She Writes Story Contest winner: Prarthana Rao

Prarthana Rao is one of twelve winners of the MSN-Random House She Writes a Story Contest', as chosen by our judges. Her story 'Spaces' features in the 'She Writes: A collection of Short Stories' published by Random House India and available at all leading bookstores.

Prarthana Rao

Prarthana Rao

Prarthana Rao was born and raised in Chennai. After her schooling at Bhavan's Rajaji Vidyashram, she completed B.Sc. Visual Communication from Loyola College, followed by a Masters in International Studies from Stella Maris College, securing gold medals in both courses. She has worked as a freelance content and copywriter and has dabbled in acting and scriptwriting as well. She has been writing short stories, poetry, non-fiction, and just about anything since the age of six. Prarthana enjoys music, movies and yes, books.

Read an extract from Prarthana Rao's story 'Spaces'

  • She raced down the keerai patch, ducking under the low-hanging mango tree branch with the heavy green mangoes, the smell of summer briefly intoxicating her. Lifting up her paavaadai around her ankles, Kausalya swerved around the hibiscus bushes and padded through the freshly-watered earth, finally halting at the front steps of the veranda. She stared aghast at the pairs of slippers lined outside-one, two, three pairs-and a pair of men's formal shoes, the kind she had never seen before. Her heart sank. She knew what this meant. Kausalya turned to the east and looked at the horizon, in the direction of the comforting sound of the restless, relentless surge of the sea, the sound that had cradled her since she had been born.

  • Trishna slammed the front door loudly, but to no avail. Her parents were still at work-her mother had instructed her to heat up the afternoon's left over bhindi, dal, and rotis in the microwave. Yuck. Too much of watching Junior Masterchef made her wish she had a couple of young slaves to whip up a risotto or a Thai red curry for her.

  • She rolled her eyes at the framed photographs of her family that adorned their Dulux blue-and-white patterned living-room wall. She could almost hear her mother saying that she would have to learn to cook all these things and more since she was going to go abroad to study soon enough. She gazed at the pictures-moments frozen in time of her older brother and her making silly faces in the midst of some adventure or the other. Then there was another picture of her father and mother gazing at each other in love during their early marriage days.

  • She knew all these stories by heart, much as she pretended she was bored of them. Who was she without them?

  • The wedding was a grand affair-an elaborate and ornate ceremony at the Kapaleeshwar temple and a stately reception at the Dharmaprakash Kalyana Mandapam opposite Dasaprakash hotel.

  • Kausalya would repeat that one single detail to herself in the years to follow, about it being grand. Whether it was repeatedly drilled into her by her grandparents or whether it was a description she had formulated herself, she could never recall exactly. Sometimes a statement repeated and repeated becomes a memory. All she could remember were fleeting moments of sensations-the rustling of heavy pattu saris; the orange-gold fire that bore witness to her marriage; the weight of the gold around her neck; the first taste of sambhar-saadam after hours of standing hungry and greeting guests; the soapy smell of her husband's neck that both soothed and terrified her when he put his arms around her for the first time. But the only sound she longed to hear was the sound of sea waves. The only fragrance she longed to sniff was the smell of the freshly-watered earth. The only taste she wanted to savour was the sour, tongue-tingling tang of nellikaais picked straight from the tree.

In her own words: Prarthana Rao

  • Have you always been a writer? What made you start writing?

    Writing has almost been like breathing to me. I don't recall a time when I wasn't poised with a pen in hand and with a feverish excitement on seeing a blank sheet of paper. My earliest 'works' were Enid Blyton/Goosebumps/Sweet Valley Kids-inspired tales of fairies and talking animals and witches and little children who made mistakes but soon learnt the error of their ways. My first 'book' was 'published' when I was six by my father who wrapped my sketch pen-scrawled story and illustration-filled notebook with brightly coloured gift wrapping paper. My parents were always both extremely creative so I was always encouraged, even if it meant I ended up staying up late at night, scribbling and scribbling spoofs and scripts and songs.

  • What inspired you to enter She Writes?

    I caught sight of the contest announcement and was intrigued by the creative possibilities offered by the topics. With the topics offered and the given quotes to be used in the story, it seemed like an exciting challenge. I had been working on my novel for some time and needed a break to get a fresh perspective. Writing for the contest came naturally-it wasn't a conscious decision. It felt like a wonderful outlet for the myriad thoughts I had been having. I was simply happy to write something for an audience because I hadn't shared any of my fiction work with anyone in a very long time. The possibility of winning the contest hadn't even occurred to me. I was just glad that I had tried. In fact, it was my mother who really motivated me at the last minute. So it's all thanks to her that I am here answering these questions.

  • Why did you choose the category you did?

    I was tempted to write something for each topic but 'Growing up in India' was a concept I really wanted to talk about and share with the world as well as explore within myself. Having been born and raised in Madras/Chennai, I felt inclined to narrate the palette of emotions and ideas that come from having been so accustomed to one place, especially one distinctive, strongly-flavoured Indian city. To write about it felt like the ideal opportunity to step outside my Chennai-coloured soul and look at what it really means to belong to a place. Also I was going through an extremely tough phase of my life as I had just lost my father whom I was very close to. So it was almost cathartic to analyse what 'home' really means-whether it signified a person, a house, a city, a country or just an intangible stirring in the heart for something you never really understand.

  • Do you have a writing routine - e.g. do you have favourite places to write/favourite times of day/do you write longhand or on a computer?

    I was nocturnal for the longest possible time and so I can wax eloquent on the subject of nighttime writing routines-the peace and quiet, your thoughts sharing space with the screeches of bats and owls. I also used to think I had writer's block when it came to fiction. Having been recently converted to the beauty of a disciplined diurnal routine, I must say that writing can flow from hand to pen to paper (or keyboard to screen) at any time. I do love the electric surge when hand holds pen and pen makes marks on paper. Writing longhand is an intensely intimate experience that I always prefer. But I thank God for Word and all its amazing facilities. I do enjoy how one's thoughts become so legitimate and structured when typed. I sometimes write longhand first and then transcribe onto the computer. Tedious but extremely satisfying. When the story takes hold of you, and your characters want to talk (or cry or scream), there is little that can hold them back. Unless of course, you are stuck in the middle of a traffic jam. Not advisable to write then.

  • Who is your favourite author?

    My choices in literature are so eclectic and varied to a point where I am utterly open to any form of writing (including snack wrappers and mosquito net provider's flyers). I thoroughly soak up the works of Jhumpa Lahiri, Truman Capote, Anuja Chauhan, Elizabeth Gilbert, Chetan Bhagat, Elif Shafak, Khaled Hosseini, Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind', Barack Obama's 'Dreams from my Father', young adult fiction by Ann Brashares and Meg Cabot, philosophy by Paulo Coelho, poetry by Kahlil Gibran, and of course, J.K. Rowling.

  • Which book has inspired you the most?

    As a writer and a reader, I am deeply entranced by the language of Jhumpa Lahiri, especially in her short stories. The characters of Ann Brashares' books, the humour and wit of Anuja Chauhan and Elizabeth Gilbert, 'Harry Potter', not just for J. K. Rowling's imaginative creations but also for her acute understanding of the human heart. 'Gone with the Wind' was another book, a classic that I put off reading for the longest time but when I began reading I could not put it down-so swept away was I by this utterly timeless, magnificently sketched epic historical tale which managed to express the trivialities and depth of the human soul as well. I thoroughly enjoy being inspired by autobiographies like Frank McCourt's books and historical fiction as well. I think what draws me to a book are strongly etched characters, a sense of time and place and a big, warm soul-filled story.

  • Which key piece of advice would you give to any other budding writer?

    Be open to life. Observe. Learn. Ask questions. Read anything and everything. Keep writing. Write for yourself, as yourself. Writing shouldn't be a hobby; it should be an unstoppable need.

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