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Writing Of Shadows

Thursday, October 17, 2013

In a new, heartfelt book, author Laxmi Tendulkar Dhaul traces love, friendship and hope in the midst of a struggle for independence. She tells Rhea Dhanbhoora more about it

Author Laxmi Tendulkar Dhaul’s latest book is more personal than anything she’s ever written before. It’s a testimony to the love story of her parents. In the Shadow of Freedom is a factual account of their lives, marriage, India’s struggle for independence and how two incredibly different people shared such a touching love story. Laxmi’s book was launched in the city on October 3 at the NCPA, Nariman Point. We talk to her about her writing and more.

You’ve got a degree in chemistry, biochemistry and now you’re a writer!
I did my masters of science in biochemistry in Mumbai and was about to go to the USA to do my PhD, but my mother was alone and I didn’t have the heart to leave her. I got married soon after. I started writing when I was about 30-years-old.

But, that’s not all you do, is it? Tell us about the animation.
I started an animation studio in Mumbai called Prithvimedia. We do 3D and 2D animation. We have created content to encourage environmental awareness for middle school children. Anyone can access it at www.chimisworld.com.

In The Shadow of Freedom explores a personal story for you. What compelled you to write it?
My parents led fascinating lives in Hitler’s Berlin and Gandhi’s India. The 1940s were very important years — World War II and closer home, the struggle for freedom from the British Raj and the partition. My parents’ lives were full of romance, sacrifice and separation. I grew up listening to these stories. Unfortunately, my father died in 1975, when I was just 20. But, my mother gave me a lot of material to write on. It was her wish that I write her story.

What was the most difficult part for you to write?
The most difficult part for me to write down was the allegation that Thea von Harbou, who was married to my father, was a member of the Nazi party. Luckily, I was able to get a copy of Thea von Harbou’s Denazification certificate which absolved her from these allegations. The certificate also mentions how she had gone out of her way and put herself at risk several times to save Jewish actors and actresses that she was associated with. My father returned to India in 1939 and we only heard how talented and generous she had been.

Your father and mother were world’s apart — what did you think the first time you heard their story?
There were no secrets in our family and one heard about various incidents — how my father went to Germany to study, his life there, his involvement with Thea von Harbou, his returning to India, meeting my mother... for me, these were all incidents. It became a story only when I sat down and started writing the book.

Your book also explores the relationship of love with the hardships of the freedom struggle — what did you do to ensure it had the right emotion?
I tried my best and was lucky that I had a copy of the correspondence between Gandhiji and my parents and newspaper cuttings pertaining to my father. I described the sequence of their relationship to the best of my ability. It is for the readers to judge whether the emotion is right or not. Urvashi Butalia, my publisher (Zubaan) edited the manuscript herself and insisted that I keep the storyline simple and write about it with as much honesty as I could.

There’s a lot more to this book than just the story…
Yes, there is history and real events and I have let the readers see whatever was available to me whilst writing the book. There are letters from Gandhiji, Nehru, Sardar Vallabhai Patel (who gave my father his first job in Sabarmati Ashram). There are also rare photographs of Thea von Harbou with my father, mother, newspaper articles and excerpts from the Denazification certificate of Thea.

What’s your favourite part?
I am an incurable romantic, so my favourite parts are when my parents meet and fall in love and when my father meets Thea von Harbou and they both fall in love and the short chapter of when my mother goes to stay with Thea von Harbou.

Your book, apart from tracing the love of two women, is also about their friendship. Was that easy to document?
Thea von Harbou invited my mother Indumati to visit her in 1952 and unfortunately, she passed away in 1954. Thea was 17 years my father’s senior and my mother was 10 years younger. So, their age difference was 27 years. Both women were at different stages of life and both loved the same man, but in completely different ways. They had both spent many years of suffering and imprisonment during World War II, so there was a lot of understanding and compassion between them.

Was it difficult to keep it factual?
No. Luckily, before my father passed away in 1975, he had chronicled all the years in his life on a piece of paper with the years and places mentioned. This paper later formed the basis of my story line

What’s next?
Magic Mantras (a self help book for young adults) and Twelve Jyotirlings.

Your inspiration: My mother for her courage and positive attitude till the very end.
Something we don’t know: I love writing nonsense verse!
Your go-to book: Louise Hays’, You Can Heal Yourself.
An author you admire: Urvashi Butalia, my publisher. Her non-fiction account on the partition is wonderful. Her book is called The Other Side of Silence - Voices from Partition.
Your ideal setting to write: I can write anywhere, I just need my laptop and most importantly, a deadline!

Laxmi’s father, Ayi Ganpat Tendulkar, studied in Germany in his 20s. He worked with leaders of the Indian freedom struggle such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel and began to write for German papers. His first wife was German screenwriter and actress, Thea von Harbou who was married to German director Fritz Lang when they met. His second wife, Laxmi’s mother, grew up in a sheltered Saraswat Brahman family in Belgaum and was a follower of Gandhi and worked at his Wardha ashram.

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