Kamla K Kapur lives half the year in a remote valley of the Himalayas, and the other half in California, with her huband, Payson R. Stevens.
Tell us about yourself, your background and what you do currently
I started writing at the age of 13 and am still doing at the age of 70. I am the author of several best-selling books: Ganesha Goes to Lunch (Classic Tales from Mystic India); Rumi’s Tales from the Sikh Road (Pilgrimage to Paradise); Rumi: Tales to Live By, The Singing Guru, Into the Great Heart. She has also written two books of poetry, As a Fountain in a Garden (to be reprinted shortly under the title The Gift of Grief), and Radha Sings: Erotic Love Poems. I have written seven full length plays, two of which won national awards in India, and three of which were produced in India, most recently at an international festival at the National School of Drama in February 2016. My books have been published in both India and the USA, where I live for half the year.
My publications from 2007 onwards were reimaging and recreating stories from three different traditions: Hindu, Sufi and Sikh. I believe with all my heart what I have been taught by my gurus from all traditions and especially from the Sikh tradition I inherited at birth, that there is only one race on this planet: the human race; that all religions tap into the same universal root. This egalitarianism is an integral part of Sikhism. The Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, contains the songs of seven Sikh gurus, including Guru Nanak, who composed and sang, and the songs of fifteen Hindu and Sufi saints. I also sincerely believe that this eclecticism has to become part of humankind’s thrust as it moves into the future if we are not to put ourselves in tiny, constricted boxes of our own making. We see this Tug of war between broadening out to include or narrowing to exclude on the world stage, reflected in the human heart and outward into politics. We are morally and ethically obliged to throw in our lots with forces that connect and unify instead of forces that sever.
Tell us about your current projects or initiatives you wish to promote
My latest book, Into the Great Heart, is a sequel to The Singing Guru in the ongoing Sikh Saga Series. Through the interweaving of history, legend, and fiction, brings alive the relationship between Guru Nanak and Bhai Lehna, who became the second Sikh guru, Guru Angad (1504 – 1552). The book is intertwined with the forgotten lives of many female luminaries from Sikh history and the often-overlooked wisdom and insights of women behind the scenes. The book also carries forward and completes the lives of the main protagonists in The Singing Guru, Guru Nanak and his beloved minstrel, Bhai Mardana.
One of my agendas in this book was to make it more female-centric. The Singing Guru had mainly male protagonists and the many historical women — Guru Nanak’s wife, Mata Sulakhni, his sister, Bebe Nanaki, Mata Khivi, Bibi Amro, Guru Angad’s wife and daughter, respectively, Nihali, the woman who gave Lehna shelter — who form part of this enduring saga, were only mentioned in it. Their stories remained unimagined and untold and I had to harken to their voices that spoke to my soul, my gender and the female question that has always existed and continues down to our times, affecting the lives of both genders, societies and cultures at large whose members have been reared, and influenced, by the happiness, peace, or lack thereof, of women. We cannot neglect one half of the equation and hope for wholeness.
There are many hints in accounts of Guru Nanak’s life of Mata Sulakhni being a shrew. As the invented character, Shaitani, says at one point in the book, ‘shrews are made, not born.’ We have to remember the consequences on Guru Nanak’s wife of his being an absent husband and father for many years while he was on his udaasees, or journeys. For those many years Sulakhni was a single mother. Guru Nanak’s absence impacted their children as well, one of whom, Baba Sri Chand, was brought up by Guru Nanak’s sister, Bebe Nanaki. We know from advances in psychology and from sheer common sense that this arrangement must have had emotional consequences for all involved. If we are to bring history up to date, make it relevant for ourselves, we need to see it in the light of contemporary insights, still quite limited, about human nature. Simply put, Guru Nanak’s journeys, and his invaluable and lasting message, had its casualties.
This is not a criticism of Guru Nanak who had to follow his own path in order to leave humankind the message that has resounded for five and a half centuries and will continue to do so till the end of time. It is rather a recognition of the fact that one person’s destiny impacts another’s. This is especially true when it comes to women whose destinies are yoked to the destinies of their husbands. This sort of causal connection, of course, has its exceptions. Bebe Nanaki, by all accounts, was a very saintly person, as was Bibi Amro, who went on to become a preacher.
The feminine question cannot be raised without dealing with the question of patriarchal concepts of God in most religions. The human tendency to anthropomorphize and personify in terms of race and gender, comforting as it may be for many, has the inherent peril of misrepresentation. Personification of the energy we call God, so necessary for sense-bound humanity, is not only erroneous but dangerous without the understanding that it is only a convenient representation of the inherent mystery, awesome energy and power we sense all around and within us. Evidence of the dangers of such falsification is visible on the political, social, domestic, individual/ psychic arenas. This misguided and mainly unconscious tendency has taken many lives and caused much suffering throughout history.
What was your biggest challenge in achieving your success?
It has not been easy being a writer. Writing is hard work. For a thousand years I worked in obscurity, at once doubting myself and being obscenely self- confident. I had no idea then when I strayed into writing in my early teens that I had taken the first step on a journey that was extremely challenging and fraught with obstacles and dangers of all kinds. I did not then know that there would be so much joy and so much sorrow here, that I would be engaged in a constant battle that would require all my inner and outer resources to survive and prevail.
Sooner or later most writers arrive at the realization that the entire matrix of writing is at once joyous and difficult. Our source of joy can also be a source of frustration and sorrow. Which writer worth her salt has not felt doubt on her writing journey? We are all besieged by doubt. The hardest part for me has been and continues to be what Norman Mailer calls “the failure of ego.” Why should anybody want to read what I have to say? Is what I want to say important and meaningful enough? Who am I to compare myself to the best of writers?
What has been your greatest achievement personally?
That I have fulfilled myself as a writer; that I am loyal and committed to the people I love, whether they be family or otherwise; that I have let nothing hold me back. I followed my inborn inclinations in everything, trusting that my destiny was taking me wherever I needed to be. I have been married three times, the last, happily so; I did not have any children because I knew the most important thing for me if I was to live an independent existence was to have money of my own. I pursued a career in teaching and was fortunate enough to get a tenured teaching position in a junior college in California. I took any early retirement because my heart was longing to be a full-time writer. It was a difficult decision, because academic positions provide financial security, but I was ready to follow the call of my heart. It wasn’t as if I didn’t write while I was teaching. I always thought of myself as having two professions, two jobs, and I would frequently get up early in the morning to get my daily quota of writing in. When I am not writing I am not living. But as I grew older it took a toll on my health. My quitting my position was what the Universe wanted me to do.
If you weren’t doing what you do now, what would you be doing?
The wonderful thing about being a writer is that you are always engaged and occupied. I have never wanted to be in any other profession, but sometimes think that if we do reincarnate, I would like to be a singer of classical, sacred songs.
Who has been your biggest inspiration?
My father, my mother, all the wonderful authors I have read and re-read over a life time; my many guides from all traditions who have helped me navigate the stormy seas of my life.
What does the future hold for you?
Who knows? Sickness? Death? More success in writing? More writing? Nobody knows. I only know that I will continue writing for as long as I can.