Good readers make good writersSaguna Shah talks about her reading habit and how it has helped her become who she is today.
Saguna Shah is a writer, actor and the founder of BOOkahOlics, Nepal’s biggest online book club. She is currently playing the lead role in Shilpee Theatre’s play ‘Bimoksha’. She also teaches communication skills, French and academic writing to students of Bachelor’s in International Hospitality and Tourism Management at Silver Mountain School of Hotel Management and life writing to Masters in English Literature students at Dillibazar Kanya Multiple Campus.
In an interview with The Post’s Anweiti Upadhyay, Shah talks about her reading habit and how it has helped her become who she is today.
How did you start reading?
I think my reading habit developed in school. We used to have a reading hour where we just read story books and abridged versions of novels.
I loved detective mysteries and adventure stories when I was younger. So, I read a lot of Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie. Some of the first books I remember reading are ‘Robinson Crusoe’, ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’, ‘The Famous Five’ series and the Sherlock Holmes stories.
I read everything I could get my hands on. My mother is a big reader, too, so I’d attempt to read the things she was reading as well. I read things in English, Nepali and Hindi.
How have your reading preferences changed over the years?
I think everyone’s preferences change as they move through life, and so did mine. Right now, I am very into biographies and memoirs. But because I run a book club and we hold monthly discussions called ‘Chakati Bahas’ (cushion discussions), I have to read and be updated about popular books and writing styles.
I usually don’t read fiction or new Nepali releases. That isn’t what I naturally gravitate towards, but I have to for the sake of the book club. Honestly, I didn’t read in Nepali much before.
In general, I prefer non-fiction to fiction in English. But I read across all genres in Nepali.
Which book has had the biggest impact on your life?
This is a very difficult question for a reader to answer. There are so many books that have left lasting impressions on my life. In fact, I’m writing a memoir right now in which I wanted to name the ten books that have impacted me greatly. There are just so many books I couldn’t leave out of this list that I settled on naming this segment ‘20 of my best reads’ instead.
I’ll narrow these down to two for now. This could be a cliche answer coming from a teacher but ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ by Mitch Albom has made a lasting impression on me. It showed me how a teacher could have a life-changing impact on their students even outside of the classroom.
Similarly, the subjugation of women in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood left me with chills and a lot to think about.
Who are your favourite authors?
Jiddu Krishnamurti is my all-time favourite writer. I find life’s answers in his books—especially ‘The First and Last Freedom’.
I’ve come to realise that I really like Indian writers. I love everything by Sashi Tharoor. I enjoy Suketu Mehta’s writings too. I read ‘Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found’ about 11 years ago, and I remember loving it a lot. I actually met him at last year’s Nepal Literature Festival and had a chance to speak to him. Another author I love who was also at the Literature Festival is Shehan Karunatilaka. I just finished reading ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’, and it is a book everyone should read.
As for Nepali writers, I like writers from the older generation more than contemporary writers. The issues they wrote three-four decades back are still relevant today. The writers of today are successful in their own right and are doing well, but somehow I don’t find their work enriching.
Whenever I sit down with the intention of enjoying what I read, I pick BP Koirala, Parijat or Banira Giri’s works.
How has reading helped you in your career and your life in general?
I think the fact that I read makes me more intimidating. Knowledge is a powerful tool which is respected but also feared. When people learn that I read a lot, I have noticed that they create an image of me in their heads which is more austere compared to how I am in real life. This creates a kind of wall between them and me, and I come off as a little ‘unapproachable’. I do not mind this, as I do think it is necessary to be reserved in professional settings sometimes. It keeps some people at arm’s length, which is not always a bad thing.
Reading has also made me calmer and a good listener. Reading is a form of meditation. I don’t fret over things and get carried away as much anymore because of reading.
It has helped me think more analytically and express myself more clearly.
Amidst your busy schedule, how do you find the time to read?
Honestly, the drama I’m doing right now, Bimoksha, is taking up much of my days. So I don’t have much time to actually sit down and read right now. But even during all of this, I did finish reading a couple books.
I was asked to write the blurb for and give feedback on Deepak S Rana’s ‘Dakini’ recently. I also finished ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’, ‘Eklo’ by Buddhisagar, and a short story collection. I carry these books with me wherever I go and read them any chance I get. For example, when I’m stuck in a big traffic jam or when I’m in the hospital waiting room, I whip out a book and start reading. So, I have been reading—I just haven’t had the chance to sit down and spend long hours with books.
Are there authors whose writing styles you like and influence your own work?
I don’t think I am heavily inspired by any author in particular. This, I believe, is something every writer develops on their own. However, I do incorporate tips other writers give out on writing. Indian novelist Shobhaa De has also talked about making writing 2,500 words a day a daily practice. This is a tip I like and utilise.
There is one book on writing that I want to mention here—Haruki Murakami’s ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’. Murakami is a runner, but in this book, he talks about writing and how writers need to make it a daily practice.
Recently, BOOkahOlics organised a creative writing workshop led by Amal Chatterjee and poet Nabin Chhetri where I learned different writing and poetry techniques. I am not big on poetry but in Chhetri’s workshop, I did write poems in a very short time.
Through these workshops, I learned that people have so much potential in them, they just need to learn how to curate and craft it.
Shah’s suggestions to aspiring writers
The first and most basic thing aspiring writers should do is read a lot. Those who are good readers become good writers.
I also think writers should learn how to edit and revise their writing. Sometimes, you might think you’ve written something outstanding. But until you learn to edit your text to tweak things, you will not grow as a writer. There will be times when you will have to completely scrap your writing—even those you feel you’ve written well—and start over.
Put away what you have written for a week and come back to it. You will definitely see things you can improve on.