Heptanesia: The Story Behind the Song

Article originally appeared on the MTV Indies blog on August 26th, 2015.


Hello harmonic people,

I’m an author/singer-songwriter, Boston-born and now based in London, though Bombay was my primary mental residence —impassioned (pre)occupation —for the last four years. My second book and album are inspired by it: Bombay Blues (the sequel to my first novel, Born Confused) and my accompanying ‘booktrack’ of original songs, Bombay Spleen.

Bombay was a mystery to me (I’d only lived there two years as a Suresh Colony baby)…but a mystery in my blood, a literal motherland: My mother was Vile Parle born and raised; my parents met in med school in Parel; my brother was born near Marine Lines.

I always longed to know this city of family history, as well as forge my own connection to it; this eons-old desire—deepened and amplified by becoming a mother myself–fueled both the book and album.

The album title is a reference to Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen-—his prose-poem to Paris, which my protagonist, Indian-American photographer Dimple Lala is reading when the story opens.

And Bombay Blues/Spleen are kind of my prose-poem to Bombay. My ode to the mother lode. Though they can be read/heard independently, for me they’re one story relayed across multiple media. The prose and songs developed organically side by side; I don’t recall it being a conscious decision so much as a natural way for me to explore and express the story, as books and music have been a big part of my life since I was a child; as an adult (or, older child!) I was the frontwoman in bands in NYC and London, and also made an album of original songs to accompany my first novel, Born Confused two years after that book first released: When We Were Twins (which was featured in Wired Magazine for being the first ever ‘booktrack’, which was lovely).

As well, music is a main theme in both my books: how it brings people together, as a universal language, as well as the way it transforms with culture and chronos —moves its grooves with the diaspora. It’s also what some of my characters actually do/pursue (both novels are populated by fictitious DJs, musicians, producers, nightclubs, live music gigs—and mentions of ‘real’ indie/under-and-over-ground influencers from the music scenes in NYC and London, and of course, India, as well).

The writing process for both Bombay Blues and Bombay Spleen was fully intertwined from inception to fruition: It took me three years to complete both—and they were finished within days of each other, during a very hectic NYC April spent in-studio in Brooklyn with producer Dave Sharma by day, and doing my final book pass for editor David Levithan by night. All along the way, each form helped me to dive deeper into the other — both lighting paths to arrive at the story.

I knew from early on that I wanted Bombay Blues to have the feel of a piece of music (the book is an exploration of the blues on many levels, including the musical sense, too—but the joyful tones too). Likewise, I wanted Bombay Spleen to have the feel of a story—and to not only create an arc that would parallel the heroine’s journey in Bombay Blues, but also one that would trace (not necessarily chronologically) the story of Bombay itself, from its beginnings as seven islands later reclaimed to become the city we know today. Wreckage rock was the term that kept coming into my mind as a guide; the feel of the sea, sunken treasure rising from the ruins, a kind of tidal hello-goodbye.

Bombay Spleen opens with “Catherine”, an ode to Catherine de Braganza, the Infanta of Portugal, whose dowry to Charles II was the islands that became modern-day Bombay. It’s the ‘beginning’ of the story in this sense, a birth of a version of the city (the album bookends this with track “Lady Liberty”). The Spleen songscape includes Bombay settings Chor Bazaar, Juhu Beach, Mount Mary, Colaba, Mahim, Mazagaon, Parel, Old Woman’s Island, Chuim Village, Union Park, Lands End, Worli Fort, Reclamation (and even NYC and London) — and Heptanesia.

Heptanesia. What a word! Too good to be true—though it is true: the earliest documented name for the islands that were Bombay, from the ancient Greek for ‘cluster of seven islands’. When I discovered this term along my researching way, I knew I just had to use it. Such a mysterious term—yet so official sounding, authoritatively evident: like a secret clasped in your own very hand. The word immediately evoked ideas of amnesia, anesthesia, synesthesia. Remembering, forgetting—and the feeling too much that can lead to this—and the thin line, the bridge, really, between truth and fiction.

These are all themes in the “Heptanesia” chapter of Bombay Blues too, both in terms of the protagonist’s dynamic with Bombay as well as in a personal relationship (Heptanesia is also the name of a fictitious music venue in the book, where some major shifts occur for Dimple).

It felt fitting, necessary that a take on this semi-mythical place be a part of my book and album—as the city that Dimple (and I) were seeking is in many ways semi-mythical: a space of memory, history, aspiration, imagination.

But isn’t any place, experience always a mix of these things? Of whatever the dweller brings to the table? And there are at least as many cities in a metropolis as there are inhabitants—far more than that, as one doesn’t have to physically live in a place to inhabit it…or be inhabited, even possessed by it, in a sense (see: the power of nostalgia).

Humans have avatars; so do places. In Bombay Blues, Dimple explores Bombay—the place of a personal past, of family history and mythology that she is seeking her own connection with (which I, on my parallel journey, was doing writing it). But she also explores Mumbai—the modern-day metropolis and perhaps a future one too; Unbombay—a fictitious zone that she unexpectedly discovers when she drops the map (less a place, more a mental space about existing in the present moment); and Heptanesia–the ancient, the before the ‘before’ that goes so far back—nets the past into the future—so it’s full-circle here again.

For me (and Dimple), Heptanesia is a kind of meeting of all these spaces, pasts, presents, futures. Like a chord, a set of notes composed of the various avatars of the city, when played together these strands approximate the sound of one city, but a city with many layers. And it was interesting for me to explore the moments these metropolitan avatars could strike a chord…or not—their harmony, but also the dissonance between, for example, Bombay and Mumbai (or, when your preconceptions/familial history in a place rubs up against your actual experience of it today).

Dimple is a traveler on unknown (however in-the-blood known) terrain; as an Indian-American in India, and perhaps even more so, as the writer and songwriter of a new story I was still figuring out: I was, too. And a traveler’s anonymity, unknownness: It allows you to get to know other layers, potential versions of yourself as well as of a place, people, a situation. You become strange to yourself in a strange land (your known land can shift its own landmarks, too). This can be a real portal. An opportunity for (or even to consider): change.

Inhabiting a song, a story always feels like this opportunity.

I’m fascinated by these avatars of ourselves. I believe reincarnation happens within this lifetime—all at once, even: life viewed from different angles, played at manifold tempos. Mixed; montaged; multiple. Constantly shedding, threading new skins.

Maybe that’s what reincarnation’s about: Reinvention.

And ironically, sometimes we can be most ourself—when we embrace ourselves. All our swimming cities. In all our contradictions—which are no longer so if we widen our frame, deepen our definitions. Throw a light.

Ironically, sometimes we can find our way, or at least a way…when we get a little lost.

Drop the map.

In Bombay Blues, heroine Dimple literally drops the map, loses her way—and in so doing, discovers another layer to the metropolis, goes deeper in. All the way to ‘Heptanesia’. And the parallel journey for me writing her was that I had to let go of a lot of my original plans for what my book and album would be, should be—as soon as I landed in India and began to discover what they could be.

Which is always a more compelling compass: Possibility.

I wrote “Heptanesia” with London/Ghent-based Marie Tueje (I wrote about half of Bombay Spleen with her, the other with NYC’s Atom Fellows). The track was produced by Dave Sharma in Brooklyn and features the lovely legendary Jon Faddis on mute trumpet, and warm wonderful Neel Murgai on sitar. A dream team (along with Gaurav Vaz, who plays bass elsewhere on Bombay Spleen): all fine musicians—and still finer people. I’m lucky to count them as friends. And I think, hope that closeness, that intimacy comes across in the songs.

And no less a part of team Spleen: “Heptanesia” director Tim Cunningham (whom I’d met in an intensive filmmaking course years ago in New York—sweating profusely as we lugged gear around Union Square that summer, we vowed then to make something together one day…and at last it happened!). We met up a few times in SoHo to talk through things. Then in West London to shoot. For the music video, the idea was to go for a torch-singer-with-Bollywood-and-Ingmar Bergman’s Persona-touch look/feel (thank you hair/makeup artist Justine Wade)—an older-era vibe mixed with present-day Bombay footage (converging an old/new city in a time warp, as happens in the song and book). There are some visual references to the Wizard of Oz too (a book theme/chapter is “Home is Not a Place”, another take on ‘there’s no place like home’).

Tim directed, shot, and edited the video here in London. Additional Bombay footage was shot by ace Bombay-based filmmaker Shanker Raman. The video also includes some of the footage I took in Bombay during my research trip while taking visual notes for Bombay Blues (for example, one time crossing the Sea Link Bridge—which is almost like a character, and definitely a muse, in Bombay Blues–I just held my camera up to the window a few seconds to remember the phantom-ship feel of the structure; this shot ended up interspersed through the video).

The video features two little mergirls that make a home for and of me every moment of every moment. And the street sounds are from a videoclip I took during a fishmarket visit with my beloved Suresh Mama (in Pune—shhh!).

I hope you enjoy this love song to Bombay, in all her incarnations.




Between the Rock & the Ether


This is the music video for “Between the Rock & the Ether”, my collaboration with much-missed beloved synchro-bro Sam Zaman/State of Bengal (directed by Tim Cunningham, edited by Atom Fellows).

We wrote and recorded it a little over two years ago, very soon after meeting properly for the first time (although I’d danced many a Mutiny night to Sam’s wonderful music; he is mentioned in both my books: the first time as an innovator and inspiration; by the second book, he was a dear friend and coconspirator for life).

When Sam and I met properly for the first time, at the London screening of the late great and much missed Prashant Bhargava’s film Patang … we walked directly into a hug, and later that same day, into musical mischief.

Every experience I had with Sam felt like this hug. This glow.


When he sent me the musical track for what became this song, it was a glowing day as well. I immediately felt lifted and excited when I heard it. Looped it on repeat in our sundrenched North London kitchen. Wrote the lyrics/melody on top and sent his way.

The day we recorded in his wonderful home in Upton Park, again: ceaseless blue sky, magnanimous light. A perfect day of music, laughter, endless conversation, comfortable and comforting silence. And lots of chai with raw honey. I recall many many times during that day thanking my lucky stars to having been granted such a joyful experience and such a special friend.

Sam had the window flung open that May 2013 afternoon and I remember I asked him if we needed to close it before we recorded. He said, Never: Listen. Outside the birds were having their own jam session, and there was this soul-smiling sound of children playing in the near distance. Even the sun seemed to be singing.

So the window remained flung open. And I’m sure somewhere embedded in this song are those many merry creatures of a feather.
The day we shot the music video, January of this year: another day of brilliant, near tangible light. We filmed at Ally Pally and then headed home.

Sammy came over. And the last shot of the day, he danced in our back garden, me singing accapella for him, all of us laughing. Just … feeling … GOOD.

Then we sat around the table and talked and ate and talked for hours. My parents were visiting from the States, B and the girls were home (the whole family had already met and fallen in love with Sam two years before; instant connection).

We three generations sat together with Sammy, at a tableful of love and laughter—a perfect end note to another perfect time together.
The last time I saw Sam, this May, he said he held that meal, that time around the table, very close to his heart and that it always gave him strength.


Sam—though I know I told you many times what you meant and mean to me, I need to say again: How much strength you gave me too, and give me still. I still feel buoyed up, inspired, and so loved–like you got my back, synchro-bro…but you’re making sure I’ve bloody well got it, too.

I know you touched countless people. Deeply. Lastingly. You are so enormously missed—and felt.

I’m so lucky I got to know you. The world, to hear you.

The last time I saw Sam this May, just three days before he passed fully into the ethereal, he asked me to release this video on August 5. At the time I thought we’d be together for this, clinking huge mugs of chai with raw honey. And we are still together–and all of us, in all of this–just at another layer, in another way.

Though on one level I was writing the words to the track in connection to my novel Bombay Blues (the lyrics are based on themes therein, and some drawn directly from the novel), ultimately the song was fueled by the pure exhilaration of having been granted the gift of meeting this kindred spirit and immense soul.

So, to me, this is a love song to Sam. At the time, it was written about the joy of sharing the path in the ‘physical’ world, too…though now when I hear it it seems it was also somehow written even then …for this moment.

Between the rock and the ether…
The clock and the eternal…
The dock and the deep end…
Is where I will meet you.
Again again again…
Coconspirators and friends.

We rise.

Synchro-bro, I miss you. I love you. Fly.

Happy birthday to your beautiful son, and dear sister.
Love, Synchro-sis.




Deep Blue She – International Women’s Day

Mumbadevi can you tell me

Why they how who can be?

This city still divided now

That Reclamation be?

Devadasi, make me crazy

Dowry, sati, serve tea

If you the goddess, why the girl

Not safe upon your streets?


Here’s to International Women’s Day (as far as I’m concerned, which is every day)—to #IndiasDaughter, to all of #IndiasDaughters, and all the world’s (and the sons who know how to value them, too).

Please find a link below to “Deep Blue She”, from my album Bombay Spleen (songs based on my novel Bombay Blues). This song was written for these daughters and sons. Us. I wanted this track to be a kind of call to rise up: to love our daughters more. Love who we want to love. Be who we want to be. Make room for each other. Because there’s plenty, and we will not be contained.

Catalyzed by Nirbhaya/the 2012 Delhi gang rape, there are also references in the song (and Bombay Blues) to sections 375, 376 of India’s penal code, which does not recognize marital rape as a crime. To the issues of dowry; sati.

“Deep Blue She” is also Bombay Spleen’s most direct anti-377 track (Section 377, which criminalizes homosexuality in India, was declared unconstitutional in 2009…but reinstated in 2013) and stands by LGBTQ rights.

Which are HUMAN rights.


The song started off when I began (mentally) riffing off that children’s tune “A Sailor Went to Sea Sea Sea” on the tube in London. I had this image in mind of a woman standing on Worli Fort (National Heritage site, yet nonexistent on an Existing Land Use Plan at the time I was writing Bombay Blues), keeping a telescoped eye out on the bay for approaching marauders…when all the while, the Fort’s crumbling under her very feet, and the pillagers (and literal pokers) are all around her on dry land (even those in ‘law-abiding’ guises; the nightlife crackdowns in Bombay happened soon after my last research trip there and are referenced in Bombay Blues as well).

Everyone trying to blow out her, our, hurricane lamp. But ain’t gonna happen!

In our music session (just after this tube ride), to get into it, my collaborator Marie Tueje and I sang over and over through the opening lines of “A Sailor Went to Sea Sea Sea”—but a much slower, slightly lamenting version. The song spun into its own zone from there.

So, here’s a call-out for us to keep working towards change. I believe there are so many of us doing this—living this. As well, there’s still a frock of a lot of work to do.

We mustn’t bleep out our histories, our geography—our Charlies.

When we deplete our voices, deny our stories—ban them, no less!–we repeat grave errors. Defeat our very hearts.

So, please, here’s to keeping them beating. And learning to view them in all their diversity as a collective dance rather than duel. They—we—are bigger than boxable. Bigger than bannable.

And our hurricane lamps are bright, will not be blown out.

In memory of Nirbhaya:“Six thousand Darjeeling guitars strum ‘Imagine’ for a much-missed girl gone too brutally, too young, so many miles from home. A dreamer’s dying declaration (echoing from the New York Dakota pavement): Would we someday live as one?” –from Bombay Blues, page 524

Running into Dimple Lala (literally!)


A surreal moment from my recent nineteen-day Jaipur/Bombay tour in support of the Bombay Blues book/album India release (same number of days heroine Dimple Lala spends in Bombay in the novel!):

Remembering being here at Crosswords bookstore, Kemps Corner almost exactly four years ago for Bombay Blues research trip number one…when this day was a distant dream.

A sankalp that slowly manifest itself into something you can literally hold in your hands.

It was funny in the best possible way seeing heroine Dimple Lala here. After years spent ‘being’ her here: seeing the world through her eyes—and camera.

Although most of those years were spent trying to write her Bombay clear…from London, England: where pretty much all the writing took place.

Although I was in Bombay three times over the course of 2011 and 2012 to research Bombay Blues — and 24/7 in my imagination (and onscreen) until the book and album were finished and released in the USA last August 2014–this Jan/Feb 15 India trip was the first time I’d been back to the mother/fatherland in just about exactly three years.

And the first time back with both projects complete.

To be honest I was a little nervous about returning in a way. Whereas with my first novel Born Confused, writing about NYC, where it’s set and where I’d lived for many years, was like making a record of a lived landscape, interestingly, and fittingly, with Bombay Blues, writing my/Dimple’s Bombay was more an experience of a land-escape:

For in a way the Bombay I was looking for, that I’d been working so hard to find my connection to…slipped my fingers the moment I’d fully written about it.

Or, rather, the Bombay I was looking for…turned out to be the Bombay in my book—returning that metropolis to being a mythical city, a city of memory. From mapping to unmapping. Which brought me full circle back to the very point I’d started from: when I’d embarked on this writing journey in part to make this myth ‘real’.

A part of me worried about going back and not finding that constantly challenging, creatively rewarding muse in this metropolis—the muse I’d lived, loved, and wrestled with these last three to four years. Because though the lows were low—the highs were high: The intensity of the creative process was addictive.

When I landed in Bombay this January, I realized that this was the first time in my entire life I’d ever gone to India not seeking something (usually a sense of home, connection…or at least a SIM card).

And, turned out, it was…a relief!

I guess as Dimple discovers many times in Bombay Blues, you can never know how you’re going to feel about something, somewhere until you’re in it.

It was pretty much hit the ground running once I landed, with eight events in two cities (actually, there were meant to be eleven events but I completely lost my voice and had to cancel three talks). The Zee/Jaipur Literature Festival book and music events (and getting some lovely QT with my panel moderator, author Monisha Rajesh, Bombay Spleen-mate/accompanist for the music stage Gaurav Vaz, and Jeet Thayil and his Still Dirty bandmates who I joined for a couple songs as well). Visiting schools with some lovely inquisitive and inspiring students. The absolute blast of the official book/album release party at Café Zoe in Lower Parel (which began at 530 in the afternoon….and went til 1? 2 ? am?)—organized by Sweety Kapoor, with Naresh Fernandes moderating a really enjoyable panel where he and street artist/muralist Jas Charanjiva and music journalist Kenneth Lobo and I talked culture, cities, home, identity, followed by our own music set, and DJ Uri’s 3Stylers, and LoboCop (Ken’s DJ avatar). It was a buzzy lovey dancecrazy slew of a crew of not only India-based folk warming up that room, but even people I know from London, NYC…and, by chance (he was there on a business trip), even Paris!

How special it was to celebrate the release of the book and album…in the very city that inspired both.

And then there was this moment of walking into Crosswords… and nearly literally into heroine Dimple Lala herself!

A moment to say grace.


As I crossed the Sea Link Bridge with my Scholastic teammate Satadru on the way to my reading there, I was remembering what a muse this bridge was for me—a near obsession—during my three Bombay Blues writing years. And as thrilling and almost addictively turbulent as that had felt then, this time it was a lovely feeling to have a smooth (mentally, emotionally) sail across the waters.

I spoke to Satadru about this. In a way, I was feeling a kind of pressure, however self-imposed, to grieve the loss of the city I’d written about. And he smiled and said, But it’s not gone. You have put that piece of you on the page, the pages, and they are still there, but now they are out in the world. That part of you is out in the world…

He said just what I needed to hear. And what I knew deep down, or not so deep down, as well.

This idea that when you let go, nothing is lost. Rather, you make room for new avatars and incarnations of a place. Of people.

Of yourself.

Funny being you here.

And so it came to be, is coming to be. A new mother/fatherland map is forming, layering, renewing the old, the olds. A most wonderful thing during this last trip was precisely this:

That this endlessly complex and creative city of Bombay, Mumbai, Bom Bahia, Unbombay, Heptanesia:

She revealed another layer to me—one resonating with new friends, new tunes.

And new tales. For, truth be told, I could still sense that muse, feigning sleep, reigning dreams, somewhere on the premises.

So we shall see about that.

How I Write: “The work itself provides the inspiration”

Originally appeared as an interview with Jeff Tamarkin in The Writer Magazine

“The work itself provides the inspiration.”
By Jeff Tamarkin | Published: December 2, 2014

That Tanuja Desai Hidier’s novels are imbued with an undeniable sense of rhythm and melody is not a surprise: Hidier is also a singer-songwriter. Her new album “Bombay Spleen” is in fact based on her newest book Bombay Blues, which updates the story of Dimple Lala, the now-19 Indian-American protagonist of Hidier’s earlier YA work Born Confused.

On the CD sleeve, Hidier refers to each song not as a track but as a chapter. “Music is a huge part of both of my books,” says the U.S.-born, London-based author. “With Bombay Blues, I wanted the book to have the feel of a piece of music on every level, right up to the concluding double codas. And with “Bombay Spleen,” my aim was for the album to have the feel of the arc of a novel. For me, the book and album are one project, thoroughly intertwined in process and execution.”

Research: Born Confused is set in New York City, where I lived for many years. Bombay Blues is set in Bombay, a city that I didn’t know very well at all before embarking on this project. I’d only lived in Bombay for about a year shortly after birth; I’d visited a few times in my childhood. So very little research went into Born Confused. Bombay Blues was an entirely different process: a living of the questions. Diving so fully into the unknown it became a part of me. Although in my headspace and imagination, I inhabited Bombay for the entire three to four years of the writing and research process, I actually spent six weeks there over the course of a year to research.

Style: I just love language: playing with it, pushing it, pulling it close, closer. I’m in love with the musicality of it – how rhythm and melody can be created not only through word choice, but by the perfectly apt punctuation mark. Em-dash or colon? Comma or ellipsis? That’s the question. Something about quote marks, especially at the end of spoken phrases, feels untrue to me, at least for the books I’ve written so far. Em-dashes – of which I’m a big fan – feel more accurate to me: indicating the moment one begins speaking, but running those words right into the speaker’s headspace. They’re a bit more dreamlike, usher a gentle sliding in and floating into the character’s zone.

Inspiration: I believe it’s always there; you just have to be aware of it. The work itself provides the inspiration. You don’t need it to write; rather, you often need to write to experience it. I’ve learned
I can’t really have a bad day when I write, only when I don’t. Once I’m in, I’m in; the trouble is, in fact, exiting that state. Two huge catalysts that help me find it (and remain in a state of perpetual perspire-ual inspiration): a deadline – which, although they kept shifting during the process, I had [deadlines] both times from the get-go as I sold both books based on proposals – and the ultimate lifeline, motherhood. In the decade between books, I became a mother to two little girls. Morning person? Night person? You become a “whenever you can” person – and as parenthood keeps you in a kind of permanent state of jetlag, the a.m./p.m. distinction requires a thorough suspension of disbelief, anyway. You learn to dive right in during the time you do have to yourself.

Focus: I never write with the audience in mind, only the characters and story (which, come to think of it, is possibly more respectful to the reader). The foremost duty is to be true to them and, in so doing, fall upon some kind of “truth” that resonates with people of any age and background. With Born Confused, I never set out to write a specifically YA novel, but for years I had been wanting to express a South Asian American coming-of-age kind of story. Bombay Blues is in a bit of an out-of-the-box position, as it’s a much more of an adult/crossover story, if one has to put it in those terms, but is the sequel to that of a younger character.

Jeff Tamarkin is associate editor of JazzTimes. He lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, with his wife, novelist Caroline Leavitt.

Reflections on the Writer’s Path

Reproduced from my portfolio page on The Girling

From the stage to the pages of her novel, Bombay Blues, the long anticipated sequel to Born Confused, Tanuja Desai Hidier proves that your own voice is louder than self-doubt or fear. Tanuja’s love for writing started from a young age and never stopped, resulting in an adventurous career including performing in NYC and London’s music scene to telling the story of Dimple Lala an Indian-American teenager struggling with the blending of two cultures. Read more on Tanuja’s journey from self-doubt to ultimate self-expression.

Name: Tanuja Desai Hidier

Twitter and Instagram handle: @ThisIsTanuja/ @tanujadesaihidier

Location: London, formerly NYC

Occupation: Writer/Singer-Songwriter (Books: Born Confused; Bombay Blues). Albums: Bombay Spleen (songs based on Bombay Blues); When We Were Twins (songs based on Born Confused).

Age: 42

School: Minnechaug Regional; Brown University

Secretly Obsessed With: Blue M&Ms, funny cat videos and “Gangnam Style”.

On My Nightstand: My nightstand is in fact composed entirely of books. Currently at top tier: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murukami, Woolgathering by Patti Smith and Smile and Sisters by Raina Telgemeier. Earplugs, Kleenex, bottle of water, my daughters’ drawings and little love notes included.

Last Thing You Read: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz, Serenade and Mildred Pearce by James Cain and Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil.

Last Thing You Listened To: Lullabye and…the Ceaseless Roar by Robert Plant and the Sensational Spaceshifters, Stay Gold by First Aid Kit, Happy by Pharrell Williams and Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea by PJ Harvey.

How did you get started?

Books and music have been a part of my life since I was a child. I began writing poems when I was about six and then wrote two book length(ish) stories when I was in fourth and fifth grade. In my teens I was primarily writing short stories; I did some creative writing workshops in college and after as well, when I moved to NYC. And then, during those post-university years—after a childhood spent in utter confidence I would one day be an author—self-doubt and insecurity (and endless distraction, AKA NYC) struck. I simply wasn’t sure I had enough of a story to tell—nor the ability to tell it even if I figured it out.

I turned to music as an outlet in NYC. In a way, this was my more positive manner of avoiding writing fiction—it was a way of being creative without the isolation and long-term intensity/inward-turning that the discipline of novel-making requires. A couple years later, completely bitten with the bug to be in a performing band, I answered an ad in the Village Voice and ended up getting the gig as lead singer in punk pop band io, with the brilliant Atom Fellows—who has remained my musical collaborator ever since (with him I wrote half of Bombay Spleen, my album of original songs based on my novel Bombay Blues).

When I moved from NYC to London, io was the hardest thing to leave behind—although in a sense I never did, given my uninterrupted musical relationship and friendship with the inimitable Atom (I’ve included a mystery band called io in Bombay Blues in homage of how we first connected; at one point they perform a song — “Light Years” — that Atom and I wrote together for Bombay Spleen).

In London, I soon joined a band called San Transisto, and through it met Marie Tueje, my musical sister and dear friend now, with whom I wrote about half of Bombay Spleen as well. Music kept me in a creative space that I believe was vital for my fiction writing…when I finally got back to it. It was in London that I began work on my first novel,Born Confused, set in the context of the burgeoning bhangra/Asian Underground scene in NYC—a scene I’d lived the last few years when I was there. Being in London, it turned out, was just what I needed to begin to see those years clearly, and filter through to the heart of the story I wanted to tell.

With Born Confused, though I did work/play with San Transisto during the writing process, mostly I was just focusing on the book. When We Were Twins, my album of songs based on Born Confused, came about as an afterthought, although an organic one; we didn’t record it until Born Confused had already been out two years.

With Bombay Blues and Bombay Spleen, the book- and album- making process were intertwined all the way through the three years it took for me to complete them (though most of that time was spent burning the candle at both ends on the book). And the entire way, the prose led me to the essence of the songs, and the songs deeper into the prose. For me, Bombay Blues and Bombay Spleen are part and parcel of the same project, from inception to fruition—in fact, I finished recording the album at the end of April 2014 in NYC with dream-teammate producer Dave Sharma only days after handing in my final pass on the novel to dream-teammate editor David Levithan.

What key elements played into your success?

My lack of it? Or, rather, my lack of framing it that way? I’ve never thought of any of this in terms of success or not success. I just wanted to write a book with a South Asian American heroine. To completion. And I also just wanted to make music. Express an idea, a space. Be true to my characters and story, both prose and musical.

The anchor that allowed, encouraged me to dive into unplumbed waters was and is my family, and friends. And I’m also a huge believer—from experience—in this idea that miracles meet the prepared mind. You take a step towards what you’re seeking, and it will come running towards you: Complicity. Synergy. Synchronicity.

What’s the best piece of advice you received?

Find excuses to DO things, not to not do them. From my father. Also, during my years of stressing out about whether I would ever write a book, on our runs around the NYC reservoir, my brother would give me numerous pep talks (while I gasped for breath, trying not to pass out). He encouraged me to view writing not as a stress, a struggle, a torment—but rather as a gift and a reward. And my best friend from college once told me (when I was wondering aloud about whether I’d ever figure out what to write): “At least you have a mode of expression. Count yourself lucky.” These bits of advice, these perspectives, remain with me to this day. And no matter how intense and challenging the writing process gets, I’m always very aware that I am truly lucky to be doing it at all. I feel a deep gratitude to the universe—and these wonderful supportive people in mine—for teaching me this.

What struggles did you face getting to this point?

Really, the main struggle was internal. Doubting whether I had what it took to write a novel. Utter confusion about what to write. In short: Not realizing the value of my own story. I’d realized at some point in NYC that I wanted to write an Indian-American story—but felt I wasn’t Indian enough nor American enough to do so. One heart-pouring night in the East Village out with a friend, I was lamenting this fact to her when she turned to look me straight in the eye and said, “That’s your story.” It was a pure lightbulb moment: It had never occurred to me to consider my hyphenated identity as—rather than a neither-here-nor-there space—a You Are Here. A world, a way, a tale in its own right.

I’d never fully felt a part of either side of my hyphen. But, as I realized later, that was a part of being part of it: Walking the hyphen. Treading the bridge in-between at all times.

The title of Born Confused comes from the term American Born Confused Desi (or, local/person of South Asian origin). This term was created by South Asians from South Asia to describe this generation of the diaspora, these second and third gen kids who are purportedly confused about where they come from. When I first heard the term I was both thrilled and offended—thrilled that there was a term to describe us…but offended that a group of people who weren’t part of that space had come up with this not quite flattering (if still pretty funny) alphabet.

Part of what I wanted to do in Born Confused is turn the ‘C’ for Confused into one for Creative—as this felt to me to more accurately reflect the dynamic desis that peopled the world I’d known in NYC, who were in fact shaping and creating the culture as they went along.

And as far as confusion—well, this is a human thing. What Dimple goes through I think many people, from any, many cultures go through; really, at heart, it’s about finding out (and embracing) who you are, figuring out your place in the world, what you want, what you love. These things are universal.

During my own NYC years of confusion (about career, culture, love, life, which subway line to take….)—and avoiding my novel (or, more positively put, gestating my first book), amongst other things, I worked several jobs as a copyeditor (which—though at the time the serial comma often risked sending me into a coma—has turned out to be a great skill for cleaning up prose and songs alike). I also interned at The Paris Review, hostessed at a Tex Mex restaurant, worked as a secretary (unfortunately, for my coworkers) in the Whitney Museum’s Film & Video Department, walked a saluki (who one day escaped me and sent me on a 100 mph chase through Central Park), co-hosted an online streaming music program, and party promoted at a nightclub—all this while collecting course catalogues and contemplating my escape from it all by going to grad school (really, an escape from writing that book!)…though I could never figure out for what.

On some level, up until that point, I’d always viewed most of the jobs I’d had as obstacles to the path I was meant (I hoped) to be on. But as a writer (well, as anyone really!) you can turn that obstacle on its head and discover a portal. What’s wonderful with storytelling—whether through fiction or music—is that any experience is still anexperience, and you can learn to value it as fodder. That’s not to say there weren’t moments where I wondered if I was getting a little too into the fodder and not enough (or at all) into the fiction. But ironically, and wonderfully, the very confusion I felt during my years in NYC—my most lost moments of all—ended up being the catalyst and unremitting spark for Born Confused.

After all, a little confusion’s not a bad thing. It makes you question things. Reassess. Reinvent.

Who was the biggest influence in your professional life?

My professional life is fully intertwined with my personal life. Biggest influence? My parents and brother for always believing in me, before even I fully did myself. And my husband and Jeevansaathi, who many years ago put “Writer’ down as my occupation on my landing card when we were traveling together…in massive, utterly legible, incontestable block capitals—something I had never dared do myself (this was before I wrote my first book, when I was working my way towards cross-cultural themes through my short stories). Seeing it down in writing like that somehow made me feel it was true—that that dream had already been realized, I just had to catch up to it.

What accomplishment are you most proud of? When do you feel most successful?

I’d like to rephrase this question, as, again, I never really think of any of this in terms of success. When do I feel happiest? When I’m making, actually creating things: in the heart of the writing and music-making process. There’s nothing like it, and I miss that feeling…seek that feeling…which is maybe why I do any of it at all! The creative process is a hard-won and truly intense, illuminating, challenging, adrenalizing—a divine—one. (Amongst other things!)

Something that always makes me feel a lovely warm feeling is when I hear from readers. Many have reached out to tell me heroine Dimple Lala’s life is their life; that she’s been a true companion for them on their own roads. This is a priceless gift: To find that by delving deep into yourself and your story, you’ve found a space which resonates for people from all kinds of backgrounds, age groups. To find you have—and are—connected.

And though I cannot call my children an ‘accomplishment’, as they are their own little huge beings, they give me a quiet and incomparable joy (as well as a noisy and incomparable fatigue and frustration—but hey! It’s all part of it). They’ve given me a lot of perspective as well on what matters most (The ladybug has escaped! Everything must wait!)

What advice would you give to girls looking to enter your industry/space?

Know that you have already entered that space. Behave that way. Believe it. Own it. In even contemplating it, you’re in; your destiny’s written; you’re writing it. You want to pen a book? A song? Your book, song already exist; now you have to just work your way towards them, much like a sculptor works her way to the goddess in the stone.

You don’t have to be published to be a writer; you just have to write. You don’t have to have a record deal (who would want one these days, anyways?) to be a musician/songwriter. You just have to make music. Write songs. Listen, play, sing—anything: If you want to bust out into a show tune don’t let the indie-cool judge in you stop you.

Just keep doing it, keep honing your craft. Don’t be afraid to write twenty pages and chuck all but the last one, because that’s the one where you finally got to the heart of the matter. If you have to be scared of something, be afraid of not writing those twenty pages…and forever never discovering that heart.

Don’t worry about what anyone will think. Don’t even worry about what you think. Be true to your characters. Surrender yourself entirely in service of your story. Amazing things will come of it. Divine things.

And keep in mind, inspiration is a habit; you don’t need to wait for it to get to work. You can’t wait for it: It’s by doing the very work itself that you free it, it appears.

And it will, it will. Never doubt this. Trust in this. And in the power of your own story.

And most vital of all: Trust yourself.

Photo Credit: Shanker Raman

All Born Creative Dreamers: What ABCD Means to Me

ABCD, or American Born Confused Desi, is a term first generation South Asians in America, and elsewhere, have for these second generation Americans who are purportedly “confused” about their South Asian background. (Desi means “from my country” in Hindi.) The alphabet extends all the way to Z, in fact. Two versions: American Born Confused Desi Emigrated From Gujarat House In Jersey Keeping Lots of Motels Named Omkarnath Patel Quickly Reaching Success Through Underhanded Vicious Ways Xenophobic Yet Zestful.

And: American Born Confused Desi Emigrated From Gujarat House In Jersey Kids Learning Medicine Now Owning Property Quite Reasonable Salary Two Uncles Visiting White Xenophobic Yet Zestful.

When I first heard the term ABCD, and directed at me, by university friends from Pakistan and India, my reaction was mixed: a sense of excitement that there was a term for ‘us’, we Indian Americans who till that point had seemed to inhabit a neither-here-nor-there-space (when I was a child, we were constantly ticking ‘Other’ on questionnaires demanding our ethnicity as no other option seemed to fit). And as well, a sense of indignation — at being named (and in a somewhat derogatory manner) by people who were not in fact part of this ‘other’ space.

When I was living in New York in the late 90s I heard this term bandied about quite a bit. But it was in the process of becoming outdated (if it had ever been fully appropriate) even then. The late 90s The late 90s was an incredible moment in terms of the subculture’s gaining of critical mass and momentum.was an incredible moment in terms of the subculture’s gaining of critical mass and momentum: We witnessed the birth of South Asian Studies departments, South Asian Student, Journalist, Lesbian & Gay associations, parties such as DJ Rekha’s Basement Bhangra and Mutiny, South Asian film festivals and more. At the same time, mainstream culture was adopting (some would argue coopting) many aspects of South Asian culture: Gwen Stefani in the bindi, Madonna’s yoga period, and so on.

The intersect and sometimes clash of these two forces was a fascinating space. It was a period of cultural confusion and cultural exhilaration — which can be one and the same thing at times. What did it mean to be Indian? To be South Asian? And, at the heart of that: To be American? And at the heart of that heart: To be yourself?

Why did a bindi — an element of an ancient culture and later, in some cases, a symbol of immigrant shame — look trendy on a non-Indian girl but often What do you do, how do you feel, when popular culture begins to make mad use of your own?outdated and traditional on an Indian one? What do you do, how do you feel, when popular culture begins to make mad use of your own — before you feel like you’ve even gotten a grip on it yourself? How can you be a minority if the majority is latching on to so many parts of your heritage? What does it mean to be a minority, anyways? What are the prejudices directed towards that group from the outside in — and those directed from that group out? What are the ones that exist even within that group itself? What if you could find a space (such as HotPot, the nightclub in my first novel Born Confused, inspired by DJ Rekha’s Basement Bhangra party) where the minority is the majority — what might happen then?

Born Confused takes its title from this ABCD moniker, and is a redefining of this alphabet through the journey of Dimple Lala, an aspiring photographer living in New Jersey (it’s set both there and in New York City, largely in the context of the burgeoning South Asian club scene) as she turns the C for Confused to a C for Creative. American Born Creative Desi: This seemed to me to be a more accurate version to describe the second gen South Asians who peopled my world, and were in fact shaping and creating the culture as they went along. It seemed to embody the idea that this Neither Here Nor There is in fact a You Are Here.

And that we are All Born Creative Dreamers. And are creating, scripting our own stories to realize our own dreams, expand and define our own space. So for me, through the process of We are All Born Creative Dreamers.writing (living), the term ABCD has been redefined to the point it is more of a historical record of previous preconceptions about the culture. We’re living in such a globalized world now — with so many people having access to travel, whether physically or through the Internet — that even the idea of a geographically or nationally centered sense of identity is often a tenuous one (geography, nations themselves are not as fixed as maps may lead one to believe).

Several ideas I was working with became clearer to me during the writing process: how identity — cultural, personal — is fluid, a continually morphing thing, and that much of this morphing is in your hands as well. And that part of the process of coming to terms with your own is learning to put yourself in another set of shoes and walk. And further, walking, inhabiting another terrain — a ‘foreign’ space — and discovering what is ‘foreign’ in you in a new context is key to the process as well. This terrain can be an actual place, country, setting. This terrain can be art, dream, the imagination.

So how do you reconcile two, or really, multiple worlds, loves, cultures, languages, sexualities, without losing yourself, in a way that allows you to remain fierce and undiluted? No easy answer, but part of the solution could be to stop seeing things in terms of conventional dualities and dichotomies, as so tidily bifurcated, and to start to come to some sort of more encompassing view of the world and of identity. And to create a language that allows for expansion rather than one that constricts, boxes a person into easy, often inaccurate, and usually suffocating labels and names.

Bombay Blues, my sequel to Born Confused, out this August, moves into this space: is an exploration of these New York City characters transplanted to modern-day Bombay, of what happens to their dynamics, relationships, sense of self as they follow their art and heart in this new setting.

So for me the term ABCD was a vital starting point. To a work in progress: an alphabet I hope to continue expanding, translating, redefining as I, we, go.

Originally written for The Aerogram on June 2, 2014

Photo Credit: Immortal Light Photography

Kirkus Reviews Interview / Feature

Originally appeared as an Interview with Jessie C. Grearson in Kirkus

Kirkus Reviews says Tanuja Desai Hidier “quietly revolutionized” young adult literature with her literary debut, Born Confused (2002), a South Asian American coming-of-age story voiced by 17-year-old Dimple Lala. Hidier’s sequel Bombay Blues transports Dimple, now two years older, to modern-day Bombay for a family wedding, in a story that Kirkus calls, in a starred review, a “prose-poem meditation on love, family and homecoming.”

Hidier had intended to continue the story of Dimple and her friend Gwyn in New York City, but says it became “abundantly clear that the next point of exploration for Dimple (and me) should be Bombay: the birth city of my mother and…that of my parents’ courtship,” a place she says she “barely knew.” By then she’d had her own two daughters, and becoming a parent “crystallized” her desire to learn this part of her family’s history.

“I longed to forge a tangible connection to this metropolis of myth and memory—to write my way towards, and hopefully into, it,” she explains. So she traveled to Bombay in 2011. On her first full day there, she says she stood on Juhu Beach with her father, the site of his “once-upon-a-time strolls with my then-saried mother. I had a very quiet joyful moment where I sankalped (cast my wish): I made a vow to myself to just be open to whatever adventure…lay ahead of me, to have faith in that openness…and that wonderful, unimaginable things would be imagined, and in so being, would occur.”

That openness is expressed in an imaginative, inventive writing style; Bombay Blues brims with musicality and lyrical prose that is ready to be heard, not just read. This quality will not surprise fans who know that Hidier is not just an author but also a singer/songwriter, now based in London. In fact, she’s created another art form, musical “booktracks,” companions for each of her novels. Music, she explains, is both “another form of storytelling” and such an inextricable part of her writing process “that the music and prose are one space and place” for her.

Hidier seems drawn to places of blurred boundaries—whether between cultures or creative disciplines like writing and music. But this, she believes, is, in fact, where we all live. “It’s less a matter of its being two spaces with a blurred boundary; more like it’s always one space upon which that border is the imposed element—sometimes useful, sometimes detrimental. Culturally, this was the idea I explored in Born Confused: that that neither-here-nor-there space (Indian? American?) is in fact a You Are Here—an identity in its own right.”

Such spaces are rich with creative potential—but they take time to explore. “I did feel a sense of ‘slowness’ during the process, which was very different from the ‘rush’ that accompanied me during the nine (pre-motherhood months) it took to write Born Confused. But Bombay Blues was a very different sort of project, and required this kind of underwater feel.” In any case, she adds, “you can’t rush your story, prose or musical. And in a culture that seems to be increasingly about speed, fast, quick fix, insta, I don’t mind at all the idea of taking time—a slower … approach—towards discovering and expressing an idea.”

Jessie C. Grearson is a freelance writer and writing teacher living in Falmouth, Maine. She is a graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Photo Credit: Dhiroobhai C. Desai