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Exclusive Interview With Author "Reenita Hora"

Reenita Hora is the unrivaled 'Nora Ephron' of South Asian storytelling, spinning yarns as eclectic as Mumbai's iconic 'Bhel Puri' – a tantalizing concoction of flavors. Her stories star a motley crew of characters caught in the whirlwind of gloriously imperfect scenarios, all while stubbornly refusing to sell out, and her writing, unapologetically Indian, pulses with the rich colors and rhythms of her culture, deftly blending humor and authenticity.

In her previous life, Reenita was a journalist, editor, and writer for platforms like National Geographic Kids, Disney India, Cartoon Network Asia, the New York Times, CNN, Radio Television Hong Kong, and Bloomberg. Her awards and accolades include the Eric Hoffer Book Award, IndieReader Discovery Award, Santa Barbara International Screenplay Award, Script2Comic, Launchpad, and Emerging Screenwriters awards, and second round consideration (OPERATION MOM) for the Sundance Institute Development Slate.

No one-trick pony though, she's the brains behind not one but two rib-tickling podcasts: the 'True Fiction Project' (where reality takes a hilarious nosedive into the scripted world) and 'Shadow Realm' (a magical portal to riveting narrative fiction). She's honed her screenwriting skills through topnotch programs like Writers’ Bootcamp and Roadmap Writers, so you know she means business. And, there’s more! She has optioned her book, Ace of Blades, and her screenplay, SHADOW REALM. What's next? Brace yourself for Festival of Lights published by Harper Collins and Vermilion Harvest: Playtime at the Bagh published by Indignor Press, coming soon to a bookshelf near you!

Write’s Life had an exclusive chance to sit down with Reenita to talk about her career as a writer and her upcoming book, Vermilion Harvest: Playtime at the Bagh. Here is what she had to say:


Tell us a bit about your career as a writer.

Throughout my career, I've worn many hats: journalist, CEO and head of marketing and communications, but at the heart of it all, I've been a storyteller. My professional life was dedicated to amplifying other people's tales—their personal stories, brands and products, buffing them to a shine and setting them out in the world's shop window. Meanwhile, my own literary endeavors, from self-penned books to passion projects, simmered quietly on the back burner.

My journey into writing began with DIY self-help books rooted in Ayurveda, back when I ran an Ayurvedic consultancy in San Francisco. But as life loves to throw curveballs, I found myself packing up and moving to Hong Kong—a move that sparked my career in journalism. Although I had been moonlighting as a freelance print journalist, it was in Hong Kong where I stepped into more formal shoes, first at the city’s public radio station and later at Bloomberg. It was during my stint at RTHK Radio 3 that I penned Money Smart, a guide aimed at middle-class Indian women, along with my first forays into fiction—a young adult novel and a middle-grade book, both of which found a home with Indian publishers, catering specifically to the local market.

During my Bloomberg years and beyond, my personal writing took a back seat. It wasn’t until I decided to quit my full-time role as Head of Marketing & Communications at SRI International that I returned to my first love—writing. But now, full time! I began to pitch my books anew, (this time to both US and Indian publishers), started my own podcasts, and even ventured into the world of screenwriting. I'm thrilled to share that every category of my writing has since been recognized with awards.

You seem to cover a large variety of genres; do you have a favorite? 

Some might label me as curious—and indeed, I am—but above all, I'm an easily bored soul. For me, writing is not just a pastime but a lively dance that keeps boredom at bay. The challenge of diving into new genres is what keeps me agile and excited. The common advice for writers to "stay in your lane" feels constricting to me. Different stories breathe through different tones, styles, and research needs and belong in various nooks of bookstores. Why confine oneself to a single shelf? As a storyteller, I believe such limitations only stifle growth.

Despite my adventurous spirit across genres, I confess a special fondness for young adult literature. I'm most at home exploring the world through the eyes of a teenager, be it a 19-year-old female protagonist experiencing life a hundred years ago in Vermilion Harvest, a 17-year-old Mumbai girl navigating today's challenges in Operation Mom (my YA romantic comedy published by Gen Z Publishing), or a 16-year-old South Asian-American boy delving into the fantastical realms of Indian mythology in my work-in-progress, Shadow Realm.

That said, my repertoire does stretch beyond young adult fiction. My latest venture is publishing my father's memoirs, Ace of Blades, with Jaico Publishing, set to release later this year or early next. So, while young adult stories are my go-to, my writing journey weaves through a broader landscape, ensuring that my creativity is never confined.

Why was it important for you to write Vermilion Harvest: Playtime at the Bagh? 

My fascination with the story behind Vermilion Harvest stretches back to my childhood, rooted deeply in a haunting image from my late grandfather’s youth. He was just a boy when the Jallianwala Bagh massacre unfolded. Days after the tragedy, he passed by the site and saw a pile of slippers at the entrance—silent remnants of those who had perished. This eerie sight left an indelible mark on his young mind, sparking a blend of horror and curiosity that he later passed down to me through his stories.

This tale took on a new dimension during my 11th grade when I acted in a play themed around the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. I won a 'Best Actress' award for my performance. My mother swears that of all the roles I have played, this one was my defining role—she's even convinced I was part of the actual event in a past life!

But the seeds for Vermilion Harvest were not just sown by family stories and theatrical roles; they were also nurtured by my love for poignant love stories. As a teenager, I was deeply moved by Erich Segal’s Love Story, and later, by the epic romance of Titanic. These narratives shaped my understanding of love—not just as a romance but as a powerful, transformative force. Marrying the idea of a love story with the historical depth of Jallianwala Bagh was like striking narrative gold. It led to this powerful fusion of personal history, dramatic interpretation, and literary inspiration, all woven into the fabric of Vermilion Harvest.

What is the main message you would like readers to take away from this new book? 

The main message I hope readers take away from Vermilion Harvest is the profound duality of life—how beauty and tragedy, creation and destruction are intertwined, represented by the color vermilion. This vibrant vermilion, which adorns the hair parting of a married Hindu woman, symbolizes both life and vitality as well as the bloodshed during tragic events, such as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. In a poignant twist, the Muslim secondary character Ayaz, applies vermilion to the Anglo-Indian (half Hindu Punjabi, half British) protagonist Aruna's hair parting the last time he sees her, marking her as his bride in an unofficiated act of Hindu marriage but tragically, also sealing her fate as a widow within hours.

Vermilion, or sindhur, traditionally signifies both the zest of life and the commitment in marriage—central elements to the relationship between Aruna, and her love interest, Ayaz. Yet, this same color also mirrors the blood spilled on Baisakhi in 1919 during the horrifying massacre at Jallianwala Bagh, highlighting the stark contrast between celebration and calamity.

The subtitle, ‘Playtime at the Bagh’, further deepens this metaphor. It refers to the innocent gatherings of families during the Baisakhi harvest festival, which tragically turned into a deadly "game" of bullets under General Dyer's orders. This historical backdrop serves as a somber reminder of the brutal impacts of colonial exploitation, mirrored in the personal story of Aruna, whose Anglo-Indian heritage stems from violence—her Hindu mother was assaulted by a British officer, echoing the broader pillaging of India by its colonizers.

Through Vermilion Harvest, I aim to convey a narrative that delves into the complexities of historical trauma, the enduring scars of colonialism, and the resilient spirit that emerges from understanding and reconciling these deep-seated wounds.

Is this your first time writing historical fiction? 

Yes! Believe me, the amount of research needed caught me completely off guard. I found myself combing through heaps of historical documents, including General Dyer’s court trial records, which I managed to get my hands on thanks to a good friend who’s a history Professor at Wellesley College. The timing was spot-on too, as a slew of non-fiction books detailing the Jallianwala Bagh massacre had just hit the shelves around its 100th anniversary. These gems were immensely informative—giving me plenty of ideas for the scenes in my novel.

Then, crafting the perfect voice for my protagonist, was fun but challenging. It had to be Anglo-Indian. For those in the loop, Anglo-Indians often landed jobs in government roles like teaching and rail services—positions typically off-limits to the general Indian populace. This meant my protagonist needed to sound ‘educated’—fluent in British English thanks to the colonial education system, yet imbued with an authentic Indian perspective.

And for that dash of 'pop culture' romance? Jane Austen became my muse. Sprinkling conversations with Austen-esque quips and quotes provided just the right touch of period-appropriate flirtation. It was an opportunity for me to let my characters twirl through dialogue in a way that felt both timeless and irresistibly charming.

You yourself are of Indian descent, does the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh Massacre that you center Vermillion Harvest on have a special significance to you?

Absolutely! The roots of my connection to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre run deep, not just through my grandfather's experiences, but also through my own portrayal of a character in a related play during my teenage years. There's something profoundly personal about embedding elements of one's heritage and life experiences into storytelling. I've always had a penchant for setting my stories in places that hold a special place in my heart i.e. place that I hail from—Mumbai, San Francisco, Punjab. I'm Punjabi, and this disaster unfolded in Amritsar, Punjab, a place that my family is intricately connected with. My grandfather hailed from there; my mother was born there. This makes the tragedy intensely personal.

The scale of the massacre was colossal—an act of terrorism that has not been fully acknowledged. Officially, records cite 379 deaths and about 1,500 injuries, but unofficial estimates suggest the death toll could be as high as 1,500+. The real numbers remain shrouded in mystery. Here's an article that explores this uncertainty. The ferocity of General Dyer's unannounced attack, delivering such a devastating number of casualties in just a brief hail of bullets, surpasses that of almost any other terrorist attack, with the notable exception of 9/11, as detailed here by CNN.

What's more, this brutal event was a catalyst for the Indian independence movement, a pivotal moment in history that sparked a nationwide push towards freedom. Despite its significant impact, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre seems to have slipped through the cracks of global historical consciousness, which is baffling to me. That’s why it became imperative for me to write about it—to bring to light a chapter of history that the world needs to remember and reflect upon.

Do you see similarities between the events in India in 1919 to what is happening in our world today?

Absolutely.  The Defense of India Act 1915 was enacted during WWI to curb nationalist activities, this law mirrored Britain's Defense of the Realm Acts (DORA), allowing broad powers like preventive detention and restrictions on free speech and movement. This law was partly in response to the Ghadar Movement’s uprising, aiming to suppress any actions considered a threat by the British government in India.

Comparative International Examples:

US: Issues with civil liberties include the prolonged detention of migrants without due process, notably under the Migrant Protection Protocols.

Gaza Strip: Restrictions by Israel and Egypt limit movement and access to services, exacerbating humanitarian issues.

Jammu and Kashmir: Following the revocation of its special status, extensive security lockdowns and preventive detentions were imposed.

Xinjiang, China: Over a million Uighurs and minorities detained in camps without due process.

US Freedom of Speech: Debates over free speech limitations, particularly regarding social media and during civil unrest.

Eastern Ukraine: Movement heavily restricted by conflict, affecting civilian access to essential services.

Russia: Government suppresses free speech and censors the media to stifle dissent.

Hong Kong: Post-National Security Law, significant erosion of freedoms, with arrests of pro-democracy figures.

Internment Without Trial: Concerns over due process in the detention of migrants in the US and arbitrary detentions in Israel and Syria.

My protagonist, Aruna Duggal is an Anglo-Indian schoolteacher -- mother is Hindu Indian. Her father is British. Her lover, Ayaz Peermohammed is a Muslim law student/activist. While in the US, there is more integration between communities, in India Hindu-Muslim relations are a major issue even today. And in today's political climate in India, with a pro Hindu government, life for the Muslim community is perhaps more tense that it has ever been. Even today, interfaith relationships can indeed face challenges and discrimination in various parts of the world due to cultural, religious, and societal factors:

India: Hindu-Muslim tensions impact interfaith relationships, with incidents of violence and the controversial issue of "Love Jihad."

Pakistan: Severe stigma and legal challenges for interfaith couples, exacerbated by laws like blasphemy and Hudood Ordinances.

Tell us about your podcasts.

True Fiction Project is an innovative series where real-life stories transform into captivating fiction. Each episode begins with an unscripted interview featuring individuals with intriguing tales. These stories then inspire a fiction writer to craft a creative piece — be it a short story, poem, scene, song, or monologue. The episode concludes by showcasing both the original interview and the fictional narrative, offering listeners a complete view of how everyday realities can evolve into enthralling fictional adventures.

Shadow Realm is a narrative fiction podcast based on my unpublished novel by the same name. Follow the story of a San Francisco teenager, Arya, who discovers his magical abilities after a fall through an earth fault leads him into the world of Vedic mythology. Season 2 continues Arya's thrilling saga as he attempts to rescue his friends and family. With each episode, Arya's heroic journey through time and space teeters on the brink of further peril. Will he succeed, or will the challenges ahead deepen the dangers they face?

For a deeper dive into both podcasts, please visit my podcast page at Reenita's Podcasts.

What are you working on now and what can we expect from you next?

I'm currently pouring my heart into my YA fantasy fiction series, The Arya Chronicles. The first book, Shadow Realm, dives into the tumultuous life of a rebellious teen whose rash actions land his mother in a coma. Thrust into the mystical land from the Ramayana mythology, he must defeat a formidable 10-headed demon king and conquer his own inner demons before he can return home to save his mother. 

Shadow Realm marries the thrilling adventure style of Rick Riordan's Kane Chronicles and Percy Jackson series with the rich, vibrant tapestry of South Asian Vedic mythology. It's a deeply personal tale that explores the complexities of a first-generation American teen's multicultural life, wrestling with identity and the shadows of youth. Designed for a YA/crossover audience, the book promises a journey of self-discovery, brimming with danger, adventure, and the lure of the unknown. The screenplay adaptation of Shadow Realm has already been optioned, and the graphic novel manuscript has received several awards. I'm actively seeking a publisher to expand its reach into the literary world.

Looking ahead, my upcoming releases include Ace of Blades (Jaico Publishers), a non-fiction memoir about my father, Rajinder Kumar Malhotra. He was the bipolar scion of a Calcutta Punjabi family who founded India's razor blade industry. Additionally, I'm excited about Festival of Lights (HarperCollins), a picture book celebrating both Hanukkah and Diwali, co-written with Erica Lyons. This book aims to bridge cultural divides and share the festive joy of these vibrant traditions.

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