Monday, March 18, 2013

Interview With Author Bulbul Bahuguna

Author of The Ghosts That Come Between Us

1. What is your debut novel about?  My novel is about a young girl who has a tumultuous childhood. She (Nargis) was raised from being raised by a visionary, yet authoritarian father. Growing up, Nargis secures her role as the 'family favorite', and she gives her father good reason to anoint her to this special place, which she works extra hard at maintaining. As she thrives on the attention showered by her father, she innocently finds herself thrown into an incestuous relationship with him. Nargis is still a child. Of course she does not know how to handle her new life. One day, when she is about 13 years old, she kills her bad father in her diary. "I hate him for what he has done," she writes. "He is an evil man, and God punishes evil men. Let him be swallowed by the Earth, go to hell, and burn eternally." She buries her diary under household junk, and puts it away in a box in the attic. "Now that I had killed the bad father and forgiven the bad me," she writes, "I can finally be myself.”  But as you will read, the bad father never really dies. Actually, he comes back as a ghost from the past to contaminate her adult relationships. The book shows how she comes to terms with this.

2. Your novel takes us through post-Independence India, Communist Russia, and the suburbs of Chicago. What does the reader come to know of these places and times in our recent history? These are three different places, in three different continents. In post-independence India, the reader sees  a nation that is free, but not quite free from a colonial imprint on its governance, architecture, and customs. It is a new country that struggles to define itself, a nation with a proud heritage of ancient civilization, where education and enterprise continue to thrive as the nation matures, but, perhaps, not fast enough.Communist Russia was a totalitarian regime, with a total disregard for personal freedom at a state level. But it is also a country that has excelled in science, literature, and art. And it is made up of caring and hospitable people who have everyday problems like the rest of the world, and who show compassion for family, friends, and strangers. Chicago is new world for the protagonist, Nargis, where a huge premium is placed on individuality and freedom of expression, and where liberty is fiercely defended.  Since living in all these three places has been such an enriching experience, for me, I have tried to convey the landscape of each of these settings to the reader in my novel.

3. Bulbul, as someone who was raised in India, can you enlighten us on the culture there? Given that the culture in India is so rich and complex, it is hard to do justice to this question in just a few words. India is a large nation, with many languages and many sub-cultures. It is a land where color explodes in your face, and all your sensory modalities will be simultaneously stimulated.  However, while one of the world's first female Prime Ministers came from India, it is largely a patriarchal society with male dominance at all levels of the social order. It is a nation, I am sorry to say, where female feticide is one of the highest in the world.

4. You also studied medicine in Moscow during the end of Communist rule. What was the experience like? My experience relates to both living in Moscow and studying in Moscow during the Cold War. As I have narrated in my novel, for Nargis, returning to India after studying in the USSR was a bit like reliving the life of Rip Van Winkle, both in terms of current events and pop culture. One of the key episodes I can recall is a visit by Richard Nixon in May of 1972. I vividly remember, it was a bright sunny day as the high-speed motorcade rolled through the main boulevard that could be viewed from the dorm room windows. The KGB was posted in the rooms to make sure that the cheering students were kept under control. It felt rather eerie, as if, WE were hiding from the “enemy”? I was shocked about how little media coverage this historical visit received. In contrast, Time and Newsweek issues conveyed a very different story.  Now, as far as medicine goes, in Communist Russia there was a big emphasis on basic healthcare for all, albeit, mostly regimented, with specialist care just for the elitist few. However, in the area of mental health, it is interesting to note that scores of political prisoners were falsely diagnosed with schizophrenia, medicated  and held captive in psychiatric units. But by the same token, the Russians are a caring people who have also had the same struggles like other people all over the world, eg., living with an alcoholic parent, suffering abuse, illness, and loss of loved ones.

5. As a National Trustee of the American India Foundation, a leading charity involved in accelerating social change in India, can you shed light on how the treatment of women in the world’s largest democracy lags behind other countries? India is a dichotomous nation, and a land with multiple facets and controversies. It is difficult to understand, how, in a nation that has a tradition of adulation and respect for the Hindu Goddess of education, Saraswati, and the Hindu Goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, women are objectified  and marginalized. There is still a sense of feudal entitlement over a woman. She is reduced to being just a body or a vessel, a piece of property, as is evidenced in the recent gang rape of a woman in New Delhi that has forced a nation to collectively address its demons. The American India Foundation works with local NGOs in India to empower women through education and livelihood to change families.

6. As a psychiatrist in America, you have helped treat many individuals over issues of family dysfunction and sexual victimization. How does your professional experience relate to your novel? Even though the novel is about an Indian girl raised in India, many of her conflicts and struggles with family dysfunction and sexual victimization are cross-cultural, i.e., having to cope with blame, guilt, and shame, as well as secrecy, stigma, and self-flagellation, feeling stuck, and having difficulty moving on.
I have been a psychiatrist for 22 years, and have treated scores of patients with abuse issues. My professional experience helped me to step into the shoes of the protagonist as well as the supporting cast, which enabled me to tell as authentic a story as is possible, with multiple points of view reflected in a layered manner.

7. Your book also sheds light on how one tries to cope, at a certain level, over the past. What is the role of forgiveness in the recovery process?  This is a short question to a long answer. First of all, in order to address feelings of guilt and shame, it is important to forgive oneself to move on. The first step towards this goal is to UNDERSTAND what happened, that the victim was NOT the instigator of the crime. You see, often times, a sexual abuse victim takes the blame, simply because she feels guilt about her body being aroused sexually. The next step is to start the work of processing the feelings HONESTLY. It is equally important to work on forgiving the family, and, if at all possible, the perpetrator as well. In the epilogue, Nargis addresses the question of forgiveness. She says, and I quote, "I have been able to forgive my siblings, because they are also survivors. I hope that I will be able to forgive my mother during her lifetime."  And as far as her father goes, she tends to over-intellectualize by saying, "I think of him not as my father, but as a person who just chanced his way into my life. A person whose cells changed so many times during his lifetime, that even though he started out as my father he ended up as a completely different person --- a stranger who molested me."

8. Your story is about innocence lost. How can society prevent such a tragedy? Through education, education, and education, of both men and women,  to develop self-esteem and self-reliance. And through easy access to mental health in schools and a healthy support system. It is critical to increase the awareness of abuse issues, which I hope to accomplish through my novel. The role of social media is crucial in furthering the awareness of abuse issues. The platforms now available have the capability to deliver such awareness at unprecedented speed. The key is to have such platforms accessible across all socio-economic strata of society. People have been coming forth telling their stories and experiences of abuse. This helps others understand and learn new coping tools to deal with such issues in their own lives, and take solace in the fact that they are not alone. The role of the media in furthering this cause is through film, television and radio is equally critical. All these efforts will certainly help reduce the stigma associated with sexual abuse, galvanize people resources, and direct people to getting the right kind of help and attention they deserve.
9. What inspired you to write The Ghosts That come Between Us, and why is it so important that this story be told? Listening to the heart-wrenching stories of scores of people in my professional work as a psychiatrist compelled me to create a fictional character, Nargis. She is a composite character made from many people I have had the privilege of knowing during my life, who have demonstrated the courage to cope with the struggles of childhood abuse, and the abandonment and loss of loved ones.
My goal in writing this novel is to enhance the awareness of abuse issues, help victims of family dysfunction obtain solace in the thought that they are not alone, and acquire coping tools to move on in their lives. Even though the characters in my novel are fictional, Nargis' story is indeed a universal one.

10. What advice can you give to a girl or young woman who is trying to come to terms with the abusive relationships in her life? There is a lot one can say. First of all, it takes a lot of courage to talk about abuse. So EMPOWER yourself and get help. Start by taking an HONEST inventory of your feelings. Sometimes narrative therapy through journaling and self-reflection can be helpful. Get help on acquiring different coping tools, including mindfulness and radical acceptance, to name just a few. Work on personal growth and self-reliance, healthy boundaries with others, building a sound support system to ground yourself, putting more structure in your life, finding purpose and meaning in life through giving to others, and, most importantly, finding gratitude for something, however small, every day in your life. As you can see, I've used the word 'work' several times, because recovery IS work. In fact, recovery is a work in progress. So please be patient. Remember always, it's not your fault.

11. Your story takes place starting in the 1950s and 1960s. Have times changed for the better a half-century later when it comes to looking at how women are treated and how we view victims of abuse? Absolutely. People across the globe are working toward a society that does not discriminate based on gender. The stigma of sexual abuse is slowly diminishing, and there is far greater willingness not only to get help, but also to help the victims and survivors. The recent national outcry in India against the gang rape of Braveheart speaks to this societal change, and it is a tribute to the Indian media that they did not disclose her name. People have demanded that rape cases not languish in court for 10 years, but be put on a fast track for justice. But there is a lot of work ahead.

12. You pose the question to your readers: Can one experience define your life? What is the answer? There is no easy way to answer this question. Each person may have his or her own way to respond. As such, I will leave this question open-ended for now to be discussed in book clubs.
Now here is another very interesting question for the reader to reflect on. Can a healer be too wounded to heal others?               

13. You chose to tell the story through the poignant first-person narration of a young girl struggling to come to grips with her past. How is that method a powerful way to connect with your reader? Several readers have told me that they get goose bumps when they read the story of Nargis. I decided to step into the shoes of Nargis, so I could walk through the same streets, sights, and sounds that she did --- through agony, hate, and love --- through fear, heartache, and longing. I want to empathize with her and try to understand everything SHE feels, so that I can communicate that first hand to my reader.
Through self-talk Nargis says it all: The most brutally honest thoughts, and the most floridly distorted ones as well. Sometimes she expresses feelings that the reader may also have felt, but is afraid to acknowledge. My intent was to make Nargis a very likable and relatable character. She could easily be anyone. She could be someone the reader knows. She could be the reader herself.

14. What are some of the inspirational lessons readers will be left with? I would like to leave the reader with the thought that hope triumphs over despair. But hope without honesty and perseverance is not good enough. Nargis is daring and candid. A key take-away from my book is this: To be brave, is to be honest. It is unfortunate that a person has either been abused himself/herself, or knows someone who has been abused. I cannot emphasize how important it is to believe the victim. Silence only enables the crime. I do believe that Nargis is in each one of us, and can be found in every home.

15. How autobiographical is your book?  Some of the places, landscapes, chronology, time period and milestones that are experienced by the protagonist are similar to those that I have also experienced growing up. I have been asked if I am Nargis, and, as a writer, I take it as a complement that I have been able to convey the character of Nargis to seem so true to life. Unfortunately, my own life is not as colorful as Nargis'. She is certainly more honest with her feelings, and far more determined and daring.

16. Why does life look so different through the eyes of a child versus an adult?  Unlike an adult, where bias and judgment creep in and relationships become far more complicated, a child sees life in a rather simplistic, unfiltered, and honest way. There is no deception or double meaning. As Nargis says in my novel, in her child voice, "Adults still usually seemed to mean what they said, or did not say. Children still seemed to have little ulterior motive in what they did, or did not do."

Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer, the nation’s largest book promoter. Please note Bulbul is a client of Media Connect, the PR firm that I work for.  You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This blog is copyrighted material by BookMarketingBuzzBlog 2013 ©

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