Lockdown reading is a way of keeping one’s sanity. Long, satisfying reads are definitely a pleasaurable way to while one’s time. Tim Pears’s The West Country Trilogy consisting of The Horseman, The Wanderer and The Redeemed. It is historical fiction at its best. Mesmerising. Set at the beginning of the twentieth century, around the time of World War I. It is about Leo, whose father works in the stables of Lord Prideaux and the peer’s daughter, Charlotte or Lottie. Spanning a few years, from when the children were of school going age to when they are adults — Leo, a war veteran and Lottie, a qualified veterinarian with an independent practice on her father’s estates.
The Horseman is about Leo and Lottie as children. It is about their very different lifestyles governed by a strict class structures. The children share a love for horses. A love that transcends anything known to mortal man. It is a kind of love that is compassionate and all-encompassing, an energy that many humans, even those working in the stables, are genuinely unable to comprehend. In today’s age the children may have even been referred to as horse whisperers but the bond that they display with their animals is beautifully drawn out by Tim Parks. At first The Horseman is a little tedious to read for its very “horsey” descriptions and technical details. Soon it becomes second nature and the story becomes much easier to read. The story that emerges is the one of Leo helping to look after the horses, even grooms of other stables recognise his special gift of being with horses, his schoolteachers encouraging him to do what his heart desires and his slow realisation of Lottie’s presence. Their first “encounter” is when he sees her riding a new horse on the grounds. It is a stunning description. Later the very same horse is injured and Lottie refuses to have it shot. Instead she wishes to tend to it. She is quietly and ably assisted by Leo. It is an unusual story that begins to develop as it cuts across the severely demarcated social lines. Within the confines of the stable, perhaps the presence of a stable boy while the daughter of the peer is also present is not questioned, especially when a sick horse needs looking after, but the same kind interaction is more than frowned upon outside. Unfortunately that is exactly what happens and due to an unfortunate set of circumstances, Leo and his family are thrown out of the estate as Leo is seen with Lottie, unchaperoned. There is something quite remarkable about The Horseman as it immediately takes the reader into a pastoral landscape of the rigid society but the chinks in it are becoming apparent. While many in the first part of the trilogy hang on dearly to the old way of life, the two children — Leo and Lottie — begin to show the future way of life. For now it causes a catastrophic disruption in the personal and social lives of the characters but life moves on.
The Wanderer is the long journey that Leo makes wandering through through the countryside. It involves meeting gypsies and working as a labourer on a farm among other responsibilites. Leo’s personality comes across as a quiet, reticent but an equally stubborn, free-spirited individual who cannot be tethered for too long against his wishes at a task. He has to be able to exercise his free will. His self-respect is critical to his self-preservation. For Lottie too, her individuality and self-expression is very important and she insists on studying to be a veterinarian. The idea of a lord’s daughter being a professional was an act till then was unheard of and to opt for being a veterinarian would imply that her work would necessitate her being in the presence of many men too. Yet Lottie gets her way.
The Redeemed is the last part of the trilogy. It focuses for a large part on Leo participating in the Battle of Jutland — in it and later as a deep sea diver in the salvage yard that an enterprising businessman had set up to dredge the waters for the sunken German warships and sell the valuable scrap metal. It is a fascinating account particularly the description of bringing a massive ship to surface before breaking it apart. Offering a detailed view of the work involved is beautifully done. For instance, the conversations about trying to straighten the sunken ship and sail it to the dock for dismantling. It is a Thomas Hardy-like landscape and as absorbing to read. The focus on working people and their trade. Even Lottie is a qualified veterinarian who has broken the rules governing her class and sought a career for herself. For women especially of the upper class to actively seek a career was unheard of but to qualify as a veterinarian and choose to practise on her father’s estates is extraordinary. Yet, Lottie does just that and is accepted by everyone as a fine vet. Leo’s relationship with Lottie resumes though it is no longer the central preoccupation of this novel, but when it does make an appearance, it is ever so satisfying. It is no wonder then that The Redeemed is on the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2020.
This is historical fiction at its best. Ideally the trilogy should be read in quick succession. It is the only way to relish this fabulous bildungsroman of Leo and Lottie and the transition of society from a rigid class structure to a modern society. The Biblical underpinnings of the trilogy are unmistakable as is the imagery represented by the short titles selected for each book but these books are fascinating whether one is aware of the allusions or not. Read the trilogy.
Dipankar Mukherjee is the Founder & Director of Readomania, an independent publishing house based in India. Under his stewardship, the house has produced more than 80 books in five years of its existence. Dipankar holds an MBA degree from IIT Madras and has been a management consultant in his professional avatar, working in organisations like IBM and Ernst & Young. Apart from publishing his business interests include a consumer electrical products brand, Aeronova and literary resort, Faraway Renz. He loves traveling and can be found playing with his daughter, if not at work.
did you start Readomania?
An entrepreneur starts with a dream. Mine was, and is, to build a company that is known for creating and curating good content. Readomania was, and is, a manifestation of that dream. There is a lot more content waiting to be discovered. There are a lot of stories that need to be told. We want to be a part of this ecosystem that takes this content, and the stories to a wide audience.
2. What attracted you to publishing?
A publishing house plays a very important role in the society. It can drive narratives, influence points-of-view, and be a catalyst for change. This is what makes publishing a perfect choice for someone who wants to bring out a change for good. I aspire to take Readomania to a position where it can do this effectively, along with being a profitable, sustainable venture.
3. What is the focus of your publishing programme? How many titles have you published so far?
We started in September 2014 and our annual publishing list was streamlined from 2016 onwards. We have published 80 odd titles since 2014. As of now, we publish about 18–24 titles a year. Our list includes literary, midlist, and commercial fiction across multiple genres, short stories, poetry, non-fiction, and children’s fiction. The current focus of our publishing programme is diversity in content. We want to bring in as many flavours as possible. We are delving into mythology retelling, historical fiction, period drama, crime, thriller, romance, short stories, poetry, children’s fiction, humour etc.
4. How do you decide what to publish? Do you commission books or select manuscripts from unsolicited submissions? Or do you look at what agents supply?
book is like making a movie, it is not possible to accurately predict how will
the audience—reader in this case—react. Though the uncertainty is less for
based on a potent mix of analysis, instincts, and market trends. Analysis
focuses on the content, market trends on the genre and competition. Instincts
are hard to define but is based on experience, author interaction, and a bit of
We still don’t have fat budgets for commissioning books, so that has still not started. We do, however, discuss projects and potential books with our existing authors and take them forward. Manuscript selections also happen from unsolicited submissions and those that come through agents.
5. Do you think there is an appetite for print books or is the preference for digital books increasing? What are your comments on the digital versus print debate?
Print is winning this debate by a
significant margin. I don’t think this will change much in the near future.
There will definitely be better adoption of digital formats (text and audio)
but that may not dent the market for print books.
Device fatigue is setting in. People want to stop looking at the blue screen. As the awareness for this increases, I feel print books will take up the gap left by some of these devices. However, this may not happen for first time readers. Many of them may directly start reading on a device.
6. Do you look at translations too? If so how does the translations programme operate?
We want to look at translations as well. But we have not started as yet.
7. What is your average day like?
I wake up in a
room full of books and start reading with a cup of coffee next to me. I then go
to a nice bistro, eat some nice food and drink coffee and read more. I then go
to a nice park, sit below a tree, read some more and drink some nice chai from
the local fellow, until it’s time to go back home. Back there, I sit next to my
window and read, until I fall asleep.
Well, I can always dream about this kind of a life. Reality though is a little different. My regular schedule includes sales and collection follow ups, editorial discussions, an hour on social media, an hour on online reading, marketing discussions, and author discussions.
8. How do you distribute books? Via online retail or brick and mortar stores? Why did you start an online store on your website? Isn’t that rather unusual for an indie publisher?
Distribution has been strong for us, at least amongst indie publishers. I think we have done this well. We distribute through all possible modes. For brick and mortar stores, we work with the regular distributors like IBD, Prakash, Variety and Jaico. In addition, we directly sell on Amazon, are represented on Flipkart and as you mentioned sell through our website as well. Our own website is also a very big channel for sales. Since we are very active on social media, it is easy to drive sales through our own website.
9. What is the kind of publicity you invest in? Do book launches help you sell books?
Publicity is a
nemesis for indie publishers. The ROI on publicity is questionable and hence we
are careful treading this path. We use a lot of online resources, bloggers’
community, and outreach for marketing. We do work with the stores and on
Amazon. We still have some work to do in PR and co-branding concepts. However,
we keep trying out different methods of communication and branding for books.
Some work, some don’t.
As for book launches, in my opinion they do not recover the investment made and are a drag on our resources. A book launch, or any event for that matter, works well only when there is a good PR angle.
10. What are your thoughts about the Indian book industry? Is it growing or not? What are the pain points if any? What makes this book market stand apart from the others?
Indian book industry is quite a challenge, especially the trade book segment.
There is growth. However, that growth may not be real. Many systemic issues lead
to this problem. First amongst them is the concept of Sale-Or-Return. How does
one explain growth when returns can potentially come after the financial year
is closed? Does one go back and revise growth figures?
are a lot of positives that do point to the growth-story. Many more titles are
coming up, online sales are strong, and sentiments are good.
As far as pain-points are concerned, there are a select few that I would like to mention, both on cost side and revenue side. On cost side we have GST, payment terms that publishers have with distributors and distribution margins as major issues. The cost pressures have significantly increased. On the revenue side, I think there is over-supply of books. If I may say, India is now a land of more writers than readers. This coupled with shrinking shelf space makes it difficult to reach out to the readers. The power may be shifting away from publishers to distributors or platforms like Amazon, especially since distributors and platforms are now operating as monopolies.
11. What are the changes you have seen in publishing since you began Readomania? What are the genres that sell the most amongst your readers/customers and do you think these align with the more popular buying sentiments amongst Indian readers?
inception, quite a few things have changed. I have seen the self-publishing
industry grow significantly over the years. There has been a good growth in new
genres like true-crime, celebrity-autobiographies, bureaucrat narratives.
Growth in the regional language publishing and demand for translations also is
a positive change. For publishers, a big revenue stream has opened up through
rise in book-to-screen deals. However, there has been a fall in per-title print
runs. I also feel there is now an overload of marketing content for readers and
a big boom in book-marketers who promise the moon but not sales.
for us include mythology, historical fiction, non-fiction, and light reads. I
think the market too would have a similar trend.
12. What are your future plans for Readomania?
We are just five years old and we have many miles more to go. Readomania aspires to be one of the top five publishing brands in the country with a strong list, a few international awards in our kitty, and be the publisher of choice for authors and readers.
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.
Book Post 47 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.
There is a sudden deluge of books being released to coincide with the
ongoing Frankfurt Book Fair, the mecca of publishing and of course, as a run-up
to Christmas/ gifts. Some of the big name releases that have happened in recent
weeks have been Ann Patchett’s incredibly stunning The Dutch House and
Jio Talentino’s absorbing collection of essays called Trick Mirror. There have been other books too like Melinda Gates The Moment of Lift, Candace Bushnell’s Is there still sex in the city? Or the
absorbing but light biography of The
Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves by Andrew Lownie.
Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House is such
a beautiful book that it is impossible to describe. I read it weeks ago but
could not bring myself to spoil the heartbreakingly fabulous experience of
reading it. It is historical fiction for it is set at the time of the second
world war in Philadelphia. It is about two siblings –Danny and Maeve– whose
father, Cyril Conroy, a landlord, made it supremely rich through sheer hard
work and wise investments. As a result he was able to haul his family out of
impoverished circumstances to buy a magnificent house with its contents built
by Dutch immigrants – the VanHoebeek. It is an unsettling experience for their
mother who soon abandons their family to mysteriously vanish from their lives. It
is said she left for India. Meanwhile Cyril Conroy marries again. This time a
woman with two daughters. The stepmother in true fairy story style banishes the
children from the home once Cyril dies unexpectedly. Maeve and Danny learn to
fend for themselves. Slowly putting their lives back together. Years later they
reflect upon their childhood. As Ann Patchett points out in an interview with The
Guardian that we are embarrassed by grief, and The Dutch House is multi-layered because of the varieties of grief
it addresses. Every time leaving a large gaping hole even in the reader’s heart
but a sense of yearning to read more. It is a stunning novel which will haunt
one for a long time to come. It is bound to find a place on the longlist of
next year’s Women’s Prize.
New Yorker staff writer Jio Talentino’s Trick
Mirror is a collection of her essays published previously. It is a
combination of reportage and memoir. It is not easy to read at one sitting for
its very thought provoking ideas on feminism, sexual assault, universities,
wedding festivities etc. It is such a wide range of subjects that she tackles, always
with an incisive feminist outlook, that it becomes immaterial after a point
that many of her observations are based on very local and personal experiences.
This is the beauty of essay writing that if the ideas discussed in the essay
resonate with readers beyond a specific geographic landscape – beyond Trump,
UVA in Charlottesville etc– and cut through borders of all kinds to have the
desired impact of evaluating and challenging one’s thoughts, then it is
extremely powerful writing. There are two excellent reviews of Talentino’s book
of my Self-Care” by Jacqueline Rose in the New York Review of Books ( 10
October 2019) and “Trick
Mirror by Jia Tolentino review – on self-delusion” by Lidija Haas ( 2
Billionaire Melinda Gates’s The Moment of Lift is a curious little book. The Gates couple are known for their philanthropy and have been in the public eye for years. They are very guarded about their private life which is fair. For instance, when their children were enrolled in school it was using their mother’s surname rather than their father’s more famous last name. This strong desire to withhold their personal space from the public eye in the memoir is also fair except that it makes the tenor of the book very bland. There are glimpses of the tussle Melinda Gates may have had with herself in making what are seemingly “simple” decisions such as venturing into the promotion of contraceptives for women. Given her very Catholic upbringing where her mother attends mass five times a week, this could not have been an easy focus area for Melinda to pick for her philanthropy. There are many instances in the book that while it is obvious Melinda Gates has the privilege to access information easily, she remains a reserved individual who does not allow any glimpses than are absolutely necessary into her private space. Justifiably a fair choice except that in a memoir that functions more than just an account of her life but is more like a publicity statement for her magnificent work in women’s healthcare. These barriers to her privacy as well as to the information that she is being shown that can cause complications creating a very insipid book for its statistically rich in data but bland in context. Her ambiguity about expressing herself strongly about her Catholic upbringing with the reality she sees in the poverty stricken parts of the world. Or for that matter her problematic narrative of India which seems very focussed on it being a casteist Hindu society with absolutely no mention whatsoever about the syncretic cultural fabric of this democracy. Even the heavy sprinkling of anecdotes cannot relieve the boredom, this despite the celebrity buzz with even President Barack Obama releasing videos supporting the book. Having said that there is one incident that Melinda Gates refers to in her book of a little girl child of a scavenger’s community in Kanpur. The child was bold enough to ask the Gates Foundation delegates for a teacher. This is a perfect match to a beautiful wordless picture book calledPuu published by Scholastic India.
The other big ticket release recently has been the unauthorised biography of
the Mountbattens – Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of British India who
oversaw the independence of India and Pakistan—one of the many prestigious positions
of authority he held. He was also Prince Philip’s cousin and instrumental in
insisting that the British Royal family taken on the name “House of Windsor”. The Mountbattens is written by Andrew
Lownie and based on extensive research, interviews with family members as well
as those who knew the Mountbattens well. Lownie even acknowledges Queen
Elizabeth II for granting access to her archives as part of his research. So
for the first time there are accounts of Lord Mountbatten’s career, his
mistakes and successes as well as of bisexuality (denied by the family). The “detailed”
account of Lady Mountbatten as the poor little rich girl, who was the richest
heiress of her generation when she married Lord Mountbatten is equally focused
on her promiscuity as it is with all other details of her life. There are
photographs, an extensive bibliography, footnotes and a detailed index. The
book has plenty of anecdotes that make for a rollicking good read except that
it all falls apart towards the end when Lownie acknowledges that the
Mountbatten’s myth is managed by exercising control at the archives in
Broadlands or closed under Ministerial Directive at the Hartley Library. All
said and done it is a book that makes for an interesting read and will probably
be optioned for a film or a TV miniseries very soon for its got all the razzmatazz
that will go down well with a global audience of a period drama.
In a similar vein is the memoir that Candace Bushnell has written after
crossing sixty — Is there still sex in
the city? It is a light and superficial read about a woman worrying about
money and life even though she and her girlfriends can afford to own homes at the
Hamptons, New York. Privileged women can offer quite a bit through their
memoirs as they are privileged not just in financial security but have easy
access to information, data, statistics — which increasingly have a price
barrier to them. Thus offering a broader perspective on issues that preoccupy women
as they become older. Issues like marital relationships, separations, losing
dear friends, how to come to terms with old age, healthcare, having the energy
to be with family and friends, increasing loneliness, managing busyness of life
etc. Of course there will be vast degrees of differences between those in
different points of the socio-economic scale but certain learnings are the
same. Oh well! It is an opportunity lost with Candace Bushnell’s memoir.
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.
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
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?
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.
At Jaipur Literature Festival 2019, I was in conversation with author Daman Singh about her novel Kitty’s War at Jaipur Literature Festival 2019. It is historical fiction set within a railway colony at the time of World War II. It is about the Anglo-Indian community told through the eyes and experiences of Katherine Riddle or Kitty, as she is more popularly referred to.
There is a tremendous spurt in middle grade novels and young adult literature. It is also a grey area as it is never clear what kind of stories may attract the young readers. Even so there is a great mix of storytellers and stories being published regularly. There is so much variety to choose from. Here is a selection:
Beginning with the seasoned writers like Paro Anand, Ranjit Lal and Subhadra Sen Gupta, all of whom have new books published. Well, Subhadra Sen Gupta’s is a reissue of one of her earliest collection of historical fiction short stories. It is a revival of her backlist that is very welcome. Painters, Potters, Cooks and Kingswas first published nearly two decades ago but it remains one of my all time favourite collection of short stories. These stories with children as the protagonists are set in different periods of Indian history — King Ashoka, Emperor Akbar, King Krishna Deva Raya, Princess Jahanara and British India.
Paro Anand’s The Otheris a path-breaking collection of short stories for young adults exploring critical issues like gender, sexual abuse, grief and loneliness and much, much more. It is a set of stories that even adults will do well to read. ( I wrote about it too and embedded a fantastic conversation between Paro Anand and Sunil Sethi too.)
Ranjit Lal is another very prolific writer for children. Over the years his storytelling has matured to magnificent levels. His child protagonists are always very well-defined and easy for the young readers to identify with as they are ordinary folks. His plots are of the familiar too. Even when his stories become sinister and dark, the scenarios are completely plausible as there is a logical progression from the point of the personal and known. Again spaces that are easy to recognise. This holds true for Adventures of Bozo & Chick: Terror at Bedlam Housewhich is set in Mumbai. Teenagers Bozo and Chick, ably assisted by youngsters in the neighbourhood, try and solve the mystery of the masked strangers living in a more or less abandoned home. Mixed with generous doses of references to real life such as love jihad or terrorists attacking Mumbai using the sea-route make this novel unnerving but a gripping read.
Award-winning writer of adult fiction Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s first book for children Jwala Kumar and the Gift of Fire: Adventures in Champakbaghis a tremendous book. Friendships between magical creatures and little children, the implicit trust that binds them, always makes for a perfect story. Hansda has achieved it charmingly so in his own gem of this utterly fabulous Jwala Kumar. A fun, fun book is Tommy Greenwald’s Crimebiters!It involves little children and a crime-fighting vampire dog. Need I say more? It is utterly delicious!
Three collections of short stories that are equally engaging are Grandpa Tales and Grandma Tales( edited by Lalitha Iyer) and Flipped: Funny Stories/Scary Stories. The stories edited by Lalita Iyer are a great collection with the contributing authors mostly sharing stories that they heard from their grandparents. In the next edition of these anthologies it may be better if there was a wider selection of stories representing the diversity of India rather than focused on a handful of regions. Nevertheless these are two entertaining volumes. The third one is a curious book of flipped stories. So to read the scary stories you read the book one way and to read the funny stories you flip the book. The two stories that stand out in this volume are “Of Grave Importance” by Adithi Rao and “When I Was a Little Girl” by Shabnam Minwalla.
But the new voice in children’s literature to be noticed is Cordis Paldano. A theatre professional who has also been trained in Tamil street theatre called Terukkutu, Cordis Paldano’s debut novel The Dwarf, The Girl and the Holy Goatis a stupendous book. It has an excellent sense of drama and timing. Being true to the elements of street theatre that thrives on incorporating elements into the performance of local socio-political developments, this book too is no different. It is a brave book. Cordis Paldano is the talented new kid on the block and worth following!
Given that the festival season is here. These books would make tremendous Diwali gift packs whether for reluctant or mature readers.
Supriya Kelkar’s debut YA novel Ahimsais about 10-year-old Anjali who is unexpectedly pulled into the Indian Freedom struggle in 1942 when her mother leaves the family to become a freedom fighter. A brisk pace and an alignment with current social sentiments makes the book particularly apt for our times. It highlights communal tensions, riots, lynchings, prison conditions, the Quit India movement, Gandhi, and the beginnings of Indian nationalist fervour. In the process, it also steps into the vacuum that is literature on the freedom struggle for children.
Supriya Kelkar was born and grew up in the USA, learning Hindi by watching Bollywood films. After college she got a job as a screenwriter for Hindi films. Ahimsa is inspired by her great-grandmother Anasuyabai Kale’s role in the Indian freedom movement. Kelkar spoke to Scroll.in about her book and her writing in general. Excerpts from an email interview:
Why did you choose to write an activist-oriented novel from the perspective of ten-year-old Anjali? I actually first had the idea to write this story as a biopic screenplay of my great-grandmother’s story about fifteen years ago. I tried and the script just wasn’t working and then decided to try it as a fictional story. I realised the more interesting point of view in the story wasn’t that of someone who already believed in the cause. It was of someone who was privileged and not yet ready to confront that privilege.
So I decided to tell the story from the point of view of a ten-year-old girl whose mother joins the freedom movement. I’m really happy with the choice. It allowed Anjali to grow and change so much over the course of the story from a young girl who is happy with the status quo, who loves her fancy clothes, and who doesn’t really understand fully her relationship with her colonisers, to one who is ready to make personal sacrifices, be an ally, and stand up for what is right, strong and confident that her voice can make a difference. It’s a pretty big arc and big awakening for Anjali.
The title, Ahimsa, is synonymous with Gandhi and the Indian freedom struggle. Yet it resonates decades later with the younger generations. What made you think of it The title was one of the first things that came to me when writing this story as a novel, and is one of the few things that has remained from the first draft I wrote back in 2003. Since it was one of the themes of the book, it was an easy choice as a title. But my hope is that the true meaning behind the word really resonates with young readers today, as they realise how powerful their voice is, and how they can make a difference through words and peaceful action and not violence.
What changes did you make in the book over these years? I think other than the very first moment and the last paragraph, everything in the story has changed over the fourteen year-long journey to publication. It took me a long time to be able to figure out what the crux of the plot should be. And that’s the beauty of revision. Once I was able to become detached from my words and hit the backspace key with abandon, I was able to throw out large chunks of the story that weren’t working and figure out what was. I think my characters and their arcs became stronger with each draft, and they definitely became more realistic, as I worked hard to make sure Anjali was flawed and had a chance to grow, and Captain Brent was able to grow and change too. I write on the computer, but will initially brainstorm on paper by hand. But all my outlining and writing is done on the computer.
Navigating historical landscapes at the best of times is tricky and yet you do it with such deftness. How many revisions did this manuscript require? I wrote the first draft of Ahimsa in 2003. It was terrible and I was ready to give up, so I set it aside and went back to working on screenplays. But every year, between screenplays and other novels I was writing, I would remember Ahimsa exists and go back to it, throwing subplots and characters and scenes out and adding new things in. This went on until 2016, when it got a publishing contract. And after those thirteen drafts, I did four more revisions with my editor, so there were seventeen drafts in total.
In her memoir Ants Among Elephants, Sujatha Gidla quotes her uncle, Satyam, remembering an incident soon after India achieved independence. “A short, chubby dark boy…had a strange question for Satyam, one that Satyam had no answer to: ‘Do you think this independence is for people like you and me?’” Do you think this question remains valid even today for Dalits? That is a really powerful quote. While I cannot speak for the Dalit community, I can speak from my experiences growing up and living in America. Here, although equality is a right and on paper everyone should be equal, it is very clear things are not the same for everyone. Systemic racism exists. Discrimination against people based on the colour of their skin or sexual orientation or religion or zip code exists. Hate crimes exist. I think the same can be said in India and in many countries.
Privileged people have to work to confront their privilege and be allies to others. Young readers and older readers alike should be aware that not everyone has the same start in life because of centuries of oppression and discrimination be it based on their skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, last name, etc. When that basic premise is accepted, people can work to address and correct inequality and injustice.
The issues of untouchability, social exclusion and women empowerment are as relevant now as they were in 1942. How did writing historical fiction help you discuss modern instances of these? It really wasn’t until about a decade into revisions that I realised just how relevant historical fiction can be. I was stunned when things I was writing about in 1942 India were being mirrored in 2016 in America. It made me realise we have come a long way and yet we haven’t.
Women are still not considered true equals everywhere, be it in the way girls and women are sometimes treated in India or how women still do not get paid the same amount as men for doing the same job in America. People are still writing narratives for their countries, be it India, America, or anywhere else, and deciding who is included and who is excluded in their nationalism, and who is being centered. And people are still being treated as less-than all over the world. For me, writing historical fiction helps bring light to all these issues, and it is really incredible to see young readers making these connections as they read Ahimsa and see how the story can be applied to their world.
How much research did Ahimsa require? A whole lot! I read many books and went to academic websites for the timeline and historical facts. I used my great-grandmother’s biography, Anasuyabai Ani Me, to help me fill in the gaps for the way some people thought and how they acted at the time. I consulted professors. I spoke to older family members who lived through the time period. And I relied a lot on my parents to help me fill in cultural details. I actually have several of the pictures of the real-life people, places, and things that inspired parts of Ahimsa on my website for educators and readers.
Historical fiction as a genre requires a ton of research. You have to ensure your book works on a narrative level but you also have to make sure the clothing, the food, and the facts are right. And since India is so diverse, what may be true in one part of India for one family may not be true for their relatives in a different part of India. It was part of what made the editing process so challenging. I felt like we were constantly catching mistakes, which is good, because then they could be corrected. The fact-checking was a combination of my own research, my parents and other beta readers pointing things out, and my editor’s questions that helped navigate the fact-checking.
For instance, I had based Anjali’s house on my dad’s childhood house, because much of it was like it had been in the 1940s. But because my memories of that house were from my childhood visits in the 1980s and 1990s, there were mistakes. I had always described people standing to cook in that kitchen in the book. But my dad caught that mistake and told me although the stove was on a counter when I saw the house, back in the 1940s, the cooking was all done on the floor. So I went back and rewrote the kitchen scenes to reflect that.
Writing historical fiction in the age of the internet and fake news can also be challenging because you have to make sure the online sources you use are real. It wasn’t until one of the last edits before publication, when I was double and triple checking everything, that I realised that the Gandhi quote I used in the book, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” was incorrect. There was no proof that he ever said that, but thanks to pop culture, the saying can be found all over America on T-shirts and mugs and written on school walls, attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. I had to research a lot to find a quote that there actually was a record of that could still work in the book.
It is well-documented that atrocities against Dalits persist in India. Ahimsa is not strident, however, leaving it to the judgement of the reader to form an opinion about Dalits. How critical do you think it is as a writer to exercise one’s artistic expression in making stories available that are of utmost social concern to sensitise young readers? I think authors of children’s book authors have a great responsibility in presenting real world issues in an age-appropriate way. As parents, we often want to shield our children from the bad parts of life. But when they are old enough to handle the information, if we continue to shelter them from reality, I think we are doing a disservice to their generation.
In America, there was (and is) a prevailing way of thinking when I was growing up, called being “colour-blind.” We were taught in school that there is no difference between people based on their skin colour and it isn’t polite to talk about race because we shouldn’t see race.
Although that may seem like a really wonderful way to think about the world, studies have shown that teaching kids to be “colour-blind” leads to children who cannot accept that there is systemic racism, or that someone with a different skin colour than them would have a different life experience than them, be treated by the police differently, or be treated by society differently.
I have experienced that first hand, where so many of my classmates walked the same hallways in school as I did but were utterly unaware of racist incidents happening every day in school. And I witnessed those same kids being unable to accept that people who weren’t white got treated differently in America. So it’s actually doing children a disservice to not talk about race and how the colour of your skin in America does affect how you are treated and the opportunities you have.
That’s why I think it is really important for children’s book authors to not gloss over real-life issues. Young readers are smart and shaping their world view at the middle-grade reader level, so it is absolutely critical that we don’t talk down to them or ignore issues of social justice, and other important issues, in books for them.
What has the response of students been like? Have the reactions varied depending upon the audience? For instance, do Americans have a different response to that of Indians or the Indian diaspora? Or do all young readers respond to the book in similar ways? I’ve actually found that readers in America, both from the diaspora and not, and readers in India have all been able to deeply connect to the story. Not only that, so many of them have been able to apply the themes of social justice in the book to the real world, regardless of where they live. I’ve had young readers in America tell me they have been inspired to speak up because of Anjali, that they have decided to get more involved in a cause they believe in because of her, and that the story has opened their eyes to injustice around them. And I have had young readers in India tell me they know they can use their voice to change the world because of Ahimsa.
One reader in Delhi told me that she had never really paid attention to how privileged she was until she read Ahimsa. She was chauffeured to school and often tuned out any suffering she saw outside her car window because she was so used to seeing it her whole life. She told me that, thanks to the book, she will no longer ignore others’ suffering and wants to make a difference and knows she will. So although the issues children in different parts of the world (or often the same country) can relate back to Ahimsa may be different, I have found they can all find a way to connect to the story.
Ahimsa moves at a crisp pace while being packed with details, many of which are noticed on a second reading. How did you develop a love for storytelling? Who are the storytellers who have influenced you? Thank you very much. I developed a love for storytelling thanks to the hundreds of books I read as a child, and thanks to Hindi movies. With each book I read and movie I watched, I was learning about plot and pacing and what works in a story and what doesn’t. Being surrounded by books and movies as a child, I couldn’t think of doing anything else in life but telling stories.
There were several authors whose stories I loved and learned from, like Holly Keller and Beverly Cleary. But the first storyteller who influenced me in person was my dad. He is an engineer but also wrote a lot on the side and was always introducing me to the power of words through the plays he acted in and directed for the Indian-American community we lived in. When I was growing up I saw him writing a script weekly for his Indian radio programme which airs in America and now thanks to the internet worldwide. He also wrote stories and even wrote a couple of screenplays for Hindi movies decades ago.
The other storytellers who have influenced me are people I consider myself so lucky to have got the chance to learn from. I had the great fortune of being taught screenwriting at the University of Michigan by Jim Burnstein. He is a Hollywood screenwriter and incredible teacher who taught me everything I know about structure and outlining and making sure there is logic in your writing.
I had the privilege of working for Vinod Chopra Films right out of college. Vidhu Vinod Chopra taught me so much about making sure your stories are entertaining while saying something. It was through working with him that I learned to really be ruthless in revisions, and go from an impatient novice to a writer who knows the value of revising, even if it takes years to get things right. Abhijat Joshi taught me how to shape a story, and how to really dig deep to get to the crux of a scene and make sure it hits emotionally. And I learned from Rajkumar Hirani how to fill my writing with heart and do justice to each character’s arc, while always keeping the theme in mind.
Did writing for Bollywood films inform the very visual narrative of Ahimsa, or do writing styles vary? Do you find writing for young readers is vastly different to writing scripts for movies? I actually had to unlearn some of my screenwriting training to write novels. In screenwriting you don’t waste time describing the way someone dresses or the way a room looks or the physical way a character responds unless it is absolutely vital to the plot. That’s because the screenplay isn’t the final product.
A costume designer will decide what clothes characters wear, a set designer will decide how rooms should look, and a director and the actor will decide how they physically react to moments. Because of this, through many drafts of the book, I did not describe how my characters interact with their world to show their emotions other than in basic ways like their shoulders slumping or their smile turning down. It was only in the later edits, when my editor pointed this out, that I was able to momentarily let go of the screenwriter in me and really describe what a character was doing physically.
Other than that, I don’t find writing children’s books that different from writing screenplays. I still use a three-act screenwriting structure in all my novels, and find that the basics of plot and character are really the same in both forms of writing.
Was it challenging to find a publisher, or was it an easier process with the “We Need More Diverse Books” movement? It was challenging. I had tried for over a decade to get an agent in the publishing world for Ahimsa and other books but I just kept getting rejection after rejection, despite my screenwriting credits. Growing up never seeing myself in a book, I never really thought a children’s book set in India could get published in America. Other than Ahimsa, for almost fifteen years, I only wrote stories featuring white families because I thought that was all that could sell.
As an adult, I saw a couple of children’s books set in India being published and it gave me hope. I’m so grateful to We Need Diverse Books and everyone involved in speaking out for the importance of diverse stories. I was lucky Ahimsa was published by Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books, the largest multicultural publisher in America. And I’m lucky it’s been published in India by Scholastic. But there is still much work to be done to make sure every child gets to see their story reflected in a book.
How did the striking cover design come about? Unusually, both the American and Indian editions have used the same design. Did you have a say in it? Yes! I love the gorgeous cover so much. It is by a UK-based artist named Kate Forrester. I love the way she uses intricate design and symbolism and hand-lettering in her book covers. I believe I mentioned that peacock feathers would be nice in the design because of their symbolism in the book and I just adore the way Kate worked them in. I also love Baba’s clenched fist, Ma holding the flag, the spinning wheel, and the plants and the reference to the garden and growth throughout the cover.
Supriya Kelkar Ahimsa Scholastic India, Gurgaon, India, 2018. Hb. pp. 308 Rs 295