She works as much from memory as from the manuscript, and inside the little stone cottage, something happens: the sick child is in her lap, his forehead sheened with sweat, opens his eyes. When Aethon is accidentally transformed into an ass and the other boys burst into laughter, he smiles. When Aethon reaches the frozen edge of the world, he bites his fingernails. And when Aethon finally reaches the gates of the city in the clouds, tears sprint to his eyes.
The lamp spits, the oil drawing low, and all three boys beg her to go on.
“Please,” they say, and their eyes glitter in the light. “tell us what he saw inside the goddess’s magical book.”
“It sat,” she says, “on a golden pedestal so ornate it looked as if it were made by the smith-god himself. When Aethon peered into it, as though into some magical well, he saw the heavens and the earth and all its lands scattered around the ocean, and all the animals and birds upon it. The cities were full of lanterns and gardens, and he could faintly hear music and singing, and he saw a wedding in one city with girls in bright linen robes, and boys with gold swords on silver belts, jumping through rings, doing handsprings and leaping and dancing in time. But on the next page he saw dark, flaming cities in which men were slaughtered in their fields, their wives enslaved in chains, and their children pitched over the walls onto pikes. He saw demons, and hounds eating corpses, and when he bent his ear low to the pages, he could hear the wailing. And as he looked, turning the leaf over and back, Aethon saw that the cities on both sides of the page, the dark ones and the bright ones, were one and the same, and he was afraid.”
The lamp sputters out; the chimney moans; the children draw closer around her. Omeir rewraps the book, and Anna holds their youngest son against her breast, and dreams of bright clean light falling on the pale walls of the city, and when they wake, late into the morning, the boy’s fever is gone.
Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land ( HarperCollins India) is his first novel in seven years. It flits between three periods of history — past is 1450s Constantinople, the clash between Christianity and Islam and is a story of young Anna and Omeir; the present is in the twenty-first century and is primarily about Zeno Ninis, an eighty-six-year-old veteran of the Korean war who has made it his life’s mission to translate Diogenes’s book on Aethon and later help a bunch of fifth graders stage a dramatised version of it at their local library; and the future is of young Konstance who believes she is many millions of miles away from Earth, on a starship, in a community of modified humans. Time is measured in terms of “Mission Years”. The common thread running through these three stories is Aethon’s story.
Anna first discovers the Greek manuscript in an abandoned monastery in Thessaly and steals it, hoping to sell it to a bunch of men who have come from Urbino. Their lord and Count dreams of “erecting a library to surpass the pope’s, a library to contain every text ever written, a library to last until the end of time, and his books will be free to anyone who can read them.” Anna steals it but then discovers that the men from Urbino have fled upon hearing news of impending war. So, she keeps the book. Over time, she discovers the power of storytelling as she reads out the ancient Greek script to her sons and illiterate husband, Omeir. The family is convinced it has a healing power especially after seeing the positive effect it has on the sick children as their mother reads out aloud from the text. After Anna’s death, Omeir decides to take the book to Urbino as a gift to the Count. He remains clueless to its import but realises that it must be special enough for Anna to have treasured it for so long.
Zeno Ninis, on the other hand, while a prisoner of war befriends a British soldier, Rex, who is a scholar of the Classics. Rex teaches Greek to Zeno by scribbling in the sand or in the frost in their prison camp. Over time, once they have returned to their respective homes, Zeno finds refuge in the library at Lakeport, Idaho. He associates it with comfort and security ever since the two sisters who were the librarians too, welcomed him as a child. Zeno returns to it as an adult, a veteran, and begins to translate. All the while Rex’s words haunt Zeno: “I know why those librarians read the old stories to you. Because if it’s told well enough, for as long as the story lasts, you get to slip the trap.” While involved in the task of translating Aethon’s story, the current librarian requests Zeno to help manage the kids by narrating the story of his book. The kids are enthralled. So much so that they decide to stage a play based on the script. They are undeterred by the fact that large chunks of the original text are missing or are faded. Zeno has to use his imagination to supply the bridges in the narrative. In this he is ably supported by the kids who happily scribble in the margins, offering Aethon the explorer, new lines such as “The world as it is is enough.” Perceptive comment out of the mouth of babes!
Konstance is a young girl, living on the ship, Argos. She is not permitted to access the library on board unless she reaches a certain age. When she does, she goes through an initiation ceremony witnessed by many aboard the ship. Ultimately, she is given access using VR technology that enables her to browse through shelf after shelf of books, most of which come flying to her. If she wishes to “read” any, the characters pop out like a pop-up book but are holograms that are as wispish and transparent as air. The only book that seems to fascinate Konstance is the Atlas for which she is mocked by her peers. They say it is old fashioned but Konstance is charmed by the fact that by walking into its pages she discovers new parts of the world, cultures, its histories and geographies. Her curiosity is also kindled by the blue and gold hardback on her father’s night table. It is a copy of Zeno Ninis’s transslation. Slowly, she begins reading it and transcribing it for herself. It influences the way she thinks. Unlike her community, Konstance and to some extent, her father, are the only two who query or have independent thoughts. They do not necessarily follow the herd mentality. Even the super computer Sybil dissuades Konstance from spending too much time in the library. But she is curious and wants to investigate the events of February, 20, 2020. “Who were the five children in the Lakeport Public Library saved by Zero Ninis?”
An incident had occurred at the library when a young man, probably autistic, Seymour, walked into the library with the intention of blowing it up. He had a bag full of crude homemade bombs. He was extremely distressed at the destruction to Nature, especially habitats of owls, whom he felt close to. He understood the intricacies of climate change and was convinced that man and his destructive sensibilities were destroying Earth. By blowing up the library Seymour hoped to make a statement. But he had not reckoned with Zeno being at the library.
In Cloud Cuckoo Land, a story that has survived centuries about Aethon continues to be passed on from generation to generation, even via translations. In fact, the three storylines are interspersed with excerpts of Zeno Nini’s translation of the text. The length varies from a few broken sentences to paragraphs. Doerr makes a sly comment on the art of translation too when Konstance is browsing through the library:
The translations…mostly bewilder: either they’re boring and laborious, spangled with footnotes, or they’re too fragmented to many any sense of.
Even Doerr becomes more and more adept at telling Aethon’s story with every passing page. Almost as if he is practising what he feels, stories have the capacity to live beyond their original tellers.
Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land is a term borrowed from Aristophanes The Birds written in 414 B.C., almost 2500 years ago. It describes a mythical city based in the clouds. But more than the referencing by a modern storyteller to an ancient storyteller, it is the testimony to the astonishing staying power of storytelling. The ability to stick. The ability to be retold. The ability to be shared and become one with the narrator. The tenacity of stories is evident in how they intermingle with the memories of the person. More importantly, the stories become a repository of hope and goodwill. It reminds the listeners that as time moves on, life goes on too. Destruction of nature, communal wars, and marauding armies happen. But at the same time, stories record moments of joy, happiness, beauty and splendour. Books like men die. They need nurturing. Yet, books have the uncanny ability of outliving their creators if they are left with those who respect the printed books. It is possible. It is this insistence of Doerr upon the tangible object rather than the excitement at having millions of books at our fingertips in a digital library that is so comforting, given that we ourselves live in a time where digital formats are being peddled as superior to print. But it is not always the case, is it? With digital rights management and other requirements of upgrading hardware and software to access a digital format, and the recurring cost involved in keeping the information accessible, it is the print format that reigns supreme — it is a one-time cost, it is inherited, it develops a sentimental value that is precious to the owners as it the physical book offers a connect to their ancestors, and finally, as it is passed on from generation to generation, it influences the hearts and minds of others. Digital formats, in comparison, are sterile. Books transmit ideas. They make us think for ourselves.
Cloud Cuckoo Land is a triumph. It is definitely an ode to libraries and books, the printed format vs digital. But it is also a prayer, a belief in the nourishing power of storytelling. It is Anthony Doerr’s first novel in seven years, his first since winning the Pulitzer Prize (2015) for the exquisite All the Light We Cannot See (published, 2014). His critically-acclaimed 2014 novel All the Light We Cannot See sold 1.8 million copies across editions in British Commonwealth and 9.3 million copies worldwide. The publishers will be selling many copies of Cloud Cuckoo Land despite its bulk as the story is so rejuvenating and astonishingly relevant at the same time. Many will buy the book as it is the first novel since Doerr won the Pulitzer Prize but this book will attract many new readers. It is to be released on 28 Sept 2021.
Gitanjali Kolanad was involved in the practice, performance, and teaching of bharata natyam for close to forty years. Hershort 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.
Award-winning Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s latest novel Estuary has been translated by Nandini Krishnan. Estuary is a curious book. Flat in its tone but the preoccupation of the government clerk Kumarasurar for his son, Meghas’s, welfare is universal. Many parents will identify with it. Perumal Muruagan captures the parental anxiety very well. Bulk of the story revolves around Meghas’s request for a fancy smartphone that Kumarasurar may or not be able to afford. It sort of is in step with Kumarasurar’s general anathema towards electronic devices. It is illustrated well in his locking up the government issued computer into a cupboard instead of using it. It is only when he is introduced to the vast possibilities browsing the Internet can unleash that Kumarasurar begins to understand the younger generation’s fascination with smartphones too. The enthusiasm of the younger man for edevices rubs off on to his father, a Luddite where digital technology was concerned, and transforms Kumarasurar into a new man.
Estuary is a commentary on society and a gentle dig at people who are immune to external influences and refuse to evolve. Estuary drives home the point beautifully that as the elder person you must evolve even if it means graciously acknowledging your limits. By stonewalling and refusing to understand the needs of the younger generation, you will merely alienate them and perhaps lose them forever. In a peculiar way Estuary is a bildungsroman but not of the young man Meghas but that of his father. So the metaphor of “Estuary”, the mixing of the salt water with fresh water, works beautifully in the conclusion of the book, when tables are turned where the father now hankers after the smartphone unlike his son.
Estuary is contemplative and relatable. But as with many translated works, credit has to also be accorded to the translator. Namely, Nandini Krishnan. I am unable to pinpoint what exactly it is, but her translation really soars. The sentences click. There is a rhythm but it is ever so slightly different to that of reading a text written originally in English. Yet the translation is breezy. At no point does one get the feeling that the translator is getting carried away with their art and losing the author. On the contrary. Her respect for the storyteller and his story comes through. I do not even know how to explain that any further than except urge others to read the book. Of course there are instances in the book where the dreariness and monotony of Kumarasurar’s anxiety gets to the reader. The dullness of the storytelling is an art in itself and probably intentionally created by Murugan. At such moments in the novel the only reason for reading further is the exquisite quality of translation.
Nandini Krishnan is the author of Hitched: The Modern Indian Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013) and Invisible Men: Inside India’s Transmasculine Networks (2018). Perumal Murugan’s Estuary is her first translation from Tamil. She lives in Madras, among nine dogs, eight cats, and several thousand books!
Here is an interview with her conducted via email:
Q1. How long did it take to translate Estuary?
It’s hard to calculate the man hours, but going by the calendar, I started in November 2019 and the novel went to print in May 2020. I’d promised V K Karthika, Publisher, Westland Books, that I would have a first draft ready in a month so that Westland could publish the following summer. And so, I pushed aside all my other writing projects and dedicated myself entirely to the novel. Of course, I had read it twice already, and had perhaps translated it in my head to some extent. I must have spent between five and eighteen hours on Estuary each day, depending on the sections I was doing. I had a break until they got back to me with a line edit and copy edit, and that was another intense period of immersion in Asuralokam.
Q2. What was your methodology in translating? For instance, did you translate it in snatches, refine and then proceed or did you first translate the entire novel and then edit it further?
Actually, all of the above!
I had a very tight self-imposed deadline, and I had to translate at least one chapter a day, more if I could. If I had doubts or dilemmas about which words to use, I would shortlist my options in parentheses to deal with later.
I’d take a few hours off to get mauled by my dogs and then return, entice my kitten off my laptop with food, and start restructuring and rephrasing each sentence after comparing it with the Tamil original.
Once I was done with all forty chapters, I took two days off, and then spent a few more days re-reading and editing the entire novel.
By the time it came back to me with a line edit, I had made a new document with notes on which words I must replace in the first draft, after yet another re-read of the original and my translation. So my second and third drafts were done with at least four windows open at once on the computer. While I was waiting for a final copy edit, I read the Tamil novel for maybe a fifth time, so I ended up doing a fourth draft of the entire novel before it was typeset.
Q3. Do you pause and read other translations while working on a project?
As you can probably tell from my previous answer, I don’t really have a pause mode. But I can’t eat or sleep or even sit without a book in hand, so I’m always reading. Some of the books I read while working on Estuary—and indeed my own books—were or are, inevitably, translations.
Perhaps I’m a little more tuned in to a translator’s role in my reading as well, now that I’ve translated a book. While reading Banaphool’s Wildfire (Seagull Books), translated by Somnath Zutshi, I found myself analysing the translator’s craft in particular—something I haven’t consciously done before.
Q4. What are the pros and cons a translator can expect when immersed in the translation?
I used to be fond of saying that I’m in something of a trance when I write fiction, that I write intuitively and it feels as if I’m simply a medium for a story that wants to be told. But I began to rethink this when I heard Akhil Sharma—a writer I admire hugely—talk about how only writers can sense the craft in his novels, at the Festivals des Écrivains du Monde, 2014, in Paris. He went on to analyse some of his sentences, and the use of a particular word instead of a synonym. For the first time, I found myself applying this principle instinctively, and could relate to what he’d said. This exercise really develops your language and craft.
I also feel being in such a long relationship with a work of literature in another language makes a certain cadence percolate one’s own language and enrich it. I can speak only one language so that it can be understood by its native speakers—English—but I read many, and therefore I can access various literatures in the original. I find that each new language adds a layer of nuance to one’s thinking and a lilt to one’s vocabulary in other languages, rendering one’s writing more versatile and one’s imagery more vivid.
I’m making the first of many references to Vikram Seth in this interview, but I think the beauty of his English has a lot to do with his being not just a polyglot, but also a translator.
The only “con” is the sense of heartbreak at the end. As mother of a houseful of dogs and cats, I can make something of a comparison to fostering a fur baby. You love this little puppy that needs you for nourishment, and he or she loves you too, but then you’re always aware you’re not the parent and that you eventually have to let go.
Q5. Did you have to consult Perumal Murugan during the translation?
I have a funny story to tell you. The first time I spoke to him about the translation, he asked me, “Andha pagadiye aangilathule konduvara mudiyumaa?” which means, “Will the pagadi translate into English?”
And it was a most inauspicious start because I had to ask sheepishly, “Sir, what does ‘pagadi’ mean?” He explained that it was parody, and then said, “You must have heard people say ‘pagadi-ya pesuvaan’—he is sarcastic—surely?” I had to admit I never had. I did a quick survey around my house and told him none of the Tamil speakers in my family had heard of the word either, and he began to laugh. He must have thought about how different the milieus in which we were raised are. My only brush with rural life has been through cinema and literature. And although I studied Tamil for thirteen years in school and college, I find it easier to translate Sangam poetry than contemporary literature because the syllabus was partial to the former.
Now, Perumal Murugan uses certain words and describes certain traditions which are so particular to a region that even Tamil dictionaries draw a blank. So he was often my only dictionary and encyclopaedia. I also consulted him when I had to make a choice between two phrases or idioms—I would translate the English literally into Tamil and ask him which he preferred.
I had the advantage of having read nearly all his Tamil novels and several of his short stories, because of which I’m tuned in to his style and rhythm. I’ve met him in person often, and I can hear his writing in his voice, which helps me render it with some authenticity into English.
Q6. Has your translation been absolutely faithful to the original Tamil text or did you (with the concurrence of the author) have to tweak portions of the novel?
That’s a layered question, and it deserves a layered answer.
Let me assemble the first layer with an example. The opening lines in Tamil are:
Yaman azhaippu urudhi
Magan azhaippu aridhu
Now, even if you don’t understand Tamil, you can feel the music and sense the significance of wordplay in those lines. This is a crucial aspect to carry into the translation.
“Azhaippu” can mean both “call” and “invitation”. “Aridhu” means “rare”, but also has the connotation “precious”. This is another crucial aspect to carry into the translation.
It would be impossible to be absolutely faithful to the sense of irony and the semantic meaning of the first line. If I were to write “Yama’s invitation is certain”, the reader would be bewildered. I eventually went with “The call of Yama is certain”, but this doesn’t contain the wryness of the Tamil sentence. So I would have to find a way to bring that into the next line.
I also had to bring in the musicality of the two sentences, almost a couplet. If I were to write, “The call of Yama is a certainty. A call from one’s son is a rarity”, it would sound like those cringe-worthy traffic police slogans—you know, “Accident brings tears, safety brings cheers” or “Rash driving is crash driving.”
I had three options for the second line—“A call from one’s son is rare”, which is faithful to the semantic sense; “A call from one’s son is cause for celebration”, which is faithful to the emotional connotations; “A call from one’s son is an event”, which was the Goldilocks mean for me. It conveys the meaning and emotion; it has almost the same syllabic count as “The call of Yama is certain”. The last word of each sentence is dental, with emphasis on the
“t” and “en” sounds. And the second sentence contains the wryness that I wasn’t able to bring into the first, so the “couplet” works in translation.
Now, for the second layer—there are various vocabularies to be translated, because the third-person narrative is not always the author’s voice. Sometimes, it is a disguised first-person narrative. When the third-person narrative describes a character’s thoughts, it often assumes the voice of that character. I had to translate that character’s vocabulary accurately.
There are lyrical passages and empathetic ones and scholarly ones and playful ones, all of which carry Perumal Murugan’s signature. Then, there are passages in Kumarasurar’s voice. This man is a government employee who believes he is a gifted poet. But Perumal Murugan does not appear to think too highly of Kumarasurar’s poetic sensibilities. When Kumarasurar’s thoughts are narrated, his whimsical self-indulgence is interrupted by another tone—imagine a man who spends most of the day typing letters that probably go something like, “Dear Sir/ Regarding the statistics requested by you, kindly find enclosed forthwith the numbers as also a circular issued by the Department of Revenue regarding…/Kindly acknowledge receipt of the same.” The drudgery of this, the monotony will naturally seep into his thoughts too, and this is illustrated by flatness in tone. As for Mangasuri, she probably spends most of the day watching television soap operas and devotional programmes, and therefore she has a tendency to make dramatic pronouncements and perhaps imagines her reactions to be replayed twice. Meghas is clearly a caring son, but also has the impatience, quickness, and dry humour of an intelligent teen dealing with wide-eyed parents.
This is why the foreword is so important—when Prof. Murugan speaks of “deviance”, he could be referring to this little game he has played, where not just the vocalised dialogue but the internal dialogue too is in the voices of his characters.
And the voice of the narrator is not uniformed either. Sometimes, the author has a twinkle in his eye. Sometimes, he is seething with rage. And in the tightness of his clipped sentences, one feels the immense pain and fear he underwent during his years of exile.
So to be truly faithful to the novel, I had to extrapolate the lives of all the characters as well as the author himself, and rent some space in his head for the duration of the translation.
Q7. In an article you said that there were portions of the text you had enjoyed so much that you could recite them from memory. I found that such an extraordinary comment. As if you were more than just a translator but channelling it before making it your own and yet very clear that it was a Perumal Murugan story. So, what are your favourite sections in the novel? Does it have to do with the story or the style of storytelling? And the fondness that you have for these sections remain true for Tamil and English or only in Tamil?
I’m gratified by what you said about the translation. I haven’t quite articulated my modusoperandi to myself, but you put it quite beautifully.
Initially, my favourite sections in the novel were perhaps the ones I translated for Kannan Sundaram, Kalachuvadu, Perumal Murugan’s Tamil publisher, to pitch to prospective English publishers, even before the translation was commissioned—the opening chapter where Kumarasurar goes on his morning walk, his analysis of the seven questions he asks his son, their visits to these draconian colleges with over-the-top controlling mechanisms for their students, reports on selfies causing accidents, and the chapter where Kumarasurar has a psychotic episode. But one sentence hit me so hard I had to put the Tamil novel aside—it is the moment when Kumarasurar goes to bring Meghas home on the last day of school and hears of a “curated cemetery”. The paragraph about students passing away in college and their families not being informed about it comes out of nowhere, and it breaks the reader. I would not call it a “favourite”, because one would have to be particularly perverse to enjoy that scene, but I felt a great sense of responsibility because the English paragraph had to be as powerful.
Having completed the translation, I think my favourite chapter is the one which describes Kumarasurar’s second visit to the estuary. I’m satisfied that I have captured the tone, imagery, mood, and undercurrents in this very complex portion, and it is my greatest triumph with the novel.
To explain why I like these sections so much, I have to make an admission. When I read the Tamil novel for the first time, I kept searching for the Perumal Murugan I knew and couldn’t find him. It seemed such a mild novel, without the bite of his previous work. The premise seemed so light. I knew I was missing something, because Perumal Murugan wouldn’t write a simple story about the generation gap. So I read it again, and only to realise that was not the subject of the novel at all. It is, in some ways, a microcosmic, twenty-first century parallel to A House for Mr. Biswas, a quiet yet searing contemplation of the wrenching failure of an unremarkable life, the devastation of a man who was once the talk of town at the notion that he might be the only one who imagines that he is important.
It took me, an avid admirer of Perumal Murugan, two readings and a lifetime’s consumption of his works to understand the essence of the novel. His English readership has only received him in translation, and so far, his plots have stood the test of language. This novel is a work of art which is carried as much by style as by story. These sections were the ones that brought this fact home to me, and they were my own pookkuzhi—trial by fire. Because, unlike Prof. Murugan with me, I would have only one shot with the reader. And both he and Kannan had placed a lot of faith in me by insisting that I be the translator. I had to repay that trust by conjuring the same magic in English, and by fighting over every word on behalf of the writer.
I was terribly nervous until a brilliant review by Saudamini Jain in the Hindustan Times reassured me that my job was done. So, with a smug little pat on my own back and a sheepish smile, I can confess that I like the sections in both Tamil and English.
Q8. How do you assess/ decide when to take on a translation project?
To be honest with you, money is an important consideration. Respect and transparency are others. I’ve taken on two translation projects so far, and both were largely because of how beautifully both editors wrote to me and how my interactions with them made me feel.
This is particularly relevant because I’ve had unpleasant experiences with representatives from tight-fisted publishing firms who’ve tried various tactics to get me on board. It feels almost like you’re being sold insurance, really. Or dealing with an HR person who’s trying to convince you to stay on after a pay cut. “See, you have to look at the unquantifiable factors. Think of what this could do for your career.” “Our profits have taken a beating this year. We need people like you to pitch in at this critical time.” “Think of this as a service you’re doing a profession that you love.” “This is actually a much better deal than anything we’ve offered anyone else.” “You need to be realistic here.” “If you don’t want it enough, I can’t do anything except say we’re sorry to see you walk away from an opportunity.”
This is yet another reason I admire Vikram Seth—he has never allowed the publishing industry to dictate his worth to him, and he has justified every penny spent on him. He has taught writers that weighing one’s efforts is not mercenary. I also owe Jeet Thayil for this—he’s one of the kindest, most generous people I know, and perhaps an unconscious mentor to writers who are just about finding their feet. From him, I’ve learned not to be embarrassed about asking for what ought rightly to be offered.
Q9. How would you define a good translation?
A good translation must strike a fine balance—it should not read like a translation, but should also carry some of the flavour of the original. The reader must hear the syllables of a language that is not-quite-English and yet not explicitly so. He should feel he is exploring, but never be lost. I guess it’s like holidaying in an exotic country and staying at a resort that caters mainly to tourists.
Often, the choice or arrangement of words can give the reader a whiff of an unknown language. For example, if I were translating from French, I may go with “armoire” over “cabinet” or “cupboard”, and “boudoir” over “dressing room”, because these are French words assimilated into English. If I were translating a Hindi novel, I wouldn’t change “Dadima” to “Granny” or “Jiju” to “brother-in-law”. If it were a Delhi novel, I’d make sure I used “By god” instead of “I swear” and “Mom-Dad” instead of “my parents”.
If you read the first few pages of Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk, you feel the place might as well be London as Cairo. This is perhaps because most of his early works were translated by teams—someone would translate it literally, someone else would correct the grammar, and yet someone else would Anglicise it for a global readership. The work that kept coming to mind when I visited Egypt was Alaa Al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Bulding. It was translated by Humphrey T. Davies, who has been based in Cairo for decades.
Q10. Can the art of translating be taught? If so, what are the significant landmarks one should be aware of as a translator?
A translator is really a writer who is fluent in more than one language. I don’t believe writing can be taught. Perhaps one can find the tools to be a better writer, but it is also an instinct, a flair. One can always tell which translators are creative writers in their own right.
If you’ll forgive yet another analogy, I might liken a translator to an artist who is creating a portrait. One’s craft must come into play, but the artist must not encroach into the territory of the creator of the original. He cannot make the model’s nose sharper, and cannot afford to miss a single sinew. The artist may be Picasso, but this is not his palette for expression.
Often, translations fail either because the translator is not a writer or because the translator is a writer whose footprint contaminates the original author’s.
A case in point is Salma, whose novels and poetry in Tamil have not been done justice in English. Many of her translators focus on the “shocking” aspect, without contextualising her work within their milieu. The shock value is incidental to Salma’s craft. It is also a pitfall to see her work through the prism of one’s own politics, of gender or religion. It would be far more important for the translator to ask himself: “Can the reader hear the language of a Tamil Muslim household?” “Should I say ‘death’ here or retain ‘mowthu’ or use the uncorrupted Urdu original ‘maut’?”
Q11. Do you think there is a paradox of faithfulness to the source text versus readability in the new language?
No. I think poor translations exist because most publishing firms sacrifice literary value at the altar of profit margins.
A skilled translator will find ways to make any sentence work. If you think about it, even books written in English but set in a milieu where English is not spoken contain the dialogue in translation—such as Junot Diaz’s entire oeuvre and a fair bit of J M Coetzee’s and Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills. An example that comes to mind right away is a line from Amit Chaudhuri’s Freedom Song, where two friends are speaking to each other:
‘You should get a walking-stick, Mini,’ said Khuku. ‘It’ll be much easier for you. Your leg,’ and in Bengali the words ‘tor pa’ sounded so affectionate, as if she were referring to her leg as if it were her daughter, ‘won’t have to take the weight.’
I remember reading this when I was in college, and thinking “If I ever have to translate the phrase kaadhal-kathirikka, this is what I will do.” Google Translate will tell you I’ve written “love-eggplant”.
We’re fond of repeating received notions, like “English can never have the beauty of the mother tongue” or that the elegance or poetry in prose is lost in translation, without analysing them for truth. As someone with no real “mother tongue” and a passion for languages, I feel English is the most beautiful language I know, because it absorbs something of every other language I learn—it is my home, which somehow accommodates souvenirs from around the world.
Q12. What are the translated texts you uphold as the gold standard in translations? Who are the translators you admire?
My favourite translator is Vikram Seth—he translates not only between languages, but between genres and disciplines and art forms. Who else would marry music and calligraphy and poetry (as he does in The Rivered Earth)? His Three Chinese Poets, from which I recently read poems, is a revelation to me—he dismantles and reassembles poems to stay faithful to rhythm and sense and imagery. He seems to be my gold standard in everything, no? J But we had poems from Beastly Tales when I was in Class 6 and 7, and I can never forget “Neither stones nor prayers nor sticks/Insults or complaints or bricks/Stilled the frog’s determination/To display his heart’s elation.”
In terms of translated texts I admire, I thought Aniruddhan Vasudevan achieved the near-impossible with his translation of Lara Fergus’ quite stunning My Sister Chaos. He translated it into Tamil as Izhappin Varaipadam, and the sections I read were just as stunning. Mr Kalyan Raman’s translation of Ashokamitran’s Manasarovar carries all the heartache and intensity and ethereality and complexity of the original.
I’m not sure it would be fair for me to speak about translated texts whose source language I don’t read, but I enjoyed Srinath Perur’s translation of Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar-Ghochar, Rimli Bhattacharya’s translation of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Aranyak, Arunava Sinha’s translation of Sankar’s Chowringhee, all of Maureen Freely’s translations of Orhan Pamuk, and all of Howard Goldblatt’s translations of Mo Yan.
Debut novelist Megha Majumdar has had a dream start to her literary career with A Burning. It is about a young Muslim girl called Jivan who is arrested for a “terrorist” attack on a train. She is accused of planting a bomb in a train. The novel moves fairly rapidly while Jivan’s world is explored. It consists of her elderly parents and the motley crew of people learning to be actors. Her parents moved to the city after being displaced from their land by greedy politicians and land mafia. Of all her acting companions, it is the hijra Lovely, who befriends Jivan and is convinced she is innocent. The others in the novel are her former physical instructor at school, PT Sir and the lady politician, whose star is in ascendance. At the beginning of the novel, the cast of characters are presented as ordinary, well-meaning citizens, going about their work. But as the events begin to unfold, everyone is affected not just personally but also in terms of their future. At times, like the political baptism of PT Sir seems to be a sheer coincidence which rapidly influence his daily life. It happens against a backdrop of lynchings and the rabid communalisation of society. It is terrifying. So much so that literary critic Ron Charles, writes in the Washington Post, “In Majumdar’s sharp telling, the courts are a spectacle of paid liars, the press trumpets an endless din of scandal, and the poor are routinely exploited. And through it all, politicians demonize their opponents and promise that salvation is just one election away. Fortunately, all this takes place on the other side of the world and has nothing at all to do with us.” Precisely. Many of the events referred to in the novel have parallels to real events. This is the new age where democracy seems to be floundering and rabid fundamentalism is on the rise. A Burning is extremely well written but there are details that jar, and they would not have stood out if such fantastic literary talent was not on display. For instance it is inexplicable why does a Muslim girl have a Hindu name? It has been received extremely well by critics, worldwide.
A Burning is a brilliant debut. A strong voice. Her second book, preferably a collection of essays, would be worth looking out for.
A man without rights in this world is still entitled to love.
Award-winning author Aravind Adiga’s Amnesty is set in Sydney, Australia. It tells the story of an illegal immigrant, Dhananjaya Rajaratnam aka “Danny”, who came on a student visa four years earlier but stayed on. Now he earns a living as a cleaner. The action of the novel takes place in less than a day after he realises that one of his former clients, Radha Thomas, has been murdered in her apartment. He is in a pother wondering what to do. He had been on pretty good terms with Radha and knew her secrets quite well such as her long time affair with fellow-gambler, Dr. Prakash. In fact Danny has often accompanied the two on their gambling sprees but only as a companion. Danny was not a gambler. He was also a teetotaller. Two facts about their Cleaner that mystified Radha and Prakash and yet they invited him along.
Amnesty is about Danny in a fix. He is an illegal immigrant in Australia. A fact that many, even his girlfriend, are clueless about. But Danny has learned to survive in Sydney. His predicament on the day Radha Thomas is murdered stems from his quandary about telling the police about Radha and Prakash and coming to terms with the inevitable repurcussions of revealing his presence in the country. It is a horrendous situation to be in as he left Sri Lanka for better pastures given the civil strife. He is also ridden with guilt as his father had managed to collect the handsome sum of over $11,000 Australian dollars to pay for Danny’s education except that Danny chose to stay on as an illegal immigrant. There is so much rushing through Danny’s mind while living in the present. Having occupied this grey area of Australian society where he is visible and yet invisible enables him to observe much more than he lets on or will ever tell. As an immigrant of South Asian origin he is able to witness the incredibly well-defined social structures of society where the whites dominate and is evident in the layout of Sydney’s neighbourhoods. Given his profession as a cleaner, Danny is able to flit in and out of homes, even in the poshest neighbourhoods, and gets a sense of how much variation there is in the quality of living amongst different sections of society. It also fuels his aspirations of being a legal permanent Australian resident rather than return to Sri Lanka. The very thought of returning home is a depressing thought.
In Amnesty the first person narrative is delivered most often as short monologues. At first it is a fascinating literary technique to employ as it helps plunge the reader immediately into a very personal space — Danny’s mind. But with every passing minute it begins to rattle the reader as this flood of memories intermingled with the rapidly unfurling events of the day, is a heady emotional cocktail for it is relentless, unnerving, disconcerting and suffocating. It is as if Danny has neatly co-opted the reader into his quandary. It is disturbing for this is a situation unique to Danny and Danny alone. Unlike with literary fiction where much of the reading experience is completed by the reader’s engagement with the story, here it is a terrifying space to inhabit where the reader is privy to Danny’s every thought and action. Helpless in being unable to guide Danny is an unpleasant prospect for the reader but it is nothing compared to what Danny is undergoing where his internal moral compass strongly suggests he needs to reveal all that he knows to the police but it will inevitably mean deportation to him. It is this fickleness of life and to a certain degree what he construes as unfair that keeps him unsure about how to proceed. Amnesty stems from the Greek word, Amnesia, which is also a play on Danny’s convenient forgetfulness about the visa he used to enter Australia. Yet this one day is critical in his life for it unravels his grit and determination to stay on in the country as he battles his inner self for figuring out what is the right thing to do — share the information he has about the crime committed or not. Ironically it is an amnesty he strikes with himself before taking the decision he makes.
In a sense Amnesty can be construed as a literary recreation of the Stockholm Syndrome which is a psychological response of the captive to align with their captor during captivity. Danny is the illegal immigrant who fears deportation to Batticaloa, the distress in the homeland in his mind is far worse than skulking as a persona non grata in Sydney. The “captivity” of being an illegal alien in a foreign land is infinitely preferable to home. In fact Danny is constantly assessing people by their legal right to live in this city. But he is gripped with worry when confronted with the murder of Radha Thomas. And the drama plays out slowly like a Greek tragedy in the classical one day cycle to figure out what Danny will do. It is very much a modern novel with its global theme of the status of migrants. Literature is able to say much more bluntly that journalists are unable to do or are choosing not to do. Fiction is able to take deep dives into the personal and give a face to the tragedy. Migration stories in journalism present a story that can then be used to influence or change government policies. Literature like Adiga’s Amnesty, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West keep such uncomfortable conversations alive. They are relevant. They are also an assertion by the South Asian diaspora to use their position in the global literary landscape to be heard.
Adiga seems to subvert the Australian literary fiction canon which is very focussed upon its preoccupations by preferring to show the subaltern’s view of Sydney society — a perspective that is Adiga’s literary trademark. In this case, it is the perspective of the South Asian immigrant trying to find a foothold in Australian society while navigating all the tricky socio-economic spaces. Adiga gives a voice to the minority that is not easily visible in mainstream Australian literature; not to say that literature by the diaspora is not making waves in Australia. It is. There are moments in the novel that may alienate the reader for its minute description of Sydney’s streets. Detailing the local landscape does make the head spin but it also helps in aligning oneself with the confusion that must be prevailing in Danny’s mind. Definitely not easy to read but by having a writer of Adiga’s calibre and literary clout speak of these daily preoccupations in his latest novel will most certainly impact contemporary Australian literature. Wait and see.
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.
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.
Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter. In today’s Book Post 26 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks as well as bought and are worth mentioning.