Musings: Happiness at the End of the Lane

It was all thanks to the invitation we got to be part of a panel at the Hay Festival 2017, that I got a chance to meet Mr. Neil Gaiman and happened to get my copy of  The Ocean at the End of the Lane signed too. Wait, but I am getting ahead of myself.

Stories like these need to be savoured. Stories like these cannot be completed in hasty sentences. I am sure you want to know the how, the when, the what, the who...and the endless stream of questions that has definitely crossed your mind as soon as you saw the name of this post!

So let me start by telling you how I came across this fantastic storyteller named Neil Gaiman.

Well, it started when I was trying to find the perfect quote for a story I was writing which had (believe it or not) my cat, Pippo, as its protagonist. Now, because I just have to start all my stories with quotes, I looked for one that would be cat appropriate. And I found a perfect quote from his novel, Coraline:

'What's your name,' Coraline asked the cat. 'Look, I'm Coraline. Okay?''Cats don't have names,' it said.'No?' said Coraline.'No,' said the cat. 'Now you people have names. That's because you don't know who you are. We know who we are, so we don't need names.' 
I was intrigued by this part. When I went to Bangalore last year in September, I visited Blossoms with my book blogger friends, Debdatta di, Sachin, Sudeshna and Led da. Sachin took me to the section that was dedicated to Neil Gaiman, and it was there that I bought three of Neil Gaiman's books: Coraline, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and The Graveyard Book. I finished reading Coraline during my flight back home, and I finished The Graveyard Book around Christmas, and finally I started reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane, as the trip to Wales drew nearer. I just knew I would have to carry one of his books with me. This one won the lottery, being the one that I was yet to finish reading.

Reading the book was a lot like find my kindred spirit and my favourite line from the story is this:

“I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else.”
Flying off to Wales wasn't as easy or romantic as it sounds. For one thing, trying to apply for UK visa is as good as good as playing twenty questions with someone who has a vested interest to know all of your history - history you might not even be aware of! And making sure the document checklist is met with. The visits to the banks to ask for your statements, asking the accounts department for your pay slips, and finally, asking your landlord for the bills that you've been paying for quite some time now! It was during the time when I was stalking myself on Google, trying to find something I had probably missed, that I came across a PDF file which had listed all the authors appearing at Hay. 

Surprise, surprise! There was my name and there was Neil Gaiman. I have no idea how I didn't scream my lungs out, out of sheer happiness and excitement that afternoon. But from that very minute, I was dead sure that I would get to see him! Not even for a second did I doubt it. 

So when we arrived at Hay, I got a chance to meet Mr. Stephen Fry!!! Unfortunately, I had no books of his to get signed, but he was nice enough to pose with me for a picture. And because I am so much shorter than him, he bent down and placed his head over mine. I almost died of happiness. (Is that possible? Be so happy that you'd explode?)

Although Mr. Neil Gaiman was around the site that first day, we didn't get meet him. The next day, my friend Esha saw a post which said he was around. So we went to the author's lounge and we waited, bidding our time. After ten minutes, she asked if one of us ought to go and see if the Neil Gaiman and Stephen Fry session Myth Makers had any tickets left? (Because we'd been trying our luck ever since we'd arrived, and so far, nothing. Every time we were greeted with, Sorry. I am afraid that's sold out.) But you know those feelings you get when something inside of you tells you not to move from where you are, I had that. So I didn't answer her. 

Five minutes later, as I turned to speak to her, Esha said, "Aniesha, Neil Gaiman just passed by." Almost in reflex, I stood up and said, "Come on, let's go talk to him?" However, my friend was utterly starstruck and frozen in her place and could only say, "I think he's busy." 

So I peeked and saw that he was ordering a cup of tea from the refreshment center. I asked Esha again to come with me and speak to him. I didn't know if he would be around long enough, so I left her sitting there and walked up to him. Imagine me! The girl who had been terrified of her own voice, the girl who loved hiding in the shadows and ask people to leave her alone when things got too much for her, walking up to one of her most favourite authors just for a quick chat! 

Me: Hello, I am Aniesha.
Neil Gaiman (shaking my hands): Hello, Aniesha. I am Neil. 
Me: *dies internally but blurts out* I traveled 8,183 km just to meet you! I am from Calcutta, India. 
Neil Gaiman: Oh, really? That's wonderful. 

By this time Esha was slowly approaching us, and I said, "And this is my friend, Esha." (For the briefest of second, I really wanted to say 'my boss' but then I realized getting murdered right under Neil Gaiman's nose is probably not how I would like to take my exit from this world!)

We chatted for a while, asked if he would kindly let us take pictures with him and sign our copies. I love how he personalized each of our books. It's nice that no two people ever get the same message from him. Esha got her copy of  American Gods signed, and no, he didn't ask her if she was watching the TV series based off his novel.

Then bursting with happiness we came back to the house where we would be staying, unable to believe our luck, and trying to make ensure we weren't just dreaming! We went back to the Festival site, got a ticket for the show from the lucky draw (which Esha gave to me), and because the women manning the counter saw how desperate we looked, they had a look into their ticket system and said the show wasn't sold out. We needed to try our luck one last time at the counter. Well, there was exactly one last ticket, and we bought it. Then we attended the session where Neil Gaiman and Stephen Fry were in conversation about the myths and legends. It was interesting but honestly, I was expecting a lot more from it! But oh well, I don't know when I'd get to experience such a session again, so I have no regrets. 

I have a lot of memories from my trip to Wales that I would hold close to my heart forever. However, this one, the entire day that was filled with magic and Neil Gaiman is what jumps out at me, every time someone asks me what was the one thing that has been truly memorable. Without a doubt, it was meeting Neil Gaiman. 

Poem: Can You Hear My Voice This Time?

“But we are looking for the same thing,
At the end of the day – we are all…”
You cannot finish your sentence, because
You’re too terrified of what you’ll hear now.
You worry about the next words that will greet you
Because it could the soft balm that would heal your aching soul
Or the harshest ones that will rip your heart into pieces again!
You can never be sure about where you stand,
Because this ground that you stand so firmly on –
It could be taken away from you in the blink of an eye!
You’re too scared to reach out your hand, to even touch 
You’re too afraid that to give that hug because you cannot be sure
Of what could happen next.

What could happen next ranges from the fairy tale ending
To the harsh reality where no one ends up together!
But you’re too terrified to speak, you cannot speak.
You open your mouth to let out a whisper, and to your surprise
Comes out this blood churning scream
And the broken girl who could never speak out before asks –
Well, can you hear my voice this time?

Some well-meaning person tries to reach out to her,
Tries to engulf her in a hug – tell her that it’s okay.
It’ll be fine now. Everything will be fine.
Sadly, she doesn’t believe in that anymore.
You see, when she was trying to tell that
Everyone is looking for the same thing,
That at the end of the day – you’d cut her off
Yelling about how you cannot be there,
That everything had been nothing but a mistake
She realized she wasted too much of her time
Trying to fix something that wants to stay broken!
And in the process the part of that she had worked hard to fix
It broke. It shattered.

And now thanks to you, she’s never going to let anyone in.
Why couldn’t you have listened to me when I asked you to leave her alone?
I told you that it was my job to break her heart, not yours!
But you didn’t listen. Because you’ve never been good at listening,
Because you only do what’s best for you.
Never what’s best for someone else!
I wonder if you know what love is. Have you ever really felt it?
I don’t think you have.

Because you can flit from one person to the next, 
leaving a trail of heartbreaks
And hurt on that map that will lead 
to the loneliest of islands
Where you alone reside!

You shouldn’t have scared her. 
You should have let her tell you what she started
To say –
In the end, we all just want the same thing. Arms that will hold us tight,
And people who will keep choosing us, over and over, and over again.
But it’s frightening when both want the shelter from the storms of life,
Yet neither knows how to be that same shelter.

That girl that didn’t speak all those years ago, 
the girl that was terrified of her own voice,
I can her screams now, echoing the same question, 
over and over again,
“Can you hear my voice this time?”

Note: I was at Criccieth Beach. I found my way there after being in a poetry course all day long, and then finally took the long winding walk to find the beautiful beach. There was hardly anyone around, and I sat on one of the huge rocks and stared out at the sea. What I felt at the moment was happiness, sadness, the feeling of being utterly broken and wonderfully whole again. I was feeling completely overwhelmed, and I remember writing a message to someone I thought meant a lot to me.  As I was going through the pictures from the trip to Wales, I remembered the afternoon all too well and the message that has gone unanswered. And here I am, with a new poem called "Can You Hear My Voice This Time?" My friends back in Wales would be so proud of me right now! 

Poem: Alone by the Riverside

"Have you written anything yet?"
"I don't feel inspired."
"I think you need to be alone."
So alone I was, 
for an hour and half.
Walking around. 
Everything had closed down. 
For a city girl, this was a shock.
I finally went down to the riverside, 
And stood there listening to the silence.

I remembered a story I heard of the 
maiden who rode her horse down the mountain, 
Who rode quite slowly but no one could catch up to her.
I remembered how a Prince had chased her, 
Until he got her. 
In the story I heard, he had called out to her, "Stop!"
She did. 
When he asked her why she hadn't stopped before,
She replied, "Well, you never asked."

I had laughed when I first heard the story. 
I laughed again,
Remembering it now. 

Can everything life really be that simple?
All you need to do is just ask? 

Or are things just simpler in stories 
Because they always need to make sense?
And life, well life never really does! 

I sat down by the riverside
and watched the sunlight glinting on the water.
And I remembered an early morning 
back home, when we had taken a boat ride.
They say only time can heal a broken heart.
But for me, I believe water stands a fair chance! 

Being able to remember everything 
In the tiniest of details is both a gift and a curse.
And the saddest thing about memory is 
It comes back to you when you least expect it. 

There was a boy who I loved since the time I was sixteen.
The boy loved me back when I was twenty seven.
But it was a whirlwind love story, and it came to an end.
No, end is not the correct word for us.
The correct would be -
the feeling you get when you rip off the bandage
from a wound that's not quite healed yet. 

It's so quiet by the riverside,
So quiet that I am nearly deafened by
the screams echoing in my head.

And over the screams there's one faint little whisper, 
A thought that took root in my head ever since 
I heard the myth that afternoon - 

"Would you have stayed if I too had just asked?" 

Musings: 5 Things That Brought Me Story Ideas

People: According to both Boy Meets World and Girl Meets World sitcoms, the secret of life is that people change people which are absolutely true! The world would have been a sad, lonely place to live in if we had to stay here all by ourselves. It is essential to have relationships in order to draw our experiences from there. Most of the characters I have written have been inspired from real life. Sometimes the fictional versions become the paler realities. So people have definitely brought me story ideas.

Places: The other thing that has always intrigued me are places. I started saving up money and travelling in the last few years because I just wanted to write about different places. Because all my novels, novellas, short stories always had Kolkata as a backdrop. Even though I haven’t used any of the locations that I had gone to in the recent past in my stories, I have made sure that I remember every single detail from the trips. Because you never know when a story might hit you!

Incidents: I don’t know about you but sometimes the only way I seem to be able to make sense of life is if I write. Maybe I got my heartbroken. Maybe a friend of mine had an awful spat with me. Maybe I received unbelievably good news. Maybe I am just having an off day. No matter what is going on in my life, I know that I would only start to feel better if I started writing. And that’s exactly how incidents trigger some of my stories and even blog posts. I don’t write to get back at people or to get even with people. The only reason I write is because that’s always been the best therapy for me.

Memories: Story ideas more often than not also come from your memories. As Paulo Coelho once put it, it takes effort free oneself from memory. Some of our memories are not pleasant. There are some that we are completely haunted by. So we write stories to either remember or to forget. But there are good memories too. Memories we do not want to hold onto no matter what happens in our lives, you know. As J.M. Barrie said, God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December. How amazing is it then that some of our story ideas are formed from memories?

Wishful Thinking: Until a few months ago, I would write stories in order to correct mistakes in fiction and get my do-overs from real life. So the story ideas would come from wishful thinking and mindless thinking. Hoping and wanting the real life stories had played out the way it had in the originals. 

Musings: All Signs Lead to Wales

Well, it started with a story. 

To be precise it was Ashwin and Diya’s story. I was managing the BEE Books stall (Hall 2, Stall 627), like I had been asked to for the International Kolkata Book Fair 2017 and in walked our in-house editor, Sugandha along with the delegates all the way from Wales.

She was coordinator of the Valley, the City and the Village Project. (In office, we started referring to it as the VCV Project.) I remembered meeting the publisher of Parthian Books, Richard Davis, a few months before. And I remembered having met Gary Raymond. I was delighted that they remembered me too. When asked what I had been up to lately, I told Richard that I’d written a new novel and it had been published by BEE Books. It was called AllSigns Lead Back to You. He was delighted, bought a copy promptly and asked me to sign it for him. Needless to say I was delighted too.

What I never anticipated was that he would finish reading the book during the length of his stay in Kolkata and be impressed by the tale I had concocted about first love and second chances. So much so that when I met him (on my way to collect the Queen Bee to go to a wedding function), that he wanted me to come with them to Wales and be a part of the VCV Project as an author! And I remembered being extremely overwhelmed by his offer.

Any fool would have jumped at the opportunity to travel to Wales. Experience a new country and write about how places inspire people. But I am the biggest fool that you could have ever come across. Also, my terror of flights made me dillydally on the offer for quite some time. I missed a wonderful dinner too because I couldn’t make up my mind whether I wanted to travel all the way to Wales or not. I had a wonderful friend convincing me every minute of every day that it was a wonderful opportunity and that my fear of the stage shouldn’t be a problem. Because no matter what happened, no one back home would come to know about it!

Then started filling out the VISA applications. The interviews and running back and forth, making sure that all my documents was in place. It didn’t help that BEE Books chose that very time to undergo renovations and so I was mostly working out of my home. It also didn’t help that I was caught up in quite a problematic personal relationship. But being the eternal optimist that I am, I thought everything would blow over soon. Well, the relationship ended but my belief that there’s someone out there tailor made for me did not go away. And I really don’t think it ever will. But I am deviating. This is the story about how I ended up where I am right now.

We applied for our VISAs, kept India-Wales Project mostly a secret as we feverishly prayed for our VISAs to come through. In the meantime, I discovered my name in a list of panellists for Hay Festival 2017. Imagine my excitement and happiness when I realized Neil Gaiman would be there!!! If I can hold a five second conversation with that man I’d die a happy woman, having checked an important point off my bucket list.

Our VISAs arrived and we started packing for the trip to Wales. Right now, I am in the twelve hour flight from Delhi to London. My fear of flights reduced, and my friend and I had sandwiched an old man who refused to budge from the middle seat! I know by the time I put up this blog post I’d probably be in London or Wales. But wherever I am, please know that I am grateful and happy that a story I wrote (based on my own screwed up experiences), which ultimately led to this wonderful opportunity which I am sure is just the stepping stone to a whole new world that leads to a spectacular life!

P.S. Even though all the things that are happening to me are truly amazing, I still haven’t give up the hope and never will, that my Prince Charming is right around the corner. 😊

Writer Wednesday: Writer Fashion

You’re probably wondering what on Earth does one mean by Writer Fashion? As in, what would writers wear to their book launches? Or would they wear if they got invited to Book Award ceremonies? Or is it something else? Well, no.

Writer fashion is what you wear when you’re writing. Usually, I like wearing my lose pajamas and baggy t-shirts. But sometimes because I am so annoyed or just cannot calm down my mind enough to write, I dress up. It’s a good way to make yourself realize you need to start working. And maybe it’s psychological but if you are dressed up enough you tend to want to work more. Your brain snaps out of the lazy mode and begins working.
So I am either dressed to the nines when I am writing my stories or I am not. There’s no in between for me. Because when I am feeling utterly lazy, getting dressed up is a good way to trick my brain into thinking that I am about to go out and I really need to be at the top of my game. So, sometimes I will wear the fanciest of clothes and sit down to write! I know it sounds really strange but it has helped me meet a lot of my deadlines.

Some days I come home from work bursting with inspiration. Other days, I need to go after the inspiration with a club. I have to jumpstart my writing.

Unfortunately what most people don’t understand is this: writing at the end of the day is a job. So matter how we might be feeling, we have to get up and sit down to write. And sometimes, in order to make ourselves feel more inspired, we get into the fanciest of clothes and let our minds take us dancing into the prettiest part of the city.

Do you have a particular writer fashion? What do you wear when you’re hammering away at your laptop? Are you a jeans and t-shirt kind of writer? Or do you like dressing to the nines? Let me know in the comments below! 

Poem: This Is How You Fix Yourself

“If you love someone, let them sleep.”

Countless jokes have been made about this.
How sleep is the one stop cure for all our problems.
Because, come on, if you sleep it off then you’re bound to feel better in the morning.
Human beings should after all work exactly like machines.
When something doesn’t work, don’t we suggest that we switch it off and turn it back on again?

Why should human beings be any different?
When the world doesn’t go your way, just sleep off.
It doesn’t matter that there’s someone who might be breaking.
Because hey, as long as you get your beauty sleep, all will be right with the world!
Who cares that there are questions and troubles gnawing at them,
Eating them up from inside! But you would shrug your shoulders and ask them to sleep.
That is the solution to everything after all: sleep.
The one thing that is supposed to fix everything –
Your mood swings, your broken heart and even
The fact you are sometimes awake at night.

Just sleep.
Everything else can wait a little longer.
You’ll feel so much better in the morning!
What if I cannot sleep?
What if the very reason I’m awake at night,
Hammering away at my laptop, is fast asleep?
Am I supposed to completely switch off the part of me that worries endlessly –
Because hey, sleep can cure everything!

Sometimes it cannot.

Sometimes all you can do is, let the other person sleep.
When they finally wake up and ask you if you slept well last night
You are not expected to tell them the truth.
You are supposed to lie and tell them, “Of course, I did.
I slept wonderfully well last night. And now everything is fine.”

They need never know how broken you are, 
Or how the night was truly spent.
Because as long as they think you slept just as well as they did,
Everything is right in their world. J