At twenty-two, Ayushi Shridhar is the queen of all she surveys. In fact, her book of poems RANI was born out of her intense desire for every woman to live her life to the fullest, queen-like, majestic, on her own terms. She tells us why it’s important to for every woman to get out her own way and how being a mountain girl has shaped her writing.
Tell us a little about the joint family in which you grew up. What were the early influences that shaped your thinking and writing?
I think living with a lot of people gave me the diversity of life. You are not very judgmental when it comes to your family and that gave me the patience to see and observe stories without my judgment and with more understanding. Also, three generations living together helped me understand on a very personal level how women are so different in every generation. Their take on the same matters is so different. My dadi’s struggle has been different, my mother’s and other aunts’ struggles have been different and mine different. Yet, there are a few things, labels, thinking that have been passed on. Therefore, listening to so many different stories and living with so many different personalities who at the end of the day are so tightly tied together with love, the past, the lineage made me always wonder at the fragility of life and the society that is so present on every step of the way.
You’ve lived for nine years on a mountain in Nainital, where you read voraciously. What kind of books did you read? What genres? What were your childhood favourites?
I have read a lot of different types of books. While in the primary I was stuck to Enid Blyton and Ruskin Bond, as I grew up, I read a lot of fiction. A lot of Nicholas Sparks, a lot of Dan Brown and Cecilia Ahern, Jean Sasson, John Green and Jodi Picoult and Khalid Hosseini to name a few. So basically, a lot of romance and rom-coms, magical realism and tearjerkers and books that tell a lot about the history, about a place and its people. I find Eastern culture particularly rich in history and very fascinating. ‘If you could see me now’ by Ahern particularly, and Enid Blyton and Dan Brown have been my absolute favourites.
Research states that there is a striking relationship between geography and personality. Assuming that this environment was conducive to quiet reflection and introspection, and perhaps solitude, how do you think the setting shaped the writer in you?
Yes, definitely. I read a lot and I always reflected on every book I read. I never just read for the sake of it. I am always moved a lot by books and everything I am, the way I see and understand things even today, is majorly because of the thousands of personalities I came and come across as characters in each book. I always take something from every book I read and sometimes I keep going back to them to learn to understand. And I think I was able to reflect because I was brought up in an environment (a boarding school) which was quiet, disciplined and had an amazing book culture. There is nothing as calm and quiet as a night on a mountain. Therefore, I believe that the writer I am or will continue evolving into will be mainly because of the kind of books I read and what I take from them.
You began writing when your father fell ill. You wrote to overcome extreme anxiety. Were you journaling or writing a diary? What was your first piece of serious writing?
I used to journal before but during my father’s sickness I took to writing stories. I think that was my way of escaping reality. I don’t think I had the strength to journal that time everything I was feeling. So I started writing random stories. I wrote my first novel on Wattpad called – The Indian Super Girl, in class 12. The response I got from my friends and then others was pretty amazing and from there I think I just took on writing a lot and evolving into the person I wanted to be to be able to become the kind of writer I want to.
At one point, you chanced upon environments where women were not very empowered, and you became increasingly aware of the way women lived in society. Can you elaborate on how this became the turning point in your journey as a writer?
As said earlier, living and being able to see the stories of the women in my family and their life made me sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes afraid, sometimes sad, sometimes really blessed. I was able to compare the different thought processes of every generation. I think my mother deserved so much more for herself; she could have been more amazing than she already is. I realised how she put herself into the role of a wife, mother, and daughter-in-law. And how sometimes she would question herself about how she never did anything for only herself. My mother’s story and her doubts and questions became everything I wanted to fight and get answers for. I think a lot of women live their entire life with a lot of guilt. If a man can be a father, and something else without being guilty, if he can skip birthdays and dinners without guilt, if he can escape to a vacation without guilt and make a lot of mistakes without guilt a woman can skip that guilt too.
I read a lot and I always reflected on every book I read. I never just read for the sake of it. I am always moved a lot by books and everything I am, the way I see and understand things even today, is majorly because of the thousands of personalities I came and come across as characters in each book.
You write with the motive of creating awareness among women about their circumstances, of prodding them to ask questions. Does this not narrow down your choices when it comes to themes? While it’s wonderful to encourage women to connect with themselves, would you restrict your repertoire to only women’s issues?
Not for now though, maybe in future I might run out but I don’t think we have written enough about women yet, I think we are just beginning to. And a woman is so vast in herself, so unexplored in herself yet that each day she is hit by a new realisation about herself, because for a woman, for the longest time, Me or I wasn’t there, it is just starting to show up in a her life now. No, I don’t restrict my writings to issues only but I do always write from the point of view of a woman. I want to show other possibilities to women in terms of love, relationship, growth, self-love because everything we know is very phallocentric.
Your poetry stems out of real life conversations and stories. Give us an example of a real-life story/conversation that made you rush to pick up your pen and write furiously?
I have the most intense and thought provoking discussions over chai with my mom after afternoon naps. We were discussing how marriage alters a woman’s life and how important financial independence is today for a woman to feel her worth and be respected. And how yet somehow in the end all of the woman’s success in life is just a way to get married to a better man – the sole purpose of everything she does.
You have mentioned that you write to celebrate female hysteria. Is your poetry a kind of activism to normalise emotionally-charged behaviour among women that is perceived as excessive and out of control? To reiterate that women are entitled to be themselves? Is your poetry a rebellion against social codes of conduct prescribed for women that forbid the expression of their emotions?
Yes, always celebrating woman hysteria which is also termed as madness. Something not normal and our society is not very kind to abnormality. I think the world has been afraid of a woman feeling too much, living too much, doing too much; it just wants us to do nothing, be nothing and this drama this extraness that a woman carries is a threat to the man who has always been in power. So the best way to celebrate a woman is to teach her to let her go of herself because this is just a façade; it’s not really her, to reach her to just float.
How long did it take for you to write this book? When did you feel ready to publish it? How easy or how difficult was the journey, especially when the general perception is that people hardly read poetry? What was your biggest challenge?
This book is a three-year-long journey that has seen a lot of changes because I changed a lot as a person and as a writer, and this book is a product of that. I wrote a poem that is on the last page of the book RANI and I just felt this was it. It was time because my heart had really emptied out. It was very difficult personally also and practically too because trying to make a place for yourself, getting people to believe in you is very difficult, if you are a nobody and taking a road less taken. My biggest challenge was self-doubt, but one push from my over-enthusiastic parents was enough to get me into the whole process.
I think the world has been afraid of a woman feeling too much, living too much, doing too much; it just wants us to do nothing, be nothing and this drama this extraness that a woman carries is a threat to the man who has always been in power.
Do you have a writing group or community of writers you share your work with? Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why? How did they contribute to your journey?
I like sharing my work with my close friends. And I trust them the most because they have been my readers since day one. Some of them are into writing and reading while some are not; so their feedbacks give me perspectives on both kinds of people I want to reach out to. They are super helpful in terms of giving me critical input and also their take on art and their constant support on every crazy idea I have and they are also ready with the back-up plan to anything.
Do you think having a presence on social media has played a major role in reaching out to readers? Do you ever regret sharing your work publicly? In a world of instant gratification and instant communication, is it tough to trust the responses?
Yes, very much. Social media has helped me a lot to get the little readership I have. Initially, I did not feel so confident because it’s like putting a piece of yourself and sometimes people assume your writings to be based directly on your personal life which is not always true. I don’t have a very huge readership and I am not famous so I don’t think anybody is going to try to please me except if they are trying to flirt (lol) but mostly I get very honest responses.
Your poems touch upon several themes – love, loss, longing, grief, pain, female hysteria. Which women poets have influenced your writing, and in what way? Which is your favourite recite/read-aloud poem? What poets do you continually go back to?
Sylvia Plath and Maya Angelou and Toru Dutt, because they have been very bare and straight about things in life. Can read Phenomenal Woman and never be sad about myself is the magic it does. Gulzar sir is always my go-to poet. Though I still have not read a lot of his work.
How does it feel to be twenty-two and holding a book of your poems in your hands? What are you working on next?
It definitely feels great and personally I feel a sense of confidence because I can call something that is just mine. Trying to take RANI and poetry to a lot more people in India and also working on performing better because I love performing my poems.
My biggest challenge was self-doubt, but one push from my over-enthusiastic parents was enough to get me into the whole process.
Describe a day in your life.
These days I’m at a 9 to 5 desk job so it’s usually waking up by 7:30 or 8:00 and having a very light breakfast, rushing to work and coming back by 7:30 in the evening and after a little snack working out for 30 min and then usually the resting and being with myself in peace for a little time then after dinner wrapping the day with a bedtime read, scented candle and some organic tea.
Where, when, and how often do you write? Longhand or laptop? Is organic tea a good muse?
I write on very random occasions. I have written while crying after watching a movie, while listening to songs or while on a commute. It’s usually on the cell phone or laptop but sometimes in my diary too. Definitely, give me some good tea and some acoustic or soulful Indian music and I am good to write.
What are the books by your bedside? Name three books on your TBR list now.
Fix Her Up by Tessa Bailey, About the Night by Anat Talshir and of course RANI are on the bedside. The TBR list is Fix Her Up by Tessa Bailey, Superior by Angela Saini and The Marriage Clock by Zara Raheem.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
Don’t ever stop reading because you cannot become a good writer without being a good reader. There is no way to good writing without reading. Also, the advice I have been giving to myself is – when life gives you pain turn it into poetry.
Image Credit : Ayushi Shridhar