You became my penpal thanks to two kids & what I learnt from them

Welcome! Dear Penpal is a fortnightly newsletter by me, Shweta Taneja, to support you in your creative journey with tips, opportunities, insights and inspirations. Subscribe or read the archives here.


Dear Penpal,

I have to tell you this story!

The name of my newsletter, ‘Dear Penpal’, came thanks to two inland letters that I wrote to two kids in two hospitals – one in India, one in Canada. I was lucky enough to write to them as I had just released a new book for kids and was asked to send them signed copies. I signed the books with a customary ‘Dear…’ and my squiggle signature.

I felt it lacked warmth, but most of all hope.

There was so much more I wanted to tell these two children. I wanted to tell them more about me, about life, about how being hopeful and happy is important to all of us. So, I fished through my office drawers, dived into a bag of things I have collected, to try and see what I could find.

And lo and behold, two inland letter cards popped out of my myriad magical collection. They were leftovers of a past workshop in a school where I had asked kids to write a letter to a ghost. (A fun workshop, dear penpal, is the best thing you can do to promote your book. For you remember it long after with a smile, even if two people bought your books.)

The two empty inland letters made me feel nostalgic. I remembered my teenage self in the 90s, when I would spend hours creating beautiful letters, personal, positive and sometimes pensive; long, handwritten letters that I would then post to my buddies. I had many and it kept me busy all through the summer.

Oh, the joy of writing letters to someone!

To tell them of all your secret fears, your little indiscretions, your aspirations and hopes. To daydream through the medium!

I wrote to these two pre-teen friends of mine, telling them about what penpals are.

I asked them – no begged them – to write back to me.

As soon as I posted the two books with the letters inside them, I wanted, selfishly desired, more of this pleasure. To find new penpals (that’s you, dear reader!), write about myself, about how hard my writing was, but how I kept at it, day in and day out.

And share the joy of completing something, or getting something published, of smelling a freshly minted book. Or to share small nothings. Little things that make life – well – worth living and truly wonderful.

Yes, I could probably do this on social media. But, you know it, don’t you?

It’s just not the same.

If you and me, would have met online on Instagram or Twitter, we would be in a hurry, two sort-of-friends waving a polite hello to each other, in the middle of the market as we’ve so many chores to complete, so many things to scroll through.

I’ll finish off my letter with a few links and one great news: Those two kids who I mentioned above? Both are going to write back to me.

Write back. On paper. Handwritten letters.

Every day, I’ve been going down to my letterbox and peeping into it, my heart filled with wonder, joy and excitement.

Sunday Sundry

  • History of inland letters in India: Read this charming essay about the history of inland letters in India by Ashok Kumar Bayanwala. A Gujarati gentleman who has researched on this and added his postal address at the end of the page, not his email.
  • Subscribe to Daak, a wonderful newsletter which sends you postcards in your inbox with bits and pieces of India’s history and culture. 
  • Find a penpal? Of course I Googled ‘Find a penpal’ and landed on Geek Girl Penpals which sorts pals by age (seems a bit ageist but I love the name of the site) and Global Pen Friends which sounds like a place I would like to begin finding a penpal to write to. Always wanted to write to someone in Chile. Hmm.
  • Space Operas rock! I’ve been reading more and more of space operas recently. Somehow between reading dystopia, completely missed it as a genre, except Star Wars. It’s so, well, filmy and I love it. For now, recommending the classic Culture series by Iain M. Banks.
  • If you can, please read this heart-wrenching, beautifully written account of getting covid-19 in a remote village in the Himalayas.

My Writing Joys

  • Triathlon on Mars, anyone? I’ve just signed a contract with a publisher for a new short SF story for kids! It’s about a triathlon on Mars. Oh yes. Loved writing the story. You’ll see it sometime next year.
  • A year in a new lockdown job. A year ago, in May 2020, I started a wonderful programme at Nature Conservation Foundation. Communicating about the joys of birds and nature to the public. It’s a perfect job for me – someone who loves birdwatching, people and thrives in finding new partners. It pays well, I have lovely colleagues and most of all, freedom to be creative. To do anything. Here’s to wonderful jobs one can find, serendipitously, due to the pandemic.
  • A laugh-out-tale about a robotic bride: An Indian family heads to a boutique in Delhi to look for a perfect robotic bride for their boy. Read my just released, hilarious science fiction story, for free on The Antonym magazine website.
How to make a penpal today and read a story on robotic brides

Dear Penpal, does sharing give you joy?

When you tell someone about your worries, does it become better for you? If you guide someone or give selfless advice about creating, does it make it feel better?

Be generous and keep chiselling!


P.S. If you like this newsletter and want to support it, you can:

1) Buy one of my books

2) Connect with me on Instagram, Twitter or LinkedIn so we can grow our creative selves together.

3) Forward this newsletter to a friend with an invitation to subscribe right here: bit.ly/dearpenpal

Dealing with Covid-19 and starting a letter of hope

Welcome! Dear Penpal is a fortnightly newsletter by me, Shweta Taneja, to support you in your creative journey with tips, opportunities, insights and inspirations. Subscribe or read the archives here.


Dear Penpal,

It’s been a tough month for all of us. For me too.

I heard the news that all my family, six of them, in Delhi were covid-19 positive. I wanted to go to them, help out with food, logistics, hugs, anything really. However, covid-19 is such a creature that it builds walls around all of us, closing us down in worrisome loneliness.

The same week, my spouse also tested positive. Now I was a caregiver, saving up millions of advice and emergency contacts from the online world. I was heartbroken, suffocating, panicked, and unwell too. I vented online, vented to friends, worried and perhaps added to the chaos.

Then I called up my mother

My mother, who was going through the infectious disease, dealing with breathlessness and extreme body pain. I called her instinctively as I always call her when I’m stressed and need assurance. You know what she said?

“So what?“ she said. Her voice was weak, but her spirit, oh her spirit vibrated with power. “Now that we have it, we will see how it goes,” she said. “Whatever will happen, will happen. You worrying for it won’t change a thing.”

She was suffering physically as she said it, and I knew she was suffering, but the sheer mental strength of her approach to her body’s suffering, brought me out of my piteous wallowing.

Why do we always think of the worse given a stress situation? And cloak this thinking, this panicking and worrying as being realistic? And this is not limited to reality. It’s a habit. It’s a habit that I’ve decided to consciously break out by starting this newsletter.

My mother gave me strength in that five-minute phone call. I decided not to ponder on the worse. I consciously, with a lot of effort, to take the most positive, most hopeful route in the logical turn of events in my head.

That all of us will come out of it in a few months.

That it would be all okay.

Letters of hope, support and writing by Shweta Taneja

A newsletter of hope when everything is dark?

I decided to channel my frustration, my sadness into writing these letters to you.

Use the medium I love – of writing – to tell you about what I’m going through. Use these letters, as a process of collective, creative healing, for you and me both.

This is about encouraging you to make the best of your life and ambitions, as a creative person, a writer or a reader or a prodigy whose time hasn’t come. We are all together, struggling, and I want to struggle and hope and cope with you.

These letters are about optimism and delight in living our lives. About not allowing our fears to become definitions of who we are. I’ll use all my emotions and skills to fill these letters with stories that make you and me feel good.

I’ll talk about the art of writing, things that inspire me, of living life to the fullest and capturing these moments through my art. And I hope to encourage you to do the same.
I’ll be there for you all, my dear readers, through your ups and downs. We will together become our best, most joyous creative selves.

For we all need that little optimism when we’re low. And we all need – more and more – those friends who can listen without scrolling us into a void.

I’ve committed to you, fortnightly on alternate Sundays, and I’m hoping to keep that up. If you don’t get a letter from me (for I’m known to break promises), you’re most welcome to write to me and demand one. I would try to not miss one, though!

Writes science and speculative fiction

Global internet is dead, thanks to for-profit algorithms

In the 1980s, when the global internet emerged, it was a network of decentralised computers in different universities across countries. By the 1990s, with Tim Berner Lee’s World Wide Web, any node across this network, could access any information. As storage capacity and data access speeds increased, this was quickly taken over mostly US-based companies, offering free products to users.

When social networks first began more than 20 years ago, there was a sense of freedom. Everyone with global internet access and who could communicate in global Internet languages, anywhere in the world, could get online and share their stories on Facebook and Twitter, interact and voice their lived experiences. The Arab Spring protests in the 2010s was celebrated as the high point of this new online, seamless freedom.

(First published as a column in Mint Lounge, a business daily in India.)

Global Internet companies quickly advocated this idea of a global, frameless, free online space which had no visa requirement or restrictions, a truly democratic space to operate in. The idea that a company created to maximise profit for its shareholders can make a democratic system for interaction is in itself perhaps ludicrous. However, the soma of this dream was drunk by not only users but also by Silicon Valley investors and founders, who insisted they could change the world without ever leaving their little white echo chambers.

(Read part one of this column here.)

Continue reading “Global internet is dead, thanks to for-profit algorithms”

Why WhatsApp policy is different for EU than for India

WhatsApp’s new privacy policy popped on my screen a lazy morning a couple of weeks ago, spreading its black-on-white legalese. Unlike most people who groan at the idea of reading clauses when all they want to do is scroll through good morning messages, I was filled with a sense of joy and determined purpose.

(First published as a opinion piece in Mint Lounge, a business daily in India.)

The new WhatsApp policy was a perfect morning coffee read. Dry legal language tuned into a friendly voice made legalese accessible, and told you how WhatsApp had to, for your own good, “receive or collect some information to operate, provide, improve, understand, customize, support, and market” their services. The way corporate lawyers use the English language to confound, hide and protect their company’s interests is a lesson in the art of writing.

The policy’s friendly voice announced that WhatsApp would share your user information (name, email, phone number, IP address, device settings) with Facebook and its group of companies and reminded you that it was all so you could interact with businesses better. I shrugged. The company had to make its money. No one could offer you an encrypted chat platform for free for long.

Different Whatsapp policies for different countries

What struck me was that WhatsApp had come up with two policies—two different legal contracts for two regions of the world. One for European Union (EU) citizens and the other for non-EU ones. The two policies clearly pointed to the direction in which internet companies have been moving for the past few years, tailoring policies to reflect the boundaries of countries they operate in.

(Read: Is internet freedom dead?)

For citizens of the EU and Ireland, WhatsApp’s privacy policy gives them more control of their data. The contract that Indians and the rest of the world sign with WhatsApp LLC is legally based in the US, with special data control privileges for citizens of US and Canada. If you’re from the ‘rest of the world’—as India is with about 150 other countries—you have no legal jurisdiction over your data as a user of the service in your country.

Political affiliations and origin of the country also reflect in policy. For example, WhatsApp’s new policy states that the app will not be available to countries with US-sanctions. I checked with my Iranian friends and a lot of US services, including Apple’s iTunes, are not available to them.

(Continued in a second upcoming post, here)

SF in India: Challenges, Debutants and More

SF in India

Who is writing SF in India, you ask? Umm, let me tell you a story. A few years ago, as a naïve young writer, I enthusiastically knocked on an ancient door in a busy street of London. I was there to meet a reputed literary agent – a meeting which had been set up by a Booker long-listed author and friend. During the meeting, I introduced my (then) upcoming urban fantasy series, Anantya Tantrist Mysteries – an occult detective who solves supernatural crime in Delhi with a world built on myths and folklores of the subconti­nent.

Much to my delight, the reputed gentleman seemed enthusiastic. It changed the moment I mentioned that the series had been published in India. He shook his head. It was impossible, he explained sympathetically, to find a pub­lisher for the series as I did not own “British Commonwealth Rights,” something that all UK-based publishers would demand.

Quick Explainer of ‘British Commonwealth Rights’

To me, as a citizen of an erstwhile colonized land still reeling under the aftereffects of 200 years of slavery, the term “Commonwealth” bordered on the offensive. This was the first time I had heard it used by liter­ary agents and publishers. “British Commonwealth Rights,” in a contract, implies literary rights in 54 English-speaking countries which were erstwhile colonies of the British Empire. Ironically, the forward-thinking, language-conscious publishers who tweet using #OwnVoice and #BlackLivesMat­ter have not considered removing this clause from their legal contracts that divided the world along colonial lines of the 19th century.

The clause encapsulates the expectation that decision makers in the publishing industry have for genre works that emerge from the East, including India. “Big international publishers reinforce the existence of colonial and orientalist expectations when it comes to Indian writing, particularly when the writer is residing within the subcontinent,” says Lavanya Lakshminarayan, whose debut work Analog/Virtual (2020) got rave reviews in the subcontinent but is still not published in the West.

When Lavanya was shopping her novel, she was asked to write a “sellable” novel which could be the next “Slumdog Millionaire meets American Gods.” She developed the idea into a story, but couldn’t write it. “Why must we prove our ‘Indian-ness’ in colonially acceptable terms first?” she laments. Perhaps that’s why colonial­ism remains one of the major themes in Indian SF other than exploring an increasingly fractured democracy, gender violence, religious divisiveness and climate emergency through futuristic dystopias.

SF in India has themes of colonialism and climate emergency

“The legacy of colonial­ism, social and religious cleavages and climate change are the three core themes we find occurring and recur­ring in contemporary South Asian SFF,” agrees Gautam Bhatia, an editor with Strange Horizons who also debuted a SF novel this year. There is a reason. Most editors and their sales teams in New York and London continue to look for an exotic version of India meant to entertain a colonial, mostly white gaze.

Tashan Mehta, Kumar L, Sukanya Venkatraghavan
Continue reading “SF in India: Challenges, Debutants and More”

I Spy a Salute: A tribute to John le Carré

johnlecarre

(This tribute to John le Carré was first published in The New Indian Express.)

In my pre-teens, I wanted to be James Bond. A daring hero who could save damsels (I saved sexy boys, swooning in my arms) while sipping on martinis in exotic bars of five-star hotels, in handcrafted expensive suits (designer gowns in my case). I imagined myself racing through the alluring world of espionage, delightful deceits and gun-totting, gasping action. I wanted to grab all the glamour with my grubby hands.

Smiley is anti-Bond

Then I grew up and met George Smiley, an espionage spy like Bond, in John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974). Smiley was anti-Bond. Instead of the swashbuckling suaveness, Smiley paraded reality. He was middle aged, balding, badly dressed, excessively polite, could be bullied, and constantly dealt with a runaway wife. In Call for the Dead (1961), le Carré’s first novel, he was compared to a toad; in A Murder of Quality (1962), he was called a mole.

Throughout his career of 25 novels, le Carré — whose real name was David Cornwell and who, unlike armchair writers like this one, worked in the British intelligence before becoming a full-time writer writing espionage — alluded to how the Bondian universe was a fantastical joyride. A modern day fairy tale, with a spy as a hero, cardboard archenemies and damsels in distress.

Smiley was anti-Bond. Instead of the swashbuckling suaveness, Smiley paraded reality.

Le Carré consciously made the characters that inhabited his fictional universe, like Smiley — spies, politicians, damsels, charming liars, villains — a little too real. They were bespeckled bureaucrats who wiped their glasses with their ties, dealt with budget cuts, deceptive spouses and girlfriends and confounding treacheries of their governments, leaving them gutted at morality’s knife edge. The almost satirical Looking Glass War (1965), for example, is plotted around an espionage mission that becomes pointless at the end. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963), which put le Carré in international stardom, portrays methods that its spies employ which are inconsistent with perceived Western values.

A honeycomb of distrust, fragilities and broken people

The writer in me guzzled le Carré’s honeycomb of distrust, human fragilities and broken systems, shaking off the simplistic, glamour-verse of Bond. While developing my tantrik detective series, that two spy worlds inspired my world-building. My protagonist, Anantya Tantrist, was very much a Bondian heroine, trolling Delhi’s streets at night, kicking supernatural threats while swigging somas-on-the-rock; the world she inhabited however was filled with grubby treachery, inspired by the greys le Carré brought into his universes, where friends betrayed and there was no right path, but murky choices, rendering all heroic efforts insufficient.  

David Cornwell unlike armchair writers like me worked in the British intelligence before becoming a writer

It’s this constant tension — between the values protagonists stand for, and the murky methods they employ to protect them including deception, violence and betrayal — that manage to shred the same values to scraps of null, and elevate yet another fiction to a deeper reflection on our realityIn our world of disinformation campaigns, ego-boosting echo chambers and fake news, le Carré’s fictional world, like powerful fiction today, slithers underneath our fabricated reality, forcing us to dive into the murky, filthy truth about ourselves and the murky morals in all their grubby glamour.

(This tribute to John le Carré was first published in The New Indian Express.)

Tribute to John le Carré: le Carré's fictional world, like powerful fiction today, slithers underneath our fabricated reality

How to use Facebook groups to get a job

  • Find the right groups with keywords that are most relevant to your industry
  • Prefer local groups so that you can develop city-based professional networks
  • Introduce yourself by posting a message about you and what you’re looking for.
  • Don’t lurk in a Facebook group.
  • Don’t spam. Post links that show you to be someone who is genuinely interested in the profession.

Facebook groups are perfect for niche hiring

When Bengaluru-based Vishwadeep Gautam joined industry-specific Facebook groups, he was not specifically looking for a job. “My primary goal was to find people from my industry to exchange ideas with,” says the 25-year-old data analyst.

What attracted him to Facebook groups was that it gave him freedom to choose groups specific to his area of interest—data analysis. “The groups were a gold mine of current trends so I could update myself, learn more and understand what kind of development I can expect in the future in my field of work,” he says.

An additional opportunity that the groups offered was job postings. On one of the groups Gautam was part of, Indegene, a healthcare tech company based in Bengaluru, posted a job requirement for a data analyst. He already knew about the company since it had been active on the groups he was in. “I saw it, found it interesting, and applied,” says Gautam.

There are jobs on the largest network

With 2.27 billion monthly active users, Facebook is the largest social network on the planet. LinkedIn, the straightforward professional networking site, has 260 million active users in comparison.

“Attracting talent from social media is an integral part of our recruitment strategy,” says Bina Patil, vice president (human resources) at Indegene, the company that hired Gautam. Patil and her team are present and constantly on the lookout on all company social media platforms—LinkedIn, Facebook, GitHub, even WhatsApp.

Find the right groups

Continue reading “How to use Facebook groups to get a job”

How podcasts can help you be a startup founder

Startup founders are enhancing their learning skills by listening to podcasts despite busy workday schedules.

For a busy startup founder, who has to learn a lot about every aspect of business, every little minute of a day counts. That’s the reason Ami Sata, founder, Amouve, an organic bed and bath brand based out of Mumbai, has turned to podcasts to learn.

“Since listening is non-intrusive,” says Sata, “podcasts can be heard when you’re multi-tasking, convey an idea in 20 minutes and allows you to gain immense know-how while doing mundane everyday things like travelling to work.”

Podcasts makes to discover new

It was listening to a podcast about Sarah Blakeley, the founder of Spanx, that Sata discovered the power of cold-calling. Sata tried cold-calling prospective retailers for her brand in Mumbai and found leads, follow-ups and clients. Since then, she’s hooked to kernels of knowledge offered by podcasts, constantly on the lookout for new ideas.

Other than listening to podcasts while commuting, Sata has even added other podcasts on entrepreneurial journeys (How I Built This by Guy Raz, Masters of Scale, The Tim Ferriss Show and Freakonomics) to her bedtime routine so she can learn and get inspiration before she sleeps.

New job? Learn with podcasts

Like Sata, Jayant Paleti, co-founder, Darwinbox, a software services startup, also prefers podcasts to learn and get inspired from. “I’m leading business development for Darwinbox, which means I spend a significant amount of time on the road, heading to meet clients all day,” says Paleti.

Most of his transit time is spent on calls with sales team and on podcasts about other entrepreneurs’ experiences. His current favourites are Masters of Scale and The Joe Rogan Experience, which is his “daily dose of inspiration wrapped in good humour”.

Learn as you gym, travel or before sleep

Continue reading “How podcasts can help you be a startup founder”

How to be a successful gig economy worker

  • Choose your clients wisely to make sure you are paid on time
  • Be transparent and upfront about the mistakes you make,.
  • Learn to say no to projects that pay too little.
  • Plan ahead financially as there will be down times.
  • Manage the time between projects. Learn something new then.

In April 2018, after a year of considering it, Bengaluru-based Sonali Dash finally took the plunge. She quit her 10-year-old corporate career of management consulting to become a yoga teacher. It was a big step in her life. “Quitting corporate was challenging as I was used to the financial security my 10-year-long career had offered me,” says the 34-year-old.

To push herself to give up her comfortable salary, she planned it all—she did a post graduate in yoga to upskill, saved for two years and took worst possible scenarios into account. The combination of financial and emotional support helped Dash till her new career became stable enough.

Brush up your skill sets

What helped Dash through the turmoil of the initial few months was that she had researched well. Before you jump off your existing career, you should understand opportunities in the new line of work you’re heading into, says Sanjay Lakhotia, co-founder, Noble House Consulting, a platform specializing in finding HR consultants for companies. 

Choose your clients wisely

To make sure you get paid at the end of a project, do a background research on people you work with and be sure they are able to pay.

Be transparent

Continue reading “How to be a successful gig economy worker”

How millennials revamp old family businesses

  • To take their existing family businesses to greater heights, the younger generation is trying out new ideas
  • Being in business with family as a second or third generation has its pros and cons

When Bengaluru-based Chaitanya V. Cotha, the scion of the 150-year-old C. Krishniah Chetty (CKC) Group of Jewellers, joined his family business in 2010, he identified an important market that his family hadn’t given much thought to. “For my father, business to business (B2B) wing of the business was never a focus area,” says the 31-year-old.

Owning it up, Cotha got on the road for 20 days a month, meeting potential small jewellers who could sell the CKC products. Within 18 months, the CKC Group started to supply their products to over 200 stores across four states with a team of just nine people.

A lot of change in family businesses stems from the aspirations, outlook and thinking of the next generation of family, according to Ganesh Raju K., partner and leader, entrepreneurial and private business, PwC India. “Young blood is crucial for a family business to keep abreast with changing times, dynamics, business environment, customer outlook, and digital changes,” he says, adding that it’s important to encourage this as family businesses account for nearly 85-90% of gross domestic production contribution in India. The PwC India Next Gen Study 2018 on family businesses, that interviewed more than 137 next generation leaders, 45 of them from India, found that even though more than 81 % of millennials have a clear idea on how to take the business forward and more than 89% of them challenge their seniors’ decisions when they feel it would benefit the business. A key component of success for the new generation is a culture that supports their efforts, gives them room to make mistakes and provides for independent decision making.

It’s all in the family

Family support and her father’s open mind was one of the major reasons Suzannah Muthoot, zonal strategic consultant with Muthoot Fincorp Ltd (MFL), was able to implement changes at the regional levels of her company.

Fresh out of college, when the 24-year-old joined her father’s company in 2017, she was told to travel extensively across small towns and villages where the company’s branches had set shop, to gain real on-ground experience. The travel was useful as she found inefficiencies at the zonal and regional levels across functions. “I came back with a proposal to redefine the role of a regional manager, who is responsible for profitability and performance of nearly 70 branches,” she explains.

Suzannah Muthoot
Suzannah Muthoot
Continue reading “How millennials revamp old family businesses”