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The Rediff Interview/Novelist Sonia Singh
July 15, 2004
Maya Mehra is the last person anywhere on this planet to consider arranged marriage. But when you are living a hip life in LA, and particularly when you are convinced that you are a reincarnation of Kali, things can get complicated. Especially when you are 30, unemployed and living with your parents.
In Sonia Singh's debut novel Goddess for Hire (Avon, Paperback, $13.95), Mehra's life becomes even more complicated because of a Kali-hater, and an aunt who is convinced that it is her karma to find a nice Indian boy for the niece.
Avon senior editor Lyssa Keusch welcomed Goddess for Hire as she felt 'readers are restless with books about bland, blond Brits, and slick, generic New York socialites.' She adds that Singh's book is like 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Monsoon Wedding.' It is crazy, yet meaningful, she suggests.
Singh's second book will be set in Bollywood and revolve around a desi who arrives without realising how chaotic it is. She will begin working on it soon, she told Senior Editor Arthur J Pais. "My agent told me that everyone out there wants a funny book on Bollywood," says the author, who lives in Orange County, California.
You recently saw the Broadway musical Bombay Dreams. Now that the Shakalaka Baby musical sequence from the show is such a hit, would you have a wet scene in your second novel?
Of course! Give the audience what it wants! I love the Shakalaka Baby scenes! In my second novel every female character will find herself drenched in water, wearing a filmi white sari.
What do you like most about Bollywood movies?
That's an easy one. I love the music and the gorgeous costumes. The song sequences are always shot so beautifully. Of course, my number one favorite thing about Bollywood is actor Shah Rukh Khan!
What do you hate most?
I hate the Bollywood formula. There's no originality. Right now the trend seems to be romantic dramas featuring two men in love with the same woman. I am so sick of those! But directors like Farhan Akhtar, Ram Gopal Varma and Mani Ratnam are pushing the envelope, they write original scripts and try to make something other than a romantic drama.
What is the kind of Bollywood movie you will never take your date to?
First of all, I wouldn't take my date to a Bollywood movie. Bollywood movies are three hours long! What if halfway through I realise I can't stand my date? Then I have to sit through another hour and a half? No thanks!
What is your favourite Bollywood movie?
Probably Dilwaale Dulhania Le Jayenge. Shah Rukh and Kajol are such excellent actors and have so much chemistry together. The storyline is fantastic and showed the good and bad of Western and Indian culture. Plus you throw in fantastic music, a romantic train ride across Europe, and I'm sold.
And the Bollywood movie you hate?
Sadly, there are too many to name.
And the funniest movie?
All those wonderful movies of the late 1970s and 1980s, including Amar Akbar Anthony starring the great Amitabh Bachchan. Movies like Namak Halaal. Amitabh is a comedic genius. I suppose Namak Halaal wasn't a comedy per se, but it had some hysterical moments.
What did you like most being an immigrant daughter in America?
I love being a part of two cultures. I love being American and Indian.
What did you hate the most?
I hate it when people assume that Americans only come in one color -- white. You don't have to have blonde hair and blue eyes to be an American.
I also hated how the teachers could never pronounce my last name in school. I mean, come on! Just take off the 'h' and it's like the verb sing... as in sing a song.
Did you have to go through the date angst -- getting permission from parents and concomitant problems many young desis face? Or did you go out without telling them?
Ahh... My parents might eventually read this and for the sake of my health... okay, okay, well, my mother was strict about my dating in school but since the man of my dreams didn't even notice I existed (all through high school) it wasn't that much of a problem.
What are the worst stereotypes Americans have of desi boys and girls?
That desi girls will all have an arranged marriage and that none of us eat meat. I'm a serious carnivore person! I suppose the stereotype about desi boys is that they are all engineers or doctors. My brother Samir is a computer engineer; maybe there's something to be said about stereotypes.
When did you realise you wanted to be a writer?
I think I was 13 when I wrote a piece in school about Thanksgiving. I was thrilled with the idea of seeing my thoughts on paper.
But you did not go to a journalism school, right?
I studied history as a major, and for some time I seriously considered a teaching career.
How did the book idea come about?
I had presented a paper on Kali at a history conference a few years ago. It got me to think a lot about goddesses. Many years ago I had seen a wonderful Satyajit Ray film, Devi (about a housewife who is deified much to her detriment). I wanted to write a book about a desi in America but I did not want to write the usual stuff about identity crisis. I thought I could mix the ideas in Ray's film with those burning in my mind. That is how the book came about.
When did you decide to be a full-time writer?
Even though I was interested in the academic world and wanted to be a professor, my passion for writing a novel never left me. When I was studying for my master's degree I decided to get out of school and pursue writing. That was about three years ago.
Did your parents approve of your choice?
No. They thought I was taking a big risk. Eventually they realised I was serious about writing. I took several temp jobs when I worked on this book. I also taught at a school for a few months and worked at a bookshop.
Did you censor scenes from the book for your mother, unclejis and auntijis?
My mother and aunt Maya have read my book and not to sound conceited, they really liked it. My aunt laughed from the beginning to the end. Of course, I'm assuming she laughed because she liked it. I never really thought about them reading the 'racy' stuff, as I don't think it's that racy. My mom has read Ken Follett and Danielle Steel and my stuff is PG compared to them! Both women also have two kids each and probably know more racy stuff than I do!
Many Indians think immigrant desis are a bunch of wild kids. Have you encountered such notions when you visited India in recent years?
I have encountered this type of thinking and it's completely wrong! All you have to do is hang out with the so-called 'rich kids' in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore and you'll see what 'wild' is.
I went to some parties in these cities and even in smaller cities like Amritsar and everything was available — drugs, alcohol, you name it.
There are wild kids in India, there are wild desi kids in America, get used to it people.
Which writers do you enjoy most?
I am a Harry Potter fanatic! I adore J K Rowling.
I love popular fiction. I have favorites like Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird that I read and reread. I love mysteries, horror, romantic suspense, literary fiction, I like all of it. Basically, I love to read. It's my favorite hobby.
Do you have a regular schedule for writing?
I am a night bird. I write what comes to my mind, even bits of dialogue, and then I start wondering where I am going to use it and which character would say it. I don't work with a sketch or a plan.
Once I have put something down spontaneously, I go to a coffee shop and start revising. I don't like to do this in a library. There is too much of silence in libraries. In a coffee shop, there is much more to be observed and eavesdropped.
Image: Rahil Shaikh
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