend. He chose to believe in my manuscript even before I had a single word out on my final draft. Conceptualizing the cover was a bit of a challenge. But Anoop managed to get the artist’s picture of the protagonist Abhaya with the temple of Kamarupa in the background. The peacock feather embellishing the title was his master touch! Needless to say it was liked by many.

4. The characterization of Abhaya seems very interesting! Was she inspired by any of the goddesses or princesses in Hindu mythology?

The characterization was one of my most interesting experiences. Initially, the thought of a female warrior enthused me a lot. But with each development in the plot, she showed a new shade. One of my mentors, in the early phases advised me to conceive a rebellious character. I instantly rebelled at the very thought! I realized later that a rebellious character is often unidimensional and to conceive a befitting partner to Krishna, one needs a multi-dimensional character.

It made me delve into the three fold path of Karma, Bhakti and Jnana. To confess, I was a diehard fan of Jnana, neutral about Karma and not at all an admirer of Bhakti to begin with. But the whole process of Abhaya’s characterization made me realize that each of the three is needed as the time and situation demand and they are not mutually exclusive. Abhaya is curious, courageous and a quick decision maker. She is an idealist but then ponders over every belief, doing a thorough analysis of her own. In short, I wanted all those characteristics in her which are normally not there in a knee jerk rebel. Her warrior side is just one of the many qualities she possesses. The hard work seems to have paid off as one of the readers called Abhaya, a people’s princess. I was just overjoyed hearing that.


5. How did you go about researching for this book? Are there any particular books or magazines you would like to mention?

Root epics Mahabharata, Vishnu Purana and Bhagavatam mention this episode of Narakasura vadha. But the inspiration of a human Krishna was largely drawn from Krishnavatara by KM Munshi. I borrowed some concepts from Munshiji. A friend also suggested me to read Krishna Charitra by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and it gave me insights into the peace loving side of Krishna. I should also mention “Krishna. A study into theory of Avatars” where the writer Bhagvan Das dwelt on the human side of the Avatar. As I mentioned in the note, neither of these writers deny the divinity of Krishna, but have visualized the divinity within human dimensions. I’ve followed their lead in Abhaya.

There were also books on the Shakti worship and about the legends of Assam where I discovered that Bhauma, another major character in the book is a Shakti worshipper.

6. The book seems to be set in the Mahabharath era. How challenging was it to recreate scenes from such a time period?

Don’t mean to brag, but this was the easiest part. Partly, I think it is because of my obsessive love for this time period. My association with Mahabharata began with stories told by my grandparents and parents to Amar Chitra Katha and Rajaji’s version and gradually towards the unabridged critical edition.

But my prime focus was on characters. They create the effect. Be it 2000 BCE or 2000 CE, India is characterized by a large variety of thoughts, beliefs and philosophies. Many writers try and simplify the narrative by casting the country and populace into two sides of a conflict. But the truth is much more intricate and differences are far more tapered and porous than we generally think they were. I have attempted to present this plurality of thought with some success (hopefully!)

7. Do tell us about your other writerly activities! Do you write for magazines and journals?

I do write occasionally.Swarajya Magazine and Myindmakers come to my mind. There are a number of independent blogs focusing on Indian history, Indian literature and Telugu literature which were the launching platform for my public writing. My short writing is often on a trigger or on a whim. I am trying to make it a more disciplined activity.

8. Heard you’re a singer too, among other things! How does it feel to don so many hats?

That is flattering indeed! It was my mother Usha Krishna Swamy’s dream to see me accomplish great heights in Carnatic music. There were times when the situations were hostile and yet she believed in the potential of my voice and fought along. At the same time, she had me rooted into the philosophy of devotional music as opposed to pursuing a career in commercial music. Till today she is happier to see me sing in a temple than in a studio!

The best part of Indian classical music is the exposure we get into devotional and philosophical compositions by different saints from different parts of this country and from different periods of time. In a way, the compositions of Annamacharya influenced my thought about the divine Krishna a lot. Singing them along while delving into the intended meaning helped my writing too.

9. Do share some of your learning experiences – they are sure to come in handy for many aspiring writers!

Reading is a prerequisite. Thankfully my mother managed to inculcate this habit in me despite all my resistance in my tender years! Fortunately, the beginning was with Telugu poems from Bhagavatam which she and my father made a habit to recite regularly. She introduced me to English literature later in my upper primary school days. It is necessary to read a variety of literature. That helps avoid biases and encourages independent opinion. In my experience, I have observed that going low on reading affected my writing as well. The tricky part is to not get influenced by other writer’s style.

My fantasies developed around my reading and I was attracted to strong and self-driven characters. It is my firm belief that once a character is planted in a writer’s mind, the story would flow on its own.

Secondly, we need to be patient and not get tired of discarding drafts of our writing. To me, each draft proved to be a building block. One needs to balance feedback with self-conviction and take a bold decision at each phase.

Finally, don’t give up. Perseverance is the least we all owe to our characters. Believe in them and they will never fail to be by your side,especially in times of dire need!

10. Abhaya is a self-published novel. What, in your opinion are some of the best advantages of self-publishing?

I have comes across many published authors who complain about the publishing houses insisting on changes to their manuscripts. Newer authors have very less bargaining power there. The commercial aspects too are not very encouraging. I was also told that traditional publishing houses over invest their marketing efforts onto their star-authors and that leaves very less attention on the newbies. Personally, I was put off with the impersonal touch in the couple of rejection letters I received in the initial phases.

Self-publishing thrusts a lot of responsibility on the author and one needs to be ready for that. My entrepreneurial enthusiasm goaded me on this path. We have the freedom to decide what is published. We have the freedom to take a step back and re think our plan of action. Technology has provided interesting breakthroughs in this direction. The proportional returns are more encouraging in self-publishing.

Those who want to self-publish need to realize that marketing is totally in their hands. And networking helps there. It is advisable that aspiring authors start networking and participate in an ecosystem of their choice with all sincerity. This becomes their biggest marketing force during the grand phase.

11. Do tell us about your future projects – do you have some others in pipeline?

I am looking at the early to medieval historical India now. It will be too early to say, but I am considering the south Indian empires that preceded Vijaya Nagara Empire. Thanks to the limited history curriculum in our schools, we missed out reading about so many characters that would have inspired us. These are the rulers who invested in building breath taking temples, long lasting irrigation projects and patronized immortal literature instead of lavishing state wealth on their personal palaces. I am looking at few such not so well known Kings and their stories to write about. Hope Goddess Saraswati blesses me in the endeavour.

Abhaya is available on the Kindle store and can be purchased here. Hope you enjoy reading the book!

“Fear is incomplete knowledge”

I recently came across an interesting sentence, in a book by Agatha Christie – “Death Comes as the End”. The statement was made by the “hero” of the book Hori–”Fear is incomplete knowledge”. In effect, according to Hori, we often fear those things about which we don’t know much or the outcomes of which we cannot reasonably predict. As I paused to reflect on these words, I could not help but concur with the truth in them. There are many instances that sprang to my mind, which could be used, in support of this.

                         What are the things we usually fear? Something outside our normal routine, something which comes along once a while? Something which cannot be properly seen? Something which we are not mentally or physically prepared for, and are hence uncertain about? Or something about which we simply have no clue? If we think about it, I’m sure all our fears would fall into one of the categories above.

                        Let’s now examine a few of the commonest fears. The most common ones among youngsters or the “working class” would be – fear of examinations, fear of unemployment, job interviews, job insecurities, uncertainties in career path etc. If we look at the underlying causes of each of these – one thing is sure to stand out – most of them stem out of lack of predictability. We fear each of those instances because, we are not sure of the outcome – the prediction of the result is beyond us. Indeed, many of us keep living in fear of some outcome or the other, while we may or may not suffer through the actual consequences themselves – in short, we don’t know and can’t be sure, hence the fear, the worry and whatnot!


                        That aside, what about other experiences – trying out a ridiculously dangerous ride in an amusement park, or taking a plunge into the deep waters of a swimming pool for a first time, or even just traversing a very busy road in peak traffic on a vehicle for the first time? The reason for the fear felt, in these cases is also incomplete knowledge – we don’t know what it would be like under water, in the midst of traffic or just to be thrown into the air! What about horror movies – why do the scariest scenes occur in the dark, in the wee hours of the night or when visibility is poor – say in a mist? Simply because – our vision is not what it is, when there is enough light – we don’t know and can’t be sure, what horrors lie in wait for us – in other words, just incomplete knowledge and the tricks played on us, by our very own minds!

                        However, once the initial fear is swallowed down and we take the plunge, I’m sure the levels would come down drastically. As a wise man once said, “The first time is the hardest”.

                        What happens the next time we try out any of these things? We know what could happen to us, in the worst case – we’ve probably been through it and survived it as well – it isn’t as worrying and formidable as it was, the first time. In case we do feel overwhelmed and unsure of ourselves, we always have an experience to look back on – in case that was a rough one, we could just use it to motivate ourselves. There’s a famous Tamil movie dialogue to this very effect – “Evalavo panitom, idha panna matoma??” (Literal translation – We’ve done a lot, won’t we be able to do this?)

                        In fact, this is the very philosophy, I’ve adopted of late – whenever I come across some particularly difficult or tricky situation, which I have to go through, I throw my mind back to anything I’ve managed to accomplish single handedly and which I’m particularly proud of and just take the plunge, hoping for the best! I do hope to continue on these lines, cruising with ease through periods of uncertainty, unpredictability or plain unpleasantness!

E-books vs paper books

I may come off as a hypocrite writing this; for, I own two of the best known electronic reading devices of the day. However, my association with the printed word is quite old and happens to date back to a time when computers were rare and smart phones – virtually unheard of. This should explain, in most part, my preference for the good old actual ‘books’ to their electronic counterparts. However there are other reasons for this partiality.

                             First and foremost, there is the unbeatable experience of visiting a physical bookstore (or a library for that matter) and spending hours together, just picking up books, reading their synopses or a snippet about their authors or even just feeling their cover. The thrill of coming across an unusual book and deciding to buy it on a whim is simply unbeatable! There have also been times, when I have finished half a book, sitting in the bookstore, before making the decision to buy it!

                           I now move onto the part of actually holding the book, opening it and reading its content. I agree that the e-book devices offer many advantages in this area, the first being their portability and lightness. But, this is outweighed by a significant point – the heaviness of a book, gives me a rough estimate of the hard work put in by the author. This gives me a strong motivation to continue reading the book and attempt finishing it – no matter the quality of the content! Also, I feel free of the obnoxious need to carry the book around and read it in every place possible, thus inconveniencing many a fellow passenger, especially while commuting in a jam packed train or bus.

Ebooks vs Paper books

                           While I’m reading a book, I sometimes just spend time admiring the cover photographs, art work or illustration and try relating these to the story at hand. I even flip to the last page or back cover to secretly admire the author’s photograph or get an occasional glimpse of their lives. Also, I tend to associate each book with the print font (which I feel is different for every book) and the feel and smell of each page I read. I feel denied of these simple pleasures while reading the e-book version.

                           Moving on, now, to the other famed advantages of the e-book. If I use a reading device or app, I could get to know the “percentage of completion” of the book. This can hardly compare to having a verifiable proof of the number of pages successfully conquered and the number still remaining, while reading an actual book. The thrill of having to guess at the meanings of difficult words, in terms of their context, thanks to the lethargy of having to look them up in that huge dictionary, more than compensates for the advantage of an in-built thesaurus.

                           I now come to the part of “handling” a book. A particularly good book meant that it would be handled with extra care. It would have a designated ‘reading spot’ and a ‘reading time’ – it would not be read in bed and certainly not while eating. All its pages would be smoothed and ironed out, a proper bookmark would be used and it would be allotted the best of positions in the book-shelf. Needless to say, the e-book does not lend itself to such care and attention.

                           And last, but not the least, there is the pride of owning so many books and a huge bookshelf. The bookshelf itself would be selected with care and the arrangement of books inside it would be an activity requiring lots of time and attention to detail. This is, after all a prized possession – one that would be proudly displayed to friends and relatives alike.

                           This is not to say that I’m going to completely stop reading e-books. Rather, I would try and balance out my time between them and their older and (in many ways) better kinsmen!

How what I read influences my writing

While reading excerpts from an interview with a contemporary author, I came across an interesting question – “Is your writing influenced in anyway by what you read”? Okay, those were not the exact words used, but then the context was the same – “Does reading other people’s work help your writing?” The answer given by the author was interesting and kind of resonates with my own thoughts – “Reading other people’s work gives us an insight into other minds, other ways of thinking.” This is bound to influence our own thoughts, which ultimately find their way into our own writing. Also, as the author has pointed out, this may not be instantaneous – rather it may be a slow process, which may even occur without the writer actually being conscious of it.

                  There are quite a few authors and books, which have inspired me, to improve my skills and keep trying different styles. Of the more famous ones, I particularly adore the work of authors like Agatha Christie, P.G. Wodehouse and even the likes of works such as The Luminaries – for the beautiful interplay of words and the wonderful usage of the English language in storytelling. In fact, while I’m reading such books, I am inspired to strive harder, to make my work better – using richer phrases and more apt adjectives, while still preserving the sanctity of the language.

                   And then, there are those authors, whose creative genius is beyond mere words – J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkein – to name just a few. The magic that is created and brought to life by these works is truly unparalleled. Needless to say, I’m pushed to explore my creativity, pushing myself to my very limits, while I’m reading such books.

                  Now, coming to one of my favorite genres – that of Indian writing in English. The nuances of everyday living, the exhausting mundaneness of almost everything we go through, as we struggle, under the onslaught of modernity, while relentlessly clinging onto our past, unable to fully give it up, has been so beautifully expressed by many gifted authors – Jumpa Lahiri, Chitra B. Divakaruni, again to name just a few.

Reading AndWriting

Then there is what I like to call the “Neo Mythology” genre, which seems to be quite a rage these days. I confess that I’ve read very few books in this area – but I should like to point out a few things. There’s a notion that has been in circulation for a while now, among readers that the authors who choose this genre don’t really have to be creative – after all, they already have the key elements to get them started – the characters and the plot. I, however, beg to strongly disagree – most of the works I’ve read tend to re-tell the stories – combining factual history and the various events, characters and places as portrayed in the original mythological version. Also, many of the authors have attempted to bridge the gaps purported in the myths and have introduced their own version of certain “magical” phenomena for e.g., the author’s version of the miraculous re-clothing of Draupadi  in Krishna Udayashankar’s The Aryavarta Chronicles or the explanation given for Ganesha’s half – human, half-animal form, in Amish Tripati’s The Immortal’s Of Meluha. This, in my book is no small feat – it demands vast amount of research, analyses and no less amount of creativity.

                  While still on the subject of Indian writing in English, there are those authors who depict normal, everyday life in our country in such a pleasurable, and often, witty way – R.K. Narayan’s The Malgudi Days, Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts, Layanya Sankaran’s Red Carpet and The Hope Factory, Advaita Kala’s Almost Single.

                  From these works, I’m inspired, above all, to look around me and watch out for everyday occurrences/happenings, which I would’nt otherwise give a second thought to, and weave a story around them or simply write about them as a firsthand experience. Of course, the attention to detail, creativity and simple, and truly Indian style of narrative, has always inspired me to do better.

And then, there are the regular columnists – G. Sampath, Vamsee Jaluri, Shiv Vishwanathan, P. Sainath – whose thought processes, style of expression and analytical prowess has never ceased to amaze me – indeed, after reading a column by any one of them, I feel compelled to re-read, edit, and further substantiate on certain parts, in pieces attempted by me. There are a few wonderful bloggers I regularly follow as well, stirring similar emotions within me.

                  Of course, all this does not mean I try and imitate any of authors, stealing their phrases, or ideas. As I recently read in another blog, in order to write, one should above all, have a style of his\her own. All I’m saying is that, reading these authors pushes me to do better and better while, giving birth to certain ideas in my head, capitalizing on which, I weave my own stories\poems\pieces. Furthermore, it’s very important that I choose what kind of writer I want to be, so that I concentrate more on reading those pieces which would help me achieve this goal.

Lessons learnt in the Marriane North Gallery

I have never ceased to be amazed and inspired by certain people and their life work. I came across the works of another excellent person of late, while on a visit to the Kew Gardens in London. In fact, the “Marianne North Gallery” is cited as one of the main visitor attractions in the place. The Gallery houses hundreds of paintings – indeed there are so many of them that they have had to be stacked from top to bottom and side to side of each wall. The paintings are of a wide range of plants coming from places all over the world – United States, Canada, Brazil, Srilanka, India to name just a few. Some of the paintings have captured not just the plant, but the surrounding areas as well – giving us a taste of the land’s culture. For instance, there are coconut trees painted against a backdrop of a temple. I was so overwhelmed by the diversity and sheer number of paintings on display, that I could not resist doing a Google search on the artist, once I got home. What I learnt impressed me further.

Marriane North Gallery

The artist, Marriane North, had no formal training in illustration, but did possess a natural flair for the same. Her father was an MP, which served her well and she utilized all the political connections she gained to travel across the world. But what impressed me most was the fact that, she wasted neither these opportunities nor her talent. Indeed, she has made maximum use of most of her travels, painting any interesting plants she came across. In fact, during an eight –month stay at Brazil, she is said to have completed more than 100 paintings!

So, what are my learnings from all this? Simple – it’s just that – if I have a talent and I happen to discover it too, I shouldn’t waste it. Indeed, the time spent in pruning my skills, is never time wasted – at least not anymore! If my talent lies in writing, I should continue doing just that – grabbing every day, hour and indeed minute to put my thoughts into words, no matter how silly the outcome! Time thus spent is bound to bear fruit, at some point or the other – and I do hope I continue writing, clinging onto this new found inspiration!

(Picture taken at the Kew Gardens. More information about Marriane North and her work can be found here.)

Why we don’t need those shrinks – Article in The Hindu Open Page

An article of mine was published in The Hindu Open Page yesterday. I was overjoyed and I am still yet to come to terms with it!! Here it is-


Please note that it was written on a lighter note and I do not want to incur anybody’s wrath!! Hope you enjoy reading!

Battling Dementors with my very own Patronus

While the Harry Potter series enthralled us all with it’s charm, creativity and spirit of adventure,it also offers many philosophical points to ponder. Indeed, there is a whole book that has been published to this effect! There are also articles published in literary journals on the topic – which present deep analyses on the characters and events appearing in the series.

I recently watched Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – my personal favorite in the series. Though this was not the first time I was watching it, I was particularly intrigued by the concept of Dementors and the means to fight them – the Patronus charm and began to look at the concept from a different angle.

Dementors are portrayed as dark creatures, which prey on human happiness. To quote J.K. Rowling –
“Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them… Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself… soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.”


After thinking over this rather elaborate description, I asked myself whether dementors are merely mythical creatures – a creation of fantasy fiction. The answer was a big NO. I personally encounter dementors quite often – when I’m in the lowest of moods, when something I have eagerly waited for doesn’t happen, when I have little or no hopes left on one of my many “projects” or when I’m wallowing in self pity due to something over which I have little or no control. In all of these situations, everything around me turns dull, gloomy and frosty – irrespective of the actual weather outside. The more I give into these negative thoughts, the more I feel sucked into a bottomless pit of worry and despair. I thus harbor many dementors within myself – they lie dormant and are waiting to be awakened, at the slightest provocation!

Moving onto the charm that defends a witch or a wizard against dementors – The Patronus charm (Expecto Patronum). The charm produces a silvery “Patronus” that is, to quote J.K. Rowling again, “a magical guardian, a projection of all your most positive feelings“. In order to successfully conjure up a patronus, which incidently, takes the shape of a favorite animal, a witch or wizard must think of and focus hard on a particularly happy memory. It has also been reiterated that the charm is exceedingly difficult and that few witches and wizards can produce a full Patronus. Also, in the story of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban“, Harry initially produces a very feeble patronus and is unable to produce a full-blown one until the very end. Indeed, it takes him many practice sessions to even conjure up the feebler ones.


Coming to my very own dementors – can I conjure up my own Patronus to fight them? Yes. Taking a cue from the story, I must focus on a particularly happy memory, essentially diverting my mind from all the shroud of negativity,imposed by the beasts. Is this easy to do? Well, obviously not. How many of us are able to stay positive all the time – focusing on all the good things we’ve had and still got? Very few, to the best of my knowledge. Can we get better at it? Yes, of course. It isn’t easy – it requires immense self control, a kind of mastery over our thoughts and lots and lots of practice and patience.

And so, the Dementors and the Patronuses from the series have shown me a way to fight the nets of self-doubt and negativity that I get entrapped in, when in my lowest spirits. And I’ve just started practising the Patronus charm. I sure hope to produce a better Patronus the next time round!

(Images courtesy – Internet)