TWI Dil Se: Veena Rao

As the founder publisher of NRI Pulse—the first newspaper to be run by an Indian woman—Veena Rao talks about her journey, her sisterhood, and now her first book, Purple Lotus, which touches on the theme of domestic violence and empowerment.

By Pooja Garg

Congratulations on your first book! How would you describe the journey of publishing your book so far?

I am in the middle of the most exhilarating phase of my publishing journey. My book is out in the world, and every day I hear from readers how my labor of love is impacting them. It almost makes me forget the ten years it took to write and find a publisher for Purple Lotus—the multiple drafts, countless rejections, the frustration and tears.

What is your advice for other writers? Are there certain takeaways as a woman writer of color?

The publishing industry is more open to diverse voices than it has ever been before. Almost every major book club has picked books by authors of color every month since the BIPOC movement gained momentum earlier this year. This is not to suggest that every author of color will be lucky enough to be picked by a Reese or Oprah, but if you are willing to work on your writing skills until your manuscript is polished to near perfection, and are persistent enough, your publishing dream will eventually come true. If a big-five publishing house doesn’t pick up your manuscript, a small independent press might. Or, you could consider a hybrid press. Also, be sure to network with other authors in the community. I learned this a bit too late in my journey. There’s so much to learn about the publishing industry from others who’ve been there, done that.

How would you describe your book? Why did you choose this theme/ topic?

I think my book breaks stereotypes of what a strong heroine should look like, how a feminist narrative should be told. Female protagonists these days are feisty. They know what they want. That’s the trend which flows well with the women’s empowerment movement. But there is this another kind of woman who is conditioned to believe she is weak. She feels vulnerable or powerless. I was this woman. My life’s journey has been all about overcoming my own insecurities and confronting my fears. So, it was very important for me to write about a woman who is introverted, insecure, fearful, but her life’s journey teaches her not only to overcome external obstacles, but also find her self-worth and believe in her own strength. 

From crisp facts of journalism to nuanced fiction. Was it easy transitioning from one to the other?

It wasn’t. I was so caught up with running NRI Pulse that I had even stopped reading fiction. So, I had to start from scratch. I read my favorite authors Khaled Hosseini, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chitra Banerjee, Chimamanda Adichie, Kiran Desai over and over again, paying close attention to style, structure, character development and storytelling. I taught myself to write over multiple drafts. 

Each month (after the month’s cycle of newspaper production), I allocated about ten afternoons/late evenings to work on my manuscript. The initial two to three days were always a struggle to get back into my fictional world, to find the flow of creative writing again. But once I found myself in Purple Lotus world, I stayed there until I finished my goal for the month. I learned to transcribe raw emotions into words, to weep and rejoice with Tara, to live the life of every character I created. The problem then, of course, was to extricate myself from this world to run NRI Pulse and live Veena’s life. Even a simple thing like sending an invoice to a client or cooking dinner became a chore.

You have touched upon the important theme of domestic violence in your book. You mentioned that you came upon many such stories in the course of your journalism assignments. What do you think are some of the important steps that women in this situation can take?

The most important step for a woman caught in an abusive situation is to seek help. It is difficult to take that one big leap into the unknown, but if she is convinced that she deservesbetter, she will find reserves within herself to take that first step.The most obvious step then is to reach out to a friend or family member she can trust, or an organization like Raksha that work with victims of abuse. 

But what if a woman feels pressured to stay on in an abusive relationship because of legal issues or lack of financial resources, or fear of losing custody of children. Family honor, reputation and shame also play a part. Abuse is seen as a private affair to be resolved by the family. So, the community does little or nothing to intervene. Victim-blaming is very common. I’m afraid there are no easy answers to these questions. But what every woman can do is believe in her worth, in her own radiance. 

Women empowering other women is an important theme in your book. Are there any women who have empowered you on your journey?

Almost every woman (and several men) I met during my early years in this country have empowered me in some way. My friends, Frances West and Nancy Haden were the inspiration for Ruth and Dottie of Purple Lotus. Alyona, the warm-hearted, feisty Russian character represents several of my own friends, all immigrants like me who call Atlanta home.

Your book shows that women can be sexual creatures too – a different take from what is generally expected of Indian women. What are your thoughts?

Indian women are expected to be modest even in expressing their sexuality within their marriage. But for Tara, exploring her sexual desire becomes a way of getting closer to her husband. And, in her naivete, she begins to equate sex with love, and believes that her husband must love her if he has sex with her.There is a scene in Purple Lotus where Tara asks Sanjay, “When you made love to me, didn’t you feel anything at all in your heart for me? Please tell me you felt some love for me.” Sanjay simply walks away. Tara realizes that her sexual relationship with her husband had little to do with love, and it is a heartbreaking discovery, because she feels rejected one more time. So, for me as the writer, it was important to explore and portray this side of Tara because it is so intrinsic to her growth.

Your book also takes on a part of your journey as an immigrant woman in US. Tell us more about it. How did NRI Pulse come about?

My challenges as an immigrant in the US were quite different from Tara’s. We are both journalists, but that’s where the similarities end. Tara works for a cleaning agency, as a model and a QA professional. My life’s trajectory took me on a different path. Just four years after moving into this country, I decided to launch a newspaper.

NRI Pulse came about on an impulse! A friend had suggested that the community needs a newspaper. I woke up one morning and decided that I would be the one to fill this need. I didn’t have a business plan or capital—just a deep belief that I could do it. I had the necessary skills and prior experience as a journalist. Sitting in my living room, it seemed like an easy thing to do. And I did have beginner’s luck. Everything went beautifully. The newspaper had tremendous support from advertisers and the community. But it lasted about a year. A free newspaper depends 100 percent on advertising revenue. After the recession hit in 2008, getting advertisers was a major task. Very few businesses were doing well. Most businesses did not have a budget for advertising. Bringing each issue out was a major challenge. I ran the newspaper on a shoe string budget. I did most of the work myself: news gathering, editing, design, layout, newspaper delivery etc. I made personal sacrifices.

Life wasn’t easy, but at the back of my head, I had this simple childlike belief in the success of the newspaper, and it stayed.The first payoff for all my hard work and persistence came in 2010 when I was featured in the Limca Book of Records as the first Indian woman to edit and publish a newspaper outside India. The Limca recognition immediately raised the newspaper’s profile in the community, and helped establish its brand name. Not that there haven’t been challenges since then, but NRI Pulse is a known name in and around Atlanta, and even in other parts of the US. We continue to be the number one news source for the community in the region. And I have a wonderful core team of women who believe in our publication and its goals as much as I do.

What would be your advice to other women entrepreneurs planning to strike out on their own?

It’s okay to dream for yourself, and to dream big. This is the best country for those who think outside the box. I could never have dreamed of launching and running a successful newspaper without any corporate backing or capital in any other country. If you have a sense of purpose, passion and long-term focus, you will find the strength to overcome challenges. And believe me, there will be plenty of challenges, failures and mistakes. Think of them as your teachers that you can learn and grow from.Ultimately, your dreams will manifest, as long as YOU believe in them.

Pooja Garg is Founder, Chief Editor of The Woman Inc., a gender advocacy and literary magazine. A member of Cobb County Domestic Violence Taskforce, she works with Raksha, a nonprofit for victims of violence, and Khabar, a magazine for Indian American community. She is the author of Everyday and Some Other Days, a poetry collection.

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