I frequently teach writing classes and love doing that. It’s nothing short of thrilling for me to share tips and techniques I’ve gathered over a period of time and to have a dialogue with the students. By preparing for a workshop, I also seem to clarify my own thoughts about a topic, and that is a bonus.

Can writing be taught? This question comes up again and again, whenever writers congregate. There are two schools of thought. One says writers are born, not made, and that classroom teachings are a waste of time. Others insist one can learn the craft, the same way one learns how to make a chair. This group is quick to name authors who have graduated from writing programs and gone on to win acclaims.

Within the limited space of this blog, I can’t attempt to do a full discussion on this age-old controversy. Instead I’ve opted to give you some personal observations and that of a few students.

Earlier in my career, I had concentrated on mastering the craft from workshops and how-to books. That certainly paid off when I began writing a novel. At some point I realized that craft wasn’t enough. You have to go beyond the rules. You have to lift your story to another plane, the art part of writing, if I may call it that, and I had to do it myself. I’d leave this subject for now.

A few weeks ago when I taught craft classes at an intense writing retreat, I had a chance to interact with the attendees outside the classroom. They pointed out what had benefited them. Some dwelled on what they’d gotten from the workshops and personal consultations. Others talked about getting away from their usual environment and immersing themselves in their projects. Still others pointed out a few peripheral benefits: contacts being made, networks expanded, inspiration gained.
The conclusion I derived is this: whether for craft or contact these workshops have their place. Ideas collide, new shapes and structures form in your mind, you see beyond your horizon. You win new friends, extend your network, and take part in meaningful exchanges. You come away feeling more motivated to write. And those just might be reason enough to attend a writers’ workshop.

I’d love to hear from you. Perhaps I’ll return with another blog in future on the same topic.


Recently, I was invited by the Asia Pacific Cultural Center located in Tacoma, Washington to speak at their monthly tea ceremony event. I felt honored. The organization had already held tea ceremonies common to Japan, Korea and other nations. It fell on me and a few fellow Indians to present the Indian angle. That involved brewing and serving tea and accompaniments and also talking about what the ritual represented.

For my part I emphasized the role of tea, chai as it’s called in India, in the daily interactions of the people. We share chai—rich, full-bodied, and amber-colored—with whoever would stop by around 4 in the afternoon, the tea hour. We often throw tea parties, which is a fun way to entertain friends. A tea party gives us a chance to dress up and mingle, take small bites of various delicacies, and gratefully lift the steaming cup to our lips.

Tea has always held a fascination for me, which is why the beverage always finds its way in my books. An earlier novel, Darjeeling, is set in a tea plantation in Darjeeling, a town famous for the tea named after it. Darjeeling tea is high quality but light, with a bouquet of its own. The novel, although a story of a family which owns a tea plantation in the town of Darjeeling, also depicts the little known politics of tea: Not only how the leaves are plucked from the tea bushes and processed, but the condition of the tea workers, the dangers they face in their jobs, and the dedication they display. Most of us drain our teacups without ever being aware of it.

Tea also figures prominently in my latest novel, Tulip Season. The main character, Mitra Basu, gets involved in locating her best friend Kareena, a domestic violence counselor who has disappeared. Yet another buddy, Veen, assists Mitra in solving the dilemma. In these trying times, Veen who is a hard-driving architect, always ready with practical advice, always seen with her cup of tea, is a solace. Mitra can often predict Veen’s mood from the way she sips her tea—absent-mindedly or with vigor.

At least for this writer and her protagonist, tea is more than just a hot beverage.

Losing The Writer

It saddened me to hear that The Writer magazine is looking for a buyer. The last issue will be the one for October. I’ve been a long time reader, a freelancer, and a Contributing Editor for that magazine.

As a reader I’ve found each issue to be packed with helpful information. Even after publishing many books, I’ve felt grateful to have The Writer on my desk as my company. As a freelancer, I have had the good fortune of working with fine editors such Ron Kovach, Sarah Lange, and Jeff Reich.

My connection with The Writer goes way back. In 1998, six months before the publication of my first novel, Shiva Dancing, I was pleased to find a pre-publication review in Publisher’s Weekly. I was even more pleased when I received a hand-written note from Sylvia Burack, the then editor of The Writer. I’d already written a couple of nonfiction articles on writing for her. In that note, she congratulated me and asked me if I’d do an article about the craft of novel writing. She’d read the Publisher’s Weekly review.

How much better could it get? I dashed a note to her right away. We developed a strong working relationship that continued after Ms. Burack had relinquished her control of the magazine and a new crop of editors had come in.

Each time, I began writing an article for The Writer, I had to stop and think about the topic more deeply than I would otherwise have. That, I think, made me a better writer.

Recently at a writer’s conference, I met a number of attendees who regularly read the magazine and who were familiar with my contributions in it. They were enthusiastic about the magazine. They shared with me what they’d learned. It was as though we’d form a community.

So the loss of The Writer hits me at many levels. I hope a buyer will be found.


What do a mother a mother, a cab driver, and a laundryman have in common?

They’re all minor players in my novel, Tulip Season: A Mitra Basu Mystery.

A number of readers have told me that these characters are fun to have around. Despite the gloom and the complications that surround the disappearance of Mitra’s best friend, these characters lighten up things.

I have to agree. Minor characters serve many purposes, such as providing a contrast to the main character and helping the main character grow, but in this book, they each have had an opportunity to let their personalities shine.

Mitra’s mother, a retired school teacher who lives in Kolkata, is not afraid to speak up. When Mitra questions her mother’s ability to withstand the rigors of locating a missing person, she replies, “You think I’m a weakling, don’t you? How I wish you’d seen me in my college days. All I had to do was breeze through the door wearing a pretty sari, my mother’s locket, and a smile, and doors would swing open for me. I’d leave with treasures—satisfactory results—in my handbag. In those days, happy endings didn’t seem corny, delusional, or fictionalized, just a natural outcome of events. Maybe I could have a taste of those days again.”

Arnold, the Kolkata cab driver, is barely twenty, but full of ideas. “My name is Ashish,” he said. “(But) friends call me Arnold. Guess why? I’m ambitious like, you know, the other Arnold. Someday I immigrate to California. But, if not, I at least like to be elected the chief minister of this state. But no scandals though.” He pressed a business card in (Mitra’s) hand. “Welcome to Arnold’s Private Investigation Bureau. Me, your sherpa, can escort you wherever you wish to go, safely and in record time. I dress up in a fancy uniform if you like. Privacy assured. Confidentiality maintained. Satisfaction guaranteed. And smiles plenty.”

And here’s the laundryman, as Mitra first meets him. “Namaskar.” He folded his hand at chest level in traditional greeting and smiled through his paan-stained ruby teeth. Tattooed on his right arm was the word “Om.” His frosty-white shirt contrasted with his walnut complexion and scratched hands. “I understand you want some detective work done.”

These three share Mitra’s adventure, providing humor and help and making for some memorable moments.


A shovel in hand, I bend over my flower patch. My eyes fall on the slender, elegant, and pink-purple spikes of foxgloves. Taller than the rest, with an unusual cluster of flowers (like you can slide your finger through each blossom), they form a nice backdrop for annuals. They’re not a prized bloom, like roses or honey suckle. And this being late July, they’re showing signs of withering.

But before I take them down, I must ponder.

It’s easy to take the perennials in your garden for granted. Fox gloves, especially, has been an easy ride for me. Years ago, I’d scattered a few seeds. The biennial plants had sprouted and grown without much care, without taking up much space, thriving in either sun or shade. Each succeeding year, they’d self-sown and returned, these happy campers.

I can’t help but wonder. The fox glove season is almost over. How often have I taken a closer look at them? How often have I appreciated their delicate beauty?  

Speaking of beauty, flowers, in general, remind us of the fleeting nature of living things. They say hello and goodbye, with only a few vivid moments in between.

I must catch those moments. I must stop and smell them now—literally—before they’re gone.


During a reading of Tulip Season at a bookstore, I mentioned a Bollywood actor as being an important part of the plot.

The face of a young woman lit up. “Which one?” she asked.

“Well, he’s not based on any real person.” I said. “I invented him.”

“But,” she said. “You must have known someone like that.”

Well, I hadn’t.

I have had many queries like that about Bollywood in connection with Tulip Season. That film industry catches people’s fancy and even one of my characters finds that to be so.

‘“Bollywood seems to be taking America by storm,’ Says Mr. Shah, a minor player in the book. ‘People in my office ask me if we dance all the time in India—at home, in the midst of traffic, at the car rental, on top of K2. Well, if it weren’t for my seventy-year-old joints.’ His laugh ended in a cough.”

When I was growing up in Kolkata, Bollywood movies, done in Hindi were widely popular. A little known fact: A smaller segment of the population, including myself, also supported another movie industry based in Kolkata, one that produced art films in the regional language of Bengali. Satyajit Ray was the best known of these directors. His films such as the Apu Trilogy won the hearts of cine-goers everywhere. The neighborhood where these films were made was called Tollygunge and as such the name Tollywood came into being.

Where to see a film tonight? Bollywood or Tollywood? We used to joke.

These days, Bengali art films only make a debut at film festivals, if at all. But Bollywood movies are readily available.

No wonder a Bollywood actor (even if he’s not for real) would stir things up in my book.


On my last visit to Kolkata a few years ago, I exited the airport and hailed a taxi cab. It was early in the morning.

As the taxi took off toward my destination, I tried to rub sleep off my eyes. But what really woke me up was the view from the window. Through the fog that hung over the city, I could see an explosion of colors: women dressed in peacock shades, men wearing red pagris or turbans in their heads, pastel shade building sporting bright blue windows, a row of trees bowing with brilliant white flowers.

A bus rumbled by, its front decorated with a paisley design in yellow. I smiled to myself. I was back to the land of colors, to my childhood home.

Why so many colors?

I could supply the answer. Indians have been making vegetables dyes from extracts of plants, fruits, and flowers for millennia. Beginning in the 15th Century,India exported these natural dyes toEurope, where they would soon become popular. Indigo, for example, derived from a plant common in India, was applied to cotton, silk, and wool clothes to give them a coveted deep blue shade.

For the rest of my stay in Kolkata, I’d have many more chances to feast on colors. Passing by a bridal tent, I’d notice the river of red. At sidewalk stalls I’d watch temple-goers shop for yellow-orange marigold garlands, like morning sun bursting. I’d sit down to a sumptuous meal, my appetite half satisfied with the hues on my plate.

No wonder when someone asks my main character, Mitra Basu, what she does for a living, she answers thus: “I have a garden design business, Palette of Color.”


A fun aspect of writing a novel is dressing your characters, finding suitable clothing in just the right colors and styles to fit the personality. Many of my novels have a partial Indian setting and so I often occupy myself with describing a sari—the colors, the fabric, the decorations, the luxuriousness—a female character chooses to wear.

After an earlier novel, Darjeeling, was published, I had a message on my land line from a reader. She said she had read a few chapters and was mesmerized by the colors mentioned in the book that she had to call me.

In my latest novel, Tulip Season, my main character Mitra Basu, a Seattle-based garden designer, lives in jeans and jumpers that befits her profession. She rarely wears a sari anymore. However, when she goes back toIndia, her mother urges her to try one for an evening at the movies.

“In the bedroom, Mother opened an ancient steel trunk. They sorted through layers of silk, cotton, crêpe, georgette, and chiffon, saris and matching blouses, pulsating with colors, patterns, textures, and artistry. It was partly Mother’s trousseau and partly an heirloom collection. Mitra chose a hand-painted Chanderi silk in mehendi green, drawn by the fabric’s lullaby quality. She wrapped it around her.”

Later in the story, Mitra’s friend Preet also wants her to dress up for a fancy dinner at a restaurant.

“Preet opened the door of a lotus-painted armoire and laid her sari collection on the bed: light fabrics in bold colors; ice-cool neutrals, woven with stones. It took Mitra no time to choose a pale green number with a blue-gold crystalline border.

Preet insisted that Mitra do a dry run, and she obliged by draping the six-yard long fabric around her. Preet clasped an elaborate necklace of gold and ruby around Mitra’s throat and pinned a pearl brooch over the sari pleats on her left shoulder.

In the mirror, Mitra found herself smiling out from yards of silk and gold, a cocoon of softness, refinement, and glitz, despite a slight bewilderment in her eyes.”

In a future blog, I’ll talk more about the colors of India.


Lately, I’ve been doing public readings for Tulip Season: A Mitra Basu Mystery. I mostly conduct these at various bookstores inSeattle, but when I visitedVirginia a month or so ago, I took the time to slip in a reading there, too.

A question that a number of people have asked me is this: Do these readings help sell books?

The answer is yes. Granted much of book promotion and publicity has moved to the Internet, an author appearance still draws readers.

I enjoy reading before a live audience. They generally consist of people who are interested in hearing about your book and who’ll oftentimes relate it to their friends. Although it may or may not result in a direct sale, word of mouth advertisement remains a good strategy for authors.

Why do people still show up at readings? Well, it’s been said that we read for the music of words. When an excerpt from a novel is read aloud at a live event, words can create a magical effect on the audience.

As a reader myself, I am well aware of this magic. You get transported to another place and time, traveling along with other book-loving people seated nearby.

Readers have other reasons for flocking to author readings. A few weeks ago I attended the reading of a writer friend at a bookstore. The man sitting next to me mentioned that he works at an intensive unit at a hospital and would have to get back to work shortly. He attends these readings, even for a few minutes, to relax, to take his mind off.

The best part for me during my own readings is the question-and-answer period. It is then I find out much about my readers, what they liked about my previous books or even the latest, if they’d already read it. At almost all readings for Tulip Season, someone has asked me if I’d write another book in the Mira Basu series.

A series? Well, I haven’t thought about that.

Will I? Let me address that topic in a future blog.

It’s a Mystery to Me

The first time a reader asked me why I wrote a mystery, (Tulip Season: A Mitra Basu Mystery) I fumbled for an answer. The question is legitimate, as my previous four novels fall in the mainstream category. So why switch genre, why try something you’ve never done?

I am no stranger to genres. I write novels, essays, magazine article, and in the past have also done cookbooks. These were all conscious choices. With Tulip Season, however, it worked out differently. I didn’t plan to make it a mystery novel.

I’d started working on a story that had a mystery element in it: The disappearance of a domestic violence counselor named Kareena, who, ironically, is suspected of being abused at home. The story is told from the point of view of her best friend, Mitra. My intention was to examine the effect of a missing person on her family and friends.

As expected, Mitra is devastated and does her best to look for her friend. In the process, she finds out things about Kareena: She had a secret life. Still, in the true spirit of friendship, Mitra stayed steadfast in her search, despite threats from Kareena’s husband. As I kept writing the chapters, Mitra’s actions—bold, when you consider she had no sleuthing experience—started to take over the book.

Okay, it’s a mystery novel, I said to myself.

I watched as Mitra’s adventure gave the mystery part of the book more prominence and caused many themes to emerge.

Is it the standard mystery theme of crime doesn’t pay?

That’s not the main theme. Rather it is: What does friendship mean?

At the end of the book, along with Mitra, I find the answer.

So, ultimately, the book turned out to be a mystery, but with a bigger theme than I’d believed. In that, I am happy.