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

You don’t need to be productive always to be creative


How you can deal with guilt when not being productive, how watching Korean dramas helps and a cool, free futuristic game you can play online.

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,

How has your fortnight been? I’ve already become better.

When I wrote to you in April, I told you about the tough time I’ve been going through. Writing it brought me messages, emails and phone calls from a lot of you.

Most of these messages were like those unexpected gifts life gives you. I reconnected with a friend I hadn’t spoken to or thought of for years. A colleague who I had worked with a decade ago asked after me. I did a video call with an old friend, surprised that I hadn’t heard about the crazy upheaval her life had last year.

It was lovely to reconnect, to laugh and perhaps, grieve together.

Cathartic.

Thanks to the pandemic, I’m regularly calling people I love, people I took for granted that they will remain in my life. My family, school mates, college mates, mates from different cities and professions that I’ve been lucky to travel through in life.

With Death creeping in to take from us, life has suddenly become valuable. I am thankful for the life I’ve led, for the conversations and the meals I’ve had with everyone, including you.


Countering nagging productivity prompts

All of April, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t think. My brain couldn’t process anything productive.

It was frustrating and I kept feeling guilty about it.

The other day, while scrolling one of the socials, I came across a well-meaning social post about Einstein who wrote part of his theories of relativity and motion under lockdown during Great Plague of London (the post was probably based on this article last year by The Washington Post).

The post suggested that you’re under lockdown, why not write your next novel? Why Netflix your time away? In other words, remember the guilt I mentioned?

I’ve put myself through pressure like this before.

Maybe you have too. Being the product of a data-based modern world that rewards productivity and efficiency, we all constantly feel guilty when we don’t produce things.

When I’m relaxing, or lazing or even daydreaming or reading – activities that I know help the brain create, think and get better ideas – there’s a nag in my brain that keeps countering these down times with productivity prompts. An author I know online wrote ten books a year! I should NOT take a break for I’ve produced only one. Another author has sold that many books. This one keeps doing events.

My society, peers and myself, perhaps even you, look at creativity as a productive machine that should produce more and more.

Put out new products in the market so we can get a good economic value for them (aka make them a bestseller). Isn’t that what success is for most of us?

Be over productive in creativity doesn’t always work

The truth is comparing productivity in creativity or forcing your brain through creative churns DOES NOT WORK.

We’re going through a tough time. Even if you are lucky to have health and money to sustain you, and a family that’s healthy too, you’re going through a seriously stressful time. Every day, you’re being exposed to media – relentlessly – on Whatsapp messages, on Twitter and Facebook and even in the news.

We’re scrolling through one tragedy after another, endlessly, without respite.

It’s okay to feel anxious and want to zone out.

It’s okay for you to give your brain some rest.

It’s okay to be selfish about this and NOT create things.

These letters to you are helping me, dear reader, find my creativity again. Find the creative activity that gives your brain rest, that sparks your creativity further. Don’t get bogged down by productivity expectations.

I bet Einstein never bothered to be productive at all times. And we don’t know about all the hard times he went through, all the daily failure and ridicule he faced in his scientific journey.

The story only has the rosy apple that fell from the tree.

Sundry Sunday

  • Play a futuristic, free game online: Play Survive the Century, a brand new, indie, free online game written by some fantastic science fiction writers out there including my friend Rajat Chaudhuri.
  • Surreal but dark read on Prague: I somehow tumbled into the surreal The Ultimate Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera which made me miss Prague. Save it for it’s beautiful, but don’t read it if you can’t do dark fiction right now.
  • Beautiful North-South Korea romance to watch: Talking of dark, I’ve become hooked to good, average and bad Korean shows on Netflix. (Thank you, Gunjan!) The old-fashioned, real love stories of hope are helping me navigate the dark times. Of course, beautiful boys always help. Highly recommend Crash Landing on You.

My Writing Joys

  • 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.
  • A Live Session on National Technology Day: I did a Facebook Live Session on teaching science to kids with Professor Amit Agrawal from IIT-Bombay who is part of my flipbook on science They Made What? They Found What? It was an insightful panel hosted by Starmark Bookstores. See it here.
  • Hilarious Screen Time diktats: I’ve put Screen Time limits on all social and video apps on my phone. I was recently tossed out of my Instagram Live chat because time for Instagramming was up. Once at work, I was tossed out again. But I still use these limits. Still using them, as the blanking out of screens does kick me out of my scrolling daze.

Happy Flashback

I’m sitting in the dusty, but cuddly, indie bookstore Goobe Book Republic in Bangalore. This was a Sunday afternoon in early March. I signed a whole box full of my latest book to ship to people across the world. Finished it off with a three-way conversation over samosas and piping hot filter coffee with supportive spouse and Ravi, the owner of the bookstore.

Ahh, a perfect day.

A bookshop is my happy place

Is guilt a productivity motivator for you?

Do you feel guilty when not being productive? Do you compare yourself to other writers, other creative people, and constantly feel this need to be productive? To write more, to sell more, to be more? Does this push motivate you or bog you down?

I would love to hear how you do it, dear reader.

Signing off with a warm hug and positive energy towards you,

Shweta

Happy New Year: I had a great 2020! Here’s to 2021

happy new year!

Yes, I had a great 2020 and I wish you a happy new year.

This post is about all the little thankful things that come into our brains, bodies and soul, while the world is churning viruses. It was while developing a talk for my alumni network at Lady Sriram College, that I realized I had a great year.

Since the past few years, I had been in a kind of a slump. Possibly self created. Everything was going well in my life. I was physically fit, I had just moved to a new country (my idea) and in 2018-2019 travelled like flights would freeze in 2020 (ahem).

However, all through these two years, through mostly ups and some downs, the slump, this feeling of being low niggled at my heart, dousing everything marvellous I did was a rancid aftertaste. I sold a movie option to Anantya Tantrist Mysteries to a big producer. Nada. I founded a Swiss startup with amazing colleagues, earned well, and travelled to Dublin to speak at the WorldCon. Nada. I even waved at JRR Martin. Nada. I wrote short stories – a few of which were translated and published in French and Romanian and Dutch. Nada.

When even meeting JRR Martin does not stay with you for long, you know something’s wrong.

I was in some sort of a constant rut – constantly feeling like something was amiss when everything was perfect. Maybe it was a midlife crisis. Maybe I had finally changed too much, too frequently.  I don’t know. And it’s not someone I am! I used to be the person who celebrated every little milestone – a piddly salary increase, finishing of draft 1 (followed by finishing of draft 2, 3…), on an invite to talk at a literary festival. I love being joyous! And here I was, with a perfect life, but chugging through it.

This new year, take risks

And then the virus-created pandemic and the government-created lockdown hit us. As the world went into a crazy spur, I for some reason jumped out of mine. Early in 2020, we had settled in our beautiful home, I had a study. I became happy (though not always. My country’s people who had to walk back homes because of government-induced mismanagement was horribly tragic). All through April, I was in a flurry, writing my new book – a non-fiction which comes out in January – something I had never attempted. I was so busy, I had no time to see the Covid tickers that were everyone’s favourites or read those endless Whatsapp analysis.

Since the past few years, I had been in a kind of a slump. In 2020, as the world went into a crazy spur, I jumped out of mine. Here's how
A new wonderful project can bring a constant smile on your face. I was lucky that way!

In May, I took up a new opportunity with Nature Conservation Foundation – doing what I slowly didn’t realize that I loved – working on partnerships between organisations. I found a work-knack that I had never explored before. I also became a finalist in a prestigious French literary award – for The Daughter That Bleeds – which I had written in 2018, distracted, just for fun.

Do things you’ve never tried before

As lockdown opened up, I took on new hobbies and new way of life. I tried my hand at planting. In June, I started playing squash and lawn tennis – both games were new to me. In August, I bought a cycle, started cycling  25-30 kilometers, make a girls group for cycling in my community. All through the year, I was also working on a new science fiction novel (finished draft 1, which I celebrated just before Diwali!).

Can’t get enough to riding my bike, everyday!

I don’t know what happened to flip it, to get me out of that mood I had been in for a few years. Maybe it’s the fact that when tragedy comes knocking, really knocking – for the world – you stop feeling sorry for yourself and live your life as you were meant to do.

As we tumble into 2021, I wish this happiness and realisation and newness to all you wonderful folks. Keep travelling, keep taking risks and don’t forget that whatever you do, it’s the small joys that stay with you. Happy new year, folks!

Phone, computer, tablet—are multi-screens at work a distraction?

There was a time when Sriram Rajamani’s 1-hour, 30-minute commute to work from north Bengaluru to the centre of the city felt like a complete waste of time. Today, multi-screen devices help him use the time advantageously. “While my driver braves the traffic, I work on my laptop with a tethered connection via my phone and use it to answer emails, schedule the day’s meetings and get work done,” says Rajamani, managing director, Microsoft Research India Lab.

With the emergence of new technologies, we are all becoming multi-screen creatures, moving from one device or screen to another for all sorts of activities in a typical day. Multi-screen behaviour has become the norm, according to a 2012 consumer insight study by Think With Google, Google’s research arm on data insights. The study suggests there are two main modes of multi-screening—sequential screening, with people moving between devices, and simultaneous screening, with them using multiple devices simultaneously.

Related image
Multi-screen behaviour has become the norm
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7 signs that you are addicted to social media

Feel you are addicted to social media? Selfies. Holiday pictures. Links of interesting articles. Posts. Thoughts of the day. Funny cat videos. Welcome to the virtual world of social media, where people spend hours consuming content posted by others.

You are addicted to social media when
Are you addicted to social media? Find out.

Mumbai-based Prashant Gautam Nanaware is a typical example. “I take pictures of everything, including food, and post things online instantly,” says the 30-year-old communication consultant who has Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and WhatsApp on his phone, with all the notifications always on. Even his travelling is full of clicking, “instagramming”, and responding to incoming messages.

“What’s an off time? My phone’s on my bedside when I sleep; when I wake up, I see my notifications first. And I like it when my photos and posts get likes or comments.”

Prashant Gautam Nanaware

Recently, while watching Baahubali: The Conclusion, he did a live movie review on Twitter. When he participated in the Mumbai Marathon last year, he ran a Facebook Live session while running. He carries a full power bank and a charger for his OnePlusX and is online for almost 15 hours every day. “Social media has taken me over,” he says.

Like Nanaware, many of us are on the borderline of social media addiction. “Anything in excess is not good for health and can turn into severe addiction,” says Sameer Malhotra, director, department of mental health and behavioural sciences, Max Super Speciality Hospital, Delhi. “If you have a persistent desire to use it, neglect other priorities of life, become restless at the very thought of not being able to log in, neglect sleep, get your eyes strained, use it first thing in the morning, and have relationship issues because of being constantly on the platform, there’s a high chance you’re an addict.”

Think you could be a borderline case too? Here are the signs to look out for.

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The boot camp workout

Here’s everything you need to know about the boot camp workout, the  military-inspired exercise routine. 

Inspired by the training given to those who join the Armed Forces, boot-camps are high-intensity workouts that deliver specific results. “It’s primarily an outdoor group activity where a cluster of people who have the same goal join together,” says J. Keshav, owner and president of BootCamp Chennai, whose 12-week outdoors boot camp costs Rs12,300. The goals of a boot camp could vary, from weight loss, building stamina and endurance to general fitness, stretching, toning or strengthening muscles. 

“In one word, it’s roughing it out,” says Bengaluru-based Wannitaa Ashok, an expert in body transformation. “A full-body cardio and strength workout that’s very effective for weight loss,” she adds. It can help increase lean muscle mass, and build muscular and cardiovascular endurance and strength while improving overall coordination and balance, she explains. An important aspect of the workout is limiting the rest time between each move, so the heart rate goes up and you burn calories faster. “You do circuits of intense exercises for about 30-60 seconds each, pausing for only a few seconds between exercises,” says Vesna Pericevic Jacob, wellness expert and founder of Vesna’s Alta Celo, a wellness clinic based in Delhi. The idea is to schedule challenging workouts that push you to your limits, improve your fitness levels and burn calories faster. 

Boot-camp: The fitness level required

Photographs by Nathan G/Mint
Boot-camp training helps build strength, agility, speed and flexibility. Photographs by Nathan G/Mint

Most fitness trainers know that people who come to them are rookies, so they scale the activities around the group’s requirements, says Delhi-based Kamal Chhikara, owner and head coach at Reebok CrossFit Robust.

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Say goodnight with sleep apps

Sleep apps can at best help you discipline sleep habits, not tackle disorders.  There are many sleep apps that claim to use the accelerometer, microphone and camera in your phone to record the quality of your sleep, using sleep graphs to show how you slept, but all of them use average sleep patterns. This is based on the idea that interrupting the wrong sleep cycle—when you’re in slow-wave (deep sleep) or REM (dreaming)—can result in a sense of fatigue.

Image result for sleep apps

But a study published in June in Preventive Medicine Reports, which screened 369 sleep apps available on Android and iPhones, analysed the most popular apps and found that while most help users set sleep-related goals, track and manage their sleep, and even offer white noise or guided meditation, few make use of other methods known to help the chronically sleep-deprived.

“There weren’t a lot of apps that had any information about the benefits of sleep, mentioned health risks associated with not getting enough sleep, and recommended the amount of sleep someone should get on a regular basis,” said Prof. Diana Grigsby-Toussaint from the University of Illinois, US, who led the research, in a press release.

Sleep apps can be useful in disciplining your sleep 

While you can use sleep apps to regulate and discipline your body clock and sleep cycles, you shouldn’t make the mistake of believing these can help you tackle sleep disorders.

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Post 35? It’s never too late to start exercising

You’re post 35 and you’ve finally decided to start exercising? That’s great news. For exercising regularly can reduce fat, stress and cholesterol, improve body functions, prevent diabetes and boost self-confidence, says Ali Irani, head (physiotherapy and sports medicine), Nanavati Super Speciality Hospital, Mumbai. The tricky part, however, is to ensure that your routine is safe, painless and enjoyable, especially if you are above 35. “It’s best to keep yourself low on intensity and duration initially, especially when you’ve never done it before,” he says.

Our experts suggest ways to make sure you keep moving, steadily and steadfastly.

Keep small, realistic goals

Want those six-packs? It’s possible, but you need to be patient, for it won’t happen immediately.

Continue reading “Post 35? It’s never too late to start exercising”

8 gadgets to make air travel more comfortable

One of the most annoying aspects of air travel is just how loud everything seems to be, especially when you’re trying to sleep. There’s the quiet but insistent hum of the aircraft, which becomes a rumble the further you are from the cockpit. Then there are people talking, laughing, babies crying, cold blasts of air, and the sharp thuds of washroom doors. Technology can help you shut off some of this noise.

Google Daydream view comes with a soft wearable design that is lightweight and designed to fit comfortably over most eyeglasses.
Google Daydream view comes with a soft wearable design that is lightweight and designed to fit comfortably over most eyeglasses.
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How to protect your eyes

Your eyes are getting no rest from screens. Here’s how to protect them

An average Indian office-goer spends 6-8 hours daily looking at computer, mobile or television screens, says P. Suresh, consultant ophthalmologist at Fortis Hospital, Mumbai. “The figure is worse for IT professionals or people who use computers for work, as they spend 12-16 hours in front of screens .” That’s more than half a day spent gazing at a screen, glued to a laptop or a smartphone.

“It is like running on a treadmill all the time. You’re not giving any rest to the muscles of your eyes”

Dr P. Suresh

Continuously gazing at a screen causes stress, “leading to eye fatigue and strain, with symptoms like headaches, itching, blurred vision, red eyes, burning sensation, heavy eyes and, sometimes, difficulty in focusing”, says Parul Sharma, senior eye surgeon at Max Eye Care, Delhi.

If you think taking a break from your computer and WhatsApping will make a difference, it won’t. The closer you are to the screen, the more you strain your eyes.

So what should you do?

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