‘For me, writing has always been therapeutic’

Writer, Editor and literary critic, Mumbai-based Namrata went from being an investment banker to writing books. She is the Editor of Kitaab and helps writers publish and promote their books. We talk to her about her books, short stories and some of her favourite books and authors.

You’ve studied economics and strategic finance & control. From there, how did you make the jump to creative writing? What was it that inspired you to write?

I was an investment banker for a decade before I decided to pursue freelancing full-time. However, I was always a writer at heart. I wrote my first poem at 10 and my first novel at 12. Even while working I had two blogs where I wrote regularly. One was a creative writing blog where I shared short stories, poems, and creative nonfiction. While the other was a book review blog that included author interviews and book features.

For me, writing has always been therapeutic. Even today I write daily even if it is just in my diary. The one thing that drove my love for writing then (and maybe does so, even now!) is the desire to tell a story.

Tell us about your book, A Lost Wanderer. For you, what are some of the most memorable highlights of putting the book together? The people you met, the places you visited, the memories you compiled – what stands out? Would you like to narrate any particularly unforgettable incidents that may have taken place during your journeys, which are mentioned in the book?

I wrote the first draft of A Lost Wanderer in four months and the whole process was nothing less than catharsis. This book was my escape route at that time and it helped me heal in many ways. That has to be the most memorable highlight of putting this book together.

I would say the people I met stand out. I have already written parts two and three of the book, which means I travelled to other places too apart from the ones mentioned in part one. During my travels, I realized that people make a place. They add that special touch to that place and make it magical. Otherwise, all places end up being the same. The kindness of strangers is what makes the world a better place. As a solo woman traveller, there are many fears that one has to brave. But some beautiful souls make these journeys beautiful.

It could be the flower lady in Kolkata from whom I used to buy flowers daily and who used to always give me more flowers than I bought. Sometimes even special ones, just her way of saying ‘I appreciate you.’

Or that old lady I met in Ladakh who ran a homestay. I stayed at her house during one of my many trips to Ladakh. Her love language was sharing plates of cut fruits as I used to sit and write at night. She always told me, ‘I see a new Ladakh through you.’

Or Janaki Amma, whom I met at one of the old age homes in Varanasi. This wasn’t a typical old age home; it was one where you came when you were waiting for your death. She had been living there for three years when I met her. I remember asking her, ‘How does it feel to wait for your death?’ Her answer was, ‘Isn’t death something we all have in our minds since the time we are born? We know we are going to die but don’t know when. We keep going through life and its ups and downs despite knowing this. So, is this any different?’

Or even that gentleman who was sitting next to me on the train to Mumbai. It was my first solo journey for an important interview. All through the journey, he saw me reading and preparing something while he was praying with a rosary in his hand. As we neared Mumbai Central, he blessed me and wished me all the luck for whatever I was going to Mumbai for.

You also write short stories? Tell us more. What kind of stories do you enjoy writing? Which of your stories is your personal favourite, and why? Also, tell us about Metro Diaries 1 and 2. What is the most notable thing about the feedback you’ve received from your readers?

Short stories are something I love writing. You know in a novel a lot is happening. The characters, their back-stories, the character arc, the tension, the highs, the lows, and finally the climax. In short stories, oftentimes, you could just talk about one moment in a person’s life and it would still make complete sense.

I am a Bollywood buff and a diehard romantic at heart. I used to write love stories the most. Metro Diaries was initially a segment on my blog where I shared snippets or stories about people I met while traveling for work. Because most of it was intercity travel, it involved metro trains and buses. Hence the name, Metro Diaries.

This segment went on to be very popular with a lot of people writing to me about their own love stories and how these felt so real. After some nudging from a few regular readers, I finally wrote twenty such stories and compiled them into a book called the Metro Diaries.

The second part had more contemporary stories ranging on issues from marriage, infidelity, and death to adulting and coming of age. The response to both these titles was heart-warming. Absolute strangers had written to me telling me how these stories gave them hope. But the best feedback that stands out for me has to be from a regular reader of my blog who decided to give her marriage another chance after reading my stories, because she felt love had not gone missing completely from their lives. She realized love was there but it was hidden beneath a lot of other things. She wanted to unearth that love and bring back magic to their lives. I need to add here, she managed to do that successfully and today they are happily married for more than a decade now.

The Purple Pencil Project seems to be a very interesting, useful initiative. Tell us about your work with them. You’re also the Editor of Kitaab. How do you manage all these initiatives at once?

I grew up surrounded by books and translations always had a special place on my bookshelf (and in my heart!) Purple Pencil Project is a great literary initiative led by Prakruti Maniar where they bring the best of Indian Literature to the forefront. I joined Purple Pencil Project as a board member in 2022 and have been working with them closely on social media, author support, and services.

I have been the editor of Kitaab Literary Magazine since 2020 and have enjoyed every bit of it. I have learned things about writing at Kitaab in some of the most amazing ways. Every story, every article, and every pitch has something to teach – good or bad.

At the end of the day, I think I need to be surrounded by stories in some form or other. Be it the Purple Pencil Project, Kitaab or my personal reading and writing, the world of stories is where I love being.

Winston Churchill said, ‘If you find a job you love, you will never work in your life!’ Not having to work was a dream and I can say I managed to achieve this by working with these incredible people.

What was the primary objective behind setting up Keemiya Creatives? In what ways do you work with authors towards helping them publish and market their books? Any authors, working with whom was particularly memorable? Any books which Keemiya counts as some of its biggest successes?

I started Keemiya Creatives in 2018 because I realized that there is a huge gap between authors and publishing in India. A gap where sometimes misunderstanding creeps in and leaves you with a bad taste.

When an author wants to publish a book, it is common for them to not know where to start. Publishing in India is not exactly as transparent as it should be. And it is easy to feel lost while looking to get published. My aim with Keemiya is to make the whole process accessible, transparent, and easy to go through.

I have been working with authors and publishing houses since 2014 in various capacities ranging from editing, book marketing, beta-reading and social media marketing. With Keemiya, I took a step forward and also added author branding and publishing to this. If there is anything a writer needs, that I might not have on my list of services, I always ensure they have a few references of people who offer these services. Being in this industry also means knowing people who offer different services. Highlighting them and their services is my way of saying that the writer can rely on them.

Memorable wins? The first has to be of an author who was a retired gentleman trying to publish his collection of stories for almost six years with no luck. We designed his pitch (including a cover letter and synopsis) after which he got a traditional publishing offer from a reputed publishing house. He has gone on to publish four titles so far, all traditional and all bestsellers.

The second has to be an author who was getting published in English after having been a bestselling writer in Hindi for more than a decade. We managed all branding across social media platforms which resulted in the book being a bestseller for close to 12 weeks. The book is currently in its third print run.

I need to add here, we are not limited to India. We also work with authors from across the globe and in varied genres. So far, we have worked on children’s books, poetry collections, historical fiction, anthologies, contemporary fiction, romance, horror, memoirs, and motivational books with authors from seven countries and three continents.

What kind of books do you personally enjoy reading? Any favourite genre? Favourite authors? Any favourite Indian authors? Would you like to name the three most memorable books that you’ve read in the last 2-3 years? Any books that you’re particularly looking forward to reading in 2023?

I have been a book reviewer since 2011. Reading everything and anything was a habit as it meant reviewing it. But in 2022 I decided to finally slow down the reviewing aspect and go back to personal reading.

Personally, I enjoy women-centric stories, translations (I simply love them!), travelogues, and memoirs. My favourite genre (if I had to pick one) had to be literary fiction.

My favourite author of all time is Saadat Hasan Manto. I simply admire his works so much that I am currently learning Urdu just to be able to read his works in the original. Ismat Chugtai comes a close second. Though I always feel they are both the top names I would say if asked for my favourite authors to keep going back to anytime I fear a reading slump coming up or a writer’s block.

Among the current writers in India, I would say there are many. Sharing some of my favourites that come to my mind immediately – Kiran Manral, Janice Pariat, Sumana Roy, Jerry Pinto, Sudha Menon, Shatrujeeth Nath, and Sharanya Manivannan – they just have to announce their next work/s and I am sold. I really enjoy reading their writing in any form.

In 2022, I enjoyed reading Desperately Seeking Shahrukh by Shrayana Bhattacharya, Rohzin by Rahman Abbas, and The Birth Lottery and Other Surprises by Shehan Karunatilaka. There are many books I am looking forward to in 2023. Some of these are City on Fire: A Boyhood in Aligarh by Zeyad Masroor Khan, Homeless: Growing Up Lesbian and Dyslexic in India by K Vaishali, Origami Ai by Manjiri Indurkar, An Unknown Indian by Neha Dixit and Medical Maladies: Stories of Disease and Cure from Indian Languages, edited and introduced by Haris Qadeer.

What is your take on the publishing ecosystem in India? Are publishers sufficiently encouraging toward new/first-time authors? Has the growth of self-publishing been a boon for writers? If yes, how and in what ways?

The publishing ecosystem in India has been growing rapidly. Some of the initiatives in the last few years are brilliant like crediting the translator for translations, acknowledging the cover designers etc.

If you were to compare Indian publishing with worldwide publishing, you might feel we are not sufficiently encouraging towards new/first-time authors. I don’t completely agree with this as we have seen some very interesting debuts in 2022 and an excellent line-up for 2023 from debut writers. However, I do feel the whole process needs more transparency. Be it the royalties, author rights, or even the number of copies sold – more transparency is what will encourage new entrants. Currently, most of them find it to be a mysterious world where nobody discusses the numbers openly. This secrecy also leads to a lot of romanticisation of writing as a career, incorrectly so, most of the time.

I do feel self-publishing is a huge boon to writers and it is very encouraging to see the taboo attached to self-publishing finally wearing off. There are so many traditionally published authors today who have also opted to self-publish their works. And this speaks volumes about the pros of self-publishing.

After the pandemic, we saw an increase in the waiting periods for traditional book publishing deals. It also led to publishers being particular about the genres they wanted to pick. As a result, many previously traditionally published writers saw a not-so-encouraging response from publishers for their new works. So, many popular writers self-published their work and saw a great response to it.

Self-publishing not only removes unnecessary gatekeeping but also allows a writer to experiment. Be it with the genre, or the style of writing. This is a huge encouragement to a writer. After the pandemic, we saw a lot of memoirs and poetry collections released through self-publishing houses. These genres would not be normally picked by traditional publishing houses but today, thanks to self-publishing they are out in the world. I firmly believe, every book has its audience. However, big or small. The key to finding it. Self-publishing gives you that platform to find the right audience.

There have been many instances where after self-publishing success, those authors are then approached for traditional book publishing deals. Savi Sharma is one such name. Pankaj Giri.  And so many others found success in self-publishing and then ended up being traditionally published.

The goal should be to bring good stories to the world. The format or the platform shouldn’t matter as long as you believe in your work

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