In-Conversation with Lavanya Krishnan, co-founder of the Boxwalla

One of the reasons why I started my website many moons ago was an opportunity to interview incredibly talented people many of who, for a variety of reasons, don’t get to be in a spotlight, yet have an amazing affinity with us, impacting lives in the most wonderful ways. Founders of the Boxwalla, a husband & wife team who prefer their work & creativity to speak for themselves, shunning spotlight, fit this category perfectly.

Earlier this year I reviewed one of Boxwalla‘s book boxes & since then I was like a dog with a bone, intent on spotlighting Lavanya & her husband & telling you in more detail about the creative process behind each of their subscription boxes (dispatched every two months) & dedicated to beauty, book & film lovers around the world & food lovers in the US. And it’s not just what’s inside each subscriber’s box that matters, it’s the thought that went into choosing the box that houses the ‘treasures’. Each artisan box is fashioned from handmade paper, making it not just beautiful & practical, but sustainable too. The paper is made from cotton scraps from local garment industries & the actual process of making each box is time-intensive & traditional. Your recyclable & reusable box is made by local villagers, giving them a steady income in order to support their families & not just scrape a meagre living. That’s one of many reasons why I really treasure my Boxwalla as much as I do its contents & to me that’s just one aspect that makes this subscription service stand out head above the rest.

Lavanya & her husband love beauty in all forms & are intent on supporting small shops & artisans, paying attention to the tiniest details that matter to those of us, who aren’t after instant gratification. If like me, you prefer slowness  – be it when it comes to savouring a book, a glass of wine, a vial of a beauty product or a movie, then Boxwalla would fit perfectly into your lifestyle. Boxwallas, as Lavanya & her husband call themselves, come up with themes & weave a story for you about things to love, buy, keep or share, encouraging deeper connections in our flaky & fast-paced world. They offer you transformative & fun discoveries, as well as changes of existing perceptions into your life. Below are the Q & As with Lavanya – the actual process took a while, but I am happy to say that the answers turned out to be even more intriguing than I expected them to be.

What’s your professional background and what inspired you to start Boxwalla?

Lavanya: My academic background is in the Sciences. I have a PhD in an interdisciplinary psychology/neuroscience-related field, which involves applying principles from physics and engineering to Human Neuroscience.

My husband (aka business partner) and I wanted to create a platform that would allow us to showcase the artists and artisans, whose work we loved. But in a way that would allow people to easily experience their work while understanding the context that inspired their creation. And so we launched Boxwalla, as a bimonthly subscription box, showcasing four categories : Green/Clean Beauty, Artisanal Food, Literature and Art Cinema

We believe that in order to enjoy something more fully, it is important to understand its context : why that thing was made, what need it fulfills, what inspired the artist/artisans? And I think this applies not only to something like a beautiful painting or film but also to things we read like books, and the things we use, like perfume and skincare,

We are inspired by small, independent businesses where the passion and knowledge of the owner is so evident in everything they create or curate. Like independent bookstores, where you can chat with the bookshop owner about life, books and their own reading preferences, independent music stores with an owner so deeply knowledgable about a very niche category of music. There is something very special about connecting directly with people who create or curate the products one enjoys. I think these connections make the experience of the product even more enjoyable. And we are inspired, not only to showcase businesses that provide this kind of excellent service, but also to form these personal connections ourselves, with our own subscribers and customers.

We are inspired by excellence in every field and most of the time, we find this excellence, in work produced by independent, artisanal businesses and so we felt and still feel compelled & inspired to share their work with the world.

Here is a more detailed post on what inspired us to create Boxwalla, that I wrote a while ago :

What does Boxwalla mean and why did you choose it to call your business?

Lavanya: Boxwalla literally means ‘Box-person’ or ‘Box-seller’ in Hindi (which is one of many Indian languages). It also refers to the traveling merchants who carried their wares in large boxes. ‘Walla Walla’ is the Native American term for ‘place of many waters’. So we think of ourselves as traveling merchants. getting drunk on things of many waters, and then sharing those things with our subscribers.

What were your favourite childhood books?

Lavanya: Some of my favorite childhood books, from different stages of my childhood, included many many things by Enid Blyton, The Anne series and Emily of New Moon by Lucy Montgomery, Little Men by Louisa M. Alcott, Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster, The Madman by Kahlil Gibran, I loved some poems by Tennyson and Alexander Pope. Pride and Prejudice (but of course ), Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham, Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being. There was also this book about festivals from around the world that I loved reading as a child : I loved learning about the ritual of floating candles during Loy Krathong in Thailand and about the little red purses during Chinese New Year. This time when I visited my parents in India, I found that my parents still had this book. I was grateful that they hadn’t given it away as I want to save it to read to my own children (now 4 and 2.5).

How do you choose the books for the bi-monthly box?

Lavanya: With the book box we wanted to showcase the greatest writers from all over the world who are not as well known as they should be. Writers whom we think will win the Nobel Prize for Literature in the next decade or so. So we scour the literary landscape, so to speak, for books that we think are, or will become, classics. Since we showcase writers writing in different languages, one of our aims is to ensure that we pick books that are not only great in their original language, but also great English translations. And so, when available, we also read multiple translations of the books we are looking to showcase.

Who are your favorite writers and what are the three best books that you read last year?

Lavanya: Among my favorite writers are George Eliot and Orhan Pamuk. I also enjoy the whimsical writing of Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas. But there are too many great writers that I’ll be sorry to have left off. I can’t reveal some of the best books I’ve read, as some of them might find their way into future book boxes. But three that I loved and that were featured last year include: Japanese writer Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel,Norwegian novelist Jon Fosse’ Morning and Evening and British writer Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women. Oh and Anne Carson. Anne Carson is just amazing. Anything by her is worth picking up.

Since the Boxwalla Book Box is a reflection of both my husband and my taste in books (and we have slightly differing tastes), I feel compelled to share his favorites as well. His favorite writer is Ernest Hemingway. He also loves the work of Dostyevesky, Flaubert & J.M Coetze.

What’s your take on electronic vs paper books? Does the book have to have substance to be enjoyed, or do romantic novels, like Mills & Boon or modern celebrity memoirs also bring something important to the experience of reader?

Lavanya: I think both electronic and paper books have their place. To me, I enjoy the sensory experience of holding a book, flipping textured pages, running my fingers through them and generally the whole experience of reading paper books. However, one can’t discount the value of electronic books and how portable they can make a library and their sustainability. I haven’t been able to get into an electronic reader (although I know many book lovers who have), but I do read stuff on the kindle app on my phone from time to time.

Anything can be enjoyed and one can’t really dictate what can or cannot be enjoyed by a reader. Since I don’t read Mills and Boons or celebrity memoirs because they don’t interest me particularly, I can’t comment on those specific choices. But a book that affords you enjoyment can come in all shapes and sizes, figuratively speaking. I do think one should read many different kinds of things, within one’s comfort zone but also stepping out of it – you never know what you might end up enjoying (My Dostyevesky loving husband is probably also the most up-to-date on every piece of celebrity gossip you might want to know).

Sometimes after a long hard day, you can’t always read high brow literature so it is tempting to read something light. And that’s ok..Light reading can also be high quality. Writers like Barbara Pym and Josephine Tey come to mind with their dry humor and incisive wit and commentary on the society they live in. However, I do find, that most people, including me, think that they don’t have the capacity to read great literature after a long hard day. That they won’t have the mental energy to keep up. But what I’ve found is that the more you trust your capacity to read and give yourself the time and space to read, the easier it is to read a lot. And after some time your brain just gets tuned to the kind of literature you feed it and you start to get lesser and lesser enjoyment from anything that is of an inferior quality.

What determines your personal book reading choices and do book covers matter to you?

Lavanya: As a reader, for me, the depth of enjoyment comes from the substance of a novel, or the distinctive style of a writer or his narrator, how immersive the experience ends up being, how much I never want the book to end, and I guess most importantly, how much I am moved by the book in terms of some intangible truth that it embodies.

Book covers do draw me in to pick up a book that I might chance upon. A great book cover can covey the excitement and the uniqueness of the contents of a book. But beyond that, once I actually start a book, I am not sure how much the cover matters. I do like looking at nice book covers though and sometimes when the book and the book cover match in quality they become entwined in the happy memories of reading that book. I’m also sentimental about book covers in that I if I loved a book, I like to own the same edition (with the same book cover) that I first read – since the book cover reminds me of the experience of first falling in love with the book.

Are you a member of a book group and if yes or no, why?

Lavanya: No, I am not..Not until Boxwalla which is sort of like a book club/book group.

Running a business is a 24/7 thing, how do you find the time to read? Is there a secret?

Lavanya: I admit, it has been difficult reading while running a business 24/7, especially since I do everything (with help from my husband) from curating, sourcing, updating the website, writing copy, social media management and even packing and shipping packages. But I think the secret is to just prioritize reading. I always carry a book in my handbag, so if I’m waiting somewhere I have something to read. I try to read after the kids go to bed, especially if they end up going to sleep early (which doesn’t happen as often as I’d like). Also, resisting the temptation to surf on instagram/facebook or watch things on Netflix/hulu and instead reading, also really works, though THAT is easier said than done. 🙂 Although I try. However, there never does seem enough time to read everything that I want to.

What are the books that changed your life?

Lavanya: I am not sure exactly how to answer that question, because one doesn’t really know what changes one’s life until much later in life, when one gets a better vantage point. But there are books that sort of served as turning points for me both as a reader and as a writer at different parts of my life, that sort of marked the different stages of my reading/writing life (so far). Those books were : Anne of Green Gables when I was 11, Wuthering Heights when I was 15, Unbearable Lightness of Being when I was 16, Of Human Bondage when I was 17, and then as an adult : J.M Coetze’s Disgrace, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence and all the bits of Proust that I have read. And then more recently Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. These were not all necessarily my favorites (although many of them also are), but these were the ‘important’ books that expanded my notion of what a novel can be and what great writing can do.

With each Boxwalla box you can expect to receive a sensory, creative, intellectual experience that will delight & enchant you. While Lavanya & her husband prefer to keep a veil of privacy over their faces, their work, natural curiosity & dedication to supporting creative forces speak for themselves, drawing your senses, head & heart towards them. My life has certainly been enhanced by Boxwalla & the time for dialogue that Lavanya generously allocated to me. A veritable treasure that I in turn wanted to share with you, hoping that you have discovered something new while reading this post or were inspired by Lavanya’s answers & insights that she shared.

To find out more about The Boxwalla, please click here

Picture credits: the Boxwalla boxes images are courtesy of Boxwalla; Typewriter image is courtesy of DidiFox. The rest of the images features are by CRiL

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