Decatur Book Festival: Reetika Nijhawan on her short story collection

reetikaBy Janet Metzger

“They live amongst us, invisible, until we take it upon ourselves to focus on them and know who they are.” Such are the lives of the wala and wali, the purveyors of goods and providers of services to the privileged classes of India.

It is often hard for us in the west to understand the rigidity of class structure in caste-based societies. But for Reetika (pronounced Ree-teak-uh) Nijhawan, the similarities between cultures are greater than the differences when we can connect on a personal level.

She writes in her unpublished author’s notes, “Interwoven across the burgeoning cities and rural towns of India, this collection of eight stories may provide an illuminating glimpse into the parallel lives of the privileged and penniless, zeroing in on the moments when the gap between the parallels vanishes, along with the distinctions inherent in the preordained roles of master and servant. It is in those moments when boundaries blur, when barriers are broken down by compassion or contempt, and lines are crossed to serve a greater purpose — an unthinkable, unexpected purpose — that we meet the characters in this book.”

Reetika earned her degree in psychology, worked as a flight attendant for Lufthansa, and then pursued her interests in writing and human behavior, focusing on exploring the dichotomy of social and cultural issues in India for Elle in Mumbai. After moving to Atlanta, she became a contributor to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution where she met Sylvester Monroe (now Assistant Foreign Editor of the Washington Post) who became her mentor.

kismetwali_cover_smlReetika likes digging beneath the surface, going behind the scenes to connect people. She says, “The title may be challenging and the cover art is in your face,” but her debut collection allows the reader to travel and learn we are not that different. (Her collection includes an extensive glossary to help western readers.) We can come away thinking, “What would I have done?”

I asked Reetika how she carved out time for writing, and learned that she wrote this collection of stories while waiting in the carpool line outside her daughter’s school. Since she had children to pick up from two schools, it was important to be the first in line at one school so she could get to the next. That meant getting there very early. At first she spent her time in the car on Facebook (“a time waster”), then tried reading. But she had been thinking about trying fiction and Monroe encouraged her. So she began keeping her laptop in the car, and writing as she waited for her daughter. She says this book is for all the carpool moms out there.

Now she writes late at night. Perhaps because of her years as a flight attendant for Lufthansa, she appreciates the time when everyone else is asleep, her environment is quiet and she can be alone with her thoughts. She will set her alarm for 12:30, get up and be writing by 1, maybe throw in a load of laundry, and write until 3 or 3:30, then go back to sleep. “Every now and then a perfect sentence comes to me, comes from another place entirely. That usually happens at night.”

Monroe writes of Kismetwali and Other Stories, “You do not have to be Indian to understand and appreciate these stories, you just have to be human.”

Reetika Khanna Nijhawan will appear on the Decatur Book Festival Emerging Writers Stage on Saturday at 2 p.m.

For more about Nijhawan, visit kahanipress.com.

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