I know why you’re here.
You have questions, right? Too many loose ends, too many incomplete stories. You tried connecting the dots, but you need more info. You want some answers, and you want them now. Fair enough.
You’ve come to the right place. It’s my job to tell you what you want to know – if you have the required security clearance, since most of what I’m about to tell you is highly classified.
How do you get the clearance?
Not to be rude or anything, but if you need to ask, maybe you shouldn’t be here.
In the interests of full disclosure, and since my therapist wants me to try to be less obstructive about… well… everything, I will guide you to the ISRO liaison office in Mumbai.
Go the file-room in the basement. There will be a guy wearing a grey safari suit. That’s your guy.
How does ISRO come into the picture?
Mr Safari Suit is just running a nice little side business, in addition to whatever he does for ISRO.
He borrows their premises, unofficially, of course. He’ll arrange for you to get the required clearance, provided you ask for the right form.
See, R&AW is not about to just give away such precious information. You have to earn it.
So, if you don’t even know which form to ask for, you’re on your own.
Maybe, and I’m not judging here, but maybe, you don’t deserve the clearance for such sensitive and top-secret information.
Hey now, don’t be sad. Show a little gumption! Stand up to Mr Safari Suit.
He’s just another civil servant, trying to bind you in red-tape. Tell him that you want to view the files on The Spyders, and be very firm.
Got your clearance? Excellent! Pull up a chair and make yourself comfortable. This story will take some time.
First of all, let me introduce myself.
My name is Samira Joshi. I’m seventeen years old and I’m a spy. I’m part of a secret organisation called The Spyders.
I know Apeksha was supposed to introduce us, but eh! Isn’t this more fun?
So, say hello to my fellow Spyders!
Let’s start with Debbie.
Oh yeah! When Debbie’s on a diet, meal times have to be navigated like land mines, because that girl has been known to chuck plates at people.
But, if you ever need someone to hack into your government’s secure servers and get you some info, Debbie’s your girl.
Don’t be fooled by her baby face. She could give Einstein a run for his money.
Moving on to Tina.
Tina and I were enemies, to start with. Now, we’re friends. To be honest, I still don’t fully trust her not to kill me in my sleep. Shh! Don’t tell her that!
She was the first Spyder. She’s disciplined, hard working, reliable, and like a volcano waiting to erupt. Trust me, you don’t want to get on her bad side.
The next Spyder you must meet is Sweety.
Sweety’s real fun! If you’ve enjoyed Money Heist, she’s like Nairobi… the PG-13 version of her, that is.
She is absolutely fearless. Well, almost. She’s scared to bits of her grandmother.
And now, the one Spyder that’s most likely to get you killed, because she goes around with her head in a cloud of C-4 and circuit breakers, completely oblivious to the world around her – Milli.
As for me, here goes.
Of all the Spyders, I am the one who was born to be a spy. My parents have trained me for this job since I was a little girl. But now, they say they want me to be a doctor.
The story of my journey into espionage is encrypted into a secret file called, Along Came A Spyder.
If you want to access that file, do check out Apeksha’s page. She’ll keep you updated.
Sorry, guys. I’ll have to end this unauthorised tête-à-tête now, because our boss, Col. Singh, is slightly over-protective.
If he finds out that we’ve been hopping from blog to blog, he will totally cut off our Internet access for the rest of the year, because we’re supposed to be a secret sisterhood.
So, take care. Stay safe and healthy, and what’s more important, stay home!
My Furred and Feathered Friends
My friend Michael P. is at war with a squirrel he’s named the Dark Lord SquirrelRon. I am somewhat more amused by my own garden squirrels; after all, being an amateur gardener, I view their thieving mischief as high compliments. I caught three of them rolling ecstatically in the damp earth between my peppers, mint, and basil as if they were high. At least they’re not plagiarizing my writing. I suppose real gardeners might find that statement about being flattered by the squirrels as annoying as I do when talented novice writers act all giddy when people steal their writing, or when they, themselves, devalue their work by doing it for free.
On the other hand, I’ve personally gotten more entertainment out of watching the squirrels play and chase each other up and down the live oak next to my garden than I have reaped value in herbs and other foodstuffs harvested from it over the last several years: two mojitos’ worth of mint, two or three dinners seasoned with fresh basil, and a few parsimonious little peppers lacking zing. My tomato plants grow into vine-y trees to rival Jack’s beanstalk, but never yield fruit. My thyme dries up in the Houston heat. The basil is good, but it would be just as good and just as plentiful if I plucked it from stem the minute I brought it home from Ace hardware in its little plastic pot. It’s pretty, though.
The garden is set back against the fence, in a shady spot beside the live oak. The tree drops its leaves and acorns all around, and the squirrels have taken to burying them at the base of my herbs. Which would be fine, but they insist on digging up their treasures every week. Or perhaps they are stealing from one another. I wonder if it’s a game to them.
My friend Lynn Y. sent me an invitation to play one of those stupid Facebook games: Thug Life. So I shot her in the face, burned down her pool party patio, and took all her money without batting an eye. This is what I’ve become, one of the Virtual Gangs of COVID-19. I’m friends with a corrections officer in Louisiana; he plays Thug Life, too. You’d think he got enough of that nonsense on the job, in real life. Apparently he does, because I exploited a glitch in the system, stole all his money every chance I got, and sent him this to taunt him:
Took him three weeks to get revenge. But back to the squirrels…
It’s hot, here in Houston. We came close to hitting 100º, and it’s not even summer, yet. I felt bad for my furred and feathered friends, so I recycled an old aluminum rice cooker, filled it with dirt, added two cups to fill with fresh water, and decorated it with plants and a few small rocks. They love it.
When we replaced our breakfast nook light fixture, I recycled the metal-and-plastic shade by cleaning it thoroughly, giving the metal a coat of RUST-OLEUM, and turning it upside down next to the rice cooker. I added another cup, a few plants, and water.
That poor gnome. He’s seen better days, hasn’t he? Then I hung some bird seed and suet (below, at left), out of the squirrels’ reach, nearby.
Now that I’ve proven I no longer have a black thumb, I’m also letting the houseplants plot a take-over of the kitchen, while I “repurpose” and “recycle” things like old teapots. What kitchen is complete without “succulent” things?
Teeny-Tiny Tree Crabs
I have other friends in the garden. Between the crepe myrtles, nearer the center of the yard. My friend Mitch M. should avert his eyes (this is as close as you’ll get to a “trigger warning” on my blog, by the way – but if anyone’s more arachnophobic than I am, they should probably just scream and run, now).
No, these are not spiders. I have mentally reclassified gasteracantha cancriformis as a “teeny-tiny tree crab that loves crochet as much as I do.” Because, let’s face it: if this were a spider, I’d have to kill it. But since it’s not, I have dubbed myself “Protector of the Spiny Orb Weaver” and insist that my husband gently move its web when he’s working in the yard, so as not to kill my tiny tree crabs while protecting himself from face-planting in their remarkable handiwork.
From what I’ve read of them, they have very short lives. I hope they’re happy in my garden. This year, so far, I have two black and white tree crabs and one orange and black tree crab. Despite what the literature on gasteracantha cancriformis says, I usually don’t spot the orange and black beauty until closer to Halloween. And despite my insistence on calling them all “he” (much the way I used to name all my stuffed animals “Herman” or “Oscar”), these are probably females. The females are larger and spin the pretty, distinctive “doilies on which to dine.” So refined!
Because, you know, if they spun webs, they’d be spiders.
And they might have to die. Unlike Apeksha Rao’s Spyders. I have asked her to take over my blog for the next day or two, so do be sure to read what she has to say, and leave a note – we both love to hear from readers.
First of all, I’d like to thank Holly for giving me this opportunity to interact with her readers.
I’m Apeksha Rao, a YA author from India, and I’m here to talk to you about my debut novel, Along Came A Spyder.
Guys, if I had a penny for the number of times I’ve been told to “show, not tell”, I’d be zipping around the world in my own private jet. Only in non-COVID times, though, since India is still in lockdown.
So, in the interests of “show, not tell,” I’d like you to meet a kick ass group of teenagers from Mumbai – The Spyders.
These girls are juvenile covert operatives, which is just fancy-speak for teen spies!
Along Came A Spyder is a book about a seventeen year old girl, Samira Joshi, who wants to be a spy.
When she accidentally discovers a secret sisterhood of teen spies, she wants in! The question is, do they want her?
The answer to that lies within the pages of my book, Along Came A Spyder.
For updates on the release date, do check out my book page.
Contrary to popular belief, I. Am. Not. A. Spy.
Because, simply writing about spies does not a spy make. I should know.
I spent most of my teen years convinced that I was deep undercover for R&AW, India’s foreign intelligence agency.
I waited and waited for my handler to find me, until I made peace with the fact that my level of klutziness did not recommend itself to espionage.
I decided to do something even cooler than being a spy. I decided to create my own spies.
I just didn’t plan on writing about them, because I wanted to be a doctor.
Well, I grew up and became a homœopath, set up my practice, and like the adult that I was supposed to be, put away my writing dreams.
Until… I gave birth to twins.
Motherhood gave me the courage to start writing again, because if I didn’t follow my dreams, how could I teach my kids to follow theirs?
I knew that if I ever wrote a book, it had be about spies. I’d been researching that topic for years, after all.
Hey, reading spy novels totally counts as research!
My obsession for teenage spies has led me from tiny pieces of flash fiction to a full novel, the first in a series of four books, and I hope to write a lot more in the same line.
In my next post, I will give you a peek into the world of The Spyders.
We mothers – we are merely rudders, guiding our children’s ships through the storms and over the turbulent seas of life – we guide them as steadily and as best we can, but we are not the only influence that determines the outcome of the journey…
Who am I today? I am a woman, a daughter, a wife and mother, a writer. I am confident with unexpected moments of self-doubt, calm with occasional thunderstorms, selfish but generous, affectionate but reserved, intelligent with a few Swiss-cheese holes in my brain, rational but prone to flights of fancy, a dreamer with her feet planted on the ground – and I see none of that as contradictory. I am my mother’s daughter.
My mother nurtured me with love and learning. My parents married young, with the understanding that both would attend and graduate from college. Did having a baby at nineteen deter my mother from her commitment? No! She told me once that my earliest bedtime stories were chapters from her college Psych texts. If I am determined, efficient, and able to multitask, it’s because I was raised by a woman who could study, cuddle an infant, and read to her child simultaneously!
Astrologers might argue that the Pisces child, born on a Sunday, so near the pull of the ocean’s tides would naturally be gifted with creativity and a vivid imagination. But I contend that any innate creativity and imagination I possessed was nurtured by a mother who got down on the floor and played with me, allowing herself to be cast in the thousands of roles I invented for her. My love of writing was sparked when she installed a bulletin board in my room, and daily pinned a writing prompt – a quote, a photo, some whimsical item – to it, and supplied me with endless reams of paper and a variety of pens. She later insisted that I learn to type; much, much later, I thanked her for it.
I have a great appreciation for languages. If I can’t speak fluent French today, it’s not my mother’s fault! My mom’s answer to a whiny eight-year-old who cried out, “I’m bored!” was to enroll her in private French lessons at Berlitz. Latin was a 7th grade elective; my mom elected it for me. If I believed that college was just an extension of a child’s compulsory education, it was my mom’s doing – she was still working towards her Master’s degree when I was twelve! She made reading and studying seem as natural as breathing, as essential as eating. Blame my mother for the fact that I started college at age twelve – the early French lessons, her schedule of classes from Kent State lying open on the bed, and my natural curiosity combined: “Do you think they’d let me take French I?” Well, why not? With three years of French under my belt and both of my parents there to support my request, doors opened – and I was enrolled in summer school!
Okay, maybe I can’t speak French fluently today, despite eight years of lessons – but I have learned to entertain myself! If I love Oldies, it’s because my mother handed down her 45 RPM records and a phonograph; if my tastes are eclectic, it’s because she also made sure I attended the symphony and the ballet, met Beverly Sills, saw Linda Ronstadt and The Irish Rovers in concert, and took piano lessons. If I can appreciate fine art, it’s because one of my mother’s most cherished books was Jansen’s History of Art – and because she saw to it that I got to tour the Louvre.
While my mother built my confidence and self-esteem, she took care never to talk down to me, never to sugar-coat the truth, never to inflate my ego unrealistically so that the world at large could tear down what she had so carefully built. All her life, I could rely on my mother to be a trustworthy touchstone: she was an honest critic as well as a staunch supporter. If I am happy, content with who I am, it’s because my mother never allowed me to believe that my best wasn’t good enough. If I am able to appreciate constructive criticism and learn from it, it is because I had a mother who dished it out with love.
Three decades years ago, I became a mother, myself. When I held my daughter in my arms, I realized the awesome responsibility my mother took on at the tender age of nineteen. For the first time, it hit me just how much I was loved. And that’s when I knew that the debt I owed her was marked “payable to my grandchildren,” and I know that it’s probably one that I can never fully repay.
When my mom died – on Valentine’s Day, 2002 – I lost not only my mother, but my best friend. Though she always insisted “It’s not my job to be your friend – I’m your mother,” she couldn’t help but be both. I miss her, especially on Mother’s Day, but because of her, I am strong enough to wipe away the tears, smile, and go boldly forward in my own journey of motherhood.
It’s a wild ride, with all the crazy ups and downs of a world-class rollercoaster. But I am thankful for every minute of it, and I am so proud of the people my children are becoming.
It is a poorly-kept secret that I have been writing “elsewhere” and not on this blog, the last couple of weeks. My friend Rasheed Hooda, who once declared me Queen of the No-Niche Bloggers, likes to do to me what I so blithely do to others. Like the Pied Piper, but instead of a flute he balloon-twists his way through the Internet, leaving breadcrumbs and nudging and cajoling until it’s hard not to follow his wanderings. This time, he lured me back to Medium, where I had an account, circa 2015, but only as a reader.
An Accidental Writing Portfolio?
I had stumbled onto the site long ago – The Atlantic has a presence there – and that may be where I first read work by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Is it any wonder, then, that I had never ventured to write, there? I had not seen Medium as it is widely regarded – as a blogging platform. And as a writer who viewed Medium as a platform for more serious, professionally vetted and edited writing, can you imagine my horror at returning there to learn that every comment is treated as a Story? That people had actually “clapped” for some of the passing comments I’d left behind? I had…followers. A lot of followers. 1,277 of them, as of this moment. I’d already built an audience there, without even trying.
Who were these people and why were they following me? Mostly, I think, they were writers, hoping that I would follow them back. But of course, I hadn’t. I hadn’t returned to Medium at all in about three years. I followed everyone back, indiscriminately. And then I deleted all my Stories – my comments. I tested the waters by re-posting an old blog post. A few readers, there, liked it.
And then Rasheed started nudging. Join the Medium Partner Program, he nudged. Maybe it’ll be another income stream, he suggested. I’m all for getting paid to write, but I had no intention of publishing listicles and formulaic blog posts like “8 Things You’re Doing Wrong with Your Life – Pay Special Attention to Number 6,” just to earn a few pennies. Been there, done that: Themestream, Redpaper, Vines… The idea of micropayments, tiny amounts of cash in return for the time spent reading an article – the challenge of holding a reader’s attention long enough to earn a payment for the work – has its appeal. But I was still determined to be worthy of rubbing elbows with writers published in The Atlantic.
I’m Not a Hack, I’m a Busker!
By January, that first “dip-a-toe-in-the-water” story that I’d posted had earned a whole penny. Dreadful.
Then came The Great Pause. Celebrities showed up on TikTok and Instagram and competed for attention with ordinary, but extraordinarily creative, people. They came without make-up or camera crews, and they came with bad lighting and laundry baskets in view. The originality was breathtaking. “We’re all in this together!” we all proclaimed, but almost as soon as we shouted the hurrah, it was clear that we were not, in fact, “all in this together.” The real celebrities still had more expensive homes, even if they tried filming from their walk-in closets. Pandemic brought into sharp relief the differences that separated us: wealth, “essentialness,” ideology, sense of duty, sense of humor, maturity. Who had the capacity to find the silver linings among the scraps of rust; who could turn rust into useful things? And, if nothing else, who had the capacity to entertain themselves and not be bored under #StaySafeStayHome orders?
Normally, I’d have relished the quiet, the solitude, the ability to sleep in late without guilt. I had plans, too. Vague, but serious, plans. I was going to write a novel, finally. But now, it wasn’t a choice, and I felt less inspired, less creative, less imaginative than I’d envisioned my April self. I felt like a small boat, anchored, motor running, with no one at the helm. Rudderless. There were no waves, just little circular ripples.
So. Why not try Medium as a writer, for a change? Why not.
Busking is performance art. So is impromptu collaboration, as you can see here:
View at Medium.com
That was fun.
So Where Am I Going with This?
I still don’t see Medium as a “blogging platform,” even if that’s what it is. Jahangiri.us is my website, and Medium never will be. It’s more like a warm-up area before the performance. As is this, in a way – but I control it. My original plan was to use Medium to increase readership on my own blog. I know that Amy Marley gets that; I think she’s the only reader from Medium who ever followed me from there to here – and that’s probably because I’m one of the few who went straight from her bio on Medium to her own blog.
I think that I have widened my reach and found a new audience for my writing, but there is little cross-pollination. “Build it, and they will come,” is utter bullshit. Marketing and PR are exhausting.
It’s not my intention to drag you, Constant Reader, over there. Although I have done exactly that, to at least two of you – and I don’t think you were disappointed. You will find some of Medium’s best articles tucked behind their paywall, including most of the ones I publish there. But even a few of those are free each month whether you choose to pay the $5/month membership fee, or not. Much of that is distributed to the writers whose work you spent time reading (so no skimming, okay?) My plan is to use whatever pennies I earn busking over there to support my own $5/month Medium membership and maybe help pay for the domain and hosting fees (about $250/year) here.
I’m Not a “Joiner,” but It’s Nice to Find a Writing Community
I’m not big on writing groups, but that’s probably just because it’s hard to find the right one. To build a sense of community isn’t easy, and why would you trade reads and edits with people you don’t feel a sense of kinship with?
Shortly after dragging me over to Medium, Rasheed coaxed me, like a wild bird, over to a Publication called, “ILLUMINATION.” Its founder, Dr. Mehmet Yildiz, has the sort of boundless energy for promoting himself and others that you might attribute to a whole team of PR people. He, himself, swears it has something to do with the strength of his mitochondria, and I can’t quibble – whatever it is, no amount of vitamin supplements is giving it to me. I became a contributor there, and to two other publications: Writers Blokke and The Bad Influence. In the process, I’ve made writer-friends. I’ve connected more with my Facebook friend, Bob Jasper, who is spreading his wings over on Medium as a writer – I’m not the only one Rasheed plays Pied Piper to!
I’ve also learned how to use and administer Slack workspaces, and started building my own little community of writers – independent of Medium or WordPress or YouTube or any other platform, just a small community of friends who don’t talk about the horrors of the day. We write about them, if we must, but for the most part, we’re pretty determined to write about the worlds that live in imagination or the silver linings we’ve found and want to share. We don’t just trade links and outrage and mutual despair. We trade links to say, “Hey, I made this thing. Come lookit!” like excited nine year olds. Because we’re starting to feel energized and creative, and having fun with that, again.