Oakville-based novelist makes literary waves

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Manbeena Sandhu

Pradip Rodrigues

It is unlikely Chandigarh featured prominently on the radar of hippies traveling through India in the 60s and 70s, but Manbeena Bhullar Sandhu who grew up there was fascinated enough to go seek them out and learn more about their colorful lifestyle.

She lived a conventional life but always held a deep fascination for the hippie lifestyle as an outsider.

In 2002, she moved to Canada bag and baggage and along with it also a novel in her mind which she published recently. ‘Layla in the Sky with Diamonds’ centers around a troubled and peace-seeking Layla, a American flower child of the 60s traveling to India with two children, one white and the other brown and battling her demons. She is seeking out her drug baron friend who will ply her with cocaine.

The book published by Archway Publishing from Simon and Schuster and is available at Chapters bookstores as well as online.

Manbeena has written the book based on the numerous conversations she had over the years talking to flower children in San Franscisco, Goa, Pune where hippies from all over the world converged to celebrate their counter-cultural lifestyle.

“I was a spiritual rebel and although I didn’t live in those times, I was curious and fascinated by their rebelliousness, their passionate freedom and rejection of materialism. They were seeking to create a utopian paradise on earth,” she says.

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She listened to their stories of hedonism, their drug-centered lifestyles and the heartbreak when they were confronted by the reality of life. “So many of them suffered because of drug abuse which led them to turn away spiritually,” says Manbeena.

This compelling story line of ‘Layla in the Sky with Diamonds’ weaves 1960s and 70s style hedonism, Indian culture, drugs, family, devastation, passion, spirituality, and endearing characters into an engaging tale. An addiction counsellor, she explains that, “Without my education and experience in addiction counselling this book would not be possible as the heart wrenching drug related experiences of my clients form the very back bone of my story.”

In an interview with Can-India, Manbeena Bhullar Sandhu who lives with her husband, son (14) and daughter (7) in Oakville talks about her journey.

Did you ever think growing up you would write a novel?
Yes, I was certain that I would be writing a novel one day. The feeling was ingrained inside me. I had a flair and a knack for writing from the very beginning, and the story developed inside my mind, over the years. It was just a matter of “when” I would be writing, not “if”.

Is this a one-off thing since you have been so inspired by the subject or do you think you will write more?
Of course, this book is very special to me. But I will be writing more. Though I am too occupied with my current book at the moment to start working on the next one. But it is coming…And the second one will be special too; as it is impossible for me to write about something that has not stirred my soul.

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What role did your family play and how did you carve out space to think and write when you have children?
Yes, my family played a very important role in the creation of this book. I received a lot of encouragement from my mother and my husband. Though my mother lives in India, she constantly reminded me of the writer inside me over the years, even when I was busy with my life duties and had put writing on the back burner- something I would do one day. If it was not for her gentle nudges and reminders, I could have just procrastinated.

As for my husband; this book would still be on my to-do list if it was not for all the help, encouragement, freedom and time he provided me with by taking over all my duties and obligations and looked after the children, while I wrote 24/7 and the world ceased to exist around me. The credit for the creation of this book goes to him just as much as it goes to me.
I believe that the help and encouragement from family is a must to accomplish any important and creative task, especially being this country where each one of us has many duties and obligations which we need to fit in out 24-hour day window.

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How did you meet all those fascinating hippies?
During my late teens and early 20s my interest in spiritualism peeked and I read many philosophers, spiritual masters and new age thinkers. In my own spiritual search, I ran into these flower children turned spiritual seekers, whom I befriended, though they were a couple of decades older than me. Over the years our friendship developed. I listened to their stories and tales with awe and wonder and decided to capture them in my book one day, of course in a fictional form and setting. They had similar stories and similar tales, which sounded very fascinating. Their stories helped me gain an insight into their lives in Goa, Kathmandu, San Francisco or elsewhere.

I had joined the Osho movement in 1993 which also helped me meet people from various backgrounds, times and cultures. I spent many months living in Pune and Goa where I met a few remaining one-time hippies and locals who had seen and witnessed the hippie movement first hand. I have also lived in the Bay Area of San Francisco where I visited the Haight Ashbury district and talked to the locals there. All these interactions have helped me gain a closer look and insight into the hippie life and times. -CINEWS

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