In The Land of Shiva by James O’Hara {Author Interview & Excerpt}

 

 

 

In The Land of Shiva
James O’Hara
Publisher: Leandros Publishing
Release Date: June 10, 2014
 
 
 

 

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When Brother Jim leaves his comfortable life teaching in Catholic high schools and travels to India, he finds himself unprepared for the challenges he faces.
His assigned task is to start his religious order in that country, but as he immerses himself in a land of unfamiliar customs and ancient religious traditions, he soon discovers that his mission has become deeply personal. Brother Jim questions not only all his vows, but his deepest beliefs.
As he travels across India and encounters holy men, thieves, rabid monkeys, and genuinely good-hearted people of all backgrounds, he realizes that the religion of his upbringing is but one of many paths to spirituality, and a sometimes oppressive one at that. On the eve of celebrating twenty-five years as a brother, Jim must decide what he truly holds as important and how he wants to live the rest of his life. 
India and Nepal, with all their clamor, fascination, and surprises, come alive on every page in this unusual memoir set in the ‘80s.

 

 

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Chapter: The Pull of Gravity
(Setting – a small residential compound in the Indian countryside.)

As I sat reading under a tree at the compound gate—a slight breeze seemingly my only companion—a young man appeared. Not more than eighteen or nineteen, he carried a sickle in his rough hands and stopped directly in front of me to stare. I stood to acknowledge him, and took note of the gray string that crossed his chest diagonally and indicated that he had observed a “coming of age” ritual. A small patch of skin under the cord had lost pigmentation, and his hair was freshly wet and slicked back, making me imagine he had just cooled himself at a local well.

He eyed me steadily and smiled in response to my own hesitant smile. Shall I speak to him? Or is it better to say nothing than have a frustrating half-conversation?

“Namaste,” I said, and he repeated the greeting. He unabashedly looked me up and down, staring intently wherever my light skin was exposed. No Westerners visited that remote region and I must have been a curiosity to him. Uncomfortable with my body being an object of scrutiny, I decided to speak. “What is your name?” I asked in Hindi, and he replied with the name of the village down the road. Evidently my pronunciation left a lot to be desired. “What are you doing?” I asked and was pleased that I understood his response. “Cutting grass for the cows.”

We stood silently for several minutes not saying anything else. He continued to stare at me and I found myself doing the same in return. In fact, I wanted to reach out and touch him and find out if his brown skin actually was softer—as I imagined—than my own pale covering. But I didn’t. It would be presumptuous of me to touch him, maybe defiling his caste.

He gracefully shifted his weight to his other leg, then said something animatedly and laughed—so I laughed also. After another moment or two, he nodded in my direction and took off down the road. As I watched him walk away, his bare feet adjusting to the contours of the road, his arms swinging at his side and his whole body fluidly moving through space, I was simultaneously in awe of him and jealous of him.

That night I lay on my cot, tossing in the still, hot air inside the mosquito net. At midnight, sleep still had eluded me. A bath would help, so I pushed back the mosquito net and headed for the well. Someone had left a kerosene lamp by the door but lighting it would give off too much heat, so I counted on moonlight to illuminate the path. I headed down the dirt path, past the banana trees, and came upon the well in a small clearing. Frogs croaked in the well, but were momentarily silent when I dropped the bucket. I pulled up cool water, and took my time cascading it over my chest and each limb—slow-motion ablutions. I poured a second bucketful on my head, feeling the rivulets snake their way down my body. The water made my shorts cling to me, but I would change into a dry pair. On the way back to my room, a slight breeze that I didn’t know was astir cooled me.

Sliding out of my wet shorts and fumbling in the dark for dry ones, for a fraction of a second I saw myself in suit and tie teaching mathematics. Not much more than a year ago that was the only life I knew, a very different one from the present. Then, I was someone not yet introduced to mosquito nets and bathing by moonlight, someone who didn’t know the pleasure of an evening breeze against his chest, who knew of cobras and monkeys only from visits to the zoo. In short, someone out of touch with his body and removed from nature.

Trussed up in my white shirt and tie, I had had the security of knowing what my task was each day, but I hadn’t been connected to the earth. I had solved quadratic equations in my mind but not felt my bare feet walking a dirt path to the well. India, however, was changing that. She was forcing me into my body more and more each day—and it felt good. Gravity, it seemed, pulled harder in India.

 

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I want to thank Mr. O'Hara for taking the time to do this interview. It's very much appreciated.


1) What made you want to write?

My seven years in India and Nepal had been so colorful and intriuging, I decided to write down sights and sounds and little vignettes so I wouldn’t forget them.  In the beginning I had no idea it would become a book, a memoir.  My writing coaches urged me to describe my inner journey as well as the outer one, and I think that’s what makes it a memoir of broader appeal.

2) What is something that you struggle with when it comes to writing?

It’s that nagging voice saying, “Why would anyone want to read this? “  But I have to let go of the idea of “readership,” and focus on writing well whether that be a story, an essay, or historical research.  In the end, I must feel I have crafted something that I am proud of whether ten people read it or a million – preferably the latter! ☺

3) What is your favorite book of all time?

Oh dear, that’s a tough one!  I’ll tell you the book that most influenced me in writing IN THE LAND OF SHIVA, and that is “The Far Pavilions” by M.M. Kaye. It’s a story set in India which I read before going to India, and which I read again on my return when starting on my own book. The author, a British woman born in India, captured well the drama and “epic-ness” of that complex country, and I studied her paragraphs to see how she managed that.  

4) What cultural value do you see in writing?

Our culture tells us who we are – we are people who sing like this, dance like that, tell stories like those.  Many authors have captured American culture at various points in history (eg, Willa Cather), and we readers can visit those times from the comfort of our armchair.  I read stories written by Brits in India during the days of the Raj (British Rule) and found them fascinating. They described the “culture” of those times. (Read “Plain Tales from the Raj” by Charles Allen.)

I like to think I have captured the “culture” that surrounded an American man living in India and Nepal in the last half of the 20th century.


5) What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?

Of course I wanted an award-winning book read in multiple languages by millions. ☺.  As I wrote, my intention evolved into the desire to describe not only the Indian subcontinent and its people, but also to lay bare, through the experiences of Brother Jim, the restrictions placed upon us by religions, the premises of which are largely gratuitous assumptions.  Brother Jim struggles with the concept that blind faith is seen as actually virtuous. I would say that understanding the pitfalls of blind faith is an urgent matter for our world today.

I suspect that my readers, not myself, will have to decide if I have achieved that goal.

The ebook version of “In The Land Of Shiva” did indeed receive a Gold Medal from Independent Publishers (an IPPY award) in the category of books “East of the Mississippi.”  I figured most folks would see India as to the east.


6) What was the hardest part of writing this book?

As a memoir, the chronology and outcome of the story are already somewhat set, but the arc of the story, with all its “advances” and “setbacks” needs to be lively and sometimes surprising to keep the reader interested.  I made outline after outline to chart the outer story progress, as well as to chart the twists and turns of Brother Jim’s internal journey. I fantasized having a large room where I could paste all these outlines on the walls and compare them, but I had to settle for the small hard copies I had at hand.

Another challenging issue was writing about sex. Brother Jim is a gay man and despite his vow of celibacy he has some sexual encounters.  I actually wrote those scenes after the rest of the book was almost complete, because I wanted to be sure the major theme of religion and blind faith was a clear and definitive narrative, and would not get upstaged by the sexual issues. And, quite frankly, I had never written sexual scenes before and was quite intimidated by the task, so they are rather brief.


7) What is the most important thing that people don't know about your subject/genre, that they need to know?

I would like to remind everyone that they have a story! We are all experts on at least one thing, our own lives, and no life is without its struggles. Not everyone will want to write about those struggles, but many do and their stories are gifts for us. It is in seeing that another person, a real person, has triumphed over the same or similar challenges that we have encountered that helps us navigate those rough waters ourselves. So, write that memoir, and if you choose not to, then read a memoir!

 

8) What question do you wish that someone would ask about your book, but nobody has?

“What do the people in the book say about the book?” Overall, they have been very supportive of the book—none has complained about my portrayal of them, even those with whom I had had conflict. One person said he remembered “that incident” differently, but said he suspected it was like two artists looking at the same landscape but painting it quite differently. I like that!

 

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Born in Milwaukee, WI, at age 18 O’Hara joined the Catholic order of Brothers who taught at his high school.  As a Brother for almost 30 years, O’Hara taught math at both the secondary and college levels, and in his late ‘30s volunteered to travel to India to establish a branch of his religious order there.  After seven years in India and Nepal, he returned to the States, left the Brothers, and became a massage therapist and massage instructor.  In addition to doing bodywork, he has also become a certified dream worker.  He makes his home in Berkeley, CA. His time in India and Nepal took him from immersion in religion to a place “beyond religion.”

 

 

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