Monday, November 28, 2016

Being a food blogger helped me win the Write India contest

Last year the Times of India , under the able leadership of Vinita Dawra Nangia, took the world of writing as well as reading by storm. Never before had such a large publishing house, decided to rope in 11 best selling authors from around India, to woo Indians to write.

The idea was simple; every month on the seventh of the month a passage was put up by one of the best selling authors, along with a set of rules on what they wanted the story to be about. The passage had to be used in it’s entirety, anywhere in our story of 2500 words. The writing competition lasted 3 weeks every month, for 11 consecutive months, leading to many sleepless nights for budding writers around the country.

“Write ”they said,”because this opportunity of a lifetime can do you no good, till you take advantage of the lifetime of this opportunity”.and boy, did India write!

 25000 entries in a year, and God alone knows how many people started writing for a particular passage or writing prompt, but then gave it up because of dearth of time, or a feeling that the story was just not good enough. I am sure many , more, infact even I had started out to write for every single author but gave it up many a time because I just didn’t think I was good enough.

25000 entries were whittled down to 3 or 4 of the top stories of each month, and finally a book with 36 stories has been published called write india Stories”.a quick calculation, and that means 0.01 of the stories were selected to be part of the anthology.  Out of the 36 stories in the book, 2 stories are written by me, and even without a calculator I knew that the achievement was pretty special.
I am not one to ideally bask in the glory. I needed to find out why?

 My analytic mind wanted to know how were my winning entries, different from my non-winning entries.
 And not just me, for every 1% of the winning entries, the 99% of the others are wondering, ‘what was the secret to being an fantastic story teller’.
 And I am going to tell you my secret.

Writing about culinary travels, or food and travel stories helped me become a better story teller.

A good story must connect with it’s readers at a visceral level, and food does just that. A good story must reignite smouldering emotions, must rekindle memories, must reach out and touch the readers in the very recesses in their mind, and food does just that. The fragrance of melting butter, caramelizing and burning at the edges, always reminds me of butter garlic fish. The crackling of mustard seeds and curry leaves means tempering for dal. Apart from the food it triggers memories of family gatherings, of home cooked meals, of comfort and being part of a whole.
Ok, yes, so as a food blogger and a food writer, I may have a deeper understanding of the bond I share with food, but that bond is there for every single person.
Culinary travel is a very special niche, which I like to believe, I am especially good at, I like to travel a place through the food, that the people of the land, cook, eat and serve. That’s the tag line for my facebook page.

But how does that make me win a national story writing contest, twice?

Both my winning entries are based in different regions, and to highlight the places I have used their food either as instruments to carry forward my story , or as metaphors of the place itself.

My story for Tuhin Sinha, called ‘The Alibi’. The passage given to us by Tuhin, was about a boy and two girls travelling to Goa, with the hints of a love triangle brewing between them. Tuhin’s passage came in 5 months into the contest,  mid-way in the contest. I had already written for 3 of the previous authors and written but dare not submit such drivel for 2 of the other authors.

But I read Goa, and I knew I had to write for Tuhin. I live in Goa, I know this place, and these are my people. And with these thoughts I wrote the story. Unlike most who would consider going to Goa for a vacation, I wrote of the protagonist going to her home, in Goa.

 When I had moved to Goa a few years back, one of the first homes I visited was my friend’s house in Quepem, her mom is a wonderful lady and a brilliant cook. I remember carting home smelly Goan sausages, in my bag back to Pune . Considering it meant 8 hours in a closed bus, and not many of my fellow passengers would have appreciated pork being carried on board the bus that was a daring feat.
But this story was not about Goan Chorizos, nor was it about the complex flavours of Xacuti ; It was about her mum’s home-made wines. In a catholic Goan home, a wine is not considered alcohol. In fact even the limit to carrying back port wine from Goa is higher than carrying back any other form of liquor. While the port wine may not be as famous as the Goan feni, it is my favoured drink between the two.

I guess the acceptance of wine is much higher in Goa, because bread and wine is traditionally part of the communion that they receive in church, signifying the Christ’s body and blood respectively, and symbolically the sacrifice he made for the sins of man. Wine is also served and savoured at wedding receptions, and at other family gatherings.
I was delighted to have won for my story ‘the alibi’ and was determined to recreate the magic once more.

 Mind you , though back then I had not figured out the ‘why’ of my winning. My other entries may or may not have had food or a place at the center of their story, but it was only after my second win, and when I compared my two winning entries that the realization came that food makes me a better writer.
They always say write about what you know, and I always thought that it meant I was only going to be writing medical thrillers, or stories related to medicine. Considering I have spent years , decades even training, and then specializing, and then super specializing, in ophthalmology and then paediatric ophthalmology.

And yet, I did not win for Durjoy Dutta’s story about a girl with two hearts. I got bogged down by the science of it all, the hemodynamic overload someone with two hearts would have , the multiple phlebotomies she would need through her life, the risk to the mother carrying such a baby, after all increased circulation meant in utero the baby would have been nothing short of a ticking time bomb, haemorraging away the mothers reserves!

No, science did not make me a better story teller, at least not in season one of TOI write India contest.

My entry for Jaishree Misra is titled “ Brooklyn, bagels and baba” the name said it all, it was about baba, who incidentally was a surgeon, Brooklyn was my travel destination, and bagels were my culinary muse.

 I had recently returned from my training in Newyork, and while I was taken up by the whole dynamic go-getter culture of the USA , it was their maximizing their meals which really captivated me. Do you want to upsize your medium fries for large? Or your large cup of coffee, to Grande? Extra mayo, extra cheese, extra whipped cream? More, more, more, people were pushed to want and crave more, until, that is what they believe is what life is about. How does that life compare to a village doctors? Well read the story to find out.

The only non fiction I buy is books on food, most of the  non fiction I write is about, food, and now even my fiction stories have food in them.
They say ,’write about what you know, but I would rephrase.

Write about what moves you, write about something you may not know technicalities about, and yet which captures your imagination, because only when it does, it will be able to capture someone else’s.

you can buy the write India book here

P.S. I am told Ruskin Bond will be one of the mentors of season 2, and the first thought that came to my mind, ‘there was a short story by Ruskin Bond with vivid description about street food, a whole paragraph or more dedicated to aloo tikki, I think in room on the roof.’

to read more from the winners of TOI Write India

Roshan Radhakrishnan

Ramya Vivek


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