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Author Kajoli Khanna On Reconciling With Past And Welcoming ‘Destiny’s Flowers’

  • IWB Post
  •  July 3, 2019

‘It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves,’ the words of William Shakespeare that ring in my mind with the mention of ‘destiny’, and which the literary world, too, highly regards. But in the times of uncertainty, when the path ahead looks unclear, even the most rational minds sit back questioning their destiny. Or worse, rely on it to fix things.

In Destiny’s Flowers, author Kajoli Khanna takes us on a journey that blends in three unique perspectives. Each of it narrates the realities of life and reminds the readers to not concentrate on thorns always, as destiny showers on us some beautiful flowers, too.

Also authored, Afterbirth and Other Stories, Kajoli holds a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Delhi University. Owing to her design background, she had also consummated varied design projects in Delhi, and in 1997, began to work with the Ashraya crèches for underprivileged children. She has since continued to work extensively with a number of institutions for underprivileged children in Delhi and Himachal Pradesh.

Published by Roli Books, Destiny’s Flowers ushers us through the journeys of Urmilla, Pema and Atish, who unwittingly find their destinies intertwined. An art restorer, Urmila’s mission is to revive priceless artworks in the Fort of Joji and is overturned by a brutal and puzzling midnight assault. To unravel the mystery and conquer the paralytic fear that ensues she embarks on a spiritual voyage. Another character, Pema, under the garb and demeanour of a Buddhist nun,  conceals a past that forces her to question her ethics as she wrestles with the burden of her deeds. And third, Atish, the indulged hero of a slum, achieves the ‘unattainable’ but cannot hold on to his good fortune. As the characters are thrust in each others’ paths, a story full of surprises unfolds.

Let’s dig a little deeper into the stories and idea behind the book:

The title of the book has got us intrigued and curious – tell us a little about it.

The title, Destiny’s Flowers, refers to the good fortune that comes our way, and on the paths of my characters in the novel. These blessings come in so many forms – you, the attentive person reading this interview, my novel, my loving family, the book launches I have had, the people who help me – these are the flowers destiny showers upon me. The places we go, the opportunities we get, the friends that surround, these too are the flowers of destiny. I want my readers to look at the flowers not the thorns. This acknowledgement encourages gratitude and it is beneficial to be grateful. This is what I have shown in the book because this is what I have experienced.

The other day, I was reading about the benefits of gratitude and met with a pleasant surprise – scientific studies show that gratitude has 31 benefits! In the book it resuscitates all three protagonists: becoming one of the vital ingredients that helps Mila (Urmila) to overcome her trauma, which Pema’s requires to forgive herself, and for Atish to grow.

How is ‘destiny’ as a concept perceived in the literary world; do you see it in a positive/inspiring light?

In the literary world, destiny is sometimes perceived to be unshakeable, something you cannot alter – as inevitable as the changing of the seasons. On the opposite end of the spectrum, William Shakespeare said, “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves”. In other words, we are masters of our own destinies. I agree with both aspects, and believe there is a mysterious impartiality that governs destiny. Whatever occurs it is what we deserve and need, though it may not appear so benevolent or considerate at times.

As Atish, my character from the slums, says in the book, “A lot depends on the depth and angle of your perception… The tree (destiny) could drop a fruit, a flower or a nut on your head. The impact could knock you senseless or wake you up. You could accept the fruit joyfully, though it might have a prickly skin, peel away the crust and procure the benefits within, or start making ugly faces because you find the flesh inside too bitter or too sweet…” The choice is ours and in doing so we can make or break our destinies. This is what I have set out to demonstrate in the novel.

How rebellious are your characters against their respective destinies, and what gives them power to rebel?

We will discuss each of the three characters here. Atish, my protagonist from the slums, is both a rebel and a coward. He heroically rebels against his destiny, the boxes that society forces us to live within, because he believes in himself. The magician with a box full of tricks up his sleeve, the pearl of Taaza Basti ruins the dreams that his mother has for him, but underneath the skin of a pampered brat is a determined young man who gets a job that will eventually yield honour and money; more importantly it grants him access to the love of his life.

Mila, an art restorer with a mission to revive priceless artworks in the fairytale Fort of Joji, is violently attacked in the middle of the night. The resulting paranoia and depression bring her life to a halt. She is a victim of destiny until she takes hold of the ropes and embarks on a spiritual journey. Though not a rebel, she certainly becomes mistress of her destiny when she seeks to ‘pluck the plants of fear and revulsion that took root and grew, devouring nutrients from the fertilizer of her sanity’.

On the other hand, it is anger and hatred that turns the destiny of Pema, the novice, against her. She looks back on halcyon days in an idyllic village in Bengal, at a blissful adolescence that she begins to rebel against. Strong emotions turn her teens calamitous and this progresses into a duplicitous adulthood. She lives in hell until she is able to deal with her demons and thus alter her destiny.

Do you see a change in the way the current generation is dealing with the notions that our society has always attached to the ‘destiny of a woman’s life’?

Change is happening, there is no doubt. Technology, education, greater earning capacity, all of it is contributing to growing equality amongst the genders. The dynamic young women of today do jobs, wear make-up, dress as they please, and stay out after dark. Young men can be seen tending to their children and carrying shopping bags. In the villages there is much teaching and learning required as yet; customs and traditional ways of thinking continue to smother progress. Atish comments in the book, “It boils down to conditioning… this need for a man has been drilled into their heads… The alpha male who will take the lead, around whom they will centre their second-class lives.”

I believe that if each woman would make up her mind that she will support the other through thick and thin, the chances of changing the notions attached to the  ‘destiny of a woman’s life’ will improve greatly. More often than not it is a woman who is responsible for the needless suffering of another.

What inspiring traits do the women characters of your book leave the readers with in this regard?

The back cover of the book reads: ‘Affirming a path for all women – the pages are dotted with goddesses who fight battles and win’. Mila, the art restorer, is one of the prime examples. At the age of 36, she refuses to get married but she does not shy away from men. With acuity and humour, she weighs the pros and cons of a three-year-old relationship and finally summons the courage to break free of it. After which (unfettered by age or convention) she is not afraid to explore the thrills of a sudden infatuation and the possibility of finding new love.  Her devotion to her work is formidable – from it she finds peace and gains stability. Her progress in the novel is heartening. Cowering from the corporeal brutality of a physical assault and the visceral sensations of terror and panic, her story enters a spiritual arena, envisaging an enlightening recovery and reinvention.

Luxmi, Atish’s mother, is the embodiment of the goddess she is named after. ‘Her virtues remained untarnished, her aura of wisdom and light never collapsed.’ Though she is a victim of stereotypical thinking, ’nothing can accept her fine sense of balance … she could dig blessings out of hard earth…’  Atish’s father elopes with another woman and she bears the humiliation with fortitude, her ability to make the best out of what she has, to search out the good are indeed admirable.

Finally, we have Freedom, the goddess of mischief and magic, who is also generous and forgiving. The chapters devoted to this pixie bubble with excitement, fun and the unexpected, though they cover pertinent subjects. The beautiful daughter of fabulously wealthy but conservative parents, Freedom does not want to conform to the rules set out by her father. Freedom is ‘scared of nothing except – of waking up without a cent to spend.’ This is what keeps her (precariously) in place. In the latter half of the book, the strength of her conviction makes her  ‘break free of the rules and regulations society forces us to live by’ in more ways than one, but her positivity and unbiased views are inspiring traits and her actions do away with the notions that society attaches to ‘the destiny of a woman’ .

Were there any real life experiences that helped you conceive the characters?

Yes, and I believe every book contains smidgeons of an author’s experiences – art after all is a reflection of life. A tiny observation or event can spark a story or create a character, altered no doubt by the imagination. For instance, Pema’s companions in the novel, the bhikshunnis were inspired by my visits to nunneries in Keylong and Spiti. Despite their strained circumstance, they were jovial, humble, and caring; I wanted to portray these qualities in the book. The spiritual centers described in the novel exist in real. Mila’s advisor in the book, DKR is a living Guru, but the rest is the work of my imagination.

Having worked with several institutions for underprivileged for the past two decades I have come in contact with many young students from whom I have learnt life’s lessons. Atish, one of the three protagonists, has obviously been inspired by these children. His achievements in the book are those that I dream for all my students; the mistakes he makes can be made by any one of us, but his grit and determination, his formidable resilience belong in the lives of the brave young warriors I have encountered.

A fair part of the  story of Mila is based on what happened to me. I was in the mountains, working on a project when I was attacked by a stranger in the middle of the night. It was a debilitating experience. The resulting trauma forced me to return to Delhi but I was terrified the man might track me down because we had reported the incident to the police. He had threatened to kill me if I did. The doubt, the fear, the frustration of having to leave the project unfinished wreaked havoc with my confidence and bouts of depression would follow. Though I did not suffer from nightmares or embark on the spiritual journey described in the novel, it was only when I arrived at the realizations that Mila reaches in the book that I was able to overcome the fear that had overtaken my life.

And lastly, drawing context from ‘about the book’, what can be learnt from your characters about finding closure?

In the case of Atish – to resolve the mistake he made in the Fort of Joji, he must learn how to speak the truth. It is a grave error that he keeps hidden until circumstances force him to reveal what he has done. It is only when he confesses the details of the giant blunder he made to Mila that he is able to find closure. From the moment he decides to become master of his own destiny – positive outcomes begin to turn the thorns into flowers.

No doubt destiny grants Pema two unexpected boons, which make her transition easier but the absolute need to forgive and be grateful finally kills the hatred and anger she harbours and allows joy to blossom. So is the story of Mila, surprising events clear the air and provide security, but it is compassion that finally gives her closure.

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