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The flight of Bulbul

Author: admin

When she is not handling the pen or paintbrush, Bulbul Sharma is happy bird watching, a hobby so intrinsic to her personality that she likes to describe herself as “a sort of magpie who weaves stories around stray moments in peoples’ lives”. Indeed, her tales resonate with the simplicity of ordinary lives, triumphs and tragedies.

“Writing is not a cerebral process for me,” she says. “When I read the critics’ perspective, I am often left wondering whether I really wrote it.” Sharma has authored several books, including My Sainted Aunts, The Perfect Woman, Anger of Aubergines, Banana Flower Dreams, Shaya Tales, Eating Women Telling Tales and Now That I’m Fifty. Her books have been translated into Italian, French, German and Finnish. Sharma describes her latest, Murder at the Happy Home for the Aged, set in an old age home in Goa, as a tribute to “every single brave silver out there”.

Sharma also conducts art and storytelling workshops for children with special needs and runs an NGO called Sannidhi, which takes school students to villages to work with children there and learn about trees and plants. Her books for children include The Children’s Ramayana, Fabled Book of Gods and Demons and The Book of Indian Birds for Children.

An acclaimed painter, her paintings feature at the National Gallery of Modern Art and Lalit Kala Akademi. Born in New Delhi, Sharma spent her childhood in Bhilai in Madhya Pradesh. Currently, the 65 year-old divides her time between New Delhi and Goa. In an email interview with Srirekha Pillai, Sharma shares her creative process and explains why it’s good to age in India.

You are a keen bird watcher. Incidentally, you share your first name with a bird. Is it a mere coincidence?

Yes, it is. Bulbul is a very common Bengali dak [pet] name. My real name is Anjana. Unfortunately, only my bank manager calls me by that name!

Would you like to share some interesting bird-watching tales with us?

It has often happened with me that while I’m out birding, I get chased by guards and farmers because they think I have come to steal their vegetables or crops.

You pursued Russian literature at Moscow State University, a rather unusual move for an Indian. How did you get drawn to it?

I grew up in Bhilai, a steel town where there were many Russians. I found their literature rich and fascinating. Everyone in my family speaks Russian, so I decided to join JNU and graduate in Russian language and literature and later went for higher studies to Moscow.

You’re an accomplished writer and painter. When you plot a story, is it in terms of images or words?

To begin with, I outline with words, but then I shut my eyes and draw the scene in my head. It is a bit odd and often gives me a headache. I am also mildly dyslexic, so it adds to the confusion. But I enjoy sorting the plot out later, bit by bit. I find painting more soothing. I love the tactile quality of paints, the brushes moving on the canvas, and the way the images gradually emerge. And there is no copy editor to point out your mistakes! At the same time, when a new book emerges after a year or two of hard work, it brings so much joy and its own rewards.

As a creative person, what are your stimuli?

My unusual childhood in a small town, my amazing extended family and the tumultuous, chaotic and colourful life in India—a country of such mindboggling contrasts, where you find a story waiting at every corner even if you are not looking.

You also teach art to children with special needs. How does that enrich the visual and verbal storyteller in you?

It enriches and rewards me in every way, and not just in my work. I remain sane because I spend time with these children who are specially gifted because they can cope with everything despite their handicaps. There is so much I learn from them through the workshops I do. I love their sense of impish fun, their courage and imaginative minds.

How did your latest book, Murder at the Happy Home for the Aged, come about?

I had spent some time at an old people’s home doing an art workshop a few years ago and was surprised to see how brave and tough the inmates were. Many had been abandoned, yet lived a life with dignity. They joked, they loved dancing and singing and were so curious about everything. Their only complaint was that young people ignored them.

I wanted to write about the fragile vulnerability of old age and how difficult and lonely life can be for many old people. The book is a tribute to brave elderly people everywhere.

Food plays an important role in both Anger of Aubergines and Eating Women Telling Tales. Are you a foodie? Also, do you consider food a major binding force?

In most Indian homes, food is a major element of bonding—showing love, squabbling and power sharing. I wanted to explore that facet since I think it is disappearing fast, as families break up into smaller units. I am not a foodie and like simple, vegetarian food. Also, I am a very bad cook.

You have consistently engaged with mythology. What draws you to it?

I just love the storytelling aspect of myths. I feel it is a kind of sharing of ancient secrets and learning how people lived, loved and thought a thousand years ago. Not much has changed over the years.

Can you tell us about Now That I’m Fifty, a book that discusses ageing?

I wrote it when many of my women friends were turning 50. I was already 50-plus and felt very different. So I wanted to write about it from an Indian woman’s point of view. Our situation is quite different from the way women in the West look at becoming older. The book was translated into French, and I was surprised when many French women told me they felt the same way.

Do you find ageing empowering in certain ways?

Yes. Fortunately in India it is good to grow old even though we have the largest number of young people in the world. People still respect old age and take care of silvers in their family. I often see young children holding their grandmother or grandfather’s hand when they walk in the park. The other day I saw a teenage girl trying to feed her aged aunt a taco.

It seems you write at a stretch and rarely go for rewrites. How does a story take shape in your head?

I write very fast since the story is already brimming in my head because of which my text is full of grammatical mistakes. My editors complain all the time but they have been kind and patient for the past 20 years of my writing career. Autocorrect has helped me a great deal!

Have your grandkids taken after you in their love for writing and art?

I have five grandchildren. Both my granddaughters love writing and are very good at it but the boys are not that keen as yet. Who knows what may happen when they grow up? Children change. I hated writing as a child and only loved painting on any surface I could find. Words became my friends when I turned 30!

What is in the pipeline?

I have almost finished a novel that includes several ghosts and lots of time travel. After that, I will start a book on Delhi’s monuments that will have my daughter Shonali Shukla’s pen and ink illustrations.

Photo: Naina Shukla
Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
June 2018