Leela Soma was born in Madras (former name for Chennai) in India, and now lives in Glasgow. Her poetry and short stories have been published in a number of anthologies and publications, including The Scotsman, The Grind, New Voices, and Gutter magazine. She won the Margaret Thomson Davis Trophy at Strathkelvin Writer’s Group for Best New Writer 2007 for her novel ‘Twice Born.’ Her second novel ‘Bombay Baby’ was published by Dahlia Publishing Limited in 2011. ‘Boxed In,’ a short story collection eBook, was published by The Pot Hole Press in 2013. She was commissioned along with 21 other writers and artists to write a story for Glasgow Women’s Library anthology, 21 Revolutions, for its 21st birthday in 2013. Her latest story, ‘Butterfly Rammy,’ was a commissioned short story for the Edinburgh Fringe show 2015, an anthology, launched on August 7th 2015. She is currently working on her third novel, a crime fiction set in Glasgow’s West End. She has served on the committee for the Milngavie Books and Arts Festivals, and also on the Scottish Writer’s Centre Committee. Her work reflects her dual heritage of India and Scotland.
Vinita Kinra: Welcome to Global Asian Times, Leela. What made you immigrate to Scotland?
Leela Soma: I got married in 1969 and my husband was working here, so I came with him.
Vinita Kinra: Did you choose to write about the new immigrant experience in your debut novel, Twice Born, as it is a time-tested storyline?
Leela Soma: Not really. I wanted to contribute to the mainstream literature scene in Glasgow, and decided this was a good theme. There are so many connections between India and Scotland, and I wanted to highlight them.
Vinita Kinra:Share with us your publishing story.
Leela Soma: I won the New Writers trophy for the first 10,000 words of ‘Twice Born’ at Strathkelvin Writers Group. The judge, Robin LLoyd Jones, said to me, “Anyone can start a novel, make sure you finish it.” I got it published by Arts Council England sponsored YOUWRITEON publishers.
Vinita Kinra: Did you have a support group that helped you realize your dream of becoming a writer?
Leela Soma: The Strathkelvin Writers Group was very helpful and supportive. I am also a member of the Federation of Writers Scotland and the Scottish Writers Centre.
Leela Soma: Though I have lived twice as long in Glasgow as compared to Chennai, formerly called Madras; my birth city and Indian heritage are very important to me. All my work, poetry and prose, reflects this dual heritage of India and Scotland, and I am proud of both.
Vinita Kinra: Scottish literature doesn’t necessarily boast of a rich legacy of Indian-origin writers. Did you want to fill in this void?
Leela Soma: Yes, indeed. I remember James Kelman, a Man Booker Prize-winning Scottish writer, fighting for the working-class voice of Scotland to be heard in mainstream literature. I feel equally strongly that Indo-Scot voices need to be heard.
Vinita Kinra: What was the biggest challenge you encountered to establish yourself as a writer in Scotland?
Leela Soma: The big publishers were interested in my work, but claimed my book may not be ‘commercial enough’; this is still a problem in all United Kingdom. The perception is that either you win the Man Booker Prize, or other famous prizes and make it to the literary scene, or go into oblivion.
Vinita Kinra: Give us a brief synopsis of your novel, Bombay Baby.
LS: The story is about Tina, an Indian girl born by embryo transfer to white parents in Glasgow, who sets off on a quest to find her birth-origin mother in the bustling city of Mumbai. Will she find her in a city of millions? Read the novel to find out.
Vinita Kinra: What future projects are you working on?
Leela Soma: I was shortlisted for crime novels pitch by ‘Bloody Scotland,’ the Crime Festival in Scotland. I am working on it, a completely new genre fiction. My short stories and poems have been published in the Scotsman, The Grind and a couple of anthologies.
Vinita Kinra: Our readers would like to sample an excerpt from your book, Twice Born.
The horoscope was written for Sita, the new baby. Date, time, star sign, all significant sources that would rule her life. The horoscope would entwine her with a partner – her future etched in Sanskrit and Tamil. The astrologer drew a neat square, divided it into sections, placed the nine planetary positions at the time of birth and recorded it in the family book. Sun and Moon, followed by the five major planets – Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, Mercury – and the two nodal points of the Moon – Rahu and Ketu. The black ink traced her traits and her destiny on the virgin paper. The astrologer smiled, pleased with his work, and pocketed his payment.
A breech baby, Sita arrived upside down, feet to the stars. The family doctor announced that the baby was healthy and left.
Her granny remembered the tiniest details and recalled the ignorant comment made by the midwife.
‘Oh, not another girl! Coming upside down, that does not bode well! She does have pretty features, but I’m sure an upside down life for this one.’
Sita’s mother had stopped her granny reiterating it constantly.
‘All these old sayings are traditional. What one achieves in life is important. Remember Sita, happiness and contentment comes from within.’ Her mum’s words of wisdom remained with her.
Sita was curious about everything and posed questions that her dad wished she would not ask, but he had always nurtured her interests, whether in fiction, music or general knowledge. She stood before him now, asking questions that his other children never bothered about.
‘Dad, why are we called Brahmins?’
‘Well, the caste system places the Brahmins at the top as they were the priests well versed in the scriptures and they could interpret the scriptures, explain the rituals that have to be followed in the temples and were the guardians of the spiritual side of life. It’s a bit like the Archbishop of Canterbury being revered as someone above the Monarch, so he can place the crown and bless the ruler when they start their reign.’
‘But why do they say twice born? It’s strange. More like science fiction.’ Sita giggled.
‘Twice born are people who have realised God. All the boys have to go through a simple ritual called the upanayanam (the thread ceremony), like the Jews have their bar mitzvah. After the ceremony, they are known as twice born, they have realised God and are willing to continue with propagating Hinduism or at least practising it. That is when they are given the ‘Gayatri Mantra,’ whispered in their ears.’