This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Lavanya Shanbhogue-Arvind. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

A First-Hand Account Of What It Takes To Write A Novel And Get Published In India

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By Lavanya Shanbhogue-Arvind:

About 6 years ago, I quit my job in financial services to write a book.  It was not the most obvious choice in the world. It required a fair amount of back and forth; on most days it was more ‘back’ than ‘forth.’ I credit (I can never really blame my parents) the dilly-dallying to upbringing and the fact that we are taught to think stability, to think feet-on-the-ground even as you oil the hinges of your wings.

An aside on the wings:  it’s an exploratory pair. They don’t always take me above the clouds; sometimes they just take me off solid ground, which may not be a good thing always, but I love my pair!

I always knew I wanted to write – something – limericks, little stories, pages and pages of blank verse, things that would keep me in touch with writing. I blogged rather unsuccessfully, (it sucked, that’s why), for a little over three years and during those, what I’d like to call – the blog years, I wrote a ‘week-end’ book. So, every Friday night I’d open a file titled, “Fuck Off Skeptics” and write.

My writing journey has been one that even I marvel at. That is saying a lot because I mostly remain an unfulfilled writer. I am not as good a writer as I aspire to be and that is a rather frustrating place to be in. Don’t get me wrong. I am a good writer but what I want to achieve in terms of creating an outstanding piece of work that I will marvel at (not others, me, ME!) will take a lot of work, for I am my biggest critic.

In order to engage with writing craft, I applied and got accepted to the Asian MFA offered by the City University of Hong Kong. Unfortunately, the MFA got into some heart-breaking bureaucratic hassles (read: idiots rule the world) and is no longer on offer.

The MFA, to me, has been a provider of many things. Amongst other incalculable life lessons, the MFA has been the polisher of my craft, the enabler of my writing discipline and has been that cohesive force that brought about the completion of my novel.  My MFA mentors helped me shape a good novel out of loose scenes and an over-arching narrative that was making archaic sounds but had no voice to speak of.

Nurtured by the MFA, my week-end novel turned into a full-length manuscript. The novel was then tentatively titled (and I am not proud of this title!), “The Disposition of Fortitude.” Loosely translated, to me it meant “The Behaviour of Strength.” The novel’s title stemmed from my wonderment over what really constitutes strength. Can a person be considered truly strong when there is no external adversity when the world around is peaceful, that is to say that, there is no war, no fear of governmental imprudence or the fear of imprisonment and no general feeling of physical insecurity and impending doom? Am I a strong person? I didn’t know. I don’t know. I decided to explore. I, therefore decided to set the novel around the 1930s when India’s socio-political situation was different, more turbulent and therefore, presenting a seemingly tougher life for an average civilian. A ‘nation’ was scrambling for identity, for independence. Again, was India a ‘nation’ before British colonisation? Sunil Khilnani, Professor and Director of South Asia Studies at John Hopkins University writes that “The British had long contended that India’s pre-colonial history lacked unity or particular meaning and that without the British rule to enforce cohesion, there would have been no India to speak of. This high imperial ideology is briskly encapsulated in one of Winston Churchill’s famous slights: that India had no more claim to being considered a country than did the equator.”

The Journey To Publication

Once I completed the work, the next logical step was to look for a publisher. If you are a writer aspiring to get your novel published in India, here’s an image for you to mull over. You go to all those literary festivals where renowned Acquisition Editors take the stage and speak into a microphone with élan and tell you that, “Yes, we are always looking for fresh, new writing,” and you go home convinced that they are, in reality, looking for ‘you’. You go straight to your computer and type away furiously, for days and with a click you hit ‘send’ and it’s been six months now and you’ve been hitting the ‘send-receive’ button on Microsoft Outlook and you hear nothing from anybody. Recognisable?

That was me for the longest time until I found Kanishka Gupta, Asia’s largest literary agent. I was intrigued when I saw that he had a 90% success rate and from initial enquiries, I came to understand that he had no qualms about representing new, unpublished writers as long as the work was good. He also represents an impressive list of writers, some 400 of them! Further, his novel “The History of Hate” was longlisted for the Man-Asian Literary Prize. Who better to turn to than a writer-turned-agent who had both goodwill and sway in the Indian publishing industry?

Fresh after winning the Commonwealth Short Story Special Prize (2011) and armed with a full-length manuscript, I emailed him the first three chapters of my work along with a brief synopsis of my novel. He wrote to me almost immediately, “I am not enthused. I think I’ll let this one go.”

I remember a sinking feeling in my stomach and I rather naively, called him up. (This is something I did on impulse. Calling up an agent, out of the blue is never really a good idea or so I am told now.) I said I want feedback. He forwarded my work to one of his editors, Rahul Soni. Rahul wrote, “The manuscript shows an immense amount of promise but, apart from the early chapters fails to deliver satisfactorily – owing more to story and structure than language and writing, which is, for the most part excellent.”

I reworked the story, wrote and rewrote many parts of it, fixing plot holes and working around the structure. Kanishka eventually agreed to represent this new avatar of my novel. After 9 mainstream publishers rejected my work, I was extremely dejected but he believed in the book. I remember how one day he sent me an email that had no content, only the subject line, “I am on it. Keep the faith.” I wrote back to him, “Whatever may be the outcome, I am grateful for your faith in my work.”

Rechristened “The Heavens We Chase”, my novel was accepted for publication by Roli Books under their India Ink Imprint and will release at the end of this month.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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