The Tribune

Agony & Ectasy
by Nonika Singh

I am always in agony. Such words from an agony aunt might sound like euphemism. But Aradhika Sharma, an agony aunt of a popular website, whose book Dear Agony Aunt was launched at Lajpat Rai Bhawan on Friday, as part of ongoing Rupa book fair, shares that it is precisely because she herself agonises over small little things of life that makes her understand the predicament of her subjects whom she in a tongue-in-cheek manner calls “inagonies.” But for this aside, she is more than earnest in offering advice to those who seek it. Even when her knee-jerk reaction is “get lost”, she takes a long breath and then goes about proffering advice with empathy and detachment, both.

So is the book too long a piece of advisory information, a kind of referral guide for lost and bewildered souls? First things first, she doesn’t think that agony aunt is a helpline. So how can the book be? Of course, the book is no novel, albeit divided into eight chapters, it deals with six serious issues including domestic abuse. However, it is not written in a prosaic or sermonising manner. An engaging story telling style is what defines the unusual treatment that dovetails the query, her response and most significantly the reasons that triggered her answer.

So is it tell-all tale of an agony aunt privy to intimate details of people’s private lives? Mind you, this is no sizzling steamy recapturing. Her book is not meant to scintillate or shock readers. Actually what prompted the book was the fact that she found a story in each of the agonies. As she dwelt over it further she realised that indeed there was a cohesive story to tell. Since large majority of queries she receives are about relationships one could say relationship is a recurring leitmotif in chapters like ‘Online, offline’ and ‘Let’s see’ that is about arranged marriages. Yes, there is a whole chapter on extramarital liaisons as well. And wonder of all wonders, Aradhika is sympathetic to the protagonists.

She quips. “The key to being a good agony aunt is you can’t be judgmental. You can’t be seen as someone living on a high pedestal delivering sermons. And even though you might be tempted to, you have to control the feeling of outrage and lend a sympathetic ear.” Often she confesses it is difficult, especially when you are flooded with sexually explicit queries. But she is categorical, “I am not here to feed people’s fantasies.” Nor to endorse socially unacceptable and forbidden things like incest or suicide. So what does she do? “When the query becomes rather hot to handle, I press the delete button.” Interestingly, she deleted a good 15,000 words of her book as well for she didn’t quite like it and began rewriting. A freelance journalist and co-author of Sunita Williams: Astronaut Extraordinaire, she does feel that one is the best critic of oneself and the first objective reader of one’s copy. “While journalism doesn’t allow you the luxury of starting from scratch, a book does.” Do journalists make better writers? “Yes provided you can cross the word count hurdle. From 1,500 words to 40,000 words, it’s a long journey.” And the transformation from a scribe to an agony aunt…. is it natural? “Yes, if you are a woman for that makes you a better listener.” The key to helping others she feels lies in just being a patient listener for “Ultimately we all solve our own problems.” With similar priceless nuggets dotting her book, you know what you are getting from this dear agony aunt who hands out practical wisdom and refrains from patronising you or your emotions.

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