In focus for the August edition of our real women series is the very vibrant Sonali Dev. She was absolutely effortless through the shoot and made it so easy for the entire Zariin team to spin the beautiful imagery. Sonali Dev is best introduced as an author of award winning books with a Bollywood beat. Her books tell relatable tales to the American and the rest of the western readers but with the brown girl as the protagonist that part of the world is weary of. What made the shoot incredibly special was learning Sonali Dev’s thoughts on jewelry. It was sheer delight how she translates the relationship women share with jewelry into artistic words we are going to quote from time and again!
1. What inspired you to come up with the Bollywood fiction series?
I’ve always been fascinated by the whole stardom thing. But in recent years we’ve started to put our stars under such a pervasive microscope. We see them everywhere and all the time. But how authentic is the view we get into their lives? What we see is basically a cross between what they want us to see and what we want to see. Reality television has taken this to a whole other level. And with social media, we all walk around like we are stars of our own life. I wanted to spin that a bit and write about a Bollywood star who detests being a star. She has agoraphobia and is terrifyingly shy. After a childhood trauma she was not able to speak for a whole year and she completely melts down in front of strangers. Then she’s turned into a star, kicking and screaming. It’s the journey of her having to deal with that contradiction.
2. Your books are known to open the Indian culture for international consumption. People have loved the descriptive writing and the romantic drama. Are you looking forward to see how Indians react to the television adaptation of the same?
Of course, I’m looking forward to it. It’s been very interesting to release these books in the American market because publishing, especially in the commercial and romantic fiction genres in America is overwhelmingly white. For years and years the protagonists have been white. We have learnt to treat that as neutral and as the norm. Even in India if we read in English, we’ve grown up reading books with white protagonists and have had no trouble being interested in the characters. And yet in the western world, as soon as you have a brown character, immediately we’re told that the readership finds it hard to relate. That has been the narrative we’ve been fed by the publishing industry. Within that context, it was interesting to try and tell these stories that need to be told. Everyone deserves to see themselves in books. I want my children to have books they can see themselves in. So changing that was very important to me, while still being conscious of what kind of story I tell. I want to tell stories that go beyond arranged marriages, wretched poverty, and immigrant angst. There’s more than those three issues that Indian protagonists in stories should be allowed to face and overcome. That’s where these books come from. For the Indian audience that should be even more relevant.
3. How much of yourself do you translate in your fiction writing?
There’s a theory that authors of fiction shouldn’t put themselves in the book. And I’m so glad no one taught me that when I was learning to write. The way I look at it is that you have to see the author’s soul in the story. The author must leave everything on the page. I hope that happens in my books. If you’re asking if these are autobiographical stories, then no, they’re not. And of all the characters I have written, Ria from The Bollywood Bride is the least like me – just in terms of experience and how she processes the world. But somewhere along the way, a little piece of you does get into all your characters.
4. What is your take on love and its place in the modern world?
Does the place of love in our lives really change with the changing world? All I can tell you is that it is central to my life, I try to spend all my time and energy on things and people I love. And it is my deepest belief that everyone deserves that and should have that.
5. Describe your writing desk for us.
You don’t want to know! My desk is a mess. I buy into the external-chaos-breeds-internal-order theory. Basically, my desk is covered in tons of post-it notes with information about my books and characters. There’s also pictures that inspire me, photos that make me emotional, and some ten cups filled with pencils and pens– even though I only ever type things on my computer.
6. What is your preferable and the most productive time for writing? Morning or night?
I’m a morning person in every way. I bounce out of bed and twirl around emitting sunshine and song until the sun starts to go down, then I’m an ogre. So naturally, my morning writing time is fresh and precious. When on revision deadline, however, I can’t tell night from day and it’s all my computer and me.
7. Please decode your personal style for us.
It’s definitely bohemian. I always think of myself as someone with a very conventional life – my family, my friends, my dog, it’s all very conventional. Then there’s my inner life, my thoughts, my characters, my stories, even my travels as an author, and that’s a bit of a bizarre contrast. So I feel like I have a bohemian self trapped inside my conventional self. But not in a bad way, in a fun and freeing way. My personal sense of style is very much a reflection of that. I have to really own what I wear. I believe that you always wear something because it calls to you. Our sense of style is an expression of who we are but also who we want to be. I enjoy being quirky and artistic. Something that speaks to me at an artistic level is what I love to put on myself.
8. How relevant is jewelry when you are dressing up?
It’s everything! I wore a simple white linen dress for the shoot. How it looks has to do with how I accessorize it. Accessorizing is bringing your own creativity to your clothing. Wearing jewelry is actually putting on a piece of art. Every time I put on jewelry, I think about the artist who made it. It’s such a labour of love. And then finding the right piece to go with an outfit, with your mood, that’s also a labour of love. Sure, it’s a statement of personal style but more importantly it’s a statement of how I’m feeling that day. And I love that aspect of jewelry.
9. Your favourite piece of jewelry?
I value all my jewelry with a bit too much zeal. I usually buy pieces on our travels, so they’re generally tied to the memory of a place. But if I had to pick, there’s this silver and gemstone necklace I picked up in Goa, the first time we went there with our kids. I was a young mother, I saw it in a shop window when my kids were running amuck as though they’d swallowed energizer bunnies. The piece called to me so much I tamed my little beasts went in there and picked it up. The entire thing comes apart and can be worn as a big chunky piece, or whittled down to just a fat chain with embossed beads. I love it rather madly.
10. Your take on Zariin? Pick a piece that imbibes your personal style.
I’m completely blown away with how Zarin imbues tradition in their pieces while still breaking from it. There’s this loving artisan-mindset in each piece, as though someone put their heart in it. We say in writing, ‘leave everything on the page’ — I feel like all Zarin’s designs have that level of attention. And it means you feel like you’re wearing art when you wear one. My favorite piece would be the jumbled up gold wire necklace with gemstones. It’s as haphazard as I am, but seems happy with itself.
11. Every piece of jewelry has a story. Could you please share with us the story behind your emerald ring?
I think of it as my mother’s shield. She has a belief that it keeps us safe. And everyone in our family wears one– those of us who share her belief as well as those who love her enough to not have to share it to wear it.