In Part two of my conversation with Tanuja Desai Hidier, she shares her thoughts on bicultural identities, the next steps in her creative career, and inspiring words for aspiring writers.
Music is an important part of both books and you are a singer-songwriter as well as author. How do the two connect for you in the telling of Dimple Lala’s journey, as well as your own?
It just feels like a natural way for me to explore and express a story: By writing about it in prose (silent music) and in music as well (audible prose). Books and music have been a part of my life since I was a child, and as an adult (grown child) I was the frontwoman in bands in NYC and London. I’d also already made an album of original songs to accompany my first novel, prequel Born Confused, two years after that book first released: When We Were Twins (which was featured in Wired Magazine for being the first ever ‘booktrack’— exciting!).
Although Bombay Blues/Spleen can be read/heard independently, for me they’re one tale relayed across multiple media–a kind of love song to Bombay: Bombay Blues is my prose poem to Bombay; Bombay Spleen is the sonic part of this same tale (the title is a reference to Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, his prose-poem to Paris which heroine Dimple Lala is reading when the story opens).
I knew from early on that I wanted Bombay Blues to have the feel of a piece of music (the book is an exploration of the blues on many levels, including the musical sense, too, but the joyful tones as well). Likewise, I wanted the album to have the feel of a story—and to not only create an arc that would parallel the heroine’s journey in Bombay Blues, but also one that would trace the story of Bombay itself, from its beginnings as seven islands later reclaimed to become the city we know today.
So Bombay Spleen opens as the album narrator takes flight with “Catherine”, an ode to Catherine de Braganza, the Infanta of Portugal whose dowry to Charles II was the islands that became modern-day Bombay. (Catherine is mentioned in Bombay Blues as well, early on). So it’s the ‘beginning’ of the story in this sense, a birth of the city (and on another level, lays out a main theme of the book, which is unions, reunions—the planned for and the unexpected).
The writing process for the book and album was fully intertwined from inception to fruition: It took me three years of burning the candle at both ends to complete both—and they were finished within days of each other, during a very hectic NYC April spent in-studio with producer Dave Sharma by day, and doing my final book pass for editor David Levithan by night. And the crossfeed between the two was and is constant: Bombay Blues itself is embedded with lyrics from Bombay Spleen; sections are written directly in poetry, and it ends with double codas (“Bombay Browns”; “Bombay Blues”). As well, fictitious bands in the novel sing songs from the album.
(Also, a lovely perk about working in both media was that if I was stuck, for example, on a particular scene, I could start singing about it and try to explore it that way. Conversely, if I was pondering a song, I could write the scene and discover the heart of it. This dance between the two forms kept me constantly in the flow. And as the songs developed further, primarily with my dream Spleen team of Atom Fellows, Marie Tueje, and Dave, it also afforded me some nicely noisy company along the loooong ‘silent’ writing way.)
How do you help your own children navigate finding their own identities as people of Indian heritage living in London? Are there differences between growing up Indian in the U.S. and growing up in London?
It’s funny, but I don’t think we really consciously think of them as being people of Indian heritage. Maybe little Londoners more than anything… and our daughters, though of multiply mixed backgrounds, are the only members of both my husband’s and my immediate families who live in the city where they were born!
I can’t really compare growing up Indian in the USA versus London—as I only grew up in the USA, and my children so far have only grown up in London…separated by many years, and years of changes, of course.
However, I can say that in the life we lead in London, multicultural is the norm. Our circle of friends, and our children’s friends, are from all kinds of backgrounds, many dual-cultured, biracial. They learn about Diwali at school (the non-South Asian teachers even dress in saris and bindis on the day), the Ramayana, the myths. And they learn about other religions and cultural backgrounds.
Also, India has had a significant presence in the UK for much longer than in the US, as is natural with the colonial ties/history between the two. When we first moved to the UK, in 2000, I was amazed at how integrated—in some ways—South Asian (known there as simply ‘Asian’) culture seemed to be: the spices my mother used to drive two hours to buy were available at the local ‘mainstream’ supermarket. Brown faces broadcasting the news, on the pages of magazines, in films and on TV—and not just in roles where their cultural background was the crux of the plotline. Curry was the number one food of choice in the UK in a general poll at that time (and maybe still is!). And we even once were in a pub where the men’s’ room was selling…curry flavored condoms! (A sign of a certain type of integration indeed…and probably a very effective contraceptive as I would think it might prevent the act altogether!)
All that said, when I was doing events for Born Confused when it first came out in the UK in 2003, I was amazed at some of the stories some of the Indian and Pakistani high school and college students I met along the way shared with me about their conservative upbringings: such as having to hide boyfriends, even friends, from your parents, not only if he was not Indian but even if he was not the right type of Indian (Panjabi vs. Gujarati, etc.). Many of these students were leading double lives, or longed to be, and seemed to be having extreme difficulty bridging the gap with their parental and grandparental generation—much more so than the South Asian young adults I’d met during my USA book tours (of course there can be many reasons for this, economic as well as cultural and so forth, but this is what I experienced at the time). Some were threatened with being disowned for their ‘modern-day’ choices. Many had parents where one or occasionally even both hadn’t fully learned English—and had never really needed to, as there were enough migrants from their own specific Indian community that they could live just about entirely within that group even in the UK.
Whereas it was in the USA, ironically, as my parents relayed to me, that they first met many ‘other’ types of Indians—such as South Indians—who they perhaps would not have gotten to know to this extent in the motherland herself (due to geography but also the way these communities mostly moved amongst themselves at the time).
Do you have any advice for parents on how to strike a balance in raising children with two cultures?
First, perceptually, we need to begin seeing these multicultures as part of a whole rather than two ‘sides’, at odds with each other. Rather than creating dissonance with each other, perhaps we are simply re-tuning our ears, on a path to new music. Though it’s important to still recognize the various components that create this new harmony; I think sometimes something a little sad in the ‘blend’ is too much of a break with histories, her stories. The dissolution of even a sense of tradition. Though some of these traditions may require revision! For example, we have our own version of Rakshabandhan, where brothers celebrate their sisters as well as the other way round, and where sisters celebrate sisters, too. So our daughters tie rakhis on each other and, when we are able to see their US-based cousins, on their cousin-brothers and sisters as well. When my husband and I married—in a ceremony with immediate family, in my childhood home, we combined Indian and French elements, wrote our own vows and spoke them in both languages, and even made a soundtrack with Indian, French, multi-influenced music. My wedding dress was made from a traditional Indian wedding sari—but completely undone and restitched together in a new order by a Japanese dressmaker in a nearby town: the dupatta became the sleeves, the border became wrist cuffs and a kind of choker necklace, and I ended up with a dress for the wedding, and a pair of dance-friendly trousers and halter top for our party, a couple weeks later!
So…the traditional elements were there, and recognized. But revised. To fit with more ease.
For this kind of ‘retelling’ to be possible, as with most relationships, communication is the key. Communication within families, and also outside of the home: creating learning environments where people are encouraged to question things, not just swallow belief systems wholesale. Nurturing curiosity. And mutual respect: the youngers for the elders—but the elders for our youth as well.
We, as individuals, as societies, and as families, of course, need to activate compassion. And to be willing to step into another set of shoes and observe that person’s experience, with heart. Tradition and ‘modernity’ can still find a meeting ground, but one has to be open, as with a story, to rewriting. People, relationships, cultures are always evolving. Some traditions may need to as well—especially those that are inherently unhealthy, detrimental, founded on the devaluation of some members of the very society practicing them.
Art, storytelling can help immensely in this process. Writing, imagining things into reality. If you can’t have a direct conversation, maybe there is a story, a character out there who can help you have it. Make the first move.
As far as my relationship with my own parents, we are extremely close and always have been. I’m very lucky in that my parents have always absolutely been my support pillars. They’ve always encouraged me, and even better, had faith in me…even when, for many years, I had none in myself.
I think part of the reason for this is—well, it’s just who they are. Very compassionate and open people. Also, the lines of communication were always clear between us while I was growing up; I think this removed any potential ‘shock’ element, as we had a dialogue going all along the way, so any kind of changes/developments happened gradually, organically.
Also, my parents had dealt with opposition in their own time as well (and this story is the basis of the parents’ story in Born Confused and Bombay Blues). They met in medical school in Parel, and married out of caste, had a love marriage, which was quite a scandal in my father’s Gujarati village (though my mother’s city family was all right with it). My mother also was one of the few women in medical school at the time. And then they were the first from either side of the family to immigrate to the U.S.A.
So they’d already been living, thinking, coloring outside the lines. They were the pilgrims, the founding mother and father of our family in the New World.
What is the next step for you in your writing and your music?
I have a few different ideas as far as fiction projects that I’m excited about. As far as the Dimple Lala series: For a long time I’ve felt that, having experienced NYC and Bombay, a natural next step would be for Dimple to explore London. I’ve lived here many years now, so it’s become another one of my ‘homes’, my swimming cities.
On the music front, we are continuing on with our cross-continental (UK-US-India) project of making videos for Bombay Spleen; the first, for my ode to Bombay, “Heptanesia”, is currently airing on MTV Indies in India, which is exciting! **
I’m also working on new songs, including those for an Angels With Whips EP with my Bombay Spleen collaborator and dear friend Marie Tueje.
And one day, I hope to do a children’s book—now that I have them!
Do you have any advice for others seeking to give a voice to the experiences of your and future multicultural generations?
My advice is the same for any aspiring writer — regardless of age, gender, skin color, background: Never underestimate the power of your own story, if you want to write from this vantage point. The things that may seem the most mundane to you may be your hook, as these are the most organic to your experience, your particular perspective on the world. But — and this is very important — nor should you feel obliged to write from these specific vantage points: Part of what a writer does is get under the skin of different characters, different worlds, to the place where our hearts beat in time.
And your stories ARE stories. Never forget this.
I’m also a huge believer—from experience—in this idea that miracles meet the prepared mind. You take a step towards what you’re seeking, and it will come running towards you: Complicity. Synergy. Synchronicity.
So: Find excuses to DO things, my father has always told me. Not to not do them.
Keep pen to paper, so to speak, keep honing your craft.
Don’t be afraid to write twenty pages and chuck all but the last one, because that’s the one where you finally got to the heart of the matter. If you have to be scared of something, be afraid of not writing those twenty pages…and forever never discovering that heart. (If it helps, keep a file of your cut material so you feel you haven’t ‘lost’ it; I did that with book one…and then never returned to it.)
Don’t worry about what anyone will think. Don’t even worry about what you think. Be true to your characters. Surrender yourself entirely in service of your story. Amazing things will come of it. Divine things.
And keep in mind, inspiration is a habit; you don’t need to wait for it to get to work. You can’t wait for it: It’s by doing the very work itself that you free it, it appears.
And it will, it will. Never doubt this. Trust in this. And in the power of your own story.
And most vital of all: Trust yourself.
For more info on Tanuja, please visit www.ThisIsTanuja.com
Watch here music video, “Heptanesia” here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8WdEiaBPALA
– Follow Tanuja on:
– Twitter: https://twitter.com/ThisIsTanuja
– Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ThisIsTanuja
– Instagram: instagram.com/tanujadesaihidier