Travel; lifestyle; heritage and arts; books and miscellany

A spiritual adventure

Author: admin

A suspense writer penning a spiritual book isn’t commonplace. Known for her adventure and thriller novels featuring murders, mysteries and mad chases, Shobha Nihalini’s latest title is Dada Vaswani: A Life in Spirituality (Jaico; ₹ 350; 244 pages). “Duality exists in every aspect of life, not just in writing,” says the writer, whose work is a peek into the inner world of the late spiritual leader who passed away recently, three weeks short of his 100th birthday. Meeting Dada was a turning point in her journey as an author, she says, adding, “his open heart and inner strength inspired me to grow spiritually.”

A graduate in business administration, Nihalani undertook writing courses and worked as a freelance journalist and copywriter, before turning to fiction. Her debut novel, Karmic Blues, was first published in Danish, although it was originally written in English. Nine, her trilogy of fantasy thrillers, has three protagonists from a modern-day setting involved in a battle with an evil spirit bent upon avenging the Kalinga Empire. And Unresolved is a psychological thriller that talks about the deep secrets that underline and undermine relationships. In an email interview with Srirekha Pillai, the Hong Kong-based author talks about the adrenaline surge of the fast-paced world of suspense and the soothing effect of spirituality. Excerpts:

What was it about Dada Vaswani that made you embark on this “spiritual adventure”?

Dada faced many ups and downs in his life, and spoke of them openly. There are very few people who have the ability to influence and inspire, and at the same time speak candidly about their imperfections. Dada was one such individual. He was ‘real’ in every sense of the word; he empathised with those who suffered and was sincere about his efforts to help others. He was a spiritual teacher and guide, yet humble, and would insist he was ‘still a student’. Dada also understood the pulse of the people and knew how to motivate them towards a better inner life. Amongst the many charitable endeavours, he pushed for educating girls in the 1930s, a time when girls attending schools was unheard of. After Partition in 1947, when hundreds of thousands of migrants left Pakistan penniless and destitute, he aided fellow refugees to rebuild their lives in India. In 2012, Dada Vaswani initiated ‘The Moment of Calm’, a global initiative for world peace through the power of forgiveness. In 2017, over 18.7 million people joined in. These are just a few of the empowering moments of his life that inspired me to write about him.

You write about a time in his life when, as a young boy, he was embarrassed about travelling third class in the railways. The transformation thereon was drastic….

Dada Vaswani was honest about the struggles in his youth—his restlessness, spiritual aspirations, and conflict because of his desire to keep his mother happy. You must understand the context of his conflict: he was a brilliant scholar who had earned a number of double promotions, which enabled him to graduate at the age of 17. He then received a prestigious offer and had the prospects of a successful career. However, at 21, he resolved to renounce all worldly ambitions and dedicate himself completely towards selfless service. He turned to his uncle, Sadhu T L Vaswani, to be his guru. Dada’s journey as a disciple was filled with much ardour; he struggled at times but never gave up. Later, Dada took over the responsibility of handling the humanitarian work of Sadhu Vaswani mission. In brief, Dada was all heart!

Did your understanding of spirituality change with this book?

I had a conflicting attitude towards faith and inner growth. While immersing myself in writing this book, I gleaned nuggets of wisdom and tools for transformation, for understanding the world better. Deep in my heart, I felt I needed this nudge, and the book came at an opportune time to guide me. Sometimes, one needs an enlightened soul to remove the blindfolds to see the world differently—with acceptance and harmony.

Did you find the genre switch comfortable?

It was challenging for sure. First of all, I was overcome with panic and a multitude of emotions; I doubted my ability to do justice. I was overwhelmed that I was writing about a great spiritual leader. Slowly, I focussed on the end goal and decided, just as Dada always suggested, that we must overcome our fears and be strong. The challenge was worth the effort.

As a writer of thrillers and suspense stories, how difficult is it to keep the motive and criminal under wraps till the end?

It is very difficult. I am one of those writers who likes to tell it all in chapter one. Through guidance from editors and techniques in writing suspense, I have learnt the skill of the slow burn—give readers as little as possible; keep them on the edge of the seat.

Unresolved was dedicated to people with mental health issues. How big do you think is the issue, given that even celebrities are coming out and sharing their experiences?

Yes, mental health issues are generally swept under the carpet. Sometimes families are ashamed to talk about it. If a person is physically ill, it is easy to discuss and get treatment. From what I have researched, depression is an illness, just like a physical ailment, requiring medical attention and counselling. You cannot tell a depressed person to just snap out of it. A lot more patience, understanding and empathy are required to help those suffering from anxiety, eating disorders, low self-esteem, self-image and other such issues. We are seeing some changes as more and more people are talking about it and seeking treatment. It is helpful that celebrities speak out about experiencing these issues themselves, as sufferers would feel less lonely. But more needs to be done at the grassroots level and in schools. Everyone experiences mental health issues at some point in their lives, especially while experiencing big changes or problems. It is important to understand that everyone goes through it and that there is no shame in seeking help. With the right help and therapy, people can heal completely. In many cases, they move on with even better mental health and stronger resilience than before.

Which contemporary authors excite you?

I read a lot of books in the suspense thriller genre. There are many authors that keep me hooked and inspire me to become a better writer. For instance, Keigo Higashino writes with such simplicity yet so much intensity that the characters are singularly impressive. He is amazing with setting the scene and developing the story at a slow pace. More recently, I read two books by Jane Harper. She is another one of those authors that can grip your attention; her vivid descriptions of landscapes are so beautiful and emotional. Also, Andrew Mayne has excellent storytelling skills and his characters are refreshingly unique. I just completed a book by Araminta Hall; I was totally hooked from the word go. She writes from the male point of view, bringing out the character with such sensitivity and wisdom—all along, we are immersed in the mind of a man’s obsession for a woman.

Given the fact that you are a Hitchcock fan, how would you define his perennial appeal?

He was the master of suspense. Besides, he was an excellent director, who used camera techniques to enhance the suspense effect. But most interestingly, his characters were ordinary people who were flawed in some way, and hence resonated with the audience. More than the plotlines, we remember the characters of his films. His villains were sinister yet charming. And some of his heroes suffered from phobias. He played with the psychology of the characters, exploring their dark side. When you watch a Hitchcock movie, you can quite easily get immersed into the atmosphere of mystery with his complex characters. This style is what resonates and carries timeless appeal.

Your work life seems eclectic—freelance journalist, copywriter, bookkeeper, teacher, salesperson and finally author. Were you trying to find your groove?

Yes, I’ve always been a restless soul, constantly searching for something that would motivate and add value to my experiences in life. Books are my best friends. And I love to create stories. I’ve been writing for two decades. I feel fortunate that I have been able to continue, which is what keeps me motivated and inspired every single day.

Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
August 2018