Bali Rai tells us about a Punjabi tale from his childhood, which later inspired his writing.
Many things inspired my novel, Rani & Sukh. The first major inspirations were stories of star-crossed lovers – tales repeated to me by my mother. This was back in the 1970s, when every Punjabi household I knew had the same painting on their walls. It depicted two lovers, struggling through a dark and desolate landscape, leaning on each other for support, and fleeing certain death at the hands of each other’s families. The woman was called Sohni, and the man, Mehiwal, and theirs was a forbidden love. The tale is a classic in Punjabi folklore, and there are others too – Heer Ranja being particularly popular. These tales were full of melodrama, passion and intrigue. They were tragic too, and they fascinated me. There were heroes and villains, rich and poor, fairytale-like incidents, tragedy, and drama galore.
At the same time I was equally fascinated by Bollywood movies. We didn’t have anything to watch them on, however, so my first taste of the films that would later help to inspire Rani & Sukh came at the homes of uncles and aunts who hardly ever watched anything else. Down the street a young couple that knew my parents would take my sister and me to the local cinema too. It was there that I first saw classics such as Suhaag and Sholay – films that encompassed the entire range of human emotions in three and a half hours. Oh, and about fifty songs too . . .
Like the folk tales, there was passion and intrigue. There were family feuds, love and hatred, long-lost siblings and absent parents – in fact any emotion or family situation that you can think of. I loved them and I even sang along to some of the songs too, much to the annoyance of my sister who would hit me with things whenever I opened my mouth. There was one line from a song in the film Sholay – a tale of outlaw buddies, evil men and beautiful women made to dance on glass – which I sang over and over again:
‘… yeh dorsetay hum nahe toren geh…’
At least that’s what it sounded like to me.
But eventually I grew up and neither Bollywood nor my mother’s Punjabi tales felt cool anymore. They weren’t The Clash or Bob Marley – they weren’t even Eastenders. I was far too trendy for them. But in my heart something remained . . . Then, one day in 1986, I walked into my English Lit classroom and was given a play called Romeo & Juliet, written by some dead old white bloke called Shakespeare. I had never experienced his work before that point, and immediately assumed that it would be boring. Yet, as my amazing teacher, Nigel Gossage, explained the story and it unfolded, I was taken back to the tales my mother told me, and to the films that I had watched as a child. The similarities between Sohni Mehiwal and Romeo & Juliet were striking. Within two scenes, I was hooked to the play, and to Shakespeare in general. And I realised just how wonderful and important those old Punjabi stories were. So important, that somewhere in my head a little nugget of an idea formed. One that would go on to become a novel.
And Rani & Sukh came from that. It’s a tale of star-crossed lovers and blood feuds, family honour and passion, played out in the present day and in the Punjab of the 1960’s – the land of my parents. It is a love story and at the same time full of action. It has killing and emotional blackmail, illicit affairs and murderous villains. A true mash-up of Shakespeare, Bollywood and Punjabi folk tales. I’m not sure my mum realises just how important those story-telling sessions were. I guess I should go thank her!
Bali Rai has written nine young adult novels for Random House Children’s Publishers, as well as the Soccer Squad series for younger readers. His first, (Un)arranged Marriage, created a huge amount of interest and won many awards including the Angus Book Award and the Leicester Book of the Year. It was also shortlisted for the prestigious Branford Boase first novel award. Rani & Sukh and The Whisper were both shortlisted for the Booktrust Teenage Prize.
Madhvi Ramani shares a terrifying tale from her childhood!
My mother told me many stories, but the one that stuck with me is slightly disturbing and enigmatic. It goes like this…
Once upon a time, there were two sparrows. One was called Chucki and the other was called Chucko.
Now, Chucki was diligent, while Chucko was lazy.
One day, Chucki said to Chucko, ‘I’m going to fetch some water from the well. The kicharee* is cooking on the stove. Turn it off when it’s done.’
‘Sure,’ said Chucko, but as soon as Chucki went out, Chucko went to sleep and forgot all about the kicharee.
An hour later, Chucko was woken up by a mouth-watering smell. His stomach rumbled. He went into the kitchen and lifted the lid off the pot. The kicharee was done! He turned off the stove.
Chucko knew that he ought to wait for Chucki to return before he ate, but maybe he could just have a taste . . .
Mmmm, delicious! He had a little bit more. And then some more . . . until he had eaten the whole lot! Chucko put the lid back on the empty pot, and yawned. He was sleepy after such a big meal, so he went to lie down again.
Before long, Chucko was woken up once more. This time, by Chucki, returning home with the water.
When Chucki took the lid off the pot, she said, ‘Chucko! What happened to the kicharee?’
‘I don’t know. I turned it off in time. The cat must have crept in while I was sleeping and eaten it all,’ lied Chucko.
Chucki thought about this. She had noticed that the lid was on the pot. Why would the cat replace the lid after stealing their food? Chucki suspected that Chucko was lying, but she did not say anything. Instead, she waited until Chucko went to sleep again, thinking that he had gotten away with his lie.
Then, Chucki took a knife and cut open Chucko’s stomach. It was filled with kicharee, and Chucki’s suspicions had been proved right!
Like all good stories, I’ve thought about this one in different ways throughout the years. As a child, the rhythm and the sounds were pleasurable (chucko, chucki, kicharee), especially as told in Gujarati. Then, there is the moral, which seems to be ‘don’t be a lazy liar.’
Later, however, the question of whether what Chucki did was right occurred to me. How could she have taken such a decisive action without being one-hundred per cent sure that Chucko had lied? What if she had been wrong? And even if Chucko had eaten the kicharee, wasn’t Chucki overreacting? And where did this story come from? Did some Gujarati housewife, harbouring thoughts of killing her lazy husband, make it up? And what happens afterwards? Does Chucki live a happy life, or is she lonely without Chucko? Does she regret what she did?
*Kicharee is a Gujarati dish, consisting of rice and lentils.
Crystal Chan shares a story from China which had a special resonance for her growing up as a mixed-heritage child in the United States
Ai ya! That Chinese expression – which was often used by my dad – can denote confusion, amazement, discontent, irritation, surprise and even incredulity. The expression also features prominently in my favourite childhood folktale, The Seven Chinese Brothers by Margaret Mahy. In the story, seven brothers use their seven different supernatural powers to defeat the emperor, who is determined to kill them. However, since the brothers look alike, talk alike and walk alike, they keep exchanging places with each other and using their individual powers to thwart the emperor’s plans. (My favourite brother was the one whose legs could grow as tall as the depth of the ocean and so could not be drowned.)
I grew up half Chinese, half White in a small town in the 1980s, and I didn’t have images of people who looked like me, not on TV or in movies or even on billboards. Back then, there weren’t many children’s stories featuring Chinese people (much less half-Chinese people!), and so as a child it was liberating to cry out Ai ya! with my parents as they read me the story and to have this small mirror reflecting back to me some aspect of my own Chinese heritage. Although, as much as I wished, I had to swim each time I went into the ocean.
Crystal Chan’s debut novel Bird is published by Tamarind on 30 January 2014.