Monila De released her first book, Unforgettable Kalimpong on 22nd of July, in St Augustine School hall. The book is about the early 50s when China was invading Tibet, Kalimpong was flooded with foreigners, the sudden influx of foreign nationals led Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister; announce that Kalimpong was a ‘nest of spies.’
De, was born in Kolkata, and came to live in Kalimpong during the Second World War at the age of 3. She initially stayed in Kanchanjunga Kothi but she eventually moved into Monjula, in Atisha Road here, where she claims to spend her glorious childhood.
She did her schooling from St. Joseph’s Convent and graduated from Loreto College of Kolkata. She got married in Kolkata and has two sons, (she is also blessed with a grandson.)
Mrs De shares a very outdoor personality since her school days, where she used to play hockey and tennis. She was the only lady member of Kalimpong Tennis Club as she outshined in that sport.
Her hobbies ranged from making Japanese dolls to oil paintings but she excelled in photography which bagged her many trophies. She is also a proficient equestrian as she used to ride back home from school every afternoon.
She was just a housewife at the beginning of her marriage but in her later years, she started making wine and Chinese sausages which became very popular among her friends and family. Though she has now stopped making them, yet they are still being talked about by her friends and family.
She has rightfully given herself the title of a ‘party animal’ as she loves to host parties as well as attend them. She has also visited every state of India and has seen all the marvellous historical places of India.
She also enjoys going abroad once a year, especially to London, Wimbledon the Mecca of Tennis. She has visited all the countries, but she still prefers to live in Kalimpong where her heart belongs.
After her book-release, Monila De along with her friends joined for a small interview session with the authors of C&C at Coffee Day here at main road. The Question Answers are on the basis of our three-hours-long conversations.
Q: I would love to hear your journey about, Unforgettable Kalimpong in short, how did you give birth to this book at the age of 79?
A: My journey of writing this book is pretty long. I am the time machine; I will take you back to the time when Kalimpong was a paradise.
As you see the cover of the book, it shows the picture of the house with a little girl looking at it. The house is MONJULA where I spent my wonderful childhood and the little girl is me. I always had this picture in my mind about the cover of the book. The picture of the house looks blur as if you are looking from the window pane, washed with raindrops. The back page of the book is the burnt remains of my beloved house Monjula. You can’t judge a book by its cover, but an attractive cover attracts its readers.
All the stories in my book have been covered in newspapers and magazines in the past, in fact, there are several people in Darjeeling and Gangtok who have preserved and filed them. For several years nothing has happened…. It did appear in the print and later people kept asking if I have stopped writing, I said No, a writer never stops writing.
Every time I go to town, people keep asking me this question, it had become quite embarrassing, my relatives and friends kept pestering me, especially my friend Uruna, who is mentioned in the book, keeps telling everyone that I am the Ruskin Bond of Kalimpong; this, of course, is a far pride. It was my cousin who sent my name, address, email, phone number to Notion Press in Chennai, after that there was no way to evade them, then they have printed the book to which they have done a good job, I think.
You have no idea what is to get your book on print if you haven’t done so already. Those innumerable forms I had to fill, the scores of time I had to correct the texts, which is more than difficult to give birth to triplets. Thank goodness for the machine called computers, the use of which I had no idea about, but it made life easier when corrections were at stake. Luckily the Rotary digital library had opened, and I was able to make use of it for days and months. I had neither typed nor had any idea about the use of computers. When I had done the corrections for over two weeks, suddenly everything disappeared, nobody could get it back.
The computer can be your best friend or your worst enemy, eventually, I had to get a laptop at home to do hours of work, and very often I got stuck. So, the nearest place I could run to was Chitra Bhanu, where the young man very kindly helped me.
I was a very good student at the school, but I constantly lost marks, as I never revised my work. You always have to pay for your sins, and I am paying for mine. I had to correct this book at least twenty times, and if you still find mistakes in it, it is not for the want of try.
Mistakes are writer’s worst nightmare. Then there are spellings, of course, my spellings are as bad as my handwriting. Most times I can’t read my own handwriting. The fat dictionary in my house is in tatters, after being constantly being used by Elizabeth- my friend, to correct my spellings, she also managed to type out my stories, since she can read my illegible handwriting better than I can. But then, when it came to putting it to the computer, she tried. One day the page went blank and she has not touched the computer since. I am not a professional writer, thank God, I don’t have to make a living by writing, I would starve then.
Writing is not a hobby or a pass time for me, it is a compulsion and a pleasure. I write about anything that pleases me, moves me or upsets me. These emotions I have to write it about and kept it out of my system. I write about people, places and experiences. I remember my past, like a lot of you all, but I can’t remember what I did yesterday, I want to write all that down before Alzheimer’s claim me.
If I don’t write even two lines a day I feel my day has been wasted, even if it means like writing a general diary to the police. I too envy those writers with great imaginations, who write fictions, who have produced books like Harry Potter, Frankenstein etc. I, fortunately, write only what I have seen and experienced, so I hope you will find all the real characters in my book interesting. I have met many interesting and famous people over the years here in Kalimpong. There are all gone, their memories will still remain with me.
They say a writer’s life is a lonely life, but it is not so, you are in the company of the characters that you are writing about and we often live in the past. It is an excellent exercise for your brain. In this book you will find, Nepali, Bengali and Hindi words in italics, which I have not translated, as I expect my readers to be smart enough to figure them out.
Q: How long did you take to finish this book?
A: Ohh, these are stories that I wrote a long time ago, they were sitting at home, stacked up. They have all been printed in magazines and newspapers, and I had never bothered to compile them together. My friends and relatives kept pestering me to compile them. And many people in Kalimpong who are fond of my writings wanted a book that they could read. I was dilly-dallying, trying here and there, not successful. Eventually, my cousin wrote to Notion Press and after that, they got in touch with me and asked me to do certain things, which was a long process.
Q: What were the ordeals that you had to go through during the process of print?
A: when I said I wanted to print some old photographs, (in the last few pages of the book) they were giving me all kinds of excuses. So Bharat Mani (member of Rotary) asked me to tell them to do it anyway, and they wanted 300 DPI resolutions, so I insisted them, because without photographs the book is of no use, that is when they printed all kinds of photographs and sent me the copies, I asked for more copies, but very unfortunately, they have not been able to send me even during the time of launch, but the book is available in Amazon and Flipkart.
Q: When are you preparing for your second book?
A: There are enough articles/stories that I have written (in the past) for another book… it is ready, but then I have to go through the horrible exercise of correcting them, and that takes time and energy like anything. So, once that is over, another one will be printed.
Q: What will the other book be about?
A: It will be about Kalimpong of more recent years, like… about the people of Kalimpong, people who were well known in Kalimpong, who lived here and who made a difference here.
Q: When did you start writing?
A: I started writing since I was a child, it just used to come, and I used to write and throw it away and forget about it, it went on and on for years but I had not done anything constructive like putting a shape and putting it together. I slowly started sending them to newspapers and magazines
Q: When did you start writing for newspapers and magazines?
A: Some 10 years ago.
Q: what are the things that you have been writing now?
A: I haven’t written anything recently, it’s just that I have written a lot of stuff before, now which I am trying to get together to separate sections of books…before I die, I better produce all the stories that I have got. The whole problem is, I like to write a lot of things, I write and forget about it, I don’t want to revise it and go through it… it is horrible. So the piles of handwritten things are stacked up in the house.
Q: Do you also believe that writing is an introvert’s job?
A: Not at all, I don’t believe that at all, and I am not an introvert.
Q: How do you feel to have a physical book in your hand after these many years?
A: Ohh, that’s the most wonderful feeling you can ever have.
Q: Had you been dreaming about this for a long time?
A: Yes, I had, and I had this particular idea about this photograph of my cover right from the beginning, and I wouldn’t have anything else, this (cover page) was what I wanted and nothing else.
Q: There are many writers in town lately, what advice would you like to give to them?
A: Writers, writers, and writers, all have different ideas about writings; you cannot give them advice at all. It is up to them to figure it out by themselves. Some write for their living, some write for pleasure, some write to impress somebody, or just for the sake of writing … it is something like that. There are so many categories of people who write for different reasons.
Q: What is your reason for writing, then?
A: I have no reason what so ever, as I said, it is a compulsion, I just have to write, otherwise I feel that I have not done something at all, I feel that my time has been wasted, whatever comes to my mind, whatever I see, I have to write it down and that eases my brain and makes me feel that I have done something positive. Whether it is published or not, it really doesn’t matter, what matters is to get it out of my system. That is important to me.
Q: You said that you have no idea about computers, how did you manage this book?
A: You have no idea, I had never handled one or never grew up with one, nobody ever taught me how to use it, I had a great difficulty, I have just learnt to type with ‘one finger’ and then the paragraphs go up and down, I have a lot of troubles putting it together (Chuckles) All that has been a nightmare to me. Jonah was there to help me (Jonah from the Rotary digital library) it was a huge problem when he was not there. (Out of the context, I am soon going to visit my son in America and he is a computer expert, which is an irony. )
Q: What was your time schedule to visit the Rotary library?
A: I am a very lazy, laid back person, after a good Bengali lunch, I take a siesta, and I had been used to it all my life, then suddenly, I have to get it going, therefore I used to miss my sleep, I used to lie down just for one hour instead of three, and then I would go off to the library, because I was determined to finish the correction, each time I correct it, the publishers wanted something else. Oh My God, I remember, it was hell. So those went on and on, corrections after corrections and eventually I said I have had enough, enough is enough. However, I spent most of my time there correcting the manuscript.
Q: How many times did you re-write the manuscript?
A: More than 20 times, Notion Press sent me the very last bit one day, and then they said, ‘Mrs De, this is the last correction you do’ so they sent me this whole manuscript and I went through it, and I only found one fine mistake, which was good. But now, while flipping the book, I find that they have made more mistakes than I have made, ‘printing mistakes.’
Q: My last question to you, Mrs De, with time we have seen technology evolving, how do you, as a writer, compare kindle with physical books?
A: When I write, I prefer pen and paper, it’s easy to sit in bed and write; you scratch it off and do whatever you want. But doing that in the computer seems so much simpler, but that has no personal touch for me. Writing in a paper is something where I have a personal touch. Even though it is difficult for corrections, it’s the same with books. We would like to touch it, feel it, smell it and look at the words, go back–forth, you have something tangible on your hands, and that makes a lot of difference, otherwise holding a tablet is ridiculous, there is no personal feeling towards it at all. For example, the National Geography magazine, such beautiful smell they had, I loved it.
De is very dynamic, it gave us immense pleasure to meet and interview her. I hope you guys will find inspiration in each answer that she has given.
We will be back with other local stories until then, take care and keep reading. 🙂