#DesiBooks10QA with Sunil Shinde on writing about retracing a 200-year-old journey

About the author:

Sunil Shinde has been an ardent Urban Sketcher since 2013 and is a correspondent for the Urban Sketchers blog. Over the last twenty years, Sunil has traveled to over thirty countries, tracing stories of history, religion, and culture. When he isn’t traveling, he is dreaming of traveling. He is also building an AI-based population health product in stealth mode. He lives in a cottage in the woods in Redmond, WA, with his wife, two daughters, and their golden retriever, Oscar.

About the book:

Following the defeat of ISIS in Syria, Sunil Shinde set out to retrace the 200-year-old route of the Scottish artist, David Roberts. Over three months, Shinde followed ancient trade routes passing through psychedelic souks, ancient monasteries, rugged deserts, crusader castles, rock-cut ruins and frontier towns capturing fantastic sights and everyday moments in his sketchbooks Lingering in the timeless landscapes of the Holy Land, amidst the complex tangle of history, faith, and politics, Shinde discovered a region far removed from the newspaper headlines.

From Cairo to Beirut: In the Footsteps of an 1839 Expedition Through the Holy Land is an illustrated travel memoir of the author’s journey to retrace a 200-year-old route of the Scottish artist, David Roberts. Shinde traveled a route through Cairo, Sinai, Petra, Palestine, Israel, and Lebanon—ancient lands steeped in natural beauty, culture, architecture, and history—to sketch and discover a region far removed from the newspaper headlines. Many times, Shinde stood within a ten-foot radius of where Roberts stood, and sketched what he sketched. The book includes 250 original sketches by the author and twenty-five lithographs from David Roberts.

From Cairo to Beirut: In the Footsteps of an 1839 Expedition Through the Holy Land is an illustrated travel memoir of Sunil Shinde’s journey to retrace a 200-year-old route of the Scottish artist, David Roberts. #DesiBooks10QA .@DesiBooks


1. The desi book that made you want to be a writer (or changed your life.)

Technically, this is a desi book because the epic journey it describes crisscrosses India. Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s Hall of a Thousand Columns is a travelogue in the footsteps of the great Arab wanderer, Ibn Battutah. The author takes an off-the-beaten road, following an itinerary across centuries and fills his book with hand-drawn maps and sketches.

Born in 1304, Ibn Battutah left his native Tangier as a young scholar of law; over the 30 years that followed he visited most of the known world between Morocco and China. In this enchanting travelogue, Tim Mackintosh-Smith retraces one leg of the Moroccan’s journey: the dizzy ladders and terrifying snakes of his Indian career as a judge and hermit, courtier and prisoner, ambassador and castaway. From the plains of Hindustan to the plateaus of the Deccan and the lost ports of Malabar, an India far off the beaten path of Taj and Raj—glittering and grotesque but genuine—is revealed here.

2. The desi book that your own latest book is most in conversation with and why.

See above. Finding parallels between Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s Hall of a Thousand Columns and my very own From Cairo to Beirut is an exercise I will leave to sharp readers.

“[The desi book that changed my life is] Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s Hall of a Thousand Columns. Technically a desi book because it retraces the Indian leg of Ibn Battutah’s 14th-c. journey from Morocco to China.” ~Sunil Shinde #DesiBooks10QA .@desibooks

3. The desi book that doesn’t exist (to your knowledge) but you’d love to read.

Hendrik Willem van Loon’s Story of Mankind describes the unfolding of the Western civilization in a tone and language that flows smoothly for the reader. Tamim Ansary does the same for the history of the Islamic world in Destiny Disrupted. You feel like you are sitting around a roaring campfire listening to your grandfather tell an engrossing story, and not some professor reeling out dates, places, cause and effects, which is what history books often end up doing. I am waiting to read a simple-to-understand, untangled version of the multi-faceted, colorful history of India told in the same vein.

4. The desi book that you’re currently reading or planning to read soon.

The Travels of Dean Mahomet is sitting on my bedside table calling me to pick it up. This is the first book ever written by an Indian in English. Published in 1794, it tells the story of an Indian officer in the East India Company traveling through India.

The other day, I was in a bookstore that had an entire wall dedicated to travel books. Three shelves brimmed with stories of traveling through Italy and, sandwiched between Thailand and Japan, just five books about India. And not one written by an Indian. I am so looking forward to sinking my teeth into a Indian travelogue written by an Indian. And an obscure one too.

5. The desi book that you believe should be read and known more and why.

Arjun: Without a Doubt by Sweety Shinde is a beautiful narration of the Mahabharat in the voices of Arjun and Draupadi. The author fearlessly chose to retell a story every Indian knows well. Using Arjun and Draupadi, two of the most polarizing characters in the Indian epic, as the narrators, the author richly rewards her readers with a fresh take on episodes that are otherwise well-known.

The author wields a singular scalpel to sharpen characters that are already sharp. The dialogue in the book sparkles. And the reader is left gasping for more.

6. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

“Write for yourself.”

“Who is your target audience? Why should they read your book? Why are YOU qualified to write THIS book?”

These and similar questions daunt every well-meaning author and, most certainly, a debut author The easiest way to bypass the self-doubt inducing barrage is to be selfish.

“Write for yourself.”

You have to, first and foremost, write for an audience of one: yourself. Write a book you would love to read. Whittle away everything you don’t like. Don’t leave out anything you love. What emerges is your book written for you by you. I would rather have at least one fully satisfied customer than a thousand unsatisfied ones. One 5-star rating trumps ten 3-stars.

“Write for yourself.”

#WritingTip from Sunil Shinde: “Write for yourself. Write a book you would love to read.” #DesiBooks10QA .@DesiBooks

7. While writing your latest book, how did you keep yourself motivated to keep going despite setbacks (if any)?

I went through the usual routines: writer’s blocks, re-writes, deadends, an endless circle of lack of inspiration, insipid writing . . .

Writing the book was as much a journey as the journey depicted in the book. Once I saw the process of writing as a necessary journey, I guess every setback was a fun, learning moment that moved the story forward, just like setbacks can be while traveling.

8. With this latest book, what does “literary success” mean to you?

I wrote my book for myself. Success is, as I mentioned earlier, a book that, first and foremost, I am fully satisfied with and love to read.

9. How have larger literary citizenship efforts or the writing community helped you with this latest book?

There were several people from the literary community who helped me through the writing and publishing process. I attended a river rafting and writing workshop with an author I greatly admire. It helped to see firsthand how accomplished authors follow simple routines and that chipping away at simple things can eventually produce something heartwarming.

Initially I was ready to self-publish the book and be done with it. The professional editor who read my final draft implored me to go the traditional route. She told me to give a serious shot to the search for a publisher who could fall in love with the book. Her genuine, encouraging words made me grind my teeth and take a nine-month detour to find an agent (who, in turn, found me my publisher.)

A good friend who owns a bookstore gently counseled me to not wait for one of the big-five publishing houses to respond.

I was privileged to have a helping hand reach out every time I felt bogged down.

10. What would you most like readers to take away from this latest book?

Once you start traveling to places far removed from typical tourist destinations, good and bad experiences come your way in equal parts. Choose wisely what you intend to remember from your travels.

If From Cairo To Beirut makes even one armchair traveler shed their inhibitions about taking the unbeaten path for a new journey, I will consider that an accomplishment for my book.

“If From Cairo to Beirut makes even one armchair traveler shed their inhibitions about taking the unbeaten path for a new journey, I will consider that an accomplishment.” ~Sunil Shinde #DesiBooks10QA .@DesiBooks


Sunil Shinde’s From Cairo to Beirut: In the Footsteps of an 1839 Expedition Through the Holy Land is out now. More on his website.

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