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ODU Doctoral Student Wants to Grow Literary Tradition in Her Native India

When Roopa Swaminathan touches something, it becomes magic.

The Old Dominion University doctoral student in the Graduate Program in International Studies wrote and directed "Five by Four" in her native India in 2003, which was screened extensively on the film festival circuit worldwide, and later wrote an award-winning book about the experience.

The High Museum of Art Atlanta, which is hosting the Treasures of India Film Festival, a celebration of India's National Film Development Corp., will show "Five by Four" on Sunday, Aug. 30.

The film weaves a dramatic narrative of five Indian girls over a decade, following four distinct stories, hence the title "Five by Four."

Swaminathan, who has a master of fine arts degree in nonfiction creative writing, won India's equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, the Swarnakamal national award for best book, for "Stardust," in which she writes about her filmmaking experience.

Her achievements, life pillars for many people, are just a prelude to what Swaminathan hopes to do eventually.

She wants to help stoke the literary tradition in India by opening her own liberal arts college, to inspire future generations of artists, writers and filmmakers.

"In India, our universities have focused very heavily on math and engineering," Swaminathan said. "There isn't much of a literary tradition, considering the size of the country. I'd like to help change that."

Swaminathan is in her second year of the Ph.D. program in international studies. She's lived in Norfolk on and off for the past decade, loves the community, and loves the support she's received from faculty at the school.

It was also good, she said, to have to earn her acclaim again, after a high-profile few years in India.

"I won the (book) award in July 2005. I had to fly in here in August to start the creative writing program. My father had to accept the award on my behalf at the president's residence. It was crazy," she said.

"When I first came here, I strutted around a lot. But Americans don't (care) about an award you won in your home country. It was annoying, but it was also great. It makes you become a student again."

Swaminathan also discovered many of her classmates were talented writers in their own right.

"Don't believe it when we say otherwise - we writers hate other people who are good," she laughed.

"We hate other people who win awards. We think they're younger than us, they're better than us. There were amazing writers in my class, and that motivated me."

In the ODU doctoral program, Swaminathan said she is learning a "whole new way to communicate" in the language of international relations. She's also taking a modeling and simulation class, to broaden her experience.

"I took statistics my first year, and it was really hard. But I worked very hard at it and did very well," she said. "Now I'm in this modeling and simulation course, and I'm finding it's great to think about problems in a whole new way, from the engineering side."

And the entire experience, Swaminathan said, is fodder for more writing.

This article was posted on: August 26, 2009

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