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An Author’s Word: Jenny Bhatt

1. If not an author which other creative field would one find you in and why?

My response to this changes each decade or so. Most recently, I’ve been thinking I’d have been a historian. I’ve always loved studying history.. And I believe the field is not simply about facts and figures. Historians have to be clever sleuths and get creative in connecting various dots through time to piece together stories of the past. And the best historians are able to unravel those past mysteries for us in ways that show us why our present is the way it is and what all of it might mean for the future. It’s really quite a skill. And Romila Thapar, whom I’m currently reading, is one of my favorite historians. I also love historical fiction that’s been deeply researched and written well.

 

2. What does the written word mean to you?

Again, on any given day, my response to this is a bit different. The written word, or writing, to me is about exploration and not simply expression. I’m always searching for truths through both my writing and my reading. And there’s no one monolithic truth, of course. There are many sides and aspects to any particular truth and, if we’re approaching our reading and writing in the right ways, we’ll understand these better and more profoundly.

 

3. Your personal favourite five authors in any genre?

Another response that changes by the week based on who/what I’m reading. A perennial favorite writer is Dhumketu, who was my mother’s favorite writer and whose short stories I’ve translated. I admire the works of Romila Thapar on South Asian history. This year, the book that blew me away was Rafia Zakaria’s Against White Feminism; she’s also a sharp cultural critic and political commentator. A writer I revisit every year is Toni Morrison and I’ve been teaching her novel, Jazz, in my writing workshops. And, finally, Hilary Mantel, with her Wolf Hall trilogy, is the writer I turn to when I want to learn more about writing historical fiction (which is my current novel-in-progress.)

 

4. What is your favourite word, in any language, and how would you describe its meaning?

My all-time favorite word is “Sohbet”. I first came across this word while reading about Rumi’s relationship with his spiritual guide, Shams-i-Tabrīzī. “Sohbet” is a word of Persian origin, though some also trace the etymology back to Arabic and Ottoman Turkish. It means discourse or conversation between a learned, enlightened one (murshid) and the one committed (murid) to such a person. I hesitate to use the words teacher and student because “murshid” and “murid” mean so much more than that. Just as “sohbet” means so much more than mere dialogue. In the Sufi tradition, there are three ways of being spiritual, with each being a level higher than the previous: prayer; meditation; and sohbet. That highest way of spiritual being, sohbet, is a mystical practice involving an exchange of knowledge and devotion between the murshid and murid through storytelling traditions. It involves a healing, a cleansing, and a coming together of their minds, hearts, and souls. The murshid cultivates and educates the murid with care and compassion and their deep connection is one of true respect and trust. Through such a practice of sohbet, the murid is able to find a sense of unity with everything. The reason I was so drawn to this word when I first learned of it, and the reason it continues to be my favorite still, is that it describes my lifelong experiences with reading and writing. Through both these activities, I find myself in some sort of ongoing, deep conversation with the writers I love even though many of them are no longer alive. It would be no exaggeration to say that literature, my one constant love from an early age, has saved me and made me whole in ways that I am not even able to articulate fully or clearly yet.

 

5. E-Book or physical book? What do you prefer and why?

As I get older, I favor the ebook more because I can make the print larger. I still appreciate well-designed books and cover designs that have stories behind them. Both my books that came out last year had covers designed by the award-winning illustrator and artist, Harshad Marathe. So the book as a physical artifact is still important to me for aesthetic and cultural reasons. But the ebook for practical reasons.