Monday, May 6, 2019

Meet Kavitha Yaga Buggana, author of Walking in Clouds

I admire people who go off to travel and discover a deeper meaning. Even better is when they share their experiences with others. Kavitha Yaga Buggana wrote Walking in Clouds, plus took some time to take us even deeper into the book, its creation, and into her general world. Please leave her more questions and comments as you follow the tour. And of course, check out the great giveaway at the end!

What was the inspiration behind this book?
I’d like to quote the first few lines of the book:
“There are a lake and a mountain at the roof of the world where the air is thin and the clouds linger on cliffsides. These are places of wonder and the journey to see them will take many days. My cousin, Pallu, and I do not know if we will make it to these places or what drives us to go, but this is a journey we promised ourselves decades ago when we were still schoolgirls.”
So, the journey itself was inspired by childhood dreams. The decision to turn the journey into a book was inspired by the wonder, tranquility and awe-inspiring beauty of the mountains and the enduring faith of the people who live in there. The journey made me re-examine my sense of self, my ego, and my judgements about faith and its role in other people’s lives. In my book, I wanted to share both the outer and inner journey.
What kind of research did you have to do for it?
I read books by Kailash travelers, such as the excellent, “To a Mountain in Tibet” by Colin Thubron and “A Quest Beyond the Himalaya” by Deb Mukharji. “Tibet, Tibet” by Patrick French is a wonderfully moving, thought-provoking, and insightful account of Tibet’s geopolitics (and I read other books on this topic as well). There was (at the time of writing the book) not much information on the anthropologically unique Humla Valley in Northwest Nepal through which we travel in the first part of the book. I used research papers and online reports to understand this region. I consulted a Buddhist scholar and referenced “On Hinduism” by Wendy Doniger and “The Dance of Shiva”, essays by Anand Coomaraswamy for the Buddhists and Hindu concepts in my book. However, this is a personal memoir, so I interviewed the elders in my family - my parents, my grandmother - to remember and better understand the Hindu myths and practices in our family and community.
Which character was your favorite to write?
Jeff, a fellow traveler from Australia. The book deals with heavy, sometimes difficult topics: philosophical ideas, observations about history, politics, geography and culture. Capturing Jeff’s sense of playfulness - whether it was making random funny faces or his salty sense of humor or the magic tricks he performed for local children – was fun and added a unique dimension to the story. Effectively contrasting Jeff’s light-hearted personality with his moving spiritual experience at the foothills of Mount Kailash was challenging and satisfying.
What was one of your favorite scenes?
In the book, I explore the Hindu and Buddhist myths of Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar. Though I am an atheist, I grew up with stories of Hindu gods and goddesses and they form an integral part of my cultural imagination. The Hindu god Shiva is said to live on Mount Kailash with his wife Sati (or Parvathi) and their story is one of my favorite stories of all time.
Shiva is a celibate, penniless yogi while Sati is a beautiful princess and the daughter of the rich and powerful king, Daksha. How Sati wins Shiva’s love, their life together, their devotion to each other, the depth of their loss: these make for an incredibly powerful narrative that examines human nature through the world of gods. Reinterpreting this well-known story (well-known in India) in a fresh and engaging way was challenging and a real pleasure.
What do you hope people will get out of your book?
Travelling is essentially a sensory experience. I want my readers to feel they are with me on this journey every step of the way - laughing with me, feeling the cold and heat and my joy and pain, delighting in the beauty of the mountains. I also want my readers to empathize, in some small way at least, with the mountain people and their lives.
Also, I want the reader to question the meaning of physical demanding journeys.
In the book, fellow Ying observes that “Journey is not about ego … I don’t think it is about competing. If you are not strong enough, so what? It does not matter. If you need help, hire a porter. If you can’t walk, ride a pony. If you can’t go fast, go slow. It is not about being first or being strong or taking it as a challenge. Do the journey however you can do it. Don’t let other people stop you.”
My cousin and I are not exactly fit nor are we prepared for the arduousness of the journey. Ying has a bad leg. Yet we all make the journey however we can. It’s not about the ego, it’s about acceptance - that one of the things I want people to take away from my book.
How do you make yourself stand out in this genre?
Travel magazine, Outlook Traveler said “[Kavitha’s] mix of Oriental-Occidental wisdom can dot the readers' minds with the spray of sparkling Himalayan stars.”
This is an astute observation. Books on Kailash and Manasarovar are mostly written either by Western travelers with an outside-in perspective (looking at Eastern cultures with Western eyes) or they are devotional accounts by Hindu/Buddhist pilgrims. “Walking in Clouds” explores the age-old journey to Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar and is written by an atheist who has been brought up in the Hindu cultural traditions associated with these places. It’s an insider’s perspective with an outsider’s distance.
On what are you currently working?
A book of short stories set in India. Some of them are funny, like the one I’ve titled “The Great Ganesh Milk Miracle”. In the 1990s the papers were hysterical about statues of Ganesha (an Elephant-headed Hindu deity) that started drinking milk offered to them. The story is set in this context, but is about a young man who has left his home to start college and how he tries to navigate his bonds toward his family and his life as a student among his peers. In another story, a young maid disappears in the marketplace. As her mistress, Lalitha, desperately tries to find, she begins to understand herself and her talents and opportunities in life. Another story is a fantastical one about a Godwoman and a talking bird – it explores the nature of reality and perception. These are a few of the stories and there are others, all of them are in various stages of completion.
What is the best writing advice you ever received?
“Write like a Motherfucker” – that’s the best advice I’ve got.
In “Dear Sugar” the advice column of Rumpus magazine, Cheryl Strayed of “Wild” fame replies to a letter from Elissa Bassist who agonizes about the writing process and how anxiety-inducing, how humiliating it is. Strayed has this to offer:
“Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.
You need to do the same, dear sweet arrogant beautiful crazy talented tortured rising star glowbug. That you’re so bound up about writing tells me that writing is what you’re here to do. And when people are here to do that they almost always tell us something we need to hear. I want to know what you have inside you. I want to see the contours of your second beating heart.
So write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.”
Rumpus, August 19th, 2010.
What is your favorite part about writing?
Having written.
What is your least favorite part about writing?
The blank page
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Being present in the moment. I am an inveterate mind-wanderer.
Let’s say I’m coming for a visit to your area. What are some must-see places?
There’s so much to see in Hyderabad City, so much to eat, listen to, engage with, I don’t know where to begin. But let me start with some history.
Hyderabad city was the capital of the old Hyderabad State, an extraordinarily wealthy and culturally rich Muslim kingdom. It has an almost 400-year history, but it became a part of India only in 1956 when it was annexed into the India nation right after the Indian independence from British colonial rule. Hyderabad’s official language was Urudu (a mix of Persian, Arabic, and Hindi) and its culture is a mix of local Deccani culture and Turkish and Irani cultures.
But Hyderabad is not just a Muslim city. The majority of the people are Hindu, and their language is Telugu, which also has an incredibly rich tradition and culture. There are also Buddhist and Jain ruins nearby. The British cantonment, established in the early 1800s, infuses the city with British culture and food. Therefore, Hyderabad has a blend of Deccani, Turkish, Irani, Telugu, and British influences. It is important, I think, to understand all these when visiting Hyderabad.
I would start with Taj Falaknuma Palace, which Sarah Khan in the New York Times called “a Tudor-Italian marvel”. The opulence and grandeur must to be seen to be believed.
Then there is the stone-walled expanses of Golconda Fort and the symmetrical beauty of Qutub Shahi Tombs. The famous veiled Rebecca statue at Salar Jung Museum is beautiful as is the Chowmohalla Palace, with its sprawling gardens and displays of the dresses and robes of the queens and the harem – the silks, brocades, and hand-embroidered garments are still stunning.
The small cultural space of La Makaan has a little canteen and the Chai is there is made in the Irani tradition and the Osmania biscuits (named after a ruler of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan) are soft and sweet-salty. The spiced biryani of Hyderabad is famous and many of the best Biryani places are in Charminar, a monument of four fluted minarets built in 1951. In the Charminar area, you should visit the lanes of bangle-makers where lacquer bangles are still made by hand, and the gullies lace-makers, embroiders, book-seller, and printers.
The Birla Mandir, a Hindu temple made of white marble and perched in a small hill, is an impressive sight. The step-wells of the old Hindu temples in the area are also beautiful and unique. There is the British residency in nearby Secunderabad, the seat of British power, and the Secunderabad club, a colonial institution.
There is so much to see and do in Hyderabad, I would say, plan for at least 3 or 4 days.
What is something readers may be surprised to learn about you?
I have no background in writing. I have a Master’s degree in Computer Science from the US and worked as software developer in the Chicago area for many years. In 2004, a few years after I quit my software job, my husband and I moved to India to be with our parents. There, I taught myself Economics and passed an entrance exam for an MPhil degree in Developmental Economics in a local research organization in Hyderabad. I did field work in remote villages in South India - interacting with the people there, sitting to their homes, listening to their stories – and this was one the most moving and memorable experiences of my life.
I never imagined I would be a writer and that I would have a published book. It’s been quite a ride!

Walking in the Clouds

Will we make it?

That's the question Kavitha and her cousin, Pallu, ask themselves as they trek through Himalayan pine forests and unforgiving mountains in Nepal and Tibet. Their goal: to reach Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar.

The two women walk to ancient monasteries, meditate on freezing slopes, dance on the foothills of Kailash, and confront death in the thin mountain air. In Kailash and Manasarovar, the holiest of Hindu and Buddhist sites, they struggle to reconcile their rationalist views with faith and the beloved myths of their upbringing. Remarkably, it is this journey that helps them discover the meaning of friendship.

Walking in Clouds is a beautifully crafted memoir of a journey to far-away places and a journey to the places within.

Read an excerpt:
Reading 2: Beauty of Himalayas and Mountains – The Divine in Nature (about 1 minute)

Pages 109 - 110:

As if by unspoken agreement, the three of us each find a rock and sit in silence. I close my eyes and listen to the fierce roar of the wind. At my feet, the stream murmurs as it runs over mossy rocks. While I remain as still as the rock beneath me, I feel like a little child, barely able to restrain myself from jumping up and running around in elation. I feel a deep connection with the other two women, though we are sitting apart, immersed in our own ways of silence.

Amidst the cold wind and the moving clouds, a hush pervades the moment. I am filled with the silence in all things: the mountain, the flowing water, the iridescent snow, the cold pure air, the blue sky. There is a hymn for the god Rudra, an ancient form of Shiva, that celebrates the presence of the god in the world and in nature. Snippets of the hymn remind me of the peace of the moment.

Salutations to the one (Rudra),

Who lives in holy waters and on every shore,

Who is in the deepest lakes and in every drop of dew,

Who pervades the atoms and who lives in the dust.

Salutations to him,

Who is in the white clouds of autumn,

And who is in the heat of the sun.

Salutations to him:

Who is tender grass and foam,

Who is sand and water,

And sound and echo.

Unnamed poets composed these verses hundreds of years ago. They lived, immersed in nature. As they tilled the land or hunted for food or lay looking at the sky, they must have felt moments of stillness. Feeling the immensity of the world around them and the minuteness of their existence, they must have sensed the futility and pathos of this world of striving. Faced with the terrible, mysterious beauty of their world, would they have felt helpless or joyful? Peaceful or afraid? From these verses, it seems to me that they felt all these things, that they sensed the divine in nature.

Buy links:

A look inside the book:

A child in Humla. Photo credit: Sperello.

The Way to Darchen. Photo credit: Ying.

Yalbang Monastery. Photo credit: Jeff.

About Kavitha Yaga Buggana

Kavitha Yaga Buggana lives in Hyderabad, India with her husband. They have two children and a very excitable golden retriever.

Her essays and short fiction have been published in The Hindu, River Teeth Journal, Tehelka, Out of Print Magazine, JaggeryLit, and Muse India Magazine. Her travel memoir, Walking in Clouds was released in December 2018 by HarperCollins, India.

In previous avatars, she was a software engineer in Chicago and a developmental economist doing field work in Angallu village, South India.

Photo Credit: Pallu

Kavitha Yaga Buggana will be awarding a $25 Amazon or B/N GC to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour.

a Rafflecopter giveaway


  1. Congrats on this tour and thank for the opportunity to read about another great book out there to read. It helps out so I can find books I know my family will enjoy reading. Thanks as well for the giveaway.

    1. Thanks so much. I hope you will enjoy reading the book as much as I enjoyed writing it.
      A family that reads together stays together.
      What kind of books does your family enjoy reading?
      Kavitha Buggana

  2. Who is your favorite character in your book?

    1. Thanks for the question! I liked writing most about Ying, the Chinese American who struggles both with her bad leg while trekking as well as her internal conflict while discussing the Tibet-China situation. I liked also writing about Jeff, the Australian. He’s funny, kind, and has a serious spiritual experience that he finds hard to explain. Writing about these contrasts was quite interesting. Finally, I enjoyed writing about the Hindu god Shiva who is not technically a character in my book, but who I write about in my discussions about myths of Kailash. He is innocent and wise, he is passionate and self-restrained, a dancer and a yogi. Writing about his beautiful love story with his wife Sati was a fantastic experience.
      Great question.

      Kavitha Buggana

  3. Sounds awesome, thanks for sharing the great post :)

  4. Thanks so much for hosting. I really enjoyed your questions. Looking forward to interacting with everyone!
    Kavitha Buggana

  5. Thanks so much for hosting! I’m excited to be on the blog and look forward to interacting with all of you!

  6. Sounds like a really great book.

    1. Thanks dale. I have had good feedback from my readers and from the press in India.