Xenophobia and religious intolerance

It’s not only UKIP. In Greece, France, Spain, Australia and elsewhere, a hardening of opinion against immigrants, of whatever hue, and people who are in some way ‘other’ is taking place and fills the airwaves and the print media with the unpleasant stench of scapegoating. I’m not writing about the UK or the Anglo-Saxon countries. Or about Europe and the legacy of the first and second World Wars. I’m writing about India. Strange how many of the issues seem – as I read the media’s screeching – to be remarkably similar to the fictional universe I’m inhabiting in my mind as I write. Here’s a small sample. Comments are very welcome, by the way:

From Chapter 32:
‘There was a curfew; those who violated it, well…we were not the troublemakers. But people came out in self-defence: shops, houses, temples… Jhiski lathi, usiki bhains, brother. The one with the biggest stick will get the buffalo. We have to show our strength.’ The pandit rubbed his bald head. ‘What brings you here from Delhi?’
‘Cousin, I came from Ahmedabad.’
‘Is that so?’ The head rubbing grew fiercer. Vijay wondered if it was why his cousin’s pate shone like a copper pan.
‘I was trapped in a hotel by the riots. The place was full of injured victims, like a hospital. No good at all. I would not have been there except that I was following a tip-off about an ancient artefact, probably stolen. Now I am on my way to talk to its rightful owner, the Maharawal of Jaisalmer.’
The pandit looked impressed. ‘Stolen?’ he said.’The Maharawal?’ Vijay glanced at the rubbing hands. Could they go faster?
‘Some Britisher, thinking to take it as a trophy.’
The fingers went wild, moving down to the ears as well as across the scalp.
‘Haven’t they pillaged enough? They’re like mosquitoes after blood…’ The pandit began to rub his arms as well, and then to scratch. Vijay reached up and pressed his broad thumb into a large insect that burst against the wall, leaving a smear of red, and smiled.”


Professional reading agencies


I have been offered the opportunity to have part of my novel read by one of the professional reading consultancies that advise on manuscripts and scout for agents. This was unexpected and very welcome. I am applying with butterflies doing little jitterbugs in my belly.

Although Black Tongue of Fire is nowhere near ready to submit to an agent, it might just about scrape over the threshold of acceptable enough to bear a first reading by someone critical. It has been to an Arvon course, after all, and got a tiny bit of it’s groove back. By deadline date in early December it will have to be newly suited and booted – and there’s just time for me to get my act together for NaNo in November in between. I guess it will mean feedback sometime in the new year.

Here are a few extracts from the form I had to fill in, asking for a bio and information or questions for the prospective reader, to be submitted alongside a synopsis and the typescript itself:

I’m a former journalist/editor with degrees in English (Oxford), Women’s Studies (TCD – Ireland) and South Asian Studies (SOAS) – all relevant to the subjects of my novel. I travelled to India in the 1990s where I spent a crazy 6 months living with an Indian family who ran a hotel in Rajasthan in the city in which my novel is set, at a time when its ancient monuments were being restored. I previously lived in Egypt, where I worked as a teacher, and subsequently in Kathmandu, Nepal, working for a year for UNHCR (the UN refugee agency) where I met and married my Nepalese husband.

I started writing (again) in around 2002 (having been badly put off by stuffy schoolteachers) after I returned from India. I went to a great beginner’s writing class at Mary Ward Centre in London, where I accidentally started writing what went on to become Black Tongue of Fire. Then I attended an Arvon course in 2007, and finally picked up the threads of my novel again in 2012 when I embarked on NaNoWriMo for the first time.

As well as writing my novel Black Tongue of Fire, I won the Words With Jam First Page Competition (2012) (and have been longlisted twice since) and had a short story shortlisted for the 2013 Asham Award. I am applying now because I *know* it needs a lot of rewriting and I’m hoping for confirmation that there is the germ of something there to make it worth the next year’s work – and some ideas of how to go about that to give it the best chance of finding an agent and publisher. I think this is in some ways a mould-breaker. I think it might make a great film, too.

Audience: Pitched somewhere in the ballpark of a post-colonial MM Kaye. Readers of Kate Mosse’s historical sagas, with an added Asian twist? Indophiles.

Questions: Lots! This is a first draft so it is still very raw and underprepared. Some is barely more than outline – in fact I think of it as a very detailed set of notes for the book I would eventually like to write. At present it has a lot of what Zadie Smith calls ‘scaffolding’ that will need to come out but is there to help me build the plot and find out where I’m going. I also had hoped to add in many more cultural details and it needs revising for style as it was written very quickly. Suggestions for where to prune would be helpful.

I should explain a bit about the structure: the two main modern-day characters are women, the secondary lead characters are the men they love. Each of these four has their own strand of the story, narrated in 3rd person, interwoven with each other. In between, the historical (12th century) sections are narrated in diary form by a young boy (a princeling) in 1st person. Finally, the overarching structure – the prologues and section headings and epilogue – are narrated by Kali, the goddess, who of course knows everything and is enormously cynical, to an unknown/unnamed listener/reader: ‘you’. To underline the themes of time/history as eternal/circular and repeating itself in variations, and the power of memory/longing, the historical action and the modern-day backstory are all narrated in the *present* tense, while the immediate contemporary action is narrated in the *past* tense. This schema will be clearer in the final draft.

The ‘genre’ is not entirely realist – it lies somewhere along the magic realism/fantasy border, without (excepting Kali as a character) actually being ‘magical’ anywhere. It is epic, often comic (though also tragic), and very much not in the bracket of ‘true gritty experience’ contemporary novelistic realism. For me, it is also about experimenting with melodrama, in traditional Bollywood movie style: I studied Indian cinema, particularly from the 1940s and 1950s but also 1990s, and want to bring back some of that sweep of melodrama, emotion and romance into the reading experience (and into my writing).

However, the novel does very much encompass real-life – live – issues, fictionalised and displaced to an alternative setting. It covers big themes including grief and loss; violence and rape; communal conflict and rioting (its pivot is the Ayodhya Babri mosque demolition and riots in 1992); religion and religious fundamentalism; multi-racial inter-faith relationships; the importance and subversiveness of love; and the clash of western and sub-continental values. Is there a space for this in contemporary literature (if not, there should be!)?

In part the larger than life-ness is how India is, in part it is a romance/fantasy, and in part it is a way of tackling certain political issues (in UK multiculturalism as well as India’s own politics) without confronting them too baldly. Were I to write it as realism, I suspect it might be almost unpublishable and, even as it is, I expect it to be a little controversial.

I have more aims and undercurrents for this than I’ve been able to explain here – ideas I want the novel to embody that are culturally topical and timely in many ways. If it works, it would be a big statement couched in quite a deceptively accessible framework of adventure and romance. A punch in a velvet glove.

Ambitious, I know, but I’d like to think I might somehow be able to pull it off, having got this far!

Now I need to polish, submit….and wait.     INDIA_-_Demolizione_(F)


The flower of the pomegranate tree

A quick word about my pen-name.

Anarkali means pomegranate flower, a beautiful pom-pom-like delicate deep orange blossom on a graceful tree. Pomegranates have featured in the myths and legends of every culture, very often symbolising fertility. Anarkali was also the name of a probably fictional dancing slave girl, immortalised in the 1960 Indian film Mughal e-Azam as the illicit lover of crown-prince Saleem, later Emperor Jahangir, and a bazaar in Lahore is now named after her.


You probably know the Greek (and Roman) myth of Persephone daughter of Zeus and Demeter (in Roman times their names were Proserpine, Jupiter and Ceres the harvest goddess).  Persephone is abducted by Hades (Pluto) to be his wife and confined to the underworld.  Demeter neglects the earth in her despair, so that it does not grow or produce fruit. Seeing this, Zeus persuades Hades to let Persephone return,  but Hades tricks her into eating just six seeds of the pomegranate, and thus – having symbolically tasted death –  she can only return for half the year, and must spend the other six months in the underworld, creating the seasons of winter and spring.

But this is not the only pomegranate myth. In Judeo-Christian mythology, the pomegranate is sometimes considered to be the ‘apple’ of temptation in Eden, symbol of eternal life as well as forbidden desire. It often appears in Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and Child. To early Hebrews, pomegranates symbolised their faith. It was believed they contained exactly 613 seeds: the number of commandments in the Torah, and pomegranate images were woven into priestly robes and decorated the Temple of Solomon. It is one of the seven sacred plants mentioned in the Bible.

In Islam, pomegranates grow in the gardens of Paradise. They are mentioned in the Qur’an as signs of the goodness and generosity of God and are seen as the symbol of wealth and well-being. Pomegranate as a medicinal food and as a symbolic plant is interwoven in Islamic belief systems. It is said that eating pomegranate cleanses the eater of evil aspirations and that the light of God will be in the heart of whoever eats the fruit. 

Its abundant seeds also represent fertility, and feature in ancient and modern wedding rites  and feast days in countries such as Greece, Iran, China, Armenia and some Arab cultures to signify long life, fecundity and abundance. In ancient Persia pomegranates were believed to bring invincibility in battle.

But the pomegranate is also associated with blood and death. In Buddhism, the pomegranate is one of three sacred fruits, and in legend it was used to persuade a demoness, Hariti, outof her habit of eating children. In Japan, Kishimojin, ‘mother goddess of the demons’, is called upon to cure women of infertility, and represented as suckling a child and holding a pomegranate. In Hindu mythology Kali/Durga’s teeth were said to be like pomegranate flowers (red with blood) after devouring demons. They also appear in funeral rites, including in ancient Egypt.

The pomegranate also appears to ‘bleed’ when cut, associating it with menstruation in many tales. The wife of Orion, in Greek myth, tried to compete with Hera in beauty and was punished, being made to believe she had caused the death of her own children. She threw herself from a rock and the first pomegranate tree grew from the place where her blood spilled on the ground.

So. Death, forbidden love, light, life, blood, fecundity, seduction and temptation. Not much to live up to.


Dilip Kumar and Madhubala as Prince Saleem and Anarkali in K. Asif’s Mughal e-Azam.

ps: I have done my best to check out these myths but take no responsibility for the accuracy of things I may have found out via Google.


Welcome to my blog and to updates on progress with Black Tongue of Fire, a cross-cultural romance set mainly in India, and other incidental thoughts and writings.

As well as drafts and extracts from the novel, I hope to share some thoughts about the issues that arise for me in researching and imagining this story, and the writing process itself.  Black Tongue of Fire  is my first novel, and I have spent the last year writing it, starting during NaNoWriMo (http://nanowrimo.org/) in November 2012, completing 50,000 words in a writing marathon that sprang from despair and anger as much as inspiration, and tailing off in the exhausted months that followed.  I have learnt a great deal – about writing and about myself – in the last 11 months, and become acutely aware of how much more I need to learn. It has been a journey of intense emotion and physical endurance as well as technical struggle and there is a very long way still to go.

Will I ever finish it? There are many more drafts to write and rewrite even when “The End” is finally set down on paper.  And if I do, will it be anything like the book I envisaged in my mind, and will I have laid to rest the demons that drove me to begin it and wrestled with me all through its composition? Here is where you will find out.

First, a small extract from Black Tongue of Fire, Chapter 23: this part set in the badlands of Pakistan, on the road to Peshawar, sometime in 1992.

‘Qasim’s car picks up speed on the road out of Islamabad towards Peshawar. Qasim leans back in the driving seat, the size of his body seeming to fill the space like a snail housed in its shell, his head pressed against the roof, his arm jammed against the door. In front of his eyes a huge double tassel of tinselly fronds sways from the mirror, bound together with a green band bearing the shehada, the declaration of faith. The car is green on the outside too, but inside it is a swath of tattered plastic where the original seat covering has been retained, now frayed scuffed and torn and curling up at the ripped edges. On top of the plastic covering, pieces of carpet have been laid: offcuts of thick Baluch rugs and scraps of old prayer laid on each seat and in the footwells. On the back parcel shelf a tissue box appliqued with metallic arabesques takes pride of place beneath a miniature Pakistani flag.

The car looks gaudy. Qasim is wearing shades.’