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.




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