Ammar Kalia on ‘A Person is a Prayer’ & Family Dynamics

In an exclusive interview with DESIblitz, Ammar Kalia dives deep into his profoundly evocative debut novel, ‘A Person is a Prayer’.

Ammar Kalia on ‘A Person is a Prayer’ & Family Dynamics - F

"You can’t have light without dark, heaviness without levity."

Few narratives capture a family’s journey through time as poignantly as ‘A Person is a Prayer’.

Spanning six decades, this tale weaves each era’s details into a lyrically moving and humorously wry narrative.

At its core, the story explores the quest for happiness, set against cultural and geographical shifts that profoundly shape the characters’ paths.

Ammar Kalia’s inspiration for this broad timeline stems from a desire to explore the human experience through three siblings, each experiencing the same pivotal day from unique perspectives.

As the conversation unfolds, the author delves into family dynamics, the impact of migration on identity and relationships, and the significance of the title ‘A Person is a Prayer’ to the story’s themes.

The insights shared offer a glimpse into the creative process behind developing rich characters and portraying migration’s impact on the quest for happiness.

What inspired you to tell this family’s story over six decades, and how did you weave the intricate details of each era into the narrative?

Ammar Kalia on ‘A Person is a Prayer’ & Family Dynamics - 3When I first started writing this book, I knew the majority of it needed to take place on the final day of the narrative in 2019.

I began the creative process with a structure in mind of three siblings each going through the same day where they would spread their father’s ashes in the water of the Ganges, each telling it from their own first-person perspective.

I wanted to know how such a traumatic yet human experience might feel so different for three people who we could assume would encounter it in the same way.

From there, I worked backwards, trying to figure out the most efficient way to plug the holes in their story without overstuffing with words that the characters wouldn’t say to each other.

That’s when the idea of telling the story on two other days emerged: one in 1955, when our patriarch Bedi meets his future wife for the first time, and one in 1994 when something else momentous happens (I won’t give it away!).

In terms of weaving in details of each era, that was a mix of personal experience (I made a trip to the Ganges in 2019 to spread my grandmother’s ashes and grew up in the 90s), as well as the usual internet research, speaking to people who had lived through those eras, watching documentary footage and then feeling into the unspoken by sitting at my desk and staring into space until I had something to type out.

How do you define happiness in your book, and what do you hope readers take away from your characters’ lifelong quest for it?

Happiness exists in context always – of the book and of our own life experiences.

That means that each character, as well as each of ourselves, defines happiness differently depending on circumstance.

Some of them define it as money, others relationships, others status, and for some it simply means keeping your head above water long enough that you have the time to breathe.

I would like people to take away a bit of kindness for themselves, to understand that life can be brutally tough and it can be beautiful and therefore happiness isn’t the only thing to strive for.

Sometimes simply being able to live in your own skin is reason enough.

How do you balance the lyrically moving and wryly humorous tones, and what role does humour play in addressing themes of migration, inheritance, and loss?

Ammar Kalia on ‘A Person is a Prayer’ & Family Dynamics - 2You can’t have light without dark, heaviness without levity.

In some of the darkest and most bleak moments of my life there have erupted the biggest belly laughs, as if we need those moments of humour not only to survive what we’re going through but to help us make sense of it all through a new perspective.

So it is with the messier and more traumatic themes of the book – characters are subject to racism, loss and the toll of leaving home but they also find space to make each other laugh and smile because ultimately they are human and not just the sum total of their traumas.

Especially as a person of colour, I wanted to paint a picture where we are defined in the full spectrum of our humanity.

How do the cultural and geographical settings influence your characters’ quests for understanding and happiness?

Settings can be a real constraint or an imaginative playground for characters.

In certain ways, each character in the book feels forced into the setting they are in, either because of their parents’ decision to migrate or because of family duty or socio-economic pressures.

I wanted to explore how people try to carve out space for themselves within these environments, how they try to make it their own while also being imprinted on by cultures that might not be theirs.

There are moments where the setting can act as a bridge between people and others where it’s a barrier, a hostile environment designed to pull people apart.

How do the “spaces between family members” and deteriorating communication shape the individual and collective journeys of the Bedi family?

Ammar Kalia on ‘A Person is a Prayer’ & Family Dynamics - 5For me, family is so predicated on the things that we don’t – or can’t – say to each other.

These are people we spend so much of our lives with and who have physically made us and yet they can simultaneously be the people we feel least understood by.

Space, silence and misunderstanding feel just as close within a family as love, loyalty and warmth.

Some characters like Selena use words without meaning, talking to fill space, whereas others like Bedi hold their meaning in silence – in both cases, they are each easily misunderstood.

The joy of the novel form is that we can take a glimpse into their heads to see the difference between the ways they think about themselves and the way they are perceived.

How do the inherited desire and confusion about happiness affect Bedi and Sushma’s children’s choices and create generational ripple effects?

Parents’ ideas of happiness don’t necessarily align with the things their children will realise they want as they grow up.

That means these children might not understand their parents’ choices, or even resent them, leading them to question what they were led to believe was happiness in the first place.

We inherit those ideals, as well as responses to trauma, and as we build our own experiences, the way we engage with it all is what makes up the richness of life.

What was your process for creating the distinct personalities of the Bedi family, and were any inspired by real-life figures or stories?

Ammar Kalia on ‘A Person is a Prayer’ & Family Dynamics - 1It’s inevitable that aspects of real life come to bear when you’re writing.

I definitely drew on bits of people that I know in the book – whether it’s turns of phrase, tics or quirks in appearance – while I also did a lot of sitting and staring into space, thinking about characters’ motivations and goals and how they would react when put into certain situations.

Writing is ultimately making people in your head do things to eventually make each other cry!

‘A Person is a Prayer’ is a profoundly evocative title. Can you share the story behind choosing this title and its significance to the narrative’s core themes?

Thank you! One of the central themes of the book is longing.

It’s an emotion I think a lot of migrants and descendants of migrants might feel: longing for a better future, longing for an imagined homeland that might not be there anymore, longing for a past you have begun to idealise.

While I was writing the book, I was reading the Norwegian writer Jon Fosse’s Septology and came across the line “A person is a prayer through his or her longing.”

It became the epigraph for the book and the evocation of the first half just felt right for the title.

A person longs, prays, hopes, and dreams – we are the sum of this restlessness.

How does migration affect your characters’ identities and relationships, especially in their quest for happiness?

Ammar Kalia on ‘A Person is a Prayer’ & Family Dynamics - 4Migration is central to the ways these characters experience and strive for happiness.

For certain generations, the place they find themselves in is one they hoped would provide a better life for their children, while those children might resent the racism they have experienced growing up somewhere they are a minority.

Of course, their parents would have experienced the same and will feel disillusioned about that initial need to leave too.

It’s a knotty, messy and complicated affair that so many of us in the world have experienced and continue to experience.

The choice to leave is never truly a choice – our hands are often forced by the environment we find ourselves in.

Where do you imagine the Bedi family’s journey heading beyond the book, and do you see their quest for happiness evolving?

I hope each character finds some peace within themselves.

They are each searching for something and also withholding secrets from each other – perhaps if they can confide in each other and reflect on their differing perspectives, they might realise that what they are looking for can be found closer to home.

It’s either that or they should all get into therapy and begin to process their lives rather than trying to keep moving forward at all costs!

What was the most challenging aspect of writing ‘A Person is a Prayer’, and what was the most rewarding?

Ammar Kalia on ‘A Person is a Prayer’ & Family Dynamics - 6I think the answer to both of these aspects is the same: writing!

Sometimes, the hardest thing was using the limited time I had carved away from my day job and other responsibilities to write, to use the time “productively” and produce words.

At other times, hours would pass and I’d feel like I was right there with my characters, speaking through them and creating these worlds effortlessly, which was very satisfying.

That tension between joy and failure is what makes it all worthwhile though, it’s the fearful, exciting line where new things can happen.

As a debut author who has captured many hearts, what advice would you give to aspiring writers dreaming of publishing their first book?

Persistence is key. Keep writing, keep editing, keep refining what it is you want to say and ultimately just keep trying.

The longer you can keep going the more likely it is that an opportunity will open up that’s right for you and then I think to follow your gut and if it feels right, leap in and try to enjoy the rest of the (very long) ride to publication and beyond!

‘A Person is a Prayer,’ released by Oldcastle Books, delves into themes of longing, identity, and the quest for happiness.

Ammar Kalia’s responses illuminate the narrative’s intricacies and reflect on the human condition.

The book deftly navigates family complexities and deteriorating communication, balancing weighty themes with levity and humour.

As we conclude, it’s clear that ‘A Person is a Prayer’ mirrors the universal quest for understanding, happiness, and the spaces in between.

Click here to learn more about Ammar Kalia and his debut novel.



Ravinder is a Content Editor with a strong passion for fashion, beauty, and lifestyle. When she's not writing, you'll find her scrolling through TikTok.

Images courtesy of Ammar Kalia, Oldcastle Books and Richard Dowker.





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