Winner of Reuel International Award (2014) for Oh Hark!, Setu Award for excellence (2018) for her ‘stellar contribution to world literature’, (Setu, bilingual Journal Pittsburgh, USA), the First Keshav Malik Award (2019) for her ‘entire staggeringly prolific and quality conscious oeuvre’, essayist, poet, novelist, editor, TEDx Speaker, (her Tedx talk on The Myth of Writers Block is very popular in creative writing circles), Dr. Santosh Bakaya has been internationally acclaimed for her poetic biography of Bapu, Ballad of Bapu (Vitasta, Delhi, 2015).
Her other Books include: Where are the Lilacs? (Poems, Authorspress, 2016), Flights from my Terrace (Essays, Authorspress, 2017), Under the Apple Boughs (Poems, Authorspress, 2017), A Skyful of Balloons (Novella, Authorspress, 2018), Bring out the tall tales (short stories with Avijit Sarkar, Authorspress, 2019), Only in Darkness can you see the Stars (A Biography of Martin Luther King Jr. Vitasta, 2019), Songs of Belligerence (Authors Press, 2020), Morning Meanderings (e-book Blue Pencil, 2020).
Her two collaborative e- books: Vodka by the Volga (with Dr. Koshy, Blue Pencil, 2020) and From Prinsep Ghat to Peer Panjal (with Gopal Lahiri, Blue Pencil, 2021) have been Amazon bestsellers.
Her latest book is Runcible Spoons and Pea green Boats (Poems, Authorpress, 2021).
She runs a very popular column, Morning Meanderings in Learning and Creativity website, which is now an e-book.
Sagar Kumar Sharma engages in a literary dialogue with the author, Santosh Bakaya, exploring various aspects of her creative writing.
In Conversation with Santosh Bakaya
-Interview by Sagar Kumar Sharma
Sagar Kumar Sharma (SKS): Please tell us something about your creative journey. What inspires you to write? How did it all happen?
Santosh Bakaya (SB): Well, I never had the ambition of becoming a writer, but that is how things were meant to be. In school, one of my favorite teachers, Sr. Theodora, after having meted out punishment to me [the perennial prankster] had remarked, “mark my words, this brat is going to become a writer, one day, that is because she has such a fertile imagination – always conjuring up excuses for her pranks!”
Maybe, it was she who planted the seed in me – but yes, I had a very fertile imagination, and was always imagining, visualizing, and secretly writing stories, which won me many prizes in school and Hindi magazines, once even in The Illustrated Weekly of India, not for my writing but for my cartoon, which was highly influenced by Mario Miranda. At that stage of life, I wanted to become a cartoonist- but then came a newcomer to the class in the sixth standard.
She was always scribbling something in a tiny notebook. When I asked her what she was writing, she told me that she was writing a limerick. I had no idea what a limerick was, but went home and asked my dad, who pulled out a book of poems of Edward Lear from his bookshelf and started reciting from it – it was from that moment I got hooked on to limericks, and at one stage, to the utter chagrin of my peers, started conversing in limericks! From limericks, I moved on to essays, young adult novels, poetry, and biographies.
Nature inspires me a lot, so I have written many poems based on the theme of nature. In fact, my novella, A Skyful of Balloons, which was very well received, is written in the backdrop of Kashmir, with a lot of description of the beautiful surroundings. If there is injustice somewhere, my pen starts itching, and I cannot stop unless I have penned something about it.
SKS: Congratulations on your book, Ballad of Bapu, becoming a bestseller. Would you like to share with us the idea behind it?
SB: Thanks for the congratulations. The book was published in the year 2015, and I really poured out my heart into it.
Many are the times I have been asked this question. Well, the book was a result of a challenge thrown at me by an MPhil student, when he was mouthing all sorts of myths about Gandhi Ji in the class. I asked him from where he had gleaned his knowledge, and whether he had read any book on Gandhi. He shook his head with an arrogant air, saying, “I have not read any book on Gandhi, but if you write a poetic biography on Gandhi, I promise I will read it. I know that you also write poetry and I am also a poet, so I will willingly read it.”
Since I had been very passionate about writing limericks – (five-line poems with the rhyme scheme of aabba, popularized by Edward Lear), I wrote the entire biography in that rhyme scheme, and readers appreciated the book a lot.
SKS: What are your literary resources?
SB: While writing Ballad of Bapu, I read more than two hundred books and articles on Gandhi. The biography of Gandhi written by Louis Fischer, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, provided me with great resources about Gandhi’s life. Robert Payne’s The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi was also a great help. I tried to read all of Gandhi’s writings, My Experiments with Truth, Hind Swaraj  and also as many articles written by him as I possibly could.
SKS: How does your birthplace prefigure in your writings?
SB: My birthplace is Agra, but I was a toddler there, hence it does not figure in my writings but, then when my father got a job in Rajasthan University, Jaipur, and my parents relocated to Jaipur, it was here that most of my life was spent, so one of my mystery novels, written for young adults, The Mystery of the Jhalana Fort was written in the backdrop of Jaipur.
We have our roots in Kashmir, and we even had our ancestral house there, so many of my poems are also about Kashmir – my ancestral house, the River Lidder, the Dal Lake, and the camaraderie existing amongst the people there.
SKS: Would you agree that your academic connection with Political Science resulted in your works like Only in Darkness can you see the Stars (a biography of Martin Luther King Jr.), and Ballad of Bapu?
SB: Yes, you are absolutely right there. Both the books happened as a result of challenges thrown at me by my MPhil students, of Political Science. Bapu had always been my hero, and when someone was denigrating him in the class, I could not tolerate that and left the class in anger. When the anger mellowed down, I started mulling over the possibility of writing a poetic biography on him. This was in the year 2012, and the book was published in 2015.
Then in another MPhil Class in Gandhian Studies in the year 2017, I was shocked to find that the students did not know anything much about King, except the fact that he was an excellent orator, a civil rights activist, and his I have a dream speech was very popular. They also suggested that I should write a book on King, which I started writing without any second thoughts, because he had also fascinated me a lot. In fact, during my research work at the American Centre Library, New Delhi, for my doctorate on Robert Nozick, I found myself reading more about Martin Luther King Jr, rather than Nozick, often thinking that I might do my post-doctoral research on him. I read every book on King that the library had on its shelves.
SKS: Despite your academic engagements with Political Science, your love for English literature reflects in your writings. Tell us more about it.
SB: I have always had an intense love for literature. In fact, all my siblings imbibed a love for literature from my father, who used to read out from books, which would be followed by discussions on those books. In college, I had very good teachers of English literature and learned a lot from them, acting in many a Shakespearean play, and enjoying it a lot.
Enid Blyton had always influenced me in my childhood, and in the innermost recesses of my heart, I had hoped to write like her someday, so, my writing career began from those mystery series that I started writing at the beginning of 2000. My husband runs an institute for soft skills, and I also had an idea that these books could help the students enhance their vocabulary, so they were published on a small scale, but gained unexpected popularity, so much so, that I translated one of the books, The Mystery of the Relic into Hindi, Meri kahani sunogey? scripting it for the stage and staging it in different parts of the country. There were requests to publish the books on a larger scale. But then I shifted to other genres, and writing for young adults took a back seat. Modern Political Theory has been my specialization, but literature has always been my first love, it runs in my blood.
SKS: Does writing help you to deal with dilemma within and without? How?
SB: Well, life is indeed a conundrum, and one is always face to face with many a dilemma, and yes, writing has helped me in dealing with the dilemma within and without. Sometimes I feel very strongly about something and I want to bring about a drastic change – but since I am not a policymaker, I do not have the wherewithal to do it, so I just resort to writing. Many a time, many a dilemma that has been plaguing me, has been resolved by my mere act of writing. It can be very cathartic and therapeutic too. At times, writing is akin to loud thinking, and while jotting your thoughts, many dilemmas are sorted out. To my absolute relief, after I have written about something which had been harassing me, I have found out that I am no longer perched on the horns of a dilemma. It is as simple as that.
SKS: Your mystery novels for young adults have been very well received. Would you like to tell us the concepts and ideas behind those texts?
SB: Yes, I was pleasantly surprised when they were very well received there was a lot of horror and humour in these books. Inspired by Enid Blyton, they were about the adventures of Razdaan kids, and while delineating these characters, many autobiographical elements crept in. I wrote seven of these mystery books, but published just three – The Mystery of the Relic, The Mystery of the Jhalana Fort, and The Mystery of the Pine Cottage. “The Mystery of the Whispering Woods” never went to the publisher. It is still gathering dust somewhere. But, I think it was the best of the lot.
Ashok, one of the characters in these books, has an uncanny resemblance to my younger brother who, as a ten-year-old wanted to become a detective, and could always be seen with a magnifying glass, a piece of string, and a head full of questions! But alas, this aspiring detective is now an interventionist cardiologist, trying to detect the malfunctioning of hearts! The granny in the books also takes after my grandmother [dadi].
SKS: Writing for the adults and writing for the young adults, how different is it? What caution needs to be taken to address the two sets of readers?
SB: In writing for young adults, you have to bring yourself to the level of a teenager, become an adolescent, and make the characters mouth 321 their vocabulary. The youngsters do not laugh at the same jokes as the adults. You cannot bring Sartre or Kierkegaard into the content of books for young adults.
In my novels for young adults, there was a lot of humour, horror, camaraderie, and leg-pulling, and that is what the young ones appreciated, hankering for more. If one makes these books didactic with a lot of sermonizing, no one is going to read them.
Similarly, while writing for adults one should be cautious that the readers don’t find the writing juvenile. But I strongly believe, boredom should be kept at bay in both styles of writing.
I just finished writing a novel, which is a satire on higher education. Although the book had the potential of becoming boring, being on a serious topic, I have tried to put in a lot of humour. So, basically, in both sets of readers, it is absolutely essential to make the stories so riveting that they feel like reading on and on.
SKS: Who are your literary favorites?
SB: Charles Dickens has always been a favorite, one can learn a lot from the way he delineates his characters, that is why his characters are always remembered. I have always loved Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Hardy, and Edgar Allen Poe. O’ Henry with his twists in his tales holds a special fascination for me. To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee has been my all-time favourite book. I can keep reading all the books of PG Wodehouse and Agatha Christie, over and over again. I have a special liking for Russian writers – Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Maxim Gorky, Chekhov, Boris Pasternak, and Alexander Pushkin, and some short stories by them have left an everlasting impact on me. Haruki Murakami is also one of my favourites.
SKS: What do you think about writing for a cause?
SB: Well, I have never been approached to write for a cause, but if it is a cause I staunchly believe in, I will definitely not hesitate to write.
SKS: Any thoughts that you would like to share on the politics of gender in literary and other writing in India?
SB: Gender roles have been defined in stereotypical terms since Victorian times. I remember, the long discussions we used to have in my English literature class in college on Henrik Ibsen’s play A Dolls’ House (1879). I recall how the patronizing tone of Torvid had assaulted my sensibilities. Pet names like my little squirrel, songbird, lark were all words reiterating the role of a woman as merely a showpiece, a homemaker, who knows nothing of finances and is expected to dance to the tunes of the male, however off-key. Nora was not supposed to be intelligent, logical, or insightful, this was what was hinted at by her chauvinistic husband. ”You don’t understand the conditions of the world in which you live”. He had remarked.
I think these strict lines of gender are slowly being obliterated worldwide. Now, even in the writings in India, we find women protagonists being portrayed as strong and individualistic, with minds of their own, who can take major decisions on their own. Moreover, folk tales and folklore, where women were depicted as fragile, are being recast and written with feminist perspectives.
It is heartening to see that gender roles are being drastically overhauled. The narratives of the damsel in distress are being replaced by narratives where women are shown coming to the rescue of the supposedly strong men folk. Knights with shining armours have been relegated to the footnotes of history, women are no longer shown as being plagued by self-doubt and apprehensions. Nothing can silence their spirits, they have started on a voyage of self-discovery can speak for themselves, and question the centennially entrenched status quo, misogyny, and patriarchy. We see a subversion of norms, which is no longer muted or whispered, but loud and eloquent.
SKS: Any word of advice for young writers?
SB: It is very sad that there are some youngsters who do not want to read the classics at all. I remember one student in my creative writing class telling me, “We need to begin on a clean slate, so we should not have any preconceived notions in our heads. Why do we need to be influenced by any writer?”
Well, all good writers, need to have something in their writing style that the readers feel like coming back to all the time-Depth, style, vocabulary, narrative skill – and that can be developed only when one reads a lot. No, one does not need to imitate any writer, but just read them. I remember as a child I used to write very furtively, not showing my writings to anyone- especially to my dad, who was a professor of English and a strict grammarian. I was afraid that he would pick mistakes. I remember he flung away an essay of mine, which had won a prize in school, saying, “Work on your style – READ–READ-READ. There are no shortcuts to writing – you have to keep reading.” So, from that day, I started reading every book in the house [My dad had a huge library] I had read every novel of Dickens and Thomas Hardy by the time I left school, [he has been a very powerful influence on me], and later in college, literature became my obsession.
At the risk of sounding a little pompous, let me reiterate, that I don’t think I have a bad style of writing, and I am honing it every moment by reading all the time, and I also owe my vocabulary to the books that I had read in my childhood and the books that I still keep reading. In fact, it might seem a little quirky, but I am simultaneously reading six books right now. So, I believe, reading should be followed like an obsession. Call it my idiosyncrasy or fad, I am doing it all the time, and if you want to become a writer, you have to write at least for an hour every day. And keep reading whenever you have the time- the good, bad, and the ugly, and ultimately you will get your own voice, which will have its own pitch and tenor.
Yes, don’t be afraid of criticism, one can improve a lot simply by keeping one’s ears open to criticism.
Be very observant. Observe the minutest details that you see around you and store them for future reference. For example, if you have witnessed a scene a couple of years back, and it has caught your fancy, you can deftly pick it up from your memory box and use it. I have done that many times.