Tuesday 7 July 2020

Questionairrie with Mariam Karim Ahlawat

So this month's featured author  is ' Mariam Karim-Ahlawat


Can you tell us a little about yourself? Your profession and your hobbies!! 
I’m a scholar of French language and literature and have taught for decades...from JNU to Kashmir University to St Josephs college of arts and sciences Bangalore. I gave up a permanent university job to be with my husband who was in the army and posted to a different place every two years. I have two hobbies..watching the world go by.. Watching birds and animals and trees the changing seasons the sun and the moon and stars and clouds..The rain and the leaves blow in the hot summer wind...is that a hobby? I listen to music from jazz to pop to ghazals, the last being my cultural heritage. And I like learning anything new that can give me insights into the world of human beings...I try to learn a bit of any language of the places I visit.. There are so many disciplines I find difficult, like economics for example. I read on the internet what I find interesting, like neuroscience, alternative healing. I wonder if there are any solutions to human greed and human suffering?   I’ve been doing creative writing workshops for at least two decades.
But I think of myself in the words of poet Akbar Allahabadi :
..duniya mein hoon duniya ka talabgaar nahin hoon, bazaar se guzra hoon kharidaar nahin hoon

Questionairrie with Mariam Karim Ahlawat

1.       How did you first get involved in with writing, are you an imaginative person?

On both sides of my family, there were great storytellers..in Urdu mostly. They were quite brilliant; stories were rapped or sung out too, in rhyme. Children were kept enthralled by someone or the other. My father was a brilliant storyteller in Urdu or English. He used to do all the sound effects as well..he had lived in the jungles a lot and brought us tales of all the animals with their calls, the chital or the tiger or the panther or the eagle....we couldn’t imagine a life without stories. So I fell quite naturally into the role of a storyteller myself and used to entertain my younger sister and cousins and friends with imaginative tales acted out to boot.  When my English became good enough I began to write poems. But I only published my first story at the age of 17. However, I was soon involved in academics and wrote only for myself because words fascinated me. After I got married, became a mother, and gave up my profession as a university prof for all practical purposes I decided to take up writing seriously. My first book was a collection of folk and fairy tales, published by Harper Collins in 1994. Then I started writing a read-aloud page for the magazine Parenting, with my own illustrations. I did that for nearly 12 years! Women novelists weren’t that popular in English or taken that seriously until Arundhati Roy won the Booker. At the time I had started writing my first novel but I was very uncertain whether it was the kind of thing anyone would read because it was so different in style from mainstream writing in English. I kept writing it secretly because it was visceral and compulsive. It was only in 2000 when a colleague at a software development company I was doing instructional design for said he had once worked with Penguin India. I requested him to show a few pages to an editor he knew. Penguin signed me on immediately. I was overjoyed but the rest was extremely challenging as it was very difficult to explain why I wrote what I wrote to the editors. They were unhappy, I was unhappy. When the book My Little Boat was published even they were surprised it was reviewed for months together afterwards..for a whole year in fact. It was nominated for the IMPAC International Literary Prize by the India International Centre Library.

2.       What do you find most challenging about your writing?

That’s easy. I want to maintain the standard I have set and this needs time, thought, delving into a deep reverie. I can’t find the time for all that so I’m writing very little

3.       What do you do when you are not writing?

Reading, learning, looking after my family, doing workshops, worrying, dreaming.

4.       Where do you see yourself in the next 6 months, and 5 years down the road?

Wonder If I’ll be able to complete the two novels I am working on before I lose track of the stories. One is a children’s novel and one for an adult readership

5.       How do you keep coming up with material/content for your story?

My children’s work is mostly about animals, the natural environment and endangered animals. My children’s Novel Thr House of a Hundred Stories is about the animals we kept as children. I still look upon each creature as an individual. I tell the cockroaches that enter my house,..please go away, or I’ll have to kill you. (I’ve never warned a mosquito yet, to tell the truth! )
My plays are polemical. They have themes like class distinctions, hypocrisy, discrimination..poverty, etc.
I think of the characters first then weave the story around them. Then I take from life, what seems important to me to communicate with someone. The language too is very important..my prose is lyrical and cinematic. Each sentence I feel ought to be beautiful. It doesn’t always happen of course.

6.       Any specific tips you have for new writers who want to make it big in the world of published books?

I can’t say I’ve made it big ..I guess I’m not qualified to answer this...but I tell all the participants in my writing workshops..be true. And true to yourself. Know yourself first.
Practical advice? Find a good agent who will promote your work, pitch it to the right people. Who believes in your work. It’s a dog eat dog world out there even in publishing.

7.       What’s the best thing a writer can give to his readers? 3

A part of himself or herself in writing to carry around forever like a talisman, to look at whenever times are difficult or they need inspiration.

8.       A lot of people are interested in writing for money earning potential. What are some tips for people interesting in making money from writing? What are some realistic expectations in regards to what can be made?

Oh dear, another question I’m not qualified to answer. I guess you have to know the pulse of the public you are writing for. If you want to make money, write what they want to read. If you are a niche writer or want to create a new community of discourse you may not have public success. Write bestsellers anything that sells, but please don’t write badly!

9.       What motivates you most in life?

I think communicating with human beings and animals too. Finding out the secrets of this wonderful earth, the amazing things it has to offer and sharing the wonderment. Saving it from the onslaught of human beings!

10.   The majority of the readers tend to take sides due to religion and such other considerations?

For me religion, nationality, race, sex, etc are incidental. Simply chance.  The search for eternal truths and finding your own path, your own revelations, understanding, that’s the important part.
I recently contributed a story to an anthology of Muslim women writers to be published by OUP. When asked why should there be such an anthology I realized it was important as the story I wrote couldn’t have been written by anyone else.  It was set culturally and historically more than in any religion. It’s called Riding Rakhsh ( rakhsh means horse in Persian)
My experience with my first book was that the male editor said the woman protagonist “thinks too much” she is “insane” She’s not like a Muslim woman. Ignorant people want to see Muslim women in stereotypical roles like Tehmina Durrani’s protagonist. Beaten up. Betrayed. TalaqTalaqTalaq!  Sigh. That sells too.

11.   What is the story behind the name of your book?

I love answering this question. My Little Boat. Mere Jeevan ki Nayya. In India, the image of a small boat is that of your own life which has everything in it. From the personal to the political. The Nauka, the Taarini, which takes you across the River of Life. Remember Kabir Das?
Kahe Kabira baarambaari
Mohey bhavsaagar Taari Moraari
The Sikhs say,’Naanak Naam Jahaaz hai’...the name of Guru Nanak takes you across safely.
Then there’s a folk tale in the book in which a princess takes a little boat to escape from an unacceptable situation!
There are some other symbolic meanings which I’m not listing here; you have to read the book!

My second novel, The Street of Mists is named after a street in Montmartre in Paris, where the book is set, in the artists’ quarter. In French, it is  “L’Allee des Brouillards” There are many tales of writers and artists  around this street.

12.   What are your views on increasing plagiarism?

The question touches a raw nerve for me.  If people see publishing simply as a way of making money and getting fame then there are bound to cheat. In the film and music industry, it happens on a regular basis. Plagiarists ought to be brought to book. Publicly made to apologize.
My Little Boat was ripped off by a woman author who became famous after her first book was published where she stole liberally, brazenly from my work. Her father-in-law owns a very old bookshop our family has known for generations and where I myself had requested copies of my novel be kept as my cousins live in that town. She must have found it there...the first hundred pages of her book are copied so clearly from my novel...passages ideas, concepts, characters, settings, all cleverly altered and shamelessly plagiarized. To the extent that she even copied a factual error about fruit, I had made in my novel!!  An intellectual property law firm was willing to take up my case... then I said to myself, suppose this plagiarist, so famous and rich now, is exposed, and suffers a mental breakdown? Would I be vindicated, happy? I don’t think I would.  The case too will go on long and bitter. My beautiful book will become forever associated with the (in my opinion), mediocre book this person has written. Because she’s been an editor herself, is a publisher’s wife...I don’t know why she needed to do such a thing. I messaged her husband on his website with some obviously copied passages. He didn’t respond even once. So he probably is in the know too. They made a lot of money off the book. The IP Lawyers identified her writing as “Altered Copying”.
Plagiarists ought to be taken to court. Once precedence is set they will be more careful. But in this country where people steal lives and babies, what’s a book?