On October 31, 1984 the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, was shot 32 times by her trusted Sikh bodyguards. The city of Delhi as well as other parts of the country erupted in chaos as gangs of marauding men stalked and killed Sikh families, burning homes and businesses. The final number of murdered victims is still debated. I believe that 3,000 is generally accepted as an estimate.
I was not in India during the riots but I was in the neighboring country of Nepal. While I sat in a coffee shop on Freak Street, travellers crossing the border brought stories of what was happening in India. This was during a time when there was no internet so much of our news came from English newspapers and real life accounts.
The stories of brutality were shocking and frightening. I was filled with fear and resisted going back to India. But a week later, I crossed the border, and ran into no difficulties for the next six weeks of travelling. When I returned to Canada I wrote long passages about some of my experiences. Over the years, I added to the file and eventually had about 30,000 words of what can only be called – freefall writing. There was no punctuation, no capitals, and no paragraph breaks. There was also no narrative line but there were the beginnings of two characters: a girl and a boy who were falling in love; she was from Canada and he was Indian.
It was out of this very raw material that the story of Karma had its seeds. Because it was initially written with no intention of being anything more than drivel – random thoughts and memories in a computer file – the language was free-flowing, the descriptions were over the top, and the emotions between the two characters were raw, passionate, romantic. Looking back, I think this is a great way to create material for a novel. Diaries are good because they often record details and facts but freefall writing allows all parts of the brain to become engaged: truth and fiction merge, a single image becomes dominant for a page or two, and even our own personal longings are allowed complete unedited freedom. Of course, I also think it’s a good idea to put away such writing so when it comes out again, it’s a surprise, a gift from one’s younger self. My Indian freefall writing lay dormant for over twenty years and when I uncovered it, it practically flew off the page screaming what took you so long to write this story?
Karma is very much my love story to India. But it’s also my love story to a younger not-yet-writer who in a flurry of writing, put her impressions down and allowed herself to be wild.