Ameya Bondre is a physician and public health researcher, working with a healthcare technology start-up associated with IIT-Bombay. Born and raised in Mumbai, he studied at KEM Hospital, and later at Johns Hopkins University in the United States.
In spite of a rewarding professional life with honours from Johns Hopkins, MIT, Yale, TEDx, and several research publications, it is creative writing, which has been his constant companion over the years, with multiple rounds of writing and editing back and forth, periodic workshops, and continued learning from editors and readers alike.
He formally started writing short stories in the winter of 2017, to put them into ‘Afsaane’, his first book. BlueRose Publishers recently unveiled ‘Afsaane‘ at the World Book Fair 2020 in Delhi.
TBE: Tell us about your book, can you share with us something about the book that isn’t in the blurb?
Ameya Bondre: ‘Afsaane’ is about human connections, their strange, complex, impulsive nature. The book has stories formed in, often the most ordinary situations, and a few not so ordinary ones! The stories are intentionally distinct from each other, but connected by hope, nostalgia, wants and unspoken feelings. I guess, that’s how I would sum it up.
TBE: What brought about the idea for Afsaane and why did you want to write it?
Ameya Bondre: It was never a planned book! I wrote some of these stories, as part of my writing process, or love for writing, or thanks to a creative writing workshop that proved to be a big stimulation… a means to think about characters, conversations, structures, plotting, and points of view. Several of these stories were actually written while learning these writing tools. In that sense, each story is an exploration into an aspect of fiction writing.
After I had reached a point of contentment, or when I had drafted an adequate number of stories, I decided to put them into a collection. I could see broad themes of hope and acceptance threading the stories, in spite of their obvious differences. They just had to become a part of a collection, and I submitted them for editing. And when the editors, and a few readers gave good feedback and useful suggestions, I felt confident to take it ahead for publication!
TBE: Why did you choose an Arabic word to title your collection? What is the significance of the title?
Ameya Bondre: ‘Afsaane’ has multiple meanings. Tales, fiction, romance, legends… it could mean any or all of these! I tried hard to think of an English word to subsume these meanings but couldn’t! The title, to me, signifies the human stories contained in this book, that it is hard to thematically label them. Even the simple human stories will have a variety of themes, and there cannot be a title that can frame a single all-inclusive theme!
TBE: Which is your most favorite story from your book? and why?
Ameya Bondre: It’s so hard to pick one, not only because of author’s bias, but also because the stories are as different as chalk and cheese! And my answer can change tomorrow for the same question! However, to pick one, I would go for ‘Blinkers on’, the third story in the book. This was written as an outpouring of thought and dialogue, over eight hours or so, during air travel from Mumbai to Delhi, when I simply wanted to write something (after I had zeroed on a subject, a few days earlier) and I didn’t care much about the quality of the written output.
However, after I read it that evening, I strangely felt good about it, at least the story seemed to have a shape, the dialogues came out honestly, or so I thought. Today, when I see the encouraging reviews for the book, it is this story, besides a few others, which several readers have pointed as their favorite… something I never expected, at least not when it was first written!
TBE: What was your writing process for this book?
Ameya Bondre: As I said, the stories were written as part of my writing process, the time spent in a workshop, in noisy cafes, at home, during journeys, thinking back on chapters of life, experiences, forgotten conversations, cherished people, and I can go on! There was really no process and that’s an honest answer!
I am not sure if there can be a single process for an anthology of stories, as each story is like a mini-novel of sorts. But there is an approach for sure… of understanding the core theme, the most central emotion, or simply the core of the story – not even the central character, but the emotion that binds everything together! I do spend a lot of time thinking about it, before and during the writing. The closer I get to it, the easier it becomes to sketch the central character, determine how he would think, talk and react, and how the other character would respond. Somewhere, that helps… and other things fall in place.
TBE: How long did it take you to write this book?
Ameya Bondre: I started drafting the stories in late-2017 and most of them were written by early 2018. I spent a good chunk of 2019 in editing, writing a few more, and developing confidence in publishing them! I won’t say it took two years, because it was a process interrupted by work, and the compulsions of schedules – I could never put time for writing, on a daily basis. Today, I am much more structured viz. work and writing. But, if I have to give an estimate for the writing, editing and publishing, it would be a year.
TBE: During your journey from the idea of this book to the publication, what was the most difficult thing you faced? Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Ameya Bondre: I think the editing phase was the most challenging part of the journey. Of course, I was lucky to get in touch with freelance editors who helped in a big way; thankfully no one advised me to change plots or characters or narratives! But their suggestions were critical and useful.
Editing was a tough phase… I think it had something to do with the fact that it was my first book and my biases towards the stories were too strong, and less receptive to different, contrasting editorial views. And, that clash of opinion was healthy, but challenging. Also, I had to learn, and learn quickly, that some editorial suggestions were meant to be adopted, and some weren’t. You can’t explain or analyze this, but you have to follow your conviction as an author, while equally having a keen ear for editors.
TBE: What do you hope your readers take away from this book?
Ameya Bondre: I hope they take-away the imperfections, strangeness, underplayed romance, and beauty of our conversations, and moods, the ways we all approach situations that trap us, our weaknesses, and our shared trait of remaining hopeful and accepting.
TBE: Do you read much and if so, who are your favorite authors?
Ameya Bondre: In my work, I read a lot of scientific papers; it’s a part and parcel of my job. With so much of medical and scientific reading on a routine basis, I am somehow less inclined to read non-fiction books! Whenever I am in a bookstore, I gravitate towards fiction.
I read a number of fictional works in a year, but I think my reading has reduced a bit over time and I need to get back to my backlog of unread novels! My favourite authors are J.D. Salinger, Salman Rushdie, Vijay Tendulkar, Truman Capote, Saki, Ruskin Bond and Paulo Coelho.
TBE: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Ameya Bondre: Apart from reading, I am a huge movie buff. I think I watch two or three movies a week, easily, including those on OTT platforms. And I consume most genres but enjoy mystery, drama and horror, and sometimes, romantic comedies. I am not limited to English or Hindi films; have explored Latin, European, Indian regional, Iranian and Marathi movies!
If not films, I catch up on news and current affairs, Indian music, classical music or ghazals, spend time reading or brainstorming on my writing in cafes, catch up with friends, or watch a much-awaited play, or catch up on sleep!
I love to travel and usually go for solo travel. I make it a point to travel each year, somewhere abroad. Mountains, history, local cultures, cityscapes are the kind of things I seek.
TBE: In your opinion, what is the most important thing about any book?
Ameya Bondre: A book is filled with pages having text, and text can easily seem dry and bland. Letters are merely black and white, inanimate shapes. So, a book must be visual. A story should create images. Writing should strive hard to transport the reader – not necessarily to a different world or setting (though settings are important!), but it could transport the reader into the state of mind of a character, or the depth of his emotion, or the difficult nature of his situation or his life and the elements of his living. The ‘transport’ here simply means the ability of the text to absorb the reader, shift the reader from his reality into the little world of the book. Hold the reader’s attention and let the reader discover the – well, what looks from outside, as the text!
TBE: What was one of the most surprising things you learned during creation of your book?
Ameya Bondre: Various things… here I can go on and on! For instance, the point of view. I choose a point of view (choice of a narrator, the narrator’s gender, his/her context) in telling a story; but the readers have their own perspective, a place or an experience where they come from.
A reason they continue reading the story for, which is personal to them. This shapes their opinion for a story and… brings in unexpected reader reactions! But learning from readers has been fascinating, and surprising. They see things that I would not look at, while writing the story. They relate to some aspects of a story that perhaps were secondary to the plot, for me as an author, but resonated with them! Also, a lot of my stories are open-ended in this book, so the scope of interpretation is a bit wider, leading to some surprises for me!
TBE: A common misconception entwined with authors is that they are socially inept, and they are often associated with loner tendencies; is there any truth to that?
Ameya Bondre: I don’t think so. Writers need to step out, watch the world, listen to people, observe them, travel, talk to people, enjoy long conversations, read between the lines and what not! I may sound prescriptive here, and I don’t mean they should necessarily do all of this. To each his own. But, a lot of the writers of today are pretty active, socially, and they need it. Life feeds fiction and there is no bigger source of stories than the happenings in our lives. What happens socially makes us find stories, think about stories and construct stories.
TBE: If you could tell your younger writing-self anything, what would it be?
Ameya Bondre: My younger writing self was stubborn and distracted. There was no discipline or a sense of purpose. I believe I have some of it, today. My younger self only wrote when he felt like, or when he was driven by a strong bout of emotion, or a trigger due to an incident or something like that. Or, he wrote because he wanted a story published in a magazine, or on a blog, or he wanted to send it to a competition.
I would tell him to think larger, think more – think about writing as a process, as a habit, as a means of finding his creative potential. I would ask him to think about his relationship with writing. About whether he thinks it is his calling. Can he look at writing as a companion? Can he live with the thankless, lonely, mentally strenuous nature of writing? I would ask him these questions, and perhaps get some answers, which I assume I have today.
TBE: Is there anything you are currently working on that may intrigue the interest of your readers?
I am attending a writers’ retreat in Goa, to work on the idea I have for my next book, which will be a novel. Twelve writers will be paired with mentors in an island bungalow and they will work on their ideas over 5 days, amidst workshops, open mics, fireside chats, one-on-one sessions with mentors, and lots of private writing time. I hope this setting at least lets me explore the idea further, develop it, answer some key questions around it, and break a few stumbling blocks.
The story (sketchy) as of now, revolves around a runaway man, who enters a big metropolis, which is still awake in the wee hours of the night. He is desperately trying to find some answers, but the little worlds made by strange people in this city, with their colours and dangers, take him somewhere else. It’s a really sketchy idea but I am driven to build it!