Uma Eachempati ’s childhood memories of life in South India sound delightful, except this was during WWII and her father, who was a doctor and a major in the British Indian Army, was captured and held prisoner by the Japanese in the Changi Prison, a POW camp in Singapore. At a local writer’s guild online meeting, I “met” Uma and now I want to read her family memoir, Whispers of the Heart.
Uma had the letters back and forth between her father and mother during the war. Her mother, who had been a child bride and had two little girls to care for during wartime, was happy to share her memories of this difficult time in her life. How did Uma and her mother write this book? Uma shares her story with us.
Whispers of the Heart, by Uma Eachempati
In the early nineties, my sister opened a trunk in the storage room full of luggage which were collected over the years. She found a large envelope alongside a khaki-colored blanket, a “dixie” cooking pot, and a water holder—military items. She took out the envelope filled with letters to my mother from my father at the warfront, and all the letters my mother had written which my father brought back with him safely when he returned home. Since these were written decades ago during World War II, we sisters thought they were of historical importance and decided to read them to figure out how best to present them for posterity.
It took over a year to type the letters, then to store them on a floppy disc and later onto a CD. Should we publish them in toto? We also found a couple of ledgers documenting the patients treated daily. Do they belong to the war museum in London? Or do we publish them independently? Over the years it trickled down to writing about the times and including the letters. Maybe all of them, or some, or only excerpts placing them in context. Mother was excited about the prospect of writing about the worst time of her life. She wrote notes on her thoughts as she relived her trials.
With these documents in hand, I talked about them with writers of military books—novels and memoirs—to decide which would be the best for me. Whose point of view, which tense, how much detail? In 2014 I plunged into it and wrote a draft for the “100-Day Book Program” at The Write Practice. Now I had a piece of clay in my hands that I had to mold. I had decided to write in third person as that way I could write my mother’s feelings apart from what was in her letters. Being in British India, my parents wrote to each other in English which made it easy for me. I put the manuscript through two critique groups and a cousin who knew the family background to give helpful advice. Then it was all set with chapters in chronological order.
I then sent the manuscript to a developmental editor, who wanted me to change everything from the title to the structure of chapters. Who is your audience? As to be expected when someone demolishes your house, it took me a while to pick myself up and understand what was wanted of me to make a better presentation of my heart to the world. I reduced the quotes from letters to make it relevant and concise, reduced the number of chapters and made them longer, looked through music albums and poems to get a title, and started to thank my editor for channeling my efforts.
My editor, Catherine Rankovic, wanted more local news from the time. I had written about the war in Europe and the milieu of the household BUT what was happening in town? How would I know? I was only five then. After enquiries to the University of Chicago, the local Washington University, and the archives of The Hindu, the local newspaper at the time in Madras, India, I finally succeeded in the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, which had the newspapers from the years 1941 to 1945 in their archives. I reserved a date and went to the LOC for a week, read the headlines of the papers of the four years, took down notes, and made photocopies on my iPhone so that I could get an authentic feel of the times.
The manuscript must have gone through twenty versions to say the least, revising each time I looked at it. I wondered who in their right mind would want to write a book! By 2017 it had evolved into its current shape, and over another two years it got edited and tightened up. I finally decided to send it away, warts and all.
I wrote to Kristina Blank Makansi, of Blank Slate Communications, at the time in St Louis, which had helped me self-publish my earlier book, a translation of my mother’s novel, Power of Love. Seven months later, after Kristina’s editing and formatting and cover design and all the other necessities of publishing, Whispers of the Heart was born on February 29, 2020.
It takes a village to write a book. I cannot count the number of people who helped me along the way, including FedEx for the spiral binding when I thought it was done, not knowing that I would go back another four times. The encouragement and helpful critique by family and friends is gratefully acknowledged. I have a picture of Mount Everest in my room to inspire me to aim high and to keep going. I feel that I have reached the top in paying tribute to my parents for their strength and the values they taught me and the power of unconditional love.
What I want my readers to know is the toll a war inflicts on those at the war front and on the home front. The heartache and fear, the suspense and terror of an uncertain future. The photograph on the first page of my mother and her two girls is special in that it had stayed in the POW concentration camp on their bulletin board boosting the morale of the starving and tortured prisoners, giving them hope of going home someday and to a happier future.
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Uma Eachempati is a retired physician with a certificate in creative writing from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Whispers of the Heart is not just about war time, but also life after the war when her father returns and how the family adjusts again to “normal.” See Uma’s website for more information about her books which she has written with her mother, Kamaraju Susila.