Bali Rai tells us about a Punjabi tale from his childhood, which later inspired his writing.
Many things inspired my novel, Rani & Sukh. The first major inspirations were stories of star-crossed lovers – tales repeated to me by my mother. This was back in the 1970s, when every Punjabi household I knew had the same painting on their walls. It depicted two lovers, struggling through a dark and desolate landscape, leaning on each other for support, and fleeing certain death at the hands of each other’s families. The woman was called Sohni, and the man, Mehiwal, and theirs was a forbidden love. The tale is a classic in Punjabi folklore, and there are others too – Heer Ranja being particularly popular. These tales were full of melodrama, passion and intrigue. They were tragic too, and they fascinated me. There were heroes and villains, rich and poor, fairytale-like incidents, tragedy, and drama galore.
At the same time I was equally fascinated by Bollywood movies. We didn’t have anything to watch them on, however, so my first taste of the films that would later help to inspire Rani & Sukh came at the homes of uncles and aunts who hardly ever watched anything else. Down the street a young couple that knew my parents would take my sister and me to the local cinema too. It was there that I first saw classics such as Suhaag and Sholay – films that encompassed the entire range of human emotions in three and a half hours. Oh, and about fifty songs too . . .
Like the folk tales, there was passion and intrigue. There were family feuds, love and hatred, long-lost siblings and absent parents – in fact any emotion or family situation that you can think of. I loved them and I even sang along to some of the songs too, much to the annoyance of my sister who would hit me with things whenever I opened my mouth. There was one line from a song in the film Sholay – a tale of outlaw buddies, evil men and beautiful women made to dance on glass – which I sang over and over again:
‘… yeh dorsetay hum nahe toren geh…’
At least that’s what it sounded like to me.
But eventually I grew up and neither Bollywood nor my mother’s Punjabi tales felt cool anymore. They weren’t The Clash or Bob Marley – they weren’t even Eastenders. I was far too trendy for them. But in my heart something remained . . . Then, one day in 1986, I walked into my English Lit classroom and was given a play called Romeo & Juliet, written by some dead old white bloke called Shakespeare. I had never experienced his work before that point, and immediately assumed that it would be boring. Yet, as my amazing teacher, Nigel Gossage, explained the story and it unfolded, I was taken back to the tales my mother told me, and to the films that I had watched as a child. The similarities between Sohni Mehiwal and Romeo & Juliet were striking. Within two scenes, I was hooked to the play, and to Shakespeare in general. And I realised just how wonderful and important those old Punjabi stories were. So important, that somewhere in my head a little nugget of an idea formed. One that would go on to become a novel.
And Rani & Sukh came from that. It’s a tale of star-crossed lovers and blood feuds, family honour and passion, played out in the present day and in the Punjab of the 1960’s – the land of my parents. It is a love story and at the same time full of action. It has killing and emotional blackmail, illicit affairs and murderous villains. A true mash-up of Shakespeare, Bollywood and Punjabi folk tales. I’m not sure my mum realises just how important those story-telling sessions were. I guess I should go thank her!
Bali Rai has written nine young adult novels for Random House Children’s Publishers, as well as the Soccer Squad series for younger readers. His first, (Un)arranged Marriage, created a huge amount of interest and won many awards including the Angus Book Award and the Leicester Book of the Year. It was also shortlisted for the prestigious Branford Boase first novel award. Rani & Sukh and The Whisper were both shortlisted for the Booktrust Teenage Prize.
Crystal Chan shares a story from China which had a special resonance for her growing up as a mixed-heritage child in the United States
Ai ya! That Chinese expression – which was often used by my dad – can denote confusion, amazement, discontent, irritation, surprise and even incredulity. The expression also features prominently in my favourite childhood folktale, The Seven Chinese Brothers by Margaret Mahy. In the story, seven brothers use their seven different supernatural powers to defeat the emperor, who is determined to kill them. However, since the brothers look alike, talk alike and walk alike, they keep exchanging places with each other and using their individual powers to thwart the emperor’s plans. (My favourite brother was the one whose legs could grow as tall as the depth of the ocean and so could not be drowned.)
I grew up half Chinese, half White in a small town in the 1980s, and I didn’t have images of people who looked like me, not on TV or in movies or even on billboards. Back then, there weren’t many children’s stories featuring Chinese people (much less half-Chinese people!), and so as a child it was liberating to cry out Ai ya! with my parents as they read me the story and to have this small mirror reflecting back to me some aspect of my own Chinese heritage. Although, as much as I wished, I had to swim each time I went into the ocean.
Crystal Chan’s debut novel Bird is published by Tamarind on 30 January 2014.
It seems that every day I’m adding to the list of fans for Now is the Time For Running by Michael Williams. This book was acquired quietly, thus without an auction or much fanfare so perhaps you haven’t heard of it… yet. Of course, it can be fun (and nerve-racking*) to win a book in a heated auction, but there is a particular delight in acquiring a book quietly, like finding a precious gemstone which you slip into your pocket and treasure, sure that you will delight everyone when they finally see it…And delighted they are:
Today I received a lovely email from the latest fan, Jason Wallace, who said: Thank you for letting me read it, that said, I did find it quite difficult keeping my enthusiasm down to a minimum number of words!!!!. Jason’s quote (see below) will join the inimitable Bali Rai whose quote will also feature on the front cover. And there’s more: Michael Williams has fans at the Bookseller, Bookbag, Goodreads and Kirkus. That comes on top of a marketing, sales and publicity team who have phoned and emailed me to say that they were touched by Michael’s writing, that they shed tears and that they simply love the book. High praise indeed – our sales team don’t cry easily.
With all this good will, what next? Well, the book hasn’t been published in the UK yet, so we wait and hope that it will find a home in the hearts and bookshelves of those who love children’s and YA literature. As a reader, an editor, I wish this with all my heart.
*obviously not nerve-racking like heart surgery but for the delicate sensibilities of an editor, auctions can be rather heart pounding.
REVIEWS SO FAR
The triumph of human endeavour against a harrowing landscape… A gripping, powerful tale that will more than touch your soul. Quite simply, this story needs to be read. Jason Wallace
A wonderfully written, thought-provoking novel that brings the grim reality of life for ordinary Zimbabweans into sharp focus. It deserves a wide audience. Bali Rai
Heartbreaking, unputdownable tale of prejudice, resilience and brotherly love. Fiona Noble, Bookseller
I found this story incredibly troubling and moving; Deo and Innocent will stay with you. Clare Poole, Bookseller
Extremely powerful and it wrings every possible emotion out of its readers. The football is as exhilarating to read about as it is for Deo to play. Bookbag
Gripping, suspenseful and deeply compassionate. Kirkus Review
Wonderful. A must-read for anyone who loves international YA fiction . . . very brave. Goodreads
Need gift ideas?
We were delighted when, further to her charming review of The Young Chieftain, book blogger Tricia conducted an incisive interview with its author, Ken Howard. How did Ken conjure up his teen hero, Jamie MacDoran? Does he envisage ‘Young Chieftain tours’ of the Scottish Isles? Find out on Tricia’s blog, Black Book News.
Only three weeks to go til publication!
For those who still don’t know what the fuss is about, author Ken Howard reads a gripping extract from the forthcoming page-turner, The Young Chieftain.
Click for more about the book.
Click to watch the trailer.