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Talking Books

Anmol Sandhu talks to Sonia Chauhan about her book This Maze of Mirrors

Hi Joanna. Thanks for talking to The Wise Owl


RS: Your collection of Cherita ‘river lanterns’ has been released recently. Our readers would be eager to know (as I am) what inspired you to write this beautiful collection of 90 virgin Cherita. 


JA:  I have been published in Ai Li’s Cherita journals for a while and love writing in this form.  I mentioned in my email correspondence to Ai Li that I aspired to have my own Cherita collection published.  She offered to edit my selection of poems from a large selection that I sent her.  I would say my inspiration came from reading Ai Li’s own collections of her Cherita verse, they are so beautiful. 


When I began writing these, I was mindful to really show me as not only a writer but as the person beneath and how the Cherita form bends to the art of storytelling.  It took me some time to write these and I am delighted with the narrative that Ai Li made with her choices for my book.  When another person chooses, they can distance themselves from your work and look critically at what you have sent.  It was a real honour for me to entrust the creator of the Cherita with my work.



RS: Your book is a collection of Cherita verse. Cherita is a genre of recent origin (1997). Tell us what attracted you to this genre of poetry. Were there any creative influences in your life that encouraged you to adopt this genre as your own.


JA:  I am attracted to this genre of poetry as I hold a deep reverence for Ai Li’s poetry and the short form poetry forms as a collective.  I was excited to see that Ai Li had developed this new genre.  She published my short form verse in the 1990s in her journal Still and I was sad when this was no longer in print.  I enjoyed the challenge of learning how to write this new form and find it really resonates with me as a writer.


I discovered her new form of Cherita and was hooked by these story gems.  I really admire the way that the Cherita journals are produced and enjoy reading the work within these.  As a writer it is important to keep on working at your craft and I love it when I get to enjoy the work of a fellow poet in the same genre. 


RS: River Lanterns has been edited and published by ai li, the creator of Cherita as a genre. How was the experience of connecting with the doyen of Cherita and having her select your Cherita?


JA:  As I mentioned earlier Ai Li had published my work in the 90s, then through offering Cherita to her for publication, the connection was reborn.  I have always enjoyed reading Ai Li’s poetry and I have found her to be a gracious supporter of my Cherita.  Sending my work to the creator of the genre I think really made me conscious that I had to elevate my writing to meet the standards to have enough quality Cherita for my own individual collection.  The experience is something that I will treasure as I now have a collection published other people can enjoy and will hopefully encourage them to do the same.


RS: Cherita is said to be a unique form of storytelling…storytelling in 6 lines. M Kei says that Cherita verse ‘combine the evocative power of tanka with the narrative of a personal story, like the vignettes we glimpse as we sit in a café and watch the world go by.’ Do you agree ? For the benefit of the readers would you please elaborate on this.


JA:  Yes, I think M Kei’s insight is correct.  Cherita to me contain the voice/song/whispers around the campfire as the stories unfold.  They can be written about such a wide range of experiences, focused through the lens of the individual. I love the power of tanka, and I see Cherita as a close cousin, both forms use beautiful language to sing a fragment of the world that we live in.


RS: I feel what differentiates Cherita from narrative storytelling, is that it tells a story about life & our spiritual journey. This is very true of your Cherita:


have you
found it yet

the fun arcade

where wishes
are the alchemy
of breath


What are your thoughts on this?


JA:  Yes, I feel a real connection with Cherita and my spiritual side.  This is an element that attracts me to using this form.  It allows me to explore and highlight aspects that may not be accepted in other types of verse.  The Cherita can be used as a blank canvas for me to embed my perspective of my inner and outer world through stories. 


RS: What are the themes or stories you have touched upon in your various Cherita verse?


JA:  Where to begin…  The Cherita in this collection provides a map of my highs and lows.  They reveal how I see the world and feel about it.  I enjoy adding elements of fairytales, myths, rich imagery, and aspects of the natural world.  The importance of love, loss, friendship, connections, truth etc. all are within.  The Cherita captures a moment of beauty, in time, often of universal things that happen to all of us but told from the narrator’s perspective.    Often there is a vein of spirituality running through the verse.



RS: There are some cherita terbalik also in your collection. For the benefit of our readers please tell us how this form is different from Cherita and why we need a different syllable arrangement for this form of poetic storytelling


JA:  The Cherita terbalik also tells a story but ‘terbalik’ is the Malay word for upside down or reversal (   It is a different arrangement of the original Cherita stanza format.  By using another variation of the Cherita format it enables the writer to alter the flow of the story that they are telling, such as the example from my collection below:


the ruby shoes

the glass slipper

the fairy dust


as a child

I imagined all


in my cupboard


To me this verse is stronger with the terbalik arrangement.  Writing Cherita I make a judgement as to which stanza suits the flow of the story.


RS: Do you also write in other genres like haiku, senryu, tanka, haibun on a regular basis?  Which is your favorite genre among all these genres (we know your fondness for Cherita of course)


JA:  Yes, I also write in other genres such as haiku, senryu, tanka, Haibun and other short form verse.  I began writing contemporary poetry first and then I discovered haiku when I was looking for poetry journals to read and subscribe to.   I fell in love with haiku and feel that they are the guardians of nature and our world.  I find short form poetry very special; these dewdrops of tiny forms really capture a sense of the world around us. 


I see the bonds between these genres as strings from the same bow –


the heart harp


wind and rainfall

skeins from sky


this humming

of a melody

our soul bonds


Selecting a favourite is like asking a parent to choose a child.  They all hold a place in my heart.  I began with haiku and then progressed to tanka – aspects of the heart.  These are the two that led me into this world of short form poetry and were my entry point for exploring and discovering other genres.  I wouldn’t like to be without any one of them as they each offer a different way to express aspects of the world and my own life journey. 


RS: What advice would you give budding poets of Cherita verse?


JA:  The advice I would give to writers of any verse is to READ, READ, READ.  Study the form, work on your craft, support the journals that publish them – if you want to write them, then surely you will enjoy reading them. Write, keep on writing and honing, learning the form, find your own style/voice, make connections in the writing world – even if online and listen and appreciate editorial advice – they have a vast range of experience, and this is how you grow as a writer.  The short form poetry world is a beautiful, supportive place.  When you buy a journal that publishes Cherita verse or another genre, be open to learning and see how well other writers use the form.  Try and buy the collections of writers that you admire, this keeps our writers’ world vibrant and alive.


Thank you, Joanna, for taking time out to talk to The Wise owl about your beautiful book. We wish you the best and hope you make this unique storytelling genre rich with your verse.


Thank you so much for asking me to talk to you. 

Village M.JPG

Publisher ‏ : ‎ Pippa Rann Books (December 16, 2022)

Language ‏ : ‎ English

Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 296 pages

Rachna Singh, Editor, The Wise Owl, talks to Dr Varghese Mathai about ‘The Village Maestro’, his collection of micro stories

Talking Books

(Rachna Singh, Editor, The Wise Owl, talks to Dr Varghese Mathai about ‘The Village Maestro’, his collection of micro stories)

Thanks for talking to The Wise Owl, Dr Varghese.

RS: Please tell us what inspired you to put together your collection of micro stories, ‘The Village Maestro.’


VM: Delighted to be here, Dr. Singh.  Thank you for your kind invitation.

The idea of a class opener story struck me at my career start in an American classroom. The college that hired me had a practice of volunteer “class devotions” which was a quick sharing of a word of spiritual inspiration. However, the students generally were not much upbeat about it.  Noticing their apathy, I asked them if it would be okay if I did it for them every time we met.  Oh, their joy and relief at what they heard were of no ordinary measure.  So, from the next day onwards I started every class with a quick tale, told within 3-4 minutes. Initially they were a bit puzzled. As the event played over the next day and the next, the story was set to stay. Pretty soon I had students come to my office asking for the story of the previous day if by chance they missed the class.  I worked at this institution for five years, and then moved on. Either necessity or beguiling opportunities baited me away to other institutions, but at every place the story stayed on as my vocational signature, as it were. The story became a kind of campus news. All students, even those I was not teaching, knew about it.  Some shared the tales with their parents. “Is the man writing it all down somewhere?” a student’s mother reportedly asked her. There were frequent queries to see if the stories would come out as a collection. At times, the alumni would call for a fresh telling of a story here or there, or for permission to use the stories in their own writings or presentations. So, in a word, this collection is a response to my primary audience’s request.

RS: How did the idea of starting a class in college with a parable or a moral story come to you?

VM:  I always knew that a well-told story is a power tool with a ready heart-connect. There is use and pleasure in a story. Whereas dry theory stresses out a learner, a parable or a pleasing fable wins grateful friends. It has an inherent ability to edify, without being preachy.  I treasure my daily story like Israel gathering the daily manna in the desert.  I can’t recall a day I didn’t have it.  Sometimes multiple stories would be vying within me for their chance to be voiced.  Every story that I would have the instinct to use, I have also found, would have a “spiritual quotient” in its “personality.” I won’t have to do anything to manifest it.    

RS: As a child studying in a convent, I remember that our morning assembly always ended with a moral story. We had separate ‘Moral science’ classes where we were made to read and discuss parables or stories that came wrapped in a moral. As children we would absorb it all. But as we grow up & become worldly-wise (?), we unfortunately tend to become sceptical. Clearly your storytelling abilities would have been phenomenal to breach the barrier of scepticism and achieve a student fan-following with your micro-stories. Do tell us how you made your classes so special.

VM: You are blessed to have come through those houses of excellence that both taught you great stories and shaped your own stories of success in life. 

I am certainly no star power storyteller. I have learned, however, that truth has a bold power of beauty in it, which lends an automatic moral authority to its possessor.  When that truth is couched in a simple tale, it rocks.

Good humans are always ready for yet another story, especially one told in crafted brevity.  Also, no story exists that is not moral or spiritual.  Humans are spiritual beings primarily, although regrettably we let our spiritual capacities fade out.


RS: As I browsed through your book, I realised that your stories encompass all cultures the world over and draw upon literature, science, economics, scriptures et al. Stories of King Solomon’s temple, the Jewish brothers, Cicero’s slave, Asimov’s ego, the young czar, the village maestro, the Sudras in India, John Donne, all rub shoulders in your book. Our readers would be eager to know what was the main source of this fount of knowledge-were they stories told by word of mouth by family elders or was it extensive research and reading on your part that led you to these nuggets?

VM: Good question.  You have met many of the denizens of my tales.  Thank you very much!  I am always gathering narrative material with inspirational pulse.  I spot it in readings, conversations with people of sharp insight or rich life experience, and certainly of spiritual intelligence. Spiritual people say things that others can’t, and they sound simple, yet original. When something strikes me as too good to let go, I make a note of it, especially when it could lead to the birthing of a story.  Invariably, the quick story also tends to come with its own simple, or even pithy, core lesson, a moral thesis, if you will.

RS: Each story in your collection offers a nugget of wisdom. In fact, the more spiritually inclined reader might like to begin the day with one such story. What was the idea or value you looked for specifically when picking a story for your book?

VM:  Fantastic! I have had some readers already write to me that they are going to read the book over as a meditation cycle of a parable a day. A reviewer wrote that the book should go bannered, “teachable lessons and preachable parables.” The “nugget” that you speak of is the soul of the story. It is not mine at all. It lives in the story’s spiritual core.  It may take a brief service of natal care for its public showing. The prime value I look for in the story is the soul’s assent from within, saying something like, “Ah, I needed to hear that, thank you!”

RS: We have been fortunate enough to grow up with RK Narayan’s Under the Banyan tree & The Malgudi Days and the characters of Nambi and Swami. You have alluded to the character of Nambi in your introduction. Do tell us a little about how and why the character of Nambi influenced you as a storyteller. As the omnipresent narrator in your book, do you see yourself as Nambi or an avatar of the village maestro or perhaps a mix of both?


VM: I suppose you have sensed my tender sentiments toward both men.  The common ground the two share, as Narayan speaks of himself elsewhere autobiographically, is their “non-economic” manner of living.  The story is Nambi’s only asset in life.  In the abortive delivery of his final nightly tale Nambi performs his tragic finale.  The Maestro belongs to a loftier world.  He cannot be bribed or bullied.  His music is the breath of life that never dies.  Dispossessed of his song, the Maestro will die, like Nambi.  I’m not sure how my own journey will end, but when the time comes, I would be content to end it with one more tale for a cordial crowd under my own banyan tree.  

RS: My favourite stories among your collection are ‘The Village Maestro’ & ‘A Pair of Legs.’ Which stories did you enjoy putting together most, in terms of the moral values they expound and the framework of the story they tell?


VM: Thank you!  Your pick of the Maestro is a great vote for the book’s title.  “A Pair of Legs” is an image that can only come from a gifted, spiritual intellect like John Donne’s. For me, every tale was a pleasure to construct, some from memory and some from spot impressions. The critical test was whether or not the tale had your “nugget” in it that none can argue with. “The Trees of Belize,” for instance, was simple yet profound as its entire projection occurred in two minutes—two trees, the POISON TREE and the MEDICINE TREE standing fifty feet apart, the sting of evil in the former getting undone by the provision of healing in the latter. What better way can there be to show that for every malady, there is a remedy in this universe?  Or if you would like to go a bit deeper, if a forbidden tree brought death to the world as Milton sings, didn’t, as a result, “one greater Man [also] restore us, and regain the blissful seat”?   


RS: I believe you are working on a translation study of the works of poet K V Simon of South India called ‘the Milton of India.’ Please tell us a little about what made you pick up this project. When is your translation likely to hit the bookstores?

VM: K. V. Simon is a very learned, 20th century poet and reformer of Miltonic caliber. Whatever Milton has done in England in Literature and Faith, Simon did in Kerala, his home state in India. Like Milton, he was a polyglot, who knew at least twelve languages.  At the age of 7 he composed samasyas or poetic riddles, which only seasoned poets could have done.  At 13 Simon became a licensed teacher.  He composed music and was a talented vocalist. In his early twenties he had the first edition of 250 hymns in over 70 ragas published, now appearing in classical hymnals across denominations.  Newspaper baron K. C. Mammen Mappilai of Malayala Manorama offered him any position of his choosing with Manorama, but Simon declined the offer because his mission was spiritual.  Mammen Mappilai requested Simon to write a singable verse narrative of a book of the Bible just as Ezhuthachen, the Father of Malayalam, has done with the Ramayana.  Within twelve months Simon completed his 12,000-line VEDAVIHARAM, a verse rendition of the fifty chapters of the Book of Genesis in fourteen Dravidian meters. The work stands as a ready peer to Milton’s Paradise Lost. 

In oratory, Simon was unexcelled; he could disarm any opponent by his learning, yet in humility, as a teacher to thousands. Simon stilled the interreligious hostilities of his era through dialogue and debate. He founded knowledge magazines which became the official voice of his own Reformation movement called Viyojitha [noncomformist] in Kerala where Christianity had existed from AD 52 onwards.  In his public life of four decades from WW I through WW II Simon addressed massive gatherings just about every day.  He wrote thirty books of prose and thousands of articles for a range of publications.  His home was a gurukula where learners of all ages lived as one household, all gratis. 

As a literary man, Simon is in the ranks of the great laureates.  As a spiritual man, he was a Reformer who did for Kerala no less than what Luther or Wesley did for their nations.  I felt that a country grave in South India should not obscure such a poet-prophet to the non-Malayalee world. Yes, I am pleased to tell you that Bloomsbury Publishing is set to release MAHAKAVI K. V. SIMON: THE MILTON OF THE EAST in October 2023.  The book offers a biography of Simon, a quick overview of the Malayalam language in which Simon wrote, and translations of his touchstone texts.

RS: In a day and age when books and stories mostly dwell upon dark themes of dysfunction, frustration, black sorrow and anger, it must have taken courage for you to walk a different path. Where did you get this courage of conviction? What advice would you give budding writers?

VM: Your comment on the times and trends is beyond contest.  I have often wondered why we would want to espouse the damning power of the dark when the healing virtue of light is for us to own. All I can say, or perhaps need to, is that it is a matter of election.  Our choices end up shaping us. 

RS: Thank you so much Dr Varghese for taking time out to talk about your book. We wish you the best in all your literary endeavours and hope that you make the world a better and wiser place with your tales of sagacity and wisdom.

VM: So glad that the Village Maestro made this meeting possible.  Thank you for your kind invitation and our time together.  My warm regards to The Wise Owl readers.    

About Dr Varghese Mathai
VM seated headshot (table).jpg

Dr Varghese Mathai is a successful professor and program leader; curricula and course writer for degree, graduate and customized programs; designed and directed Honors and Study Abroad programs; trained and mentored faculty through Teaching & Learning Centers; taught courses in British Poetry, Writing, Literature of Spirituality, and World Literature; current focus on Translation Literature, specifically the writings of South India’s Malayalam Poet K.V. Simon and his contemporaries..

Dr Varghese has authored The Malabar Mandate: A Life of Volbrecht Nagel. GLS, 2013, The Malabar Mandate: A Life of Volbrecht Nagel. Second Edition. Zurich: ICHE, 2015 & The Village Maestro and One Hundred Other Stories. Cambridge, UK: Pippa Rann Books & Media, 2022. His forthcoming book is Mahakavi K. V. Simon: The Milton of the East. London: Bloomsbury, 2023


About Rachna Singh
Rachna Singh (2).JPG

A doctorate in English literature and a former bureaucrat, Rachna Singh has authored Penny Panache (2016) Myriad Musings (2016) Financial Felicity (2017) & The Bitcoin Saga: A Mixed Montage (2019). She writes regularly for National Dailies and has also been reviewing books for the The Tribune for more than a decade. She runs a YouTube Channel, Kuch Tum Kaho Kuch Hum Kahein, which brings to the viewers poetry of established poets of Hindi & Urdu. She loves music and is learning to play the piano.

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