Debut novel Posts

“Ariadne” by Jennifer Saint

But for me, the true gift was to watch them work and talk unconstrained. No men chaperoned them here, in thsi space sacred to women and thr goddess. I could watch the animation light their young faces and I could hear their breathless, excited conversations conversations echo of two sisters who had loved each other all those years ago in Crete.

In Ariadne, Jennifer Saint ( Hachette India) has not deviated from the well-told Greek myths. Instead she is so familiar with them, even the number of variations, that she is unfazed about multiple versions floating about. She knows the basic elements of every story, every Olympian God, every mortal, the legends and acts. Like an old-fashioned storyteller she weaves the stories together seamlessly. They are so smoothly nested inside one another  without being jarring. The digressions, if you can call them that, happen beautifully. It is almost as if Ariadne becomes the reason to retell many of the popular Greek myths. It is the mesmerising storytelling meant for children but told to adults. It works. So many of the stories such as the twelve labours of Heracles, various quests of Theseus, King Minos, Minotaur, Zeus/Herald and Dionysius, travel to Hades, Medea, King Midas, Jason and the golden fleece and much, much more. 

Of course the focus is on the two sisters Ariadne and Phaedra. It becomes an excuse to explore sisterhood, friendships among women, building a community of women as Phaedra did when she invited talented weavers across Athens to create a bigger peplos than has ever been seen before, “big enough for the state of Athen at the heart of our city, and magnificent enough to please the goddess”. Her descriptions are stunning. For instance, this beautiful description of Helios’s daughter, Pasiphae, by her daughter, Ariadne.

Unlike the searing blaze of my grandfather, she shimmered with a gentle radiance. I remember the soft beams of her strange, bronze-tinged eyes, the warmth of summer in her embrace and the molten sunshine in her laughter.

The men too are discussed from the perspective of the women. It is much like the exploration Chitra Bannerji Divakurni did in The Palace of Illusions. Suddenly, the women in these myths/epics came alive as women of strength and character, not neceaarily as pawns in the hands of men. Having said that, Ariadne follows in the very contemporary trend of writers such as Pat Barker, Madeline Miller, and Natalie Haynes in retelling the Greek myths by exploring modern and liberal aspects. Earlier they may have only been hinted at but are now explored with confidence.

Good stuff!

3 July 2021

“The Windsor Knot: Her Majesty the Queen investigates” by S. J. Bennett

S. J. Bennett’s Windsor Knot ( Harper Collins India) is her first mystery novel in this newly launched series. It is also the beloved young adult author’s debut foray into adult literature. In it, she has the Queen of England, Queen Elizabeth II as an investigator. Rozie Oshodi is the Queen’s assistant private secretary who doubles up as her sidekick investigator. According to the author, “the Queen’s new Assistant Private Secretary. Rozie is a Nigerian Londoner who grew up in a council estate in Notting Hill and went on to serve in Afghanistan as a captain in the British Army. She is quick-witted, brave and somewhat amazed to find the Queen is asking her to do increasingly unusual things.” In fact, the real Queen’s current equerry is Lieutenant Colonel Nana Kofi Twumasi-Ankrah, a Ghanaian-born British army officer. Like Rozie in the book, he’s a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. S.J. Bennett adds:

I’ve always written books with a feminist element to them, and I’m fascinated by the idea of a ‘little old lady’ surrounded by men, someone who is deeply respected, but not always taken seriously. In this series, the Queen (my Queen) has learned that she can trust only certain women to keep her secrets. They are her assistant private secretaries, a role I interviewed for myself after a brief career as a strategy consultant with McKinsey. I’ll never forget walking across the forecourt of Buckingham Palace. I didn’t get that job in the end, and it’s still the one that got away.

The Windsor Knot investigates the mysterious death of a Russian on the premises of Windsor Castle. The novel is set at the time the Queen is 89 and approaching her ninetieth year. She comes across as a sparkling old lady who is very aware of the manner in which she should conduct herself as a British monarch and yet, she seems to exhibit the excitement and enthusiasm of a little school girl in getting to the truth about Maksim Brodsky, the Russian pianist. He had been invited to entertain her guests the previous night at dinner. The manner in which he is found in his room is scandalous and all attempts are made to ensure that the story is underplayed. More so, when they discover a little more about his Russian connections. Yet, those in the know, including the Queen, cannot help but speculate on the circumstances of the death. More so, since Brodsky was known to also run a political blog. So could he have possibly fallen foul of the Russian authorities, especially Putin? ( The eerie parallels of political intrigue to the ongoing story about Roman Protasevich, the Belarus blogger, are purely coincidental. Prostasevich has gone on record saying that the authorities will kill him for managing Telegram channels broadcasting mass protests against the Belarus leader, Alexander Lukashenko. )

Back to the novel. The Queen’s top policemen are investigating the crime. They are Ravi Singh, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police; Gavin Humphreys, Director General of MI5 and the most junior of the trio, Detective Chief Inspector David Strong. They are a motley bunch who are perfect team in this mystery story. The author has everything, diversity, true representation of British society, a peep into royalty, the secret conversations, the investigation, and it is pure delight in reading excellent English, nuanced and truly Queen’s English without having to read mangled words and phrases.

I truly love how the author has set her characters in place. I can just see them develop and if she maintains the pace of creating two novels a year, she is on to an excellent formula. I hope she does not run out of ideas and plot settings. First books in a series are always dicey but S. J. Bennett is on to a good thing with this launch. It is the perfect antidote for the gloom and doom that we are surrounded by. This is just the kind of lighthearted banter, mixed with some detective work, that we as readers need to help us look the other way during theese dark pandemic days. Life goes on despite being reminded of our mortality on a daily basis.

It is the perfect blend of Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. Very English. Very much aware and happy being in the space it inhabits. And makes the best of the scenario. You don’t need to be a Royalist or an Anglophile to appreciate this kind of storytelling. Just go with it and enjoy it. The author has a very tight control on the language. She will hone her point-of-view skills fairly soon, once the characters begin to assert themselves. The first book is always a testing ground for the roles everyone will play and the author figuring out how to manipulate the scene. Soon everyone will find their niche and it will develop beautifully. I am so sure of it. This first book has sufficient glimpses of a good series in the making.

In fact, the first volume has an extract from the opening pages of the second novel in the series scheduled for publication in November 2021. It is called The Mystery of the Faberge Egg. I cannot wait to read it. Just as the webseries, The Crown, inspired this storyline, these books need to launch a webseries of their own.

On a drive one English spring evening, I found myself thinking about an episode of The Crown. The young Queen Elizabeth II had picked up a painted soldier from a model battlefield and absentmindedly returned him to the wrong place. Her punctilious private secretary corrected the mistake. And I thought to myself that, while it made a nice observation about the private secretary, it was something the Queen – the woman I knew – would never have done.
I haven’t met her, but my father has, many times. In the course of a long career in the army, he’s hosted her at the Tower of London, drunk cocktails on the Royal Yacht Britannia and been awarded medals at Buckingham Palace. The woman my father knows is funny, engaged, well-informed and good company. She would have understood that it’s impolite to fiddle with someone else’s model battlefield, and if she’d ever moved a soldier it would have been to put him in the right place, not the wrong one.
That got me thinking, here’s a woman with a lifetime of learning, who is often thought of as not very clever. But she’s recognised as a world expert on horse racing, and there are many other fields besides, such as military history, that she knows extremely well. Also, while we’re all looking at her, she’s looking out. She must spot things all the time that others don’t see.
What a perfect set-up for a detective. The woman I know could do it brilliantly.

Meanwhile, read The Windsor’s Knot — it is the perfect read.

8 June 2021

On “Consent” and “My Dark Vanessa”

I read two books in quick succession — Consent and My Dark Vanessa ( HarperCollins). Both deal with the same subject. Grooming of a young school girl by a much older man, a writer / school teacher. The difference being that “Consent” is a true account by Vanessa Springora about her being groomed by French literary giant Gabriel Matzneff. It is a horrifying account of a 14-year-old girl groomed by a man who was at the time fifty years old. It is sickening. Springora, the head of the Julliard publishing house, met Matzneff at a dinner with her mother. ( https://www.theguardian.com/…/french-publishing-boss…) She was going through a troubled childhood as her parents were divorcing. Springora began a relationship with Matzneff but despite breaking it off two years later, she was not rid of the man for the next few decades. He pursued her. He stalked her. To the extent he wrote letters to her bosses in the publishing publishing she worked in. Ultimately, the Me Too movement happened, giving her the space to write her account of the events. Consent has been translated by Natasha Lehrer.

It is a memoir that flits between the perspective of the 14yo school girl and the 47yo Springora. It is disturbing. The school girl participates in the relationship with a much older man, but the adult Vanessa questions some of the acts/moments. She is able to see through the sexual exploitation and misogyny of the male writer and the protection he got from his social circle. It is incomprehensible to her. Consent is minimalistic. It does not delve into too many gory details but what the author chooses to share are emotionally shattering. It is inexplicable why this man was protected so well by the French establishment. If anyone had dared to look close enough, the evidence was apparent in the “illustrious” literary career where Matzneff published books that were thinly veiled accounts of his paedophilic acts, letters with his under-age mistresses and his regular visits to the Philippines to sexually exploit boys as young as eleven years old. Yet, Springora too only found the courage to reveal her dark secret after the Me Too movement became popular. She was relieved when she showed her mother this manuscript, who upon reading it said, “Don’t change a thing. This is your story.”

Towards the conclusion of the memoir, she writes:

I spent a long time thinking about the breach or confidentiality, particularly on a legal area that is otherwise strictly controlled, and I could only come up with one explanation. If it is illegal for an adult to have a sexual relationship with a minor who is under the age of fifteen, why is it tolerated when it is perpetrated by a representative of the artistic elite — a photographer, writer, filmmaker, or painter? It seems that an artist is of a separate caste, a being with superior virtues granted the ultimate authorization, in return for which he is required only to create an original and subversive piece of work. A sort of aristocrat in possession of exceptional privileges before whom we, in a state of blind stupefaction, suspend all judgement.

Were any other person to publish on social media a description of having sex with a child in the Philippines or brag about his collection of fourteen-year-old mistresses, he would find himself dealing with the police and be instantly considered a criminal.

Apart from artists, we have witnessed only Catholic priests being bestowed such a level of impunity.

Does literature really excuse everything?

It is a question that the reader is left asking with My Dark Vanessa. Nearly twenty years in the making and endorsed by Stephen King, it too explores the grooming of a young school girl by her English teacher. King calls it is a “hard story to read” and it is. Maybe because Kate Russell’s imagination is very detailed and sometimes gut-wrenching. It is torture to read this story. Initially I stopped reading it after a few pages but then managed to resume reading it after having finished reading Consent.

Somehow My Dark Vanessa comes across as a brilliantly crafted story but it is not as easy to read as Consent. Every despicable encounter/event in “Consent” is meticulously documented but it is shocking to read for the complicity of the French elite in permitting the writer to flourish. Not only did his books sell well, but he was lauded with honours, practically given an expense account by his publishers and the French state. It is astonishing. Whereas My Dark Vanessa reads like fiction although the events described in it are plausible. It is fiction but it sometimes seems to stem from an overactive imagination. The distinction is real. It is unsurprising that My Dark Vanessa has been shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize 2021.

Interestingly Vanessa Springora’s memoir Consent has been endorsed by Kate Elizabeth Russell, My Dark Vanessa, as “A gut-punch of a memoir with prose that cuts like a knife.”

Currently the controversy about Blake Bailey, the biographer of Philip Roth, is raging in the world of Anglo-American publishing. Take for instance this article published in the Slate, called “Mr Bailey’s Class“. It eerily parallels the events described in My Dark Vanessa and Lisa Taddeo’s nonfiction Three Women, where the only girl who agreed to be identified by her real name was Maggie. She spoke about her grooming by her teacher and later taking him to court. It is hard at such moments to distinguish between what is real and what is fiction.

These kinds of stories are not going away in a hurry. There are many, many more. Predatory men and women exist. It is a fact. Children are vulnerable. These books may only focus upon young girls but there is no denying that boys too are victimised.There is no telling how much longer will these stories have to be constantly told for there to be some positive change in the attitude of individuals and society. But for now, read these stories.

2 May 2021

Chris Power’s “A Lonely Man”

Chris Power’s debut novel, A Lonely Man ( Faber and Faber) gets a little tough to read in the middle due to the complexity of keeping pace with the Russian drama but as a literary construct trying to make sense of this very bizarre new world is fascinating. The clever literary device of distancing oneself from the actual action while naming very real names who have been at loggerheads with the Putin administration is very well done. It is an artifice that enables the narrator/ghostwriter to continually distance himself from the ugly world of Russian mafia and more. Yet, the unsettling ending to the novel leaves the reader gasping with the realisation that there is actually a very, very thin dividing line between reality and fiction.

Seriously, what is there not like about this debut novel. It has all the masala of a staid, boring, writer, a family man, who is pulled into telling the life story of another man, a ghostwriter. Roles are reversed and the original writer, Robert, who is facing writer’s block, suddenly recovers his writing abilities when trying to retell Patrick’s story. One that is unclear whether it is true or not but it is certainly fascinating. So while it has been established through the course of the novel that Robert himself can be prone to exaggeration while ghostwriting biographies that turned into bestsellers, it becomes increasingly hard to prove the truth of his current story. Robert claims to have been hired to ghostwrite the story of a Russian mafiosi, except that the man is discovered dead in a suspected suicide. Ever since then Robert has been on the run fearing for his life. The entire action of the plot takes place in Berlin and Sweden. Also, if one is familiar with the Russian exiles and more, as has trickled into many newspapers and documentaries, it makes this book much easier to read. But no harm done if you are unfamiliar with the names. It is just that then the reader will spend some excruciatingly distracting moments googling for the names.

This elegantly-told thriller, very gently turns a humdrum middle class reality into a sinister, dark world, and needs to be optioned for film pretty soon. Till then, read it. Enjoy it.

Update:

Update: Today, soon after, filing this short review of “A Lonely Man”, news broke that the US says Russian intelligence agencies were behind the poisoning of Alexey Navalny and will impose sanctions on multiple senior government officials.

It is at times like this that it becomes difficult to diffrentiate between truth and fiction. Alexey Navalny is one of the Russian figures mentioned in the novel, as being one of the severest critics of Putin and having to suffer consequences like many others have in the past.

1 March 2021

“Leonard and Hungry Paul” by Ronan Hession

This is an utterly charming, sweet, heartwarming novel about two shy men — Leonard and Hungry Paul. Why he is called “Hungry” is never explained. Both are single and both continue to inhabit their parents home — a deed that in itself is unusual for adult men. Leonard ghostwrites children’s encyclopaedias and genuinely loves his work as these kinds of books gave him joy in his childhood. He is passionate about his writing and factchecking. Whereas Hungry Paul likes to be mostly at home with his parents and sometimes is called in to help with the local postoffice. Leonard has recently lost his mother and misses her but continues to meet Hungry Paul regularly. The friends meet in peaceful silence and are happy to have meandering conversations while playing board games. There is a gentleness to the story which seems to reflect the slow, ordinariness of their lives. But it does not rankle anyone, least of all the characters themselves. They are at peace being who they are. A sentiment that Leonard shares when wooing his soon-to-be girlfriend Shelley. He reminds her that anyone can say beautiful things at any point but that is not real and does not prove anything. Most importantly he says, “I am not scared to be myself.”

This novel is full of lovely insights about character and of course creating books, such as:

Encyclopaedias were books you were meant to immerse yourself in. They created their own worlds with magical pairings of writers and illustrators, using short exciting prose with memorable tableaux, drawn in a way that was meant to look lifelike but not so detailed that a young seven-year-old couldn’t attempt to copy the picture themselves. Yes, they were factual books, but they weren’t just books of facts. They were storytelling books that used the world around us merely as a starting point, as kindling for a child’s imagination.

He had always pictured the author and illustrator as intrepid, inseparable friends who wrote the books about facts they had discovered themselves. The books were written and illustrated with such a personal touch that it was hard to imagine that the people involved had not actually seen all the animals and shared campfires with all the tribes in the pictures. As a child, they showed him what life could be like: an adventure undertaken in the name of curiosity alone. He had resolved to do everything in those books: climb Mount Everest, swim in a shark cage, walk on a tightrope over Niagara Falls, and pull himself out of quicksand.

( pp. 63-64)

Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession is a sleeper hit for Bluemoose Books— it is the perfect healing read during the pandemic. It has generated a lot of chatter on social media with everyone who has read it, recommending it to others, creating the best kind of buzz: word-of-mouth publicity. No wonder it has been selected as the 2021 One Dublin One Book choice in April!

14 February 2021

“Gribblebob’s Book of Unpleasant Goblins” by David Ashby

This book arrived today — Gribblebob’s Book of Unpleasant Goblins by David Ashby. My daughter immediately picked it up and was glued to it. Refused to budge. Ever so often one heard snorts of laughter and giggles. Or she would turn up with eyes shining and read out snippets from the book and repeat to say how much she was loving it. Made no difference to her whether I had understood the snippet or not, she was just very delighted with the story. It had magic, goblins, an invisible dog, children and the pace was just right.

Now I have been instructed to read it. You must.

Oh, BTW, David Ashby wrote this book to disprove a fortune teller who had predicted that David would never write a book. Well, now he has and if kid is to be believed, it is an “AWESOME BOOK!”

Cover illustration is by Jen Khatun and cover design by Anna Morrison.

25 Jan 2021

Update: On Instagram, David Ashby spotted the post and has been delighted with my daughter’s response. This is what he wrote:
I am so happy to hear that Sarah enjoyed reading #Gribblebob – and especially that she read bits of it out loud to you! When I wrote it I read each new chapter out loud to my children as a bedtime story and so it’s lovely to know that it still works that way. Please tell her that I think she’s an AWESOME READER!!

On fan fiction

Here is a short clip on fanfiction. It was triggered by a conversation I had with a friend upon reading Keshav Guha’s debut novel Accidental Magic ( Harper Collins India ) and Stephen Alter’s Feral Dreams ( Aleph Publications). This is a new space for modern literature especially as access to the Internet and new forms of edevices proliferate. As I say in the video, The Wired noted in 2015 that more than 1 billion minutes per month were being spent either creating or reading material on fanfiction websites such as Wattpad. Of these 90% of the users accessed the websites using their mobiles.
Fanfiction is a modern literary phenomenon whose popularity is astonishing and understandable. It permits people who are infatuated with the books that they have read, characters, plots and/or literary landscapes to explore the oft asked question, “What If?”. It is also permitted to flourish by the original creators as long it sticks within the purview of the fair use clause of copyright laws and is not commercially exploited. It is a win-win situation as it allows the readers to exercise their writing skills, get feedback in real time from other users and it allows the writers to see their stories/characters remain in focus. In fact in a Bookseller article discussing Rainbow Rowell writing Harry Potter fan fiction, quoted a spokesman for Rowling’s literary agency, The Neil Blair Partnership, to say: “Our view on Harry Potter fan fiction is broadly that it should be non-commercial and should also not be distributed through commercial websites. Writers should write under their own name and not as J K Rowling. Content should not be inappropriate – also any content not suitable for young readers should be marked as age restricted.”

Fanfiction writing has spawned some bestselling authors in the West such as E L James of Fifty Shades of Grey and Cassandra Clare who wrote the Shadowhunter series. In India, it is still restricted to online spaces but in print there are a few examples. Not exactly in the definition of what constitutes fan fiction, a tribute, an imitative act, an exploration but Keshav Guha writes a form of fiction that is pays obeisance to Pottermania but also investigates what it means to be in this mostly online world. Stephen Alter’s Feral Dreams extends the story beyond the original and makes it his own but in his case the original work is out of the copyright domain, so these literary creations using the original characters are absolutely acceptable.

Sherlock Holmes is another literary character who has given rise to many, many fan fiction stories — offline and online. People have explored this for years and publishers regularly commission stories for young and older readers.

Fanfiction is here to stay.

6 Jan 2021

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

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