Debut novel Posts

Daughter by Court Order

The Supreme Court of India has given a tremendous boost to the rights of women in families, holding that daughters cannot be deprived of their right of equality. In a judgement earlier this week, the Supreme Court ruled that daughters will have equal coparcenary (joint heirship) rights in joint Hindu family property even if the father died before the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act, 2005.

The struggle of women in India to have independent identities and to rise above patriarchy runs deep, but the status of women fighting for their rights is not often represented in literature. However, a seminal bestselling book of 2014 raised the issue of patriarchy and the fight of a single mother to establish her identity in the face of power, money, deceit, and treachery. Ratna Vira’s debut novel, Daughter By Court Order, is the story of a woman fighting for her right to be recognised as a daughter. This is a must read and it explores with sensitivity and frankness the real issues that women in India deal with.

12 August 2020

Interview with Gitanjali Kolanad

Gitanjali Kolanad was involved in the practice, performance, and teaching of bharata natyam for close to forty years. Her short story collection Sleeping with Movie Stars, published by Penguin India, was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Prize. She has written numerous articles on aspects of Indian dance for well-known Indian publications. She co-founded IMPACT, which teaches and promotes Indian martial art forms.

Girl Made of Gold is Gitanjali Kolanad’s debut novel, published by Juggernaut Books. It is historical fiction set in Thanjavur in the 1920s. It revolves around the mysterious disappearance of a young devadasi called Kanaka and, as if in her place, a statue of a woman in pure gold mysteriously appears in the temple to which she was to be dedicated. Many villagers assume tht Kanaka has turned into the girl made of gold. Others are determined to search for her. It is a novel that certainly leaves an impact. Even award-winning author Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni was moved to say ‘Girl Made of Gold is an exquisitely written novel, bejewlled with authentic cultural details and characters who take up permanent residence in the reader’s heart. This story of love, loss and discovery will keep you turning the pages until the astonishing end.’

Now the author is completing her second novel, set in Tanjore in the 1930s.

Q1. How long did it take to write Girl Made of Gold? Which was the initial idea in the plot that gripped you and developed into a story? 

The initial idea is exactly as I tell in my Afterword: I had a few friends visiting from the UK staying with me in my flat in Madras, so I’d invited VAK Ranga Rao to meet them. He’s a great raconteur, simply full of stories, especially given his multi-faceted life experience, born into a royal family, being a dancer, music critic, film afficionado, well-read, well-travelled. He told us all this story that a devadasi had told him: a girl of her own illustrious family had turned herself into a gold statue in order to escape the attentions of a man. That story raised so many questions – why didn’t she want the man to become her patron? What was so awful about him, or about her situation that she would want to escape from it by means of such a drastic step? And if you don’t believe in girls turning themselves into gold statues, then what really did happen to the young devadasi? That story, from the moment I heard it I knew it was going to occupy my thoughts for a long time. I remember that I actually felt a shiver down my spine.

Then I discovered that such stories of devadasis are in the stalapuranas of many temples – when a man takes a devadasi’s half-chewed paan into his mouth, he becomes a great poet; when a king has a devadasi’s long beautiful hair shaved off, it grows back overnight. Within that world, a devadasi turning into a gold statue is accepted.

Q2. How many drafts did you need to create before completion? 

Getting to even one full draft that I could hand to someone else to read was a long laborious process. Clearly, I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. By the time I actually completed my first draft, I’d been researching and writing bits and pieces of the novel for more than five years. But finally, I had managed to get the characters alive in my mind, and I could then record their actions and sentiments almost effortlessly. Or at least, with real enjoyment rather than struggle. So I didn’t need to completely rewrite many sections. The first draft felt like a huge achievement, to get the words onto the page so you can see what’s wrong, what needs editing, what needs to be filled out. It still took a year from the first draft to the finished version that is in print.

Q3. What is the writing schedule you follow? 

You have to remember that I didn’t know what I was doing when I started writing. I was a dancer. What does a dancer do? Well, we warm up, do some basic exercises, and that’s what I try to do as part of a daily practice. I write every day for no purpose whatsoever. I don’t care if it’s good, bad or indifferent, it’s just for the feel of my pen moving across the page. I have established rituals of practice that work for me, just as I did as a dancer. I write in long hand, the early stages are never on a computer. The pen has to be just right – black ink, fountain pen, cheap, so I don’t cry if I lose it, since I carry it with me everywhere. The paper has to be just right – squared paper in an A5-sized spiral notebook so it can fit in my bag. I can get very attached to a particular notebook and then if the company stops making it, it’s a tragedy – I worry that I’ll never be able to write again. It has happened to me several times over the years, so now when I find a good notebook I buy ten. No Moleskins or anything expensive – I have to feel that I can write pages and pages of the most utter nonsense without fear of wasting money.

Then, when there’s a germ of a story, I have to let myself be consumed by it, I need time with no fixed appointments of any kind. Then I’ll write intensely and with great focus for hours and hours, early in the morning, late at night, until the story is done. At some point I will feel it settle into a still vague but somewhat coherent shape. At that point I go on the computer and start transcribing my notes. After that all the writing is a process of rewriting, editing, word choice, much more analytical and conscious because the unconscious, creative work has already been done. During this second stage I go back to behaving like a human being, bathing, brushing my teeth, doing chores. I can drop into and out of this part of the process and go back to meeting the world’s demands.

Q4. Do you develop backstories for your characters? I ask as at times it seems as if you are very familiar with the characters, almost as if you are clear about their movement, their emotions, their inner thoughts. Much like you would expect a dancer to internalise a story in order to give it a strong expression. 

I don’t think of it as ‘back story’, because during the time when I’m writing in long hand, I have no idea whatsoever as to what will be useful and what not. So yes, there is a great deal that turns out to be back story, but it is at a much later stage of the writing process where decisions like that are made and I come to know what goes into the story and what remains in the notebook, what needs to be foregrounded and what is there simply to make the character real for me. It’s very true that it’s like bringing a padam to life in dance, thank you for noting that. I develop a feel for the nayika as young or mature, as quick to anger, or always calm, as the kind of woman who hides her tears, or one who weeps openly, by embodying her again and again in practice. That’s how I come to  know her very well, from the inside out, as it were. That’s the only method I know to make the facial expressions cohere into a nayika that has life on stage.

Q5. Devadasis occupy an unusual space in society. Social rules accord them respect and status while giving them social mobility as well. It is a complicated relationship but as you have shown in the novel, it also makes the devadasis very vulnerable. Why did you choose the devadasi storyline as the basis of your novel? 

I didn’t choose that storyline so much as it entered and planted itself in me. But I was fertile ground for that kind of seed, because the repertoire of bharata natyam that I’d been immersed in for so long, was the devadasi’s bodily experience. I’d already learned padams like the one which says, ‘Why should I be afraid of anyone’s gossiping/ with a great man like him as my lover?’ or ‘Where is the nose ring you promised me?’ or ‘That cunning woman has trapped him/he won’t come back to me’. The songs suggest a world of jealousy, illicit relationships and intrigue – what could be a better inspiration for a novel?

Q6. In Girl Made of Gold there is a lot of brutality, a murder and the violent patriarchal attitude of the men towards to their women. Was it hard to write these portions of the story? 

When I was working on the novel in London, newspaper stories about the rape and murder of the young girl, only eight years old, in Kashmir, were everywhere, and at unexpected moments, a sudden image of her suffering would come out of nowhere to blindside me, and I could do nothing but weep. What are verbal descriptions compared to real life cruelty? So yes, it is difficult to write of pain and violence, but at the same time, once it’s on the page, there is some semblance of relief. Those scenes of brutality in my novel are written from my own experience, or the experiences of women I spoke to. Which woman in India, or in any other country for that matter, has never been molested? I’d really like to meet her. I was molested when I studied dance in Madras, not as violently as in my novel, but it certainly gave me a point of entry into the scene. And when I went to Gokak to talk to the devadasi women there, they described with extreme frankness the horror of being forced as young girls to have sex with much older men. It’s no fun for the girl, I can tell you. And yet she would often fall in love with the man. I was always conscious that emotional truth is often messy and difficult and complicated.

Q7. Was it easy to transit from a being professional Bharatnatyam dancer to a novelist? What were the pros and cons?

I can’t regret being a bharatanatyam dancer, even though I never had much of a career. Being a dancer requires such discipline – what you eat, when you go to bed, how you sleep, all the care that is required – no high heeled shoes for example, no make-up daily, so that my skin could recover from the stage make-up. And since I wasn’t ever a well-known dancer, my performances were few and far apart, yet I still had to stay in practice, because the deterioration is so quick – miss two or three days and then take twice that long to get back to the same level. I was lucky: my two gurus Nana Kasar and Kalanidhi Narayan made the process of practicing the end in itself; they taught me to give up performance as a goal, and instead make daily practice an end in itself. This is a lesson I took with me into writing.

I felt very lucky to be a dancer when I saw the struggle my friend the painter Vasuddha Thozur had to store her work. A space had to be found to keep her beautiful paintings, while my work left no residue, stopped weighing on me the minute I was finished with it. I loved that feeling of not being tied down by what I’d already done.  And the masterpieces weren’t hung on the wall, they were within me – ragamalika varnum, a Jayadeva ashtapadi, a thillana in Mohana raga, they became part of my cellular structure. On the other hand, when I stopped dancing, I had nothing much to show for decades of work. A dance piece that no one was interested in when I first performed it, can’t find a more sympathetic audience in the next generation, as books sometimes do. So that’s the big difference – a book has a life separate from the writer, while the dance and the dancer are indivisible.

Q8. In a Bharatanatyam performance, the onus is upon the dancer to tell a story from multiple perspectives. In a riveting dance performance the multiple characters stand out. In some senses, it holds true for a novelist as well. What was your experience in writing the novel, telling a story using words as opposed to being a dancer telling a story using visual expressions and hands to emote? 

The experience of dancing is so immediate and flowing that is it is hard to describe exactly what’s happening in those moments of eyes, fingers, arms, legs, torso, moving in stylized ways. Not only that, an analytical approach to what’s going on can inhibit the process, and for me, the attempt has always been to silence that part of my consciousness that watches and comments, usually critically, on what I’m doing. That movement in and out of characters is an embodied melting of consciousness like a stream around rocks, and no surprise, the word for that state is ‘flow’. It’s very exciting but also risky, and what it means is that sometimes, it’s not going to be a riveting performance at all.

In my writing, I try to do the same thing, get into that state of flow, but with the advantage that once the words are on the page that critical faculty can be exercised to get rid of whatever isn’t working.

Q9. Did you at any time find that the characters were in control of the story rather than you or were you always sure how the plot would develop? 

It’s a strange kind of magic the way the characters take on a life of their own – many writers have made the phenomena central to their fiction, as in Jorge Luis Borges story ‘The Other’, where there is a confusion between the character and the author, or in Peter Carey’s novel, ‘My Life as a Fake’ where the character tries to kill his creator. Those are doppelganger stories, but the experience is the same even when the character is very different from the author. All of us who love reading know that feeling, otherwise why visit Baker St. to see where Sherlock Holmes lived? And if the characters in other people’s books can be so alive, then it’s no surprise that one’s own characters take on a life of their own and do exactly as they please. The plot develops out of their behaviour, and I have to wait for them to do something, and watch and listen, and write it down, rather than move them around like pawns on a chessboard, or puppets. That’s why it’s so time consuming! Characters are very stubborn and don’t take kindly to hints from the author, at least in my experience.

Q10. What were the challenges in writing historical fiction? What did the research for this novel entail? What are the examples of historical fiction that appeal to you? 

The challenge of historical fiction is to be true to as many facts as you can ferret out about the times you’re writing about, and it’s very difficult to figure out very simple things – like when did people in a small village in South India start having clocks on their walls, or watches on their wrists? How would people talk about time if there wasn’t a clock? Or when cars were introduced to India, how did they get gas? There were no petrol stations. I read about a rich man who’d sit in his car and have it pushed along the street by his servants. Try as I might, I couldn’t work that wonderful little detail into Girl Made of Gold. Maybe into the next one. Little things like that make it both treacherous and great fun to write about a time period that is outside one’s own experience.

I tried to read newspapers and magazines written in exactly the times I was writing about, as well as novelists who were contemporary then. I read the District Manuals for Tanjore, Puddukottai and the Madras Presidency for the relevant years, at the British Library, and I actually went to the District Collector’s Office in Tanjore, and they let me sit at a desk, while a clerk brought me boxes of papers which I could read, actual letters about the daily affairs – droughts, harvests, crimes, the weather. I lived in an agraharam near Tanjore, and spoke to old people who remembered the period. I could do research forever if I let myself, because there is endless information that can be unearthed.

I read ‘War and Peace’ when I was a student at Kalakshetra in the early 1970s, when there was literally nothing else to do and books from the Russian Cultural Centre were cheap; I skipped over the history at first, but then I’d have to go back and read those parts too, out of boredom with staring at the walls of my room in the hostel.The voice of the geisha Sayuri in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ held me in its thrall, I was completely transported into a different culture, values and time period that became vivid and real. I’m also an avid reader of the Judge Dee murder mysteries, set in the Tang dynasty, by Robert van Gulik. Hillary Mantel has made historical fiction newly popular, but the period, place and people she writes about are simply not of interest to me, so I haven’t read anything by her, though I’ve been very inspired by her fearlessness in going against prevailing versions of history.

Q11. A mesmerising aspect of your storytelling in the novel are the sentences. I had to put the book down many times as I kept getting the sense that you were trying to replicate a dance performance in the manner in which the words were strung. Did you play with the structure of the sentences consciously?

Thank you for saying that. Whenever I get stuck I use structure as a force to make something happen. So if everything on the page is tedious, I use the rhythms of the dance korvais as a constraint: That – dit – tha num – num – num – di. Afterwards, I don’t necessarily keep that pattern in the finished sentence, but at least it gets my pen moving, and maybe some of that rhythm has left a trace in the finished novel.

Also, the most famous analogy about the bharata natyam performance, the margam, is that it’s structured as a temple. Balasaraswathi said that alaripu is like entering the temple; by the time the padams are danced, one has reached the dark interior of the sanctum sanctorum. That mapping of dance onto temple stayed with me, and I brought it to mind while I wrote the novel, it was a potent image, so if some resonance of that has struck you, I’m very gratified.

Q12. Nowadays the trend is to get stories adapted to film but do you think Girl Made of Gold can be adapted into a dance performance? 

Can I confess that I would love to see the Netflix series of Girl Made of Gold? I can imagine a girl like the beautiful 14-year-old Aparna Sen in Satyjit Ray’s ‘Teen Kanya’ playing Kanaka. Someone, please, make this happen.

The dance performance would have a very different shape and purpose than the novel. For example, if it was done like a Kalakshetra dance drama l don’t think it would work. But of course there is a way to do it, concentrating on communicating not plot but emotion – so much of the emotion is drawn directly from the padams and javalis of the bharata natyam repertoire anyway. Let those songs tell the story of desire and its power, not in a linear narrative, but in a more impressionistic and multidisciplinary layered  story-telling. That’s probably how I would do it.

11 August 2020

Deepa Anappara’s “Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line”

These two are always quarrelling like a husband and wife who have been married for too long. But they cann’t even get married when we grow up because Faiz is a Muslim. It’s too dangerous to marry a Muslim if you’re a Hindu. On the TV news, I have seen blood-red photos of people who were murdered because they married someone from a different religion or caste. Also, Faiz is shorter than Pari, so they wouldn’t make a good match anyway.

Debut author and former journalist, Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is set in an urban slum in a nameless Indian city. The story is told from the perspective of nine-year-old Jai. His closest friends in the basti are also his classmates — Pari and Faiz. They are little children who are mostly left to fend for themselves while their parents work for those living in the neighbourhood’s hi-fi apartments. There is a constant undercurrent of violence that is prevalent in this community. These can range from the the sexual assault upon children in the dark alleys to hurling abuses at each other with one of the more favourite curses being called “rat eater” — a reference in all likelihood to the poorest of the poor, lowest in the social pecking order. It is a slum cluster that has people of different communities living together though as the book extract quoted above illustrates that everyone is very aware of the communal differences as well. Slowly over a period of time some of the children begin to disappear. At first given that they are all Hindus, suspicions are cast upon the Muslims living in the basti. But when the young Muslim siblings also disappear, the case begins to puzzle everyone. Unfortunately the communal tensions are exacerbated by now.

Jai and his friends decide to embark upon some of their own detective work to locate the kidnapper. Jai in his innocence coupled with a wild imagination is convinced that this is the handiwork of bad djinns. Nevertheless he is prepared to investigate realising that despite being bribed the policemen are really not interested in helping the affected families. It is not an easy task as the children are strapped for resources, especially finances, making their movement limited. Also they are viewed as poor kids who are not easily trusted by others, so information is not easily forthcoming. It is a challenging situation but the children do their best to find the truth. The novel develops at a steady pace with the focus maintained steadily upon the children while the sinister undertones in the background continue to develop. Whether it is petty politicians, opportunistic self-styled godmen, corrupt police officials, no one really cares for the well-being of the slum dwellers or the abandoned and orphaned kids eking out an existence as ragpickers on the garbage dump, being looked after a benevolent Bottle-Badshah. Yet the unexpected finale of the story comes together brilliantly where it seems fiction merges with reality by bringing up the ghosts of the infamous Nithari crime that was perpetrated upon the children living in the neighbourhood.

It is also extraordinary that Deepa Anappara has chosen to tell the story in a manner that she is probably most familiar with. She unapologetically blends desi words in her English storytelling framework. But the beauty of it all is that the non-English words are never italicised nor is the word or phrase explained immediately after its first appearance. It is a joy to behold this absolute acceptance of “foreign” words. A far cry from when Indian writers writing in English first began to publish novels — inevitably a glossary would be produced. No more.

One of the most obvious critiques of this book in coming days will be of it being a classic example of poverty porn and pandering to a preconceived notion of India. Having said that Deepa Anappara is to be commended for her masterful control of a complex subject. More importantly now that she is based abroad she is able to leverage her position as a woman of colour to write about the poverty back home while at the same time cleverly showcasing the distinct identities of the people and the very real preoccupations that govern daily existence. It could be from social ills such as alcoholism, unemployment, runaway or abandoned children, rampant problem of street children addicted to sniffing glue, lack of basic amenities such as sanitation and water, the poor quality of midday meals served in government run schools which the children yearn for as that is probably the only “proper” meal they will get in the day, high rate of school dropouts inevitably amongst the girls as they are required to be at home looking after their younger siblings, the growing menace of bullies, the manner in which women negotiate these spaces to run their households etc. The lives of the families and friends affected by the disappearance of the children is as traumatic a scenario as it is for you and I. These are people. Not necessarily people who can help prop up an exotic story. This socio-economic analysis that is presented in the garb of fiction without it seeming dreary like a pontificating thesis is not an easy task to achieve. Deepa Anappara manages to negotiate this space well.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is the Vintage lead for 2020. It was won in nine-strong bidding auction at Frankfurt Book Fair 2018. In a joint acquisition with Penguin Random House India, Chatto & Windus won the UK and Commonwealth rights after a hard-fought auction with eight other publishers. A portion of this novel won the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, the Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers Award and the Bridport/Peggy Chapman-Andrews Award for a First Novel. This is a greatly anticipated debut that has been endorsed by a galaxy of literary stars such as Anne Enright, Ian McEwan, Chigozie Obioma, Nikesh Shukla, Nathan Filer, Mahesh Rao and Mridula Koshy. Deepa Anappara used to be a journalist in India before moving base to UK. Much of her research for this novel was based on her experience and reading seminal books on urban studies. This book stands apart from many other examples of equally promising debuts in the magnificence of Deepa Anappara’s craftsmanship in creating fine evenly toned fiction — not a mean feat for a debut author. The style of this book is very much akin to contemporary young adult literature. The dark gem of a novel that is Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line fits snugly with much of yalit even with its fairly realistic conclusion. The manuscript may or may not have begun life as yalit which the reading public may never know but it has been positioned as literary fiction. Somewhere the costs incurred in bidding for this book have to be recovered. Despite the yalit genre exploding with an amazing variety of writers, the segment lacks globally recognised literary prizes that will help increase book sales exponentially. But by positioning it as litfic for the trade market, the publishers are ensuring that this novel is eligible for many of the prominent literary prizes in the Anglo-American book market such as the Dylan Thomas Prize for debut writers, the Women Writers Prize for Fiction, the Booker Prize, the Costa First Book Award, National Book Awards etc. By launching it simultaneously across territories too makes this novel eligible for many local prizes. For instance in India there are the Crossword Book Award, JCB Prize, DSC Prize etc to be considered. And as is a truth universally acknowledged that being longlisted or shortlisted for a prize let alone winning it, boosts book sales tremendously. Thereby helping the publisher recover some of their investment costs in winning the auction and spending on the publicity campaign. A win-win situation for the author which in this case is very well deserved.

Do read Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line !

8 Feb 2020

Book Post 52: 25 Nov – 17 Dec 2019

Book Post 52 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks.

17 Dec 2019

“The Line Tender” by Kate Allen

This is an extraordinary novel. Beautifully told by debut writer Kate Allen. It is about a young girl Lucy whose mother was a marine scientist specialising in the study of the Great White Shark. They live in Cape Cod where sightings of the sharks have been spotted and Helen had anticipated their arrival in a few years time as the local seal population grew. Unfortunately Lucy’s mum, Helen, passed away unexpectedly when Lucy was a seven years old. Her father, a rescue diver for the police, brought up Lucy with the support of his kind and warmhearted neighbours. Lucy is particularly close to her neighbour Maggie’s son, Fred. The youngsters did everything together including spending every moment of their waking hour in each other’s company. They also worked on a school projects together like the field guide on sharks that involved Lucy drawing and Fred providing the scientific explanations. Sadly, tragedy strikes. It devastates Lucy for whom it is a double blow. “The Line Tender” is an extraordinary glimpse into the world of adolescents as well as how adults around them help form a community and provide support whether in times of sadness, learning or navigating their way through the beauty this world can provide. It is not an us vs them kind of yalit but calm look at how everyone is managing their griefs too and they can reach out to each other for support. It is a way of looking outwards and the manner in which it helps heal Lucy. Read it.

29 October 2019

Book Post 48: 22-28 Oct 2019

Book Post 48 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.

29 Oct 2019

Book Post 45: 15 Sept – 5 Oct 2019

Book Post 45 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.

7 Oct 2019

Interview with Siddhartha Sarma: “I have found no greater joy in life than in the process of writing a story”

Siddhartha Sarma is a journalist, writer and historian. He has covered insurgency, crime and law in the Northeast and other parts of the country and written for newspapers and magazines as an investigative journalist. His debut novel, The Grasshopper’s Run (Scholastic India, 2009), received the Sahitya Akademi Award for children’s literature in English in 2011 and the Crossword Book Award in 2010. His second novel, Year of the Weeds (Duckbill, 2018) is based on the land rights agitation in the Niyamgiri Hills of Odisha. His latest published work, Carpenters and Kings (Penguin Random House India, 2019) is a history of Western Christianity in India.

  1. Why and how did you get into writing? Where do you find your stories? How long does it take from inception to completion?

A.:  When I was seven, my school was bringing out a commemorative magazine to celebrate an anniversary. I was told anybody could contribute anything they liked for it, so I wrote an approximately 400-word story based on real events. A bit of a tragedy. They printed the story with no edits on the first page, with my name on it. But what I remember now and in the intervening years is not the feeling of seeing my name in print, or of reading my story in printed form, but the joy of writing it, the process of slowly putting things together in my head and of banging it out, over several hours, on my father’s old typewriter, literally sitting on his desk because I was too short to type from the chair. The fear of making a typo (which is such a frustrating experience on a typewriter, unlike on a computer where a typing error is merely an inconvenience). I have found no greater joy in life than in the process of writing a story, of entering or discovering a world, and of narrating it for myself and for any reader I might find. That is how I began writing, and what I still try to do.

I began my career in journalism as a reporter. It is a much-repeated saying in the newsroom that a good reporter never runs out of story ideas. I have never had a problem thinking up story ideas. The problem is deciding which are worth taking up. One does not have this luxury of choice as a reporter, but a writer has to be very selective about which idea she will devote her time and energies to. If my time as a journalist has helped me as a writer in any manner, it is in two: I can be objective in deciding which stories to write and which to shelve, temporarily or permanently. And second: I can be objective in editing my own work. One of the criteria I have for deciding on a story is whether I have the competence to write it. There are many genres that I have a bit of an interest in, but I know I might not be able to execute a story in them very well. Such as fantasy or science fiction.

The complete arc from story idea to research to writing and editing and the final draft depends on the length of the work, its complexity, scope of research and treatment. My first novel, The Grasshopper’s Run, took me a year and half to research and seven months to write. My newest non-fiction book, Carpenters and Kings: Western Christianity and the Idea of India took up nine years of research and eight months of writing. So it varies. But I do seem to spend more time thinking about a story than in actually writing it.

2. Is it only the long form of a novel that appeals to you? Would you ever consider other structures such as short stories or a series arc?

A.: My first work published in a book was a short story, in a humour anthology by Scholastic. Some other commissioned short stories have also been published. But, yes, I find the novel’s longer form more suitable for the kind of stories I have to tell. I have not yet thought of a series of books, although I can’t rule it out in the future. A standalone novel, however, suits the way I want to tell a story for one major reason. While working on a story, I spend a lot of time building the narrative arcs of individual characters. I go back in time, and also forward, into their futures. I create their backgrounds and populate it with other characters and circumstances. Most of these never get written in the final novel, but they do exist. So for me writing a novel is like baking a whole cake and cutting out just a slice of it for publishing. Or creating a tapestry and (again) cutting a slice of it. A short story might give me a much smaller, possibly unsatisfactory slice, while a series might need tough decisions about how many slices to make, or from which part of the cake or tapestry. So far, novels have worked for me.  

3. How much research do you delve into before you begin writing a book? How do you organise your notes? What is your writing routine?

A.: Researching for a book is among the most interesting parts of the writing process for me. Over time, I think I have become a bit more organized in my methodology. The Grasshopper’s Run caused me a lot of anxiety during the research process because I was not accounting for the volume of material I would end up having. For instance, I asked my sources for visual material to base my description of events and topography on, from the China-Burma-India theatre of World War II. I asked for un-curated photographs. I received some 1,800 photos, and most were directly relevant to my research. I had to sift through about 6,000 pages of correspondence and records from that theatre. For Carpenters and Kings, I examined 46 medieval and ancient manuscripts and translated seven of them from Latin because the previous translations were themselves dated. So gathering material is not a problem, particularly in these times. The more difficult part is knowing when to stop researching, or learning to leave out the peripheral or marginally relevant. Otherwise every book becomes a doctoral thesis.

I begin with a basic idea about the plot, in case of non-fiction the general outline of my argument. The notes I take from my research are based on their direct relation to this bare plot or argument. The most directly connected bits of evidence or material gets the highest weightage. Additionally, for fiction, any bit of non-fictional material which can help flesh out a character’s story arc or background (that part of the background which will get written rather than get left on the cutting room floor) also gets priority.

I have no particular routine. My best time is late in the night, but the slow cooking that happens before the physical act of writing can happen at any other time during the day.  

4. How did you decide to write historical fiction set in Nagaland during the Japanese invasion in WWII? And why write it for young adults?

A.: I wanted to base my first novel in the Northeast, as a mark of respect for my homeland. I thought a coming-of-age story during a conflict might work, because I had been asked to write a young adult novel by Sayoni Basu, then editor of Scholastic India. I did not want to base the story during any of the region’s numerous insurgencies, although I have covered them, because the political aspects of those insurgencies were too complex for a novel of the size I had in mind. That left the 1962 war and WWII. The actual fighting in 1962 took place in rather remote places where the human interest aspect did not play out much. WWII was, for my purposes, more suitable.

5. Did winning the 2011 Sahitya Akademi Bal Puraskar and the 2010 Crossword Award for Best Children’s Book for your debut novel The Grasshopper’s Run apart from pleasantly surprising you also put undue pressure on you to excel with your next book?

A.: ‘Pleasant surprise’ is very appropriate. I was surprised and gratified that readers and people who know a lot about children’s and YA literature liked the novel. It was very encouraging, and I met some noted writers afterwards and received valuable advice on writing from them. It was a very pleasant experience.

There has been no pressure. I have always been fortunate in the publishers and editors I have worked with. I just try to work on each story on its own merits, and don’t think much about expectations. The only expectation I have from myself is to write, at each stage, a better story than I have written before. If that happens, I am content. Ultimately, I have to write stories that I would like to read, and re-read.

6. Your second young adult novel, Year of the Weeds, is written nearly a decade later. The plot of the novel is reminiscent of the Niyamgiri movement of the Dongria Kondh Adivasis in Odisha who fought mining company Vedanta’s attempts to exploit their land and emerged victorious. How do you achieve this fine balance between journalistic writing and creating fiction for young adult readers?

A.: Year of the Weeds is indeed based on the Niyamgiri movement and was inspired by it, although the novel ended up containing elements from other similar peoples’ movements, while the workings of the government and companies is based on what I have seen across the country as a reporter. I follow peoples’ movements and Niyamgiri was inspirational and unexpected, so I wanted to commemorate it, even though I suspect it was just a provisional victory. While writing it, I was conscious that my treatment had to be that of a YA novel. However, I have also tried to include in it ideas and insights I have had as a journalist covering different aspects of India, such as how most Indians in the hinterland live, how the government interacts and often exploits or victimizes them, and what the true face of development is in these parts of the country. So, while it remained a YA novel throughout, with the frame of reference being mostly that of the two YA protagonists Korok and Anchita, I also tried to make sure these insights and ideas were properly written into the plot.

Around the time that I began researching for The Grasshopper’s Run, I realised I could not continue as a reporter and simultaneously as a writer of fiction and non-fiction. I was increasingly not content with the limitations (as I saw it) of a reporter, at least in terms of autonomy. I wanted to tell stories which could not be accommodated within my work as a reporter. So I shifted to the desk and have worked as an editor ever since, while writing books. I chose writing at the expense of reporting. I have not regretted it.

7. You have an enthusiastic passion for the Crusades and yet your first narrative nonfiction was Carpenters and Kings: Western Christianity and the Idea of India. Why?

A.: I have studied the Crusades, and my thesis for an M Litt degree was on strategy during the Later Crusades. I find the Crusades very significant in understanding world history in general and European history in particular, because those conflicts sit at the centre of a wide range of connected events, including the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Age of Exploration.

There is a number of good, accessible and recent works on the Crusades by scholars from the West, so I did not intend to write a work of my own, which would not have made any significant contribution to the subject. However, something interesting happened during my research for the thesis, which was a study of three proposals for crusades by scholars in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. One of these scholars, a Dominican monk, wanted to launch a crusade from India. My supervisor suggested that I could refer to a secondary source on what these Europeans were doing in India in the period before the Age of Exploration. We discovered that there was no work which explained the political history of Western Christianity in India in the pre-colonial period. In December 2017, I realized I had enough material for a book which dealt with this subject, so I wrote Carpenters and Kings. And yes, I did include a brief history of the Crusades in it, and one of the chapters is about the Dominican who wanted a crusade from India, because all these are connected events. What was the Dominican doing in India? Also, much later, what was Vasco da Gama doing here? The answer to both questions is the Crusades.

8. You write young adult literature, travelogues and non-fiction. This is a diverse range of genres. How did this happen?

A.: Each book happened in a specific context and for unique reasons. The Grasshopper’s Run was meant to be a YA novel. While researching it, I travelled in the Northeast and Myanmar, and afterwards wrote a series of emails describing my travels, which I sent to friends. These were read by a publisher, who asked me to expand them into a travelogue, from which East of the Sun (Tranquebar, 2010) happened. Meanwhile, I wrote two books for the popular 103 series by Scholastic, one on great travellers I admire and the other on historical mysteries. And then I wrote Year of the Weeds followed by Carpenters and Kings. I guess one reason why this is an eclectic mix is I follow a story to its natural place and write it accordingly. So we have a situation where, although history is what I am academically suited to writing about, Year of the Weeds is contemporary political fiction. I am comfortable with chasing a story wherever and to whichever genre it leads. I think the only concern for a writer should be whether the story is told well or not. Having said that, I am still learning, so if I discover that I should stick to specific genres, I shall do that.

9. Do the methodologies of research and writing for young adult literature and narrative nonfiction vary?

A.: It is possible that some researchers might have different research methodologies depending on what genre they are planning to write in. I do not have different methodologies. I choose a subject, start reading about it, examine primary and secondary sources, select those sources which are suitable for the story I have in mind, and then sift through the material I obtain.

There are certainly differences in writing YA fiction and narrative nonfiction for general readers, including tone, scope, complexity of ideas, presentation of this complexity. In some ways, like channelling all the research into suitable concepts, narrative nonfiction is more challenging. In several other ways, like writing in a manner which holds the reader’s attention, and creating believable characters and plots, YA literature has its own set of challenges. Both are very rewarding genres to write in.

10. What are the kinds of books you like to read? Any favourites?

A.: I have followed several genres over the years, although now because of demands on my time I have to limit myself to those genres which I have consistently read. Of these, apart from literary fiction, I seem to have read crime and espionage fiction fairly consistently. Fantasy, which I was reading a lot of till some years ago, seems to have dropped off. I do not know if this is a temporary phase.

11. Who are the writers you admire and may have influenced you?

A.: These are among the writers I have liked almost consistently. In literary fiction: Peter Carey, JM Coetzee, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Nelson Algren, John Steinbeck. In crime: Dashiell Hammett, Chester Himes, Henning Mankell, Elmore Leonard, PD James, Janwillem van de Wetering. In espionage: John le Carre, John Buchan, Len Deighton.

12. What next? 

A.: Perhaps a dark story. One of the problems with India after 2014 has been we have been affected by the doings of the ideology and the people in power on a daily, personal level. On a daily, personal level, one finds it increasingly difficult to feel joy in most things, or to happily coast along choosing stories to read or tell at a leisurely, whimsical pace. I would have liked to write a story I was working on in 2013, but that will have to wait for some time. At the moment, we need stories that deal with or are related to the situation we have in India, or which go some way towards explaining things. We can’t ignore that. So, perhaps something dark, something angry.

17 August 2019

Tuesday Reads ( Vol 6&7), 23&30 July 2019

Dear Reader,

This is a double issue as time whizzed by before I knew it, the week was over!

As the book fairs, literature festivals and literary awards season draws near, the number of titles being released into the market increase exponentially. Some of them being the “big titles” that the publishing firms are relying upon. Two of them featured here are two such titles. These are the thrillers — The Flower Girls by Alice Clark-Platts and The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides.

Alice Clark-Platts, founder of Singapore writers group and a former human rights lawyer, has published her third thriller. The Flower Girls is about the killing of two-year-old girl by two sisters, who are six and ten, respectively. It is a case that had caught the imagination of the media. The older sister had been incarcerated but the younger one had been let off as she was too young to be tried. Instead the police force helped the parents and remaining daughter to assume new identities and start a new life in a different city. Two decades later the case is recalled as another five-year-old girl goes missing. It is an absorbing tale for its details of the murder and trial that seem to defy human imagination. It is as if there is an underlying truth to the horrors a human being is capable of, almost as if it is the transferance to some extent of a lived experience by the author to the page, but not necessarily a replication of any case she has dealt/read. Apart from the horror of the actual crime itself, there are many pertinent issues raised in this novel about the troublesome aspect of incarcerating one so young, arguments for parole, the course of justice and the prejudices people may have that may colour their judgement. The best discovery in this novel is the creation of DC Hillier, almost as if she is the female response to Jack Reacher or a modern reincarnation of Miss Marple. The potent combination of a fine instinct for sniffing out criminals built over many years as a Detective Constable, phenomenal memory, dogged persistence to pursue clues, and a fascination for being first on the crime scene, make DC Hillier a character worth following in the coming years. Her beat will remain unchanged. It will be the small town but there will be plenty of opportunities for stories to occur as tourists visit the seaside. Since The Flower Girls is her first appearance on the literary landscape, DC Hillier will take at least another 2-3 novels before she settles down, but once she does, she will soar!

Rating: 4.5 / 5⭐

Debut novelist Alex Michaelides’s The Silent Patient is already an NYT bestseller. It’s first print run was 200,000. It is a psychothriller that is gripping. It moves swiftly. There are short sentences, crisp dialogue and the length of the chapters match the smart pace of the storytelling. It helps that the author studied English literature at Cambridge University and earned his MA in screenwriting at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. This professional training has helped create an undeniable page turner. All those who have endorsed the book, such as Lee Child, David Baldacci, Joanne Harris, Stephen Fry, and C. J. Tudor, are absolutely correct in their assessment of it being an excellent, slow-burning psychological thriller. It is about Alicia Berenson who is accused of killing her fashion photographer husband Gabriel. No one knows why she did it since after shooting him in the face she stops talking. After trying to attempt suicide, she is taken into custody and then sent off to asylum called The Grove. The story is narrated by forensic psychotherapist Theo Faber whose opening introduction about himself is that he “was fucked up”. He is offered an appointment at The Grove and becomes Alicia’s therapist. It is a gripping tale undoubtedly and no wonder it has already been sold into 39 territories and is being developed into a major motion picture. Be that as it may, there are details in the story that give it away as amateur work that will go largely unnoticed with most readers. For instance, when Alicia hands over her diary to Theo Faber to read, he says that judging by the handwriting, it was written in a chaotic state of mind, where the writing was barely legible and doodles and drawings taking over some of the pages. Yet, the diary extracts reproduced in the story are beautifully composed with complete sentences, perfect dialogue, smooth narration and build the plot seamlessly. A bit puzzling given how Alicia is known to be of troubled mind. Later too as the plot hurtles to the end, the inexplicable switch in the timelines while acceptable when the reader is in a reading haze, are bothersome details when reflecting upon the story later. It is unfair to the reader for the author to switch timelines as if for convenience to tie up the loose ends in the plot. This is a novel that has possibly been written with a view to adapt it to the screen and the magic has worked. It is to be seen if the subsequent novels of Alex Michaelides will inhabit this dark and depressing world. Whatever the case, Alex Michaelides’s brand of psychothriller, is here to stay and will spawn many versions of it too.

Rating: 3.5/5 ⭐

The third book is a collection of short stories by Indian women writers called Magical Women, edited by Sukanya Venkatraghavan. It is a pleasant enough read if read with zero expectations about reading fantasy stories that take strong imaginative leaps into a magical realm. Most of the stories are pleasant to read. The stories are preoccupied with worries of the real world such as of sexuality, child molestation, infidelity, etc. Two stories that stand out are “Gul” by Shreya Ila Anasuya and “The Rakshasi’s Rose Garden” by Sukanya Venkatraghavan. “Gul” is about a nautch girl during the uprising of 1857 and “The Rakshasi’s Rose Garden” is about child molesters. While most of the stories in the collection have immense potential, they tend to fall flat on their face for the inability of the writers to lift it off the ground with elan. Instead most rely on done-to-death details as pods and strange creatures. When the story is to take an imaginative leap it lands straight into a world that is a mere transplantation of existing reality or the world of mythology. So there is a rave party, a mysterious laboratory, lesbians, etc. There is nothing truly breakaway in Magical Women except for the fact that it is a breakaway collection of talented storytellers who may one day astound the world with their true potential. For now, most of them, are holding back. I wonder why?

Rating: 3.5/5 ⭐

And then there is The Man with the Compound Eyes by Taiwanese author Wu Ming-Yi, translated by Darryl Sterk. An eco-fiction that Tash Aw in his 2013 review in the Guardian referred to it as hard-edged realism meets extravagant fantasy.

It is easy to see why Wu’s English-language publishers compare his latest novel to the work of Murakami and David Mitchell. His writing occupies the space between hard-edged realism and extravagantly detailed fantasy, hovering over the precipice of wild imagination before retreating to minutiae about Taiwanese fauna or whale-hunting. Semi-magical events occur throughout the novel: people and animals behave in mysterious ways without quite knowing why they are doing so; and, in a Murakami-esque touch, there’s even a prominent cat. But beyond these superficial similarities lies an earnest, politically conscious novel, anchored in ecological concerns and Taiwanese identity.

Encapsulating such a rich novel is not easy but suffice to say it that the author’s environmental activism, trash in the sea, concerns about climate change, a deep understanding of environmental disasters, has helped him create an extraordinarily fantastic novel. From the first sentence it immediately transports the reader into this magical world of the imaginary island of Wayo Wayo, created with its own myths and folk legends. Fantastic novel that years after the English translation was made available, it continues to find new readers, with new translations.

Rating: 4/5 ⭐

The final book is Leaving the Witness: Existing a Religion and Finding a Life, a memoir by a former Jehovah Witness, Amber Scorah. It is an account of Amber’s life as a Jehovah Witness, finding a husband from the same community and then travelling across the world to become missionaries in China. Amber knew Mandarin so could speak to the locals. Her grasp of the language improved as she began to communicate more frequently with others. She managed to get a job working on podcasts, at a time when podcasts were barely heard of, and yet her shows became so popular that Apple ranked it amongst the top 10 podcasts of the year. While in China, she befriended many outside the community, even made friends like Jonathan online, but kept it a secret from her husband and their circle as this was considered taboo. Soon she begins to question her proselytising as questions are raised of her regarding her beliefs. She is forced to question her blind faith in the cult. Slowly her marriage disintegrates too. Leaving the Witness reads like her testimony, a reaffirmation of her belief, except not entirely in the manner that her church would have approved. Amber Scorah chooses to leave the community and build a life of her own. It is tough for she has to learn how to make friends, she has to learn simple things like understanding popular culture references in casual conversation, being able to enter and enjoy a social engagement without feeling horribly guilty etc. It ends sadly with the death of her infant son at the daycare centre but it also is a strong testament to others wishing to leave suffocating environments that it is possible to do so and build new lives. It is not easy but it is possible. In fact the book has been placed on O, The Oprah Magazine Summer 2019 Reading List and Trevor Noah invited Amber Scorah to his talk show. It is a good book and deserves all the publicity it can garner.

Rating: 4.5/5 ⭐

Happy Reading!

JAYA

30 July 2019

Book Post 41: 6- 20 July 2019

Book Post 41 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks. Wherever available Amazon’s Kindle widget has been embedded in the blog post. It will allow you to browse through the book before you decide to buy it.

22 July 2019

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