A former model and television presenter, Karuna Ezara Parikh’s debut novel The Heart Asks Pleasure First (Pan Macmillan India) has already been endorsed by bestselling American novelist Ann Patchett as a “luminous, hypnotic” work, and by actor-author Lisa Ray as an “intoxicating and immersive exploration of the forces that shape our world and relationships.”
With a degree in journalism, film and broadcasting from Cardiff University, UK, Karuna has written for various magazines and news portals. Born and raised in Delhi, the 35-year-old currently lives in Kolkata with her husband Amitesh and their dog Clover.
As a social-media influencer with over 76,000 followers on Instagram alone, her posts range from fashion to feminism and social activism.
She shares her influences and inspirations in this interview.
Please share key influences from your childhood that set you on a creative journey in later years.
I was a troubled teenager – “more than most perhaps” – I filled notebooks and notebooks full of poetry, listened to The Doors and Janis Joplin, read Rimbaud and had exceedingly dark thoughts. I shaved my head, dreamt of the tattoos I would someday get, and read books on the Beatniks. It sounds affected, now. But it saved me then. It was a painful time, I was lonely, emotional, and felt misunderstood. But books helped me feel safe, powerful and happy.
Your life straddles seemingly opposite worlds – books, poetry and prose on one hand, fashion and glamour on the other. Do they appear contradictory to you, or do you traverse them seamlessly?
One has been my bread and butter, the other my heart and soul. In my book, the world of fashion does have a small part to play. Nothing I’ve done over the last decade feels like a waste. All my experiences have come in use somewhere. As a model I learnt patience, I learnt to observe people, I understood insecurity and the ego, and it taught me empathy. Fashion, at its best, is design. And design at its best is true art. They’re both creative spaces, they just feed different parts of me.
What sparked off the idea to write The Heart Asks Pleasure First and how long did it take you to write the book?
While I was in college in Wales, I encountered Pakistanis for the first time. It struck me as incredible that I could only meet people from this neighbouring country in a land far, far away. In the West, the people I was closest to, who most felt like home, were often from Pakistan. I wondered about that, and about how it serves governments to continue to keep the people of the two countries apart.
I started writing the book straight out of college, but only managed to bring it to full fruition 10 years later, when I met the man who would become my husband, and I realised the best way to tell this important political story is to also tell it as a passionate love story. Altogether the story has been with me for 13 years. This version took about three or four years to write.
Your protagonist Daya is a stranger to Hindu-Muslim enmity and Islamophobia. Is it possible for the current generation of youngsters to ever experience that India again?
It is my hope that that India, the one you speak of, still exists. I see it when I hear stories of Hindu men guarding Muslim areas during riots. Of Sikh women sitting at Shaheen Bagh in solidarity. A land where faiths coexist, and all our stories have value. Where we allow for the other to thrive, and know that we are richer for it.
I believe in my heart that most people are good – the agendas of the powerful are bad. I think there is time to save us from a future where we each live in our own convenient bubble, but that time is now. We must act with love, with energy. It’s why it’s so important to me that the book is coming out when it is.
Do you believe inspiration is something we are gifted with, or is it something we have to actively seek and work on?
What a beautiful question! Definitely the latter, with threads of the former! I think there are moments we are gifted – like the sudden sight of a sunset through a car window when you had only stepped out to run an errand – but if we want to be consistently inspired, I do believe it takes some work.
It’s a choice you make. What are you watching? A documentary about blue whales or the news on Republic TV? Are you reading Instagram captions or Rebecca Solnit? Are you meeting the same group you always do or making the effort to call that one friend who lives on the far side of town, but you know if you meet, it will fill your heart with beauty?
An inspired life often relies on making a stricter choice with oneself. It is always possible to do this more than we are. To notice things of beauty – the light on the leaves in the afternoon, the teacup we bought because we loved it but never appreciated since…
What was the most challenging part of the writing process for you?
The dance bits were hard for me because I am not a dancer. I think the fear is that one will be caught out. That a ballerina might read it and say, “Oh that’s nonsense.” I have tried my best though, and I found myself deeply immersed in the subject, so I hope it comes across as authentic.
I also found that while I am no stranger to stringing words together, I hadn’t a clue as to how one creates plot. How do you work suspense in, plot each character’s arc? Those things took time and practice. I guess readers will decide if I succeeded!
To what extent are your literary pursuits influenced by your social-media stardom and your life as a public figure? And vice versa?
I wanted to be a writer even as a little girl and I think that for a few years in the middle, as social media advanced its way in India and I was somehow part of it, I lost sight of that. But then, as with all things that feel unnatural, I began to question what I was going to ‘do and be’.
I think one should never stop asking oneself those questions. Because about five years ago when the answer looked like ‘social media influencer’, I think something inside me was reactivated, so that I could change the answer to ‘writer’. So in some sense, social media, or rather a fear of it, was indirectly responsible perhaps for me diving headfirst into this work.
About the vice versa – I try to have my literary side influence my social-media space constantly, be it with my exceedingly long captions (laughs), my book recommendations, my poetry and the people whose work I share. I do hope that comes across as these two aspects of my life finally join hands for the launch of this book.
First published in eShe’s October 2020 issue
Syndicated to Money Control