Books, Dubai Events

Dubai prison inmates stories at Emirates Lit Fest

Emirates Literature Festival Press Conference

Tomorrow, I will Fly — a book of essays written by Dubai prison inmates will be launched at the Emirates Literature Festival, to be held from February 4 to 9, 2020. The book, a ground-breaking venture is the culmination of a two-year long collaboration with the Dubai Police and a year-long project with authors Clare Mackintosh and Annabel Kantaria. Both authors worked with inmates to help them pen their stories. The title of the book, Annabel said, was inspired by a Ugandan inmate who flew only once in her lifetime, the day she came to Dubai.

Intense creative writing workshops helped male and female inmates to process their own emotions and experiences through words. The collection of essays and personal reflections, all on the topic of Tomorrow, were collated in an anthology. To be launched on February 6 at the Penal and Correctional Institutions in Dubai, it will enable the writers involved to read their work aloud and celebrate their achievements among their peers. The book is also an attempt to help them harness their skills to acquire job opportunities once they complete their sentence.

‘’Words are extremely powerful tools. They can change people, and shape how we view the world and who we will become,” said Ahlam Bolooki, festival director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. “Tomorrow, I Will Fly” is a truly ground-breaking initiative for the UAE. It is humbling to be able to creatively support inmates in Dubai and through this project, make a difference to their lives.” At the conference she also announced that over 31 literary festival directors will be attending the festival and that there will be a 50 per cent increase in the number of free events and activities that the public can attend.

Books, Uncategorized

Writing historical fiction at DubaiLitFest


Two writers based in Dubai. Their books — historical fiction — set in diverse eras — one in 1930s Germany and the other in 16th century Turkey and England. How did they conceive these intriguing plots from a past they had not lived in — what were their points of reference, their inspiration and their writing process? As part of a talk at the Emirates Literature Festival the writers gave the audience an insight into researching and writing gripping historical fiction.

Film producer Daniela Tully’s debut novel Hotel on Shadow Lake is based on a mysterious disappearance and family secrets that date back to New York in 1910s and Germany in 1930s. The book is inspired by a personal experience involving a letter received by Daniela’s grandmother from her twin brother after the fall of the Berlin Wall 46 years after he had sent it. Rehan Khan’s book, the first of the Tudor Turk trilogy, is titled The Chronicles of Will Ryde and Awa Maryam al Jameel. Set in Istanbul in 1591 the story revolves around the theft of Moses’ precious staff from the Topkapi Palace. It is Rehan’s third book following the Tasburai series of novels. Continue reading “Writing historical fiction at DubaiLitFest”

Books, Festivals, Sharjah

Nandita Das on Manto at SIBF2018


“Who among all of you had never heard the name Manto before today?”, asked Indian actress and film maker Nandita Das to a room full of audience. Several hands went up and a discerning smile curled up at the corners of her mouth as she nodded her head. Perhaps when Nandita decided to make a film on the life of famous Urdu author Manto almost six years ago she would not have known that she would inadvertently become an ambassador of his work and beliefs to modern day readers and cine goers.

Saadat Hasan Manto was born in 1912 in Ludhiana, Punjab and later moved to Lahore, after the partition. Remarkably even though he died at the very young age of 42 he left behind a legacy of around 300 literary works including short stories, plays and essays. Manto was known to be mercurial, outspoken, an alcoholic and was tried for obscenity six times. His writings centered around partition, political corruption, drug addiction, prostitutes, sexual slavery of women among other socio-political issues of his times.

According to Nandita Manto was admired for his unabashed truthfulness that brought a rare sensitivity in his writings, a deep concern for people living on the margins as well as an unprecedented empathetic gaze for women’s issues. “Through his writing he talked about caste, religion, gender and human behaviour.  I feel he is deeply relevant today because we are grappling with all these issues. We see artists silenced by authorities, by the moral police, or by the censor board and at times they themselves chose to not express their true feelings. That’s why I wanted to tell the story of Manto, who celebrated free-spiritedness, especially now,” she said.

An acclaimed actress, Nandita has to her credit several honours and awards. Manto is her second directorial venture. Starring the talented Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the movie traces the struggles in the life of the writer between the years 1946 to 1948, the time around which India gained independence. Due to the partition Manto who lived in Bombay, India was forced to move to Lahore, Pakistan. Nandita spent close to six years making the film, and started collecting research material a few years before that. To know the real Manto she spent time with his three daughters who live in Pakistan.

During the talk Nandita spoke about spreading the idea of Mantoiyyat or Mantoness. “It is the desire to be more honest. Mantoiyyat is that feeling that gives confidence to be strong about your convictions, which in turn gives the person courage to stand up for their beliefs. Manto wrote the truth about what was happening in the society even though every time he did he got into trouble with the law.”

Close to the end of the talk Nandita was joined on the stage by her eight year old son who also played a small part in the movie. In a Facebook post she wrote later that ‘her son was probably the only eight year old who had heard so much about Manto, and that it is never too early to hear about the importance of honesty, convictions and courage’.










Memoir to Movie: Cheryl Strayed and Saroo Brierley

cheryl saroo

I am a fan of books being made into movies, yet I always make sure to read the book first and then see its cinematic adaptation. That’s because I am a true bookworm who loves to smell and savour the story, relish the lives of characters and the lush setting of a book one page at a time.

A movie adaptation most often has brought alive the characters I had imagined in my head yet at times they have totally ruined the fun by giving a certain face and look to the heroes of a book that was in complete contrast to what I had thought them to be.

Books and their screen adaptations will always be part of a timeless debate. But what happens when a book you wrote on your own life is adapted for the big screen. Would you be able to look at it objectively, agree with the way the actors portrayed you and the director showcased your life? Authors Cheryl Strayed of ‘Wild’ fame and Saroo Brierley on whose life the movie ‘Lion’ was made shared their views in an interesting talk titled From Memoir to Movie at the recently concluded Emirates Literature Festival 2018.

Both their stories are incredible and awe-inspiring. There is Cheryl, who at the age of 26, heartbroken by her mother’s death from cancer, embarked on a 1,100 mile hike along the arduous Pacific Crest Trail in the US. She was a complete novice with no prior experience of hiking, she carried no phone, very less money and only a backpack.

The Pacific Crest trail is 4279 km long and its mostly dotted with forest and mountainous terrain. The hike had been a journey of self-discovery that resulted in her hugely successful book ‘Wild’ published in 2012. American actress Reese Witherspoon acted and produced the cinematic adaptation of ‘Wild’ in 2014 and went on to win Academy Award nominations for her role as Cheryl.

Saroo Brierley too had a compelling story to tell in his memoir titled A Long Way Home published in 2013. Born in the Indian city of Khandwa, Saroo only aged five got separated from his family at a train station. Lost and helpless wandering on the streets of Calcutta he was eventually adopted by an Australian couple. After 25 years living in Australia through Google Earth Saroo was able to trace his family in India. His emotional journey and reunion with his birth mother was portrayed in the movie ‘Lion’ by actor Dev Patel who played the role of Saroo. The movie was a commercial success and a favourite at the Academy Awards as well.

Cheryl says the stakes are high when your memoir is being made into a movie. “I
trusted Reese, and she seemed really honest and it turned out to be a very collaborative process.” In fact in an earlier interview Cheryl has said that when Wild was being published in 2012 she had sent an advance copy to Reese and in the hope of receiving a positive call from Reese she had even lit a candle in her bedroom. Indeed three days later she did receive that call. “During the making of Wild I was on the sets almost every day and even did a cameo as a pickup truck driver in one of the scenes.”

Although there was no role for Saroo, a surprise awaited him at the end of the movie– a link to the documentary Homeward Bound on his real struggle to find his mom and snapshots of Saroo’s adopted and biological families.

Both Cheryl and Saroo were able to see the movies very objectively, although Saroo did admit, “If I had directed the movie it would have been very different”. And therein lies the truth that each person’s perspective is unique. Cheryl sums it the best when she says, “I told myself that I was only the writer of the book and this movie is an interpretation of my creation.” They were both extremely appreciative of the actors who essayed their roles, Saroo was especially impressed by Sunny Pawar, the young Indian actor who played his childhood role.

Their memoirs being made into movies meant immense public attention, Red Carpet welcome at film festivals, hobnobbing with Hollywood A-listers and of course numerous clicks and selfies. How did they handle all this attention? “For me it was like visiting a foreign land called Hollywood,” Cheryl says brightly. Wild was nominated in various categories at all the prestigious awards in Hollywood including the Oscars, Golden Globe, People’s Choice Awards among others. Lion too was nominated at the Academy awards, the British Academy awards, the Australian Academy of Cinema Awards. Saroo attended all the award functions, often accompanied by his mom Sue and dad John. “My mom and Nicole Kidman had so many conversations that they became like soul sisters.”

On writing memoirs Saroo and Cheryl had some valuable advice for the audience. The topmost aspect of writing a memoir is the decision to share not only your own life with others but also private details about your family members. Before writing A Long Way Home Saroo discussed this aspect with his parents, who gave him the go-ahead. “There was so much positivity in the story for humanity that we all felt compelled to write this book to give hope to others,” says Saroo.

Cheryl admits being extremely honest in her book and her siblings were supportive of her writing. “I had a great mum but not a great dad. I wrote to seek the truth. I had to write about his violence and abuse, of course he was enraged.”

Cheryl wrote Wild 17 years after that inspiring trek and it took Saroo 25 years to trace his birth mother. Delving into one’s memory and retrieving incidents and events that shaped the journey can look like a daunting task. Cheryl’s advice to memoir writers is to just begin the writing process. “Write what you don’t remember, exercise your memory muscle and it will all come out.” Saroo used to listen to music to delve into the deepest corners of his memory recalling his early days. He too says, “Just put pen to paper.”



Books, Memories

A glimpse of the Hit Girl, Asha Parekh


Her kohl lined doe eyes and sugary voice were an integral part of my growing up years. In the 80s and 90s there was often an Asha Parekh starrer on the telly. She was the dancing girl in Caravan matching steps with Jeetendra, the sad widow with soulful eyes in Kati Patang and the enchanting Japanese girl dressed in a floral kimono singing Sayonara Sayonara in Love in Tokyo. A string of continuous successes at the box office had earned her the title Jubilee Girl. The year 2017 saw the release of her biography aptly titled Hit Girl written by noted film critic Khaled Mohammad.

At the author’s meet of Sharjah International Book Fair 2017 I got a chance to listen to that familiar voice recalling anecdotes from movies about movie stars I had grown up admiring. So, it seems superstar Rajesh Khanna was an introvert and took some time to open up with his co stars on film sets. And that he had a sweet tooth and the first question he would ask on the sets was, ‘what’s the dessert for lunch today?’ That Raj Kapoor was a spontaneous actor who would be laughing on the sets one minute and could enact an emotional scene where he could break out in tears the next minute.
Asha Parekh was introduced in Bollywood in 1959 at the age of 16 in Dil Deke Dekho opposite the legendary Shammi Kapoor. “During the shooting of Dil Deke Dekho Shammiji’s wife Geeta Bali took an instant liking to me. She would lift me on her shoulders and tell Shammiji, whom I used to call Chacha ‘let’s adopt her’,” she reminisced fondly.
Seated at the centre of the stage, dressed in an aqua green saree with that infamous twinkle in her eyes she was a picture of grace and elegance at 75. The talk moderated by Manju Ramanan, editor, Filmfare ME and Ajay Mago, publisher of Om books touched upon some significant chapters of her life that also feature in the book — including her relationship with director Nasir Hussain, her tryst with depression and her role as Censor Board head.
“I was not destined to get married.” Over the years she had become very close to director Nasir Hussain, with whom she delivered many superhits. But as Hussain was a married man, Asha did not want to be a homebreaker. The only child of her parents, their deaths brought immense loneliness into her life, which eventually manifested into depression. She took medication and is now over with that phase, Asha revealed. Today she spends time with her girl gang of yesteryear stars — Waheeda Rehman, Helen and Shammi.  “We go out for lunches and dinners, and try to meet often. Live for today, don’t think about the past and be happy is my motto now.”

I went back with fond memories of having met the hit girl who like her reel life avatars was beautiful and honest.


SIBF 2015

The Sharjah Book Fair 2015, held in November every year, was an event I always looked forward to. Back then I lived in Sharjah and could enjoy browsing the book stalls for hours and could attend author interactive sessions for several days. But now that am based in Dubai driving through the crazy traffic to Sharjah is the major drawback. After last year’s bitter experience of waiting in a packed room for hours and finally being unable to meet Dan Brown and Manju Warrier, I decided to take it easy this year.

I managed to go for a day. But there were no interesting author sessions on that day. Add to that the huge crowd, elbowing along at the halls, made it impossible to spend time leafing through the books with ease and at leisure. Unfortunately while the fair has grown leaps and bounds, the exhibition space remains the same. Hope the event organisers along with the aggressive promotions will also look into increasing the space for the exhibition to accommodate the burgeoning number of book lovers.

Here is a shot from the DC books, an Indian publishing house, stall. There were piles and piles of all kinds of books laid out on tables. You gotta be lucky to get standing space and manage to pull out books that you would want to buy, then brave a long queue at the cash counter to finally go home with your prized possessions.




Books, Outdoors

Meeting author Sophie Hannah


This post was long overdue as I met author Sophie Hannah at the Emirates Lit Fest in March 2015. Being a huge Agatha Christie fan it was an unmissable event as she is the only writer to have brought back the indomitable Hercule Poirot back in action since Agatha Christie’s death. In her latest book The Monogram Murders Sophie gives Christie fans yet another chance to discover the eccentricities of one of the world’s most loved detectives.

At the Lit Fest Sophie shared several interesting aspects of writing this novel. She spoke about creating a Scotland Yard detective called Edward Catchpool who assists Poirot in solving the triple murders at the Bloxham Hotel in London. Catchpool is also the narrator in the book and appears loosely based on Captain Hastings, who featured as an associate of Poirot in Christie’s books. To write this novel she read and re-read the entire Agatha Christie book collection and relied on Catchpool as the narrator because she did not want to write in the voice of Agatha.

Authors often take inspiration from their own lives while creating characters and situations. In The Monogram Murders Poirot is living in a lodge a few yards away from his own home because he wants to enjoy a month of “restful inactivity” but he does not like the idea of being far away from home. Sophie recalled that her own father detested travel and in summer holidays when the family was excitedly making plans to visit new destinations he would suggest staying at the hotel in the next lane. “We can walk across and come back whenever we want to said Dad.”

She is also the author of several other bestselling crime fictions such as  The Carrier, which won the Crime Thriller of the Year Award at the Specsavers National Book Awards. Two of her crime novels — The Point of Rescue and The Other Half Lives have been adapted for television. She started her career as a secretary and was later offered a writing fellowship at Wolfson College, Oxford. Sophie told the audience that she always has a rough plan of the book she is writing and aims at finishing at least thousand words in a day. She also puts in a lot of research and counts on a few policemen as her friends.

Books, Festivals, Sharjah

Thumbs down to SIBF 2014

I have been a regular at the annual Sharjah International Book Fair since 2009. The fair provided an opportunity to not only buy an assortment of books but was also a forum to interact with celebrated authors. Through the fair I have been able to meet a number of authors and a few Indian celebrities.

The event has grown leaps and bounds over the years with an increasing number of exhibitors and visitors thanks to an extensive advertising campaign. But this is precisely where it has taken a beating. For the last few weeks all newspapers, news websites ran stories on the book fair, there were frequent radio advertisements and Sharjah was entirely full of billboards announcing the celebrities scheduled to arrive at the fair. While this excessive advertisement would have translated into a grand success for the organisers for me it meant driving in rush hour traffic for more than two hours from Dubai to stand in a huge crowd outside closed doors of the conference room where Dan Brown and later Indian actress Manju Warrier were speaking.

It was terribly frustrating and sickening to see people pushing and shoving in that crowd to get a chance to enter the room. On top of it the volunteers who stood outside the closed doors did nothing to either inform the people about their chances of making inside that room nor disperse the crowd. Everyone just stood there hoping that those doors would finally open. Some in the crowd were not even informed about the events inside, they just waited to see stars (I have been told there are famous people inside, whispered a few). I hope to attend the fair in future as it was one of my favourite events hope by then it would be better managed.

Books, JLT, Memories, Outdoors

Meeting Joanne Harris at Emirates Lit Fest’14

It’s the season of Lent and I am off meat and desperately trying (but failing miserably) to cure my sweet tooth. Rich, silky, nutty, soft and flavoured — chocolate is a passion. A decade ago French actress Juliette Binoche brought alive the dark delights of chocolate in the movie Chocolat. It was again during lent that her character Vianne Rocher and her daughter Anouk move to a French village and open a chocolaterie tempting the fasting residents. I had loved that movie that also starred Johnny Depp but never got around to reading the book it’s based on by Joanne Harris. So, when the Emirates Lit Fest 2014 featured Joanne as one of the guest speakers I did not waste time to book a place.
Looking cheery in a pastel skirt and top Joanne Harris looked just the sort of person who would pop in chocolates while writing from her desk (but I read later that she prefers cheese and chillies over chocolates).

During the talk Joanne spoke about her writing schedule, views on publishers and her inspirations. A widely loved author since Chocolat became a famous movie she has written several notable books.

Writing from a shed in her garden Joanne’s books have a fair share of witchcraft and food as integral parts. A typical writing day for her starts with a big breakfast and reading aloud portions she had written a day earlier. She also prefers to write in chunks. Her 15 year old association with the close knit academic community greatly inspired her books initially. After she quit her job as a teacher she admits travelling to book fairs, meeting people and listening stimulate her creativity. She also got a hypnotherapist friend teach her to remember her dreams. Not one to listen to audio books and bow to pressure from publishers she says, “Publishers want to make money. I want to write because I want to.” A charming and friendly author she made me break my vow of not buying more books until I finish the ones on my bookshelf. Here she is posing with my signed copy of her latest short stories collection titled A cat, a hat and a piece of string.

Books, Outdoors, Sharjah

‘When the home is happy the world is happy’, says Dr Kalam

On Nov 7th it seemed all roads in Sharjah led to the Expo Centre. We braved traffic enroute and outside the centre only to find a sea of people at each information counters. Two words were clearly audible everywhere ‘Kalam and hall no 5’. And when we finally managed to locate the hall we found a large crowd who had left not a single seat empty. Within minutes in walked the eminent scientist and India’s former President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam with an entourage of dignitaries. Post a standing ovation and a thunderous applause Dr Kalam took to the stage. Clearly his style of engaging with the audience gets him top points for being a great orator. Everyone was in rapt attention as he made the crowd repeat “When home is happy society is happy, when society is happy nation is happy, when nation is happy world is happy.”

A noted author with several books to his credit Dr Kalam urged all parents in the audience to create a home library with at least 10 books. Watch less television and discuss books at the dining table, he said.

The other important message from Dr Kalam to his little admirers was to have a little prayer room in their house where they can thank God for all the blessings in their lives. The key to your success it to make your mother happy, he told every child and made them chant “I will make my mother happy. If my mother is happy, then my home is happy, if my home is happy, then society is happy.”

When it came to the turn of the audience to ask questions Dr Kalam’s young fans could not have enough of him. Finally Kalam told them to email their questions and he promised to answer them in 24 hours.