Introducing Author Sunanda Chatterjee-an interview

Today I welcome Sunanda Chatterjee to my blog. She brings such a rich and varied background to the table and weaves the details of her work, her life, and her interactions into the pages of her story. You won’t want to miss learning about her, the books she writes, and her beautiful way of explaining her craft. But first, here she is:

Hi, and welcome! Tell us a little bit about where you’re from, what genre you write in, and how you came to be an author.

Sunanda: I grew up in a small industrial town in central India, worked in the Indian Air Force as a physician for five years, and came to Los Angeles for my PhD. I am a practicing pathologist in southern California. I have always wanted to write fiction. After years of studies, when I finally had time, I took up writing seriously. Given that I have a full-time job, I manage to squeeze out an hour or two each day to write. I plan out the next scene all day and pen it down when I get the chance. If no inspiration strikes, I edit work I’ve already done. Having the varied experience of a living in a small town in India, the military, as well as a large cosmopolitan city in America, I have come across many people of different social strata, ethnicities, and faiths. But in the end, I realize that all of us have the same needs and desires; everyone wants to be loved and needed. Everyone experiences pain and happiness the same way. Everyone faces challenges in their life, no matter how rich or poor they are. I write women’s fiction and romance with a twist, something that touches upon a social issue. As a practicing pathologist, my day job requires me to diagnose diseases from tissue samples. Almost every day I make a few cancer diagnoses. Three of my family members were diagnosed with cancer. Almost all my stories have someone with cancer, even if it is tangential. Also, having been in the Air Force, almost all my stories have some reference to the military.

Wow. What a fascinating history and wealth of experiences you bring to the table. And I agree wholeheartedly–at our core humanity is humanity, despite what differentiates us. Now, tell us: Who is in your family?

Sunanda: I come from a big family. I have two brothers and one sister, all engineers like my father. My mother was a Math and Physics teacher. As such, all of us were encouraged to go into science. I have three PhD’s in my family. Others are MBAs. Growing up, I wanted to do something different. I would have loved to go into fine art, but due to societal pressures of my industrial town, the other choice was becoming a doctor. I joined the Armed Forced Medical College and after graduation, did a stint in the Air Force. My husband and my son are also doctors. My son recently married his wonderful and lovely college sweetheart. My daughter is a high school junior, who has decided to be neither a doctor nor an engineer. We will see…

Haha, maybe the science bug will bite her too! Or maybe she’ll forge her own path. What an accomplished family you come from! Can you share with us something from personal life that inspired a particular work?

Sunanda: In 2004, I was writing a story about a pathologist whose desperate wish for a ‘good eye’ to make accurate diagnoses comes true, and she starts getting visions. Around that time my 44 year –old brother was diagnosed with cancer. The news devastated my family. My story took a turn and the protagonist got cancer which she diagnosed on her own biopsy. Everything I had seen happen from my side of the fence was now alien. The doctor became the patient. My story was influenced by my mother-in- law’s and brother’s experience with chemotherapy. It became a work on what’s important in life. About cosmic balance, karma, and duty. It has the most intimate and personal connection with me among all my books.

Sounds like a fascinating read and what a great example of the intersection of life and art. It becomes its own therapy and a way to instruct the rest of the world about those human experiences. Do you model characters after yourself or after someone you know or do they all materialize into thin air from your imagination?

Sunanda: It is a little bit of both. I pick up a characteristic from someone I know and integrate it with the personality of my fictional character. My protagonists are generally strong women pushed by society into unfair situations. With their own strength and from help of their friends, they overcome the obstacles to triumph. I came to America with my little boy on a less than minimum wage salary. It was a trying time, and my family helped me through it. I use the real life events and stories and integrate a fictionalized version into my stories. I use people’s quirks as character quirks. I talk to myself a lot, and Hansa, the MC in Fighting for Tara, does a lot of that. My husband likes things neat and tidy, so Krish, the male MC in The Vision has that quirk. While a certain quirk may come from real life, the situations, and their responses come straight out of my imagination. Many of my characters are purely fictional, materialized from thin air, as you say. Everyone asked me who Paul was in The Vision. He was a concept, really. Someone who could have been there for me during the difficult times I was alone in America. Lupe in Shadowed Promise is purely fictional, a best friend that every girl would wish for.

Is there a particular message you try to convey with your work, or do you write purely for the entertainment factor? Both?

Sunanda: Again, it is a bit of both. Most of my stories carry a social message. But it is not preachy or pedantic. The message is wrapped up in what I hope is an intriguing and entertaining story. For example, the Bombay riots in 1993 were steeped in political-social- religious unrest. My characters in Shadowed Promise discuss why it happened, and Moyna, my MC, makes her own opinions about the pointless bloodshed. The rest is up to the reader. Hansa, the child bride in my novel Fighting for Tara has to fight bizarre societal norms to keep her baby safe. But the whole plot is not just about how unfair and difficult it is for her. Hansa just finds a way to deal with the situation. The reader can make up his or her mind about the fairness of the norms, and how to bring about awareness and change. My latest release, The Blue House in Bishop touches upon drug use and corruption, but only peripherally so. The theme is wrapped up in a romantic suspense, with fully developed characters, with their desires, disappointments, and challenges. In the end, the social message comes out, in a surreptitious but hopefully entertaining manner.

That’s fantastic. Sounds like you open the conversation but allow the reader to have his own dialogue. In the end, you provide work that encourages people to think, and that’s a beautiful thing. For you, how do life and art intersect on an ongoing basis?

Sunanda: All art is about life, be it fiction, poetry, painting or dance. The artist is trying to portray an aspect of life that means something to him or her. Every day we come across someone’s creation, someone’s work of art, whether we watch a movie, read a book, listen to music, or see an advertisement. The best art comes not just from the perfection of the creation itself, but from its relevance to life. A big example was the Renaissance period. Today when people share their photos on social media, it is the expression of their art, however unschooled they are in photography. Only that person, in that moment, took the photo of the laughing baby or the sun setting in the horizon. Life and art intersect so intimately, that one cannot discern when art ends and life begins.

That last line was beautifully stated, and I quite agree. You’ve already given us many interesting facts about you, but what’s one thing your readers and mine would find really interesting or unique about you as a person?

Sunanda: I am a person of science, and as a pathologist, I make life-changing diagnoses every day. It is the patterns of disease processes I see under the microscope that tell me what ails my patients. There is an uncanny symmetry in the pink and blue dots I see; it is each normal tissue declaring its innocence. Like a simplistic protagonist. And still, the bizarreness and pleomorphism of cancerous tissues have their own beauty and honesty. They do not hide who they are. They express their intent. Like a simplistic villain. But many times, I must coax the truth out of tissues; some look deadly but are innocent, while others are cancers masquerading as benign. I must flush out their nature with advanced testing, and that’s what makes my work fascinating to me. Because even when cancers make their best attempt to hide their intent, the truth always comes out. That makes for a complicated, fully fleshed-out character. In my writing, I use that theme to express emotions. A smile often hides pain, a hug often hides animosity. And a mean word shows tough love. Because no one is all good or all bad. We live on a spectrum from good to bad, funny to serious, creator to destroyer. And it is up to the writer to slide the scale from one side to the other to make the characters interesting.

Oh, man, those are powerful analogies! Thank you for sharing. Tell us what you have out and where we can find it.

Below is an excerpt of Blue House In Bishop. Also, readers can visit my website, like me on facebook, follow me on twitter,  and my books on Amazon.

The Blue House in Bishop    

By Sunanda Chatterjee

Chapter 1

DUKE WILCOX felt someone pull him out of the wreckage. Scissors squeaked as gentle hands cut away at his leather jacket, T-shirt, and jeans. Gentle hands like Betsy’s. His head felt heavy. In the blackness of the night, with the roads slippery in the drizzle, he hadn’t seen the telephone pole. Cool air chilled his bare body.

He heard a woman’s voice, “What’s this tattoo?”

A man’s voice answered, “De Oppressor Liber. This guy’s Special Forces. My cousin joined a year ago. It’s their motto. To liberate the oppressed.”

“Oh yeah? Looks like the tables are turned,” said the woman, pulling him away from the totaled truck.

Duke’s right eye was swollen shut. He peered at his wrist, a bone sticking out of his skin at a grotesque angle. Agony ripped through his ankles and thigh. He didn’t have the energy to speak. Or the desire.

“Respect your soldiers, Jill!” said the man. “They keep us safe!”

“And who keeps them safe? Us, the unsung heroes, driving around in the rain, rescuing our saviors! Why didn’t he try to kill himself near the VA?”

I didn’t want to kill myself. Duke groaned from the pain. Although death is preferable to the hell that is my life. He felt the paramedics lift him on to the stretcher and strap him down. Cold drizzle fell on his forehead as they carried him into the ambulance. The door snapped shut.

Vague voices. “His name is Duke Wilcox. Thirty-two. Ex-Special Forces. Colorado driver’s license.”

“What’s he doing in Bishop?”

Driving through.

“Who knows? The man reeks of alcohol. Nothing worse than a drunk driver in the rain.”

As the ambulance made a sharp turn and trundled down the road, sirens blared, and ex-Special Forces Captain Duke Wilcox passed out.

§

When he woke up, Duke found himself in a hospital bed, a white screen blocking his view of the door. His soldier-instinct made him uneasy. He always needed to keep the exit in the line of sight. He always needed his back to a wall, so no one could sneak up on him.  Duke turned to look behind him, but the neck collar limited his movement. He felt groggy. A headache loomed, his pulse thundering in his temples.

Someone paged a doctor on the PA system. Out in the hallway, a nurse told a colleague about her date the night before. “And he tells me his mother is going to love me. On our second date!”

They giggled. A second voice said, “Men are so stupid!”

Duke took a deep breath. They weren’t wrong.

A sharp pain stabbed through his leg and he winced. He remembered passing in and out of consciousness as they rushed him through the ER to the operating room and drugged him to keep the pain at bay. He had a vague memory of doctors with masks and gloves, bright overhead lights. Darkness. And pain. But the pain he felt was not from his broken bones. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw his wife’s porcelain legs wrapped around his best friend’s torso. He saw red-hot anger at her betrayal… the pallor of the shock on her face… the crisp divorce papers she handed him with such ease.

Three years of love, gone in a moment. He also saw another face. A woman in a hijab, eyes wide as boulders, terrified. The sound of a falling spoon. The flash of gunfire. Blood and brains splattered on the wall. He squeezed his eyes and tried not to think about it. Someone approached, raising his hackles. He tried to move his hand. Where’s my gun?

His eyes darted to the door as a doctor in a white coat entered his room. The man smiled. “Oh, you’re awake! How do you feel?”

Duke’s voice cracked. “Like hell.”

The man laughed. “You haven’t changed a bit.”

Duke frowned and stared at him. The doctor looked familiar: dark skin, lanky arms and legs, nice teeth. His ID tag faced backwards, so he couldn’t see a name.

“You don’t remember me? I’m Sunil. Sunil Samant. You were my college roommate, buddy. Until you left for the army. I was on duty in the ER when they brought you in. I recognized you right away!”

Duke remembered his roommate: brooding type, mop of unruly hair, crooked teeth. This guy looked the same except for perfect pearly whites, which he flashed without apparent cause. The wonders of modern dentistry.

Sunil must have seen him staring at his teeth. He pointed to his mouth. “Russian technology.”

Duke didn’t reply.

Sunil said, “How’s Betsy?”

Duke looked up. He hadn’t told his old friends when he’d got married.

Sunil said, “I saw the photos in your wallet. Her name was written on the back. But your phone was destroyed in the crash, so I couldn’t find a number to call her.”

Duke closed his eyes. “It’s over.”

The man paused. “I’m sorry to hear that. What brings you to Bishop? What do you plan to do?”

He shrugged, and lancinating pain shot through his shoulder. His right wrist was in a cast. So was his left leg. “Drive on, I suppose.”

Sunil was already shaking his head. “Your truck was totaled. You have four broken bones. The ortho guys fixed you up, but they decided to leave the cast on for a few days. You’ll need physical therapy. If you don’t have any family…”

“I don’t need family.”

Sunil grinned, showing his teeth, clearly proud of his orthodontic treatments. Duke had to admit Sunil’s smile lit up a room.

Sunil said, “You’re coming home with me. I bought a big house last year. It’s in the middle of the woods and it’s lying empty. You can recuperate there.”

Duke looked at this man who had once been his friend, whom he barely remembered, but who was willing to host a near-total stranger in his house. “Why would you do that?”

Sunil looked at him with concern. “They’re charging you with DUI. You can’t leave the county.”

“I was driving under the influence, but I didn’t kill anyone.”

Sunil laughed. “Yeah, but you killed a telephone pole. It’s government property.”

Duke glanced over Sunil’s shoulder. “So where are the cops?”

His face turned serious. “I’ll ask them to release you under my supervision. I know the cops and the DA here. They’re good folk.”

Duke looked at Sunil. “What’s the catch?”

“You’ll go to rehab. AA meetings. And therapy.”

“I’m not an alcoholic. And therapy is for wimps.”

“Oh yeah? Isn’t a guy who can’t walk or take care of himself also called a wimp?”

Duke groaned. “Do I have a choice?”

Sunil grinned again. Did this man ever have a reason not to smile? “If you’re able to walk, they will discharge you. I’ll get your crutches.”

Duke tried to sit up, but the pain in his ankle was intense. Walk through the pain! Duke noticed he had no sensation in his right hand. Frowning, he said, “What about you? Married?”

“No. The house is quite empty.”

He tried to form a fist, but could barely move his fingers. Must be a residual effect of the surgery. But he could tell no one lest they make him stay in the hospital. He needed to get out. “Seeing anyone?”

“I was seeing this nurse… but we broke up.”

As if on cue, a pretty nurse came in. “Ah, the soldier is ready to walk! I’m Renata, your nurse.

Let me help you.” She ignored Sunil, whose smile disappeared as he flushed. Could this be the nurse he broke up with?

Duke didn’t look at her. After what his wife did to him, how could he ever trust a woman? He raised himself from the bed and said, “I don’t need your help.”

He took a few steps on the crutches. Together, Duke, Sunil, and Renata walked down the hallway to the nurses’ station. Duke glanced into each room as he made his way, and saw people of all shapes and sizes, some with casts, others with bandages, some sitting up and eating, others lying in bed, lost to the world. Many had relatives sitting in uncomfortable chairs, waiting for their loved one to recuperate.

Duke was alone.

The fluorescent lights reflected off the polished floors, blinding Duke, but he struggled on.  I’ve got to get out of here. A muscular nurse was filing charts at the nurses’ station. His ID badge said: Raul Moreno. A tattoo of a motorcycle showed below this sleeve. He looked up at the trio, and Duke was surprised to see him blush.

“Raul,” said Renata. “Look at your patient. He’s walking now!”

The nurse said, “Thanks, sis.”

Duke looked at Renata’s nametag again. “Renata Moreno.”

She turned to Duke and said, “My brother was a medic in the Marines. He took an extra shift just to take care of you, a military brother. But now you’re under my charge.”

Duke didn’t want to be under anyone’s charge. He was his own master. “Thank you for your service, Raul.”

“And you, sir,” said Raul. “Congratulations on your Bronze Star.”

Duke hung his head. A medal he didn’t think he deserved. Then he looked up at Raul. How did he know?

Raul said, “I get the emails.”

Sunil said, “A true American hero under my roof.”

Duke didn’t answer.

Sunil said, “Um… I’ll have Dr. Dickson prepare the discharge papers for tomorrow. The neck brace can come off. No C-spine fracture.”

Duke hobbled down the hallways all day until he was comfortable with the crutches. By nighttime, he was exhausted. Renata came to his room more than seemed necessary, checking his blood pressure, asking if he needed something to eat.

He waved her away.

But she persisted. “How do you know Dr. Samant?”

“He was my college roommate.”

“What was he like?”

Duke said, “He was studious, hardworking.”

“Loyal?”

That was a strange thing to ask. Duke supposed Sunil turned out to be a loyal friend, considering he was giving Duke a home. “Yeah.”

Renata smiled a sad, wistful smile, and Duke wondered why they had broken up. But it was not his nature to pry.

The next morning, Dr. Dickson checked on him and decided he was ready to go home, as long as he was under the care of Sunil Samant. “Under normal circumstances, I’d have kept you in-house for a couple more days.”

“I need to get out of here.” Each minute in the stuffy hospital felt like an hour.

Dr. Dickson nodded. “I’ll draw up your papers.”

Duke went to the toilet and looked into the mirror. A stranger stared back. A sutured gash decorated his forehead, his right eye still swollen and bruised. An itchy stubble covered his chin.

Who cares how I look?

Still, he shaved and brushed his teeth. When he returned to his bed, he saw a pile of neatly folded clothes with a note from Sunil: “These should fit you. Be ready in a couple of hours. Your buddy, Sunil.”

Duke put on the clothes, which fit surprisingly well, considering Sunil was a slender man. Inside the collar, he saw a name written in black ink: Raul Moreno. He smiled. Military brothers.

Sunil visited him in the hospital room before lunchtime. “Great! The clothes fit you! Listen, I’ll be home late. I’ve called a cab for you, unless you want to stay here until the end of my shift.”

“I’ll take the cab.”

They went outside together, with Sunil trying to assist Duke, who resisted any help. “I can manage.”

The front door of the hospital swished open into a concrete and brick courtyard, surrounded by patches of grass, pines, and neatly trimmed bushes. An alabaster statue of Mother Mary shone in the sun, in front of which a woman prayed and a kid ran in circles. An occasional car waited to pick up a patient. An ambulance idled. A young man walked in with a little boy, holding a bouquet and a pink balloon: “Congrats, Mom!”

Duke sighed. A happy family. Something denied to him, a faithful husband. The cab was waiting at the entrance. Sunil smiled at the driver and gave directions. “It’s the big blue house all the way at the end of Bishop Avenue. In the woods. Slow down when you cross the second bridge over the creek. The turnout is on the left. It’s hidden behind pines, so keep a sharp lookout.”

He turned to Duke. “Funny how things turn out. I had a missed call from Todd the other day.”

“Who?”

Sunil persisted. “You don’t remember Todd Campo?”

“Nope.”

“Oh, yeah. You wouldn’t know him. He was my roommate right after you left.”

Duke didn’t answer.

Sunil said, “You can take the room with the red door.”

Duke put the crutches in the backseat and raised his eyebrows. “What?”

Sunil said, “The previous owners used it as a vacation rental, but with the downturn, they decided to sell. All the walls are white, but the rooms have colored doors. It’s um… different.

Hope you don’t mind it.”

Do I look like I care? He closed his eyes and settled into the seat. “Whatever.”

Sunil leaned into the window. “Anyway, mine is the blue one. You take the red one, which is at the end of the corridor to the left. Both are downstairs. I’ll get home by dinnertime. I called Mrs. Brown, our housekeeper, to cook pasta and whatnot. You still like pasta?”

Duke nodded. “Thanks.”

Sunil smiled. “I’ve missed you, man! Life here is nice, but it’s too quiet. You can regale me with stories of the Army when I get home. I need some excitement in my life.”

Duke stared ahead. I’ve had enough excitement to last me a lifetime.

Chapter 2

IN A SMALL TOWN in western India, Inspector Alisha Raj threw open the salon-doors that separated the front of the police station from the Superintendent’s office. The boss’s office felt cool compared to the stifling heat outside. A ceiling fan whirred overhead, and sunlight filtered into the office from large windows, illuminating a massive desk. A plaque displayed the name: “Rajeev Bhatia, Superintendent of Police.”

Alisha was still angry with the creep Birju, who had jeered at her while leaving the lock-up. “You have no power,” he had said.

She had snapped back, “But the Superintendent of Police does!”

Birju had stroked his jaw. “S.P. Bhatia let me out. Ask him!”

She stormed into the Office of the Superintendent of Police and now glared at the young man at the desk, the man she loved.

He held a phone to his ear and was frowning as she stood in front of his desk, tapping her foot.

He glanced at her and hung up. “Thanks for barging in, Alisha.”

She put her hands on her hips. “Rajeev, how could you let Birju go?”

He shook his head. “You don’t have proof!”

She frowned. “I told you earlier. He was sitting at the bus stand near the school. The bag next to him had about a kilo of heroin, portioned into small packets. Someone of his description was seen selling to kids in that school last month. He was released from jail six months ago. If he’s not guilty, tell me who is.”

Rajeev rubbed his forehead with shaking hands. “He says the bag isn’t his.”

She gave a sarcastic laugh. “It’s his, all right! His fingerprints are all over it.”

Rajeev blew out through pursed lips. “He claims the bag was lying there when he came to the bus stand. He moved it so he could sit.”

She couldn’t believe it! Rajeev, who had taught her the value of integrity and diligence, was letting a criminal go? Her brow furrowed. Something was amiss. Rajeev would never do that; he must be under pressure from higher-ups. “Who is the big shot that got him out?”

Rajeev ran his fingers through his hair. “MLA Harishchand.”

She gaped at him. “You’re going to let a politician dictate what you do in your police station?”

When Rajeev didn’t answer, she said, “I followed all the rules! Everything you’ve taught me!”

He sank back into his massive chair. The chair of power. “Alisha, if you’d caught him red- handed selling it to a kid, it would be different.”

Alisha looked at him and frowned. He’d been distracted lately. Had he perceived that somewhere in her heart, she knew their relationship was wrong? He might be impossibly handsome, but he was her boss!

Ever since her first day on the job, he’d shown his interest in her with class and elegance, rather than the crude “come-hither” way of some other colleagues. His charm and power had finally won her over. After a few weeks of casual banter, they started going out together, sometimes to a park, or a dinner, sometimes to a movie, and Alisha basked in his attention. He took her outgoing, sometimes brusque personality in his stride and made her feel feminine and sexy even in her uniform, with her hair tied tight in a bun and no makeup on her face. She hadn’t realized exactly when it was that she fell in love with him. And she felt sure he reciprocated. But lately, whenever she stopped by in his office after work, he claimed to be too busy.

Looking at the lines around his eyes now, she wished she could wipe the furrows on his forehead with a tender loving hand and hug him to make him feel better. To feel the warmth of his body against hers once again…

She understood his position. As a cop, her job was to catch bad guys. But his job was so much more. He had to balance the reputation of the police in the community with keeping the people safe.

Her voice was soft. “Rajeev, you know that’s wrong! What’s happened to you?”

He avoided her gaze and looked out the window. “Alisha, we’ve got to stop…”

“Stop what?”

He shrugged and said, “This!”

He didn’t want to go out with her anymore? She couldn’t believe it. A shadow of dread struck her heart. “What? Why? You said you didn’t care if people talk. We are serious about each other! I was going to call my mother over—”

He shook his head and stared at his hands. “I… I’m getting married next month.”

Alisha felt like someone had punched her in the stomach. She took a step back and swallowed hard. “Who is she?”

He didn’t look up. “Malati Harishchand.”

Her body seemed to erupt in flames. “You’re marrying a politician’s daughter? The same politician who is forcing you to let a drug dealer go free?”

“Just because your brother—”

Alisha waved her hands in the air. “Stop! Stop right now! Don’t ever mention my brother again!”

Rajeev said, “Then there’s nothing to say.”

Alisha took a deep breath. Her heart would mend in time, but Birju couldn’t be set free! As a child she had learnt to compartmentalize her emotions so they wouldn’t interfere with the job at hand. Wall away your heart until it begs for attention.

She tried again. “What if the dealer’s out there selling drugs to children and your child falls prey to it? What if he overdoses and dies?”

Rajeev sprang up from his chair and banged his hands on the desk. “You’re out of line. I’m warning you, Alisha.”

A cold anger flooded through her body, chilling her blood. In a calm voice, she said, “I’m only doing exactly what you’ve taught me. And you’re a damn good teacher.”

He crossed his arms and turned away, staring out the window once again. “I’m also your boss. So do as I say.”

By now she was shouting, “Or what?”

He whirled back toward her, the vein in his temple throbbing, like she’d seen before when he was enraged. And when he was aroused. “I’ll have no choice but to suspend you.”

“Suspend me? On what grounds?”

He yelled. “Insubordination! Alisha Raj, turn in your belt and badge and get the hell out of my

office!”

 

Thank you so much, Sunanda, for being here today, for sharing your story, your inspiration, and your work! Readers, you can catch more of her work on Amazon

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