Fea­ture

Anu­radha Vi­jayakr­ish­nan on her de­but novel See­ing The Girl.

Friday - - Friday Contents - See­ing the Girl is avail­able at Jashan­mal book stores in the UAE, priced at Dh35

Anu­radha Vi­jayakr­ish­nan goes to the gym ev­ery night. But she doesn’t prac­tise yoga or even pack a pair of train­ers. In fact, she doesn’t even leave the house. “I go to the men­tal gym,” the banker-nov­el­ist laughs. That’s her way of ex­plain­ing why she takes time out to write po­etry ev­ery night. It’s a habit she can’t break even af­ter pub­lish­ing her first novel, See­ing the Girl, which was long-listed in its man­u­script form for the in­au­gu­ral Man Asian Lit­er­ary Prize in 2007, and pub­lished only ear­lier this year.

But Anu­radha, 39, is not your av­er­age writer. She’s a chem­i­cal engi­neer­ing grad­u­ate who later did a mas­ters in man­age­ment and found her calling in the bank­ing in­dus­try. In her day job she quickly rose to vice pres­i­dent of credit card op­er­a­tions at Citibank in Chennai, In­dia, and moved to Dubai where she’s a con­sul­tant.

She jug­gles her writ­ing and work­ing life with look­ing af­ter her two chil­dren – daugh­ter Vish­nu­maya, 10 and son, Dev­narayanan, three – spend­ing time with banker hus­band, Deep­akchan­dran, has no house-help, and claims to be a ‘fairly ma­ni­a­cal mother’. Which is why when the chil­dren are in bed and chores are done she finds time to write.

“For a long time, my col­leagues did not have a clue as to my par­al­lel life as a writer,” she laughs. “I was afraid of how I would be per­ceived as a pro­fes­sional, and a woman, in that world. I am quite an am­bi­tious ca­reer person.”

How­ever, she’s not very am­bi­tious where her writ­ing is con­cerned. “I love be­ing creative,” she smiles. She’s just not in­ter­ested in be­com­ing a best­selling au­thor. She even had to be pushed into writ­ing her first novel.

See­ing the Girl came about af­ter she joined a writ­ing group. “I had just moved to Chennai, hav­ing taken a break from work,” Anu­radha says. “I joined some writ­ing groups there, and through their en­cour­age­ment I sent off a short story in 2006 that was

‘I don’t pur­sue any­thing that is com­mer­cial in my lit­er­ary work – I save that for my bank­ing ca­reer!’

picked up by Granta for pub­li­ca­tion in a Bri­tish Coun­cil an­thol­ogy called NewWrit­ing 14.”

As a re­sult of that Anu­radha was in­vited to at­tend a Granta func­tion in Lon­don, and met many lit­er­ary lu­mi­nar­ies, in­clud­ing David God­win, the cel­e­brated lit­er­ary agent who has rep­re­sented Arund­hati Roy and ev­ery In­dian win­ner of the Booker Prize ex­cept Sal­man Rushdie.

“He read my work, which was mostly short sto­ries that I had writ­ten while I was in the writ­ing group, and he ad­vised me to write nov­els,” she says. “That was a time when there was this post-Arund­hati Roy-Booker Prize eu­pho­ria that made them take me se­ri­ously, I think. There was a lot of in­ter­est in up­com­ing In­dian voices, women writ­ers es­pe­cially. And the fact that like Arund­hati I, too, hailed from the state of Ker­ala, also kin­dled their in­ter­est.”

So, with an al­most guar­an­teed hit with David God­win’s sup­port and lit­er­ary clout, why did she de­mur? “The rea­son I didn’t go back to David was be­cause I didn’t have a con­tract with him,” she says. “He spoke about me in the press and that was how it all got blown out of pro­por­tion.

“He was more of a men­tor to me. He read my work and took an in­ter­est in it. He prob­a­bly didn’t take it up be­cause he didn’t feel it was com­mer­cially vi­able. It could also be my fault be­cause I don’t pur­sue any­thing that is com­mer­cial con­nected to my lit­er­ary work. I re­serve all my com­mer­cial in­stincts for my bank­ing ca­reer! We are still in touch, but on a per­sonal ba­sis.”

So, was that why she took so long to pub­lish her book? The an­swer is a firm no. “That is typ­i­cally what ev­ery­body asks me – why the hia­tus?” she says. “It doesn’t feel like that for me be­cause pub­lish­ing is not

nec­es­sar­ily the nat­u­ral corol­lary to writ­ing. For me, writ­ing is not a com­mer­cial ac­tiv­ity; it is some­thing I do in my spare time. In fact, it re­quired a lot of push from oth­ers for me to think of pub­lish­ing. For me, reach­ing the end of the man­u­script it­self felt like an achieve­ment as I spent sev­eral years tweak­ing and re­fin­ing the text un­til I was happy from a creative per­spec­tive.

“Fi­nally, when I was happy with the man­u­script, I sent to LiFi Pub­li­ca­tions and they were happy with it too.”

See­ing the Girl hit the book­shelves in In­dia ear­lier this year and was launched in Dubai last month.

Cer­tainly, See­ing the Girl is not your con­ven­tional fic­tion. The story of three women – a mother and her two daugh­ters – who in­flu­ence each other (‘dan­ger­ously’, says the blurb), the reader will be at a loss to slot it into a genre. It’s an en­gross­ing tale of a fam­ily, Janaki, Leela and Amma, who are all wo­ven into each other’s lives so in­tri­cately that in the end it is dif­fi­cult to cri­tique them separately. In a way, it is in the form of look­ing at truth from dif­fer­ent points of view. The lan­guage is lu­cid, and Anu­radha has the ca­pac­ity to make us see hu­mour even in pathos.

It was a nat­u­ral leap from short sto­ries to a novel, but she hes­i­tated to com­mer­cialise it. “I used to pri­mar­ily write po­etry and short fic­tion – peo­ple egged me on to write this af­ter read­ing my short sto­ries,” she ex­plains. “I was cut­ting off my sto­ries at a point when they felt they were sup­posed to go on – the char­ac­ters de­served longer lives. I, too, felt that but I liked to cut off at that point.

“Short sto­ries and po­etry are dif­fi­cult gen­res to place com­mer­cially; nov­els are much eas­ier to sell. But that was not my per­spec­tive at all – it was just the creative sat­is­fac­tion of writ­ing. Some of my well-wish­ers pointed out that some of my sto­ries could have been stretched into nov­els. Like See­ing the Girl. Ini­tially it was born as a very short short story! But when I thought about it in that light, it just be­gan to flow into a novel. There was no plan as such, just blind writ­ing.

“I don’t re­search. I can’t stop at a point and go for­ward in the story be­cause I don’t know what’s go­ing to hap­pen in fu­ture – it’s still in my pen. There is no plot or plan, jot­tings or guide­lines. I read about JK Rowling’s spread­sheet for her char­ac­ters in the

‘It just be­gan to flow into a novel. There was no plan as such, just blind writ­ing. I don’t re­search’

Harry Pot­ter se­ries. I don’t even make notes to guide me. So much so that some­times I even for­get what my char­ac­ters have been do­ing.”

But af­ter nine months Anu­radha had writ­ten 80,000 words and “re­alised I had ex­hausted the story”.

Co­in­ci­den­tally the in­au­gu­ral Man Asian Lit­er­ary Prize was an­nounced and friends told Anu­radha to en­ter, as they were still ac­cept­ing un­pub­lished manuscripts at that point. See­ing the Girl was one of the 15 nov­els long-listed.

“What that meant for me was a stamp of ap­proval – that my work

ac­tu­ally amounted to some­thing,” she says. “I didn’t think of it as a pass­port to be­ing pub­lished. There were en­quires from large pub­lish­ers at that time. But they didn’t work out due to var­i­ous rea­sons. One edi­tor of a ma­jor pub­lisher was will­ing to pub­lish it if I changed a part of it. But I wasn’t will­ing. I was OK even if it was not pub­lished.”

In­stead of giv­ing into pres­sure, Anu­radha used the time to go back to the man­u­script and fine-tune it.

“It was a process of sea­son­ing, so to say, be­fore it ma­tured into some­thing wor­thy,” she says. “It grew over time, not in the body and spirit, but cos­met­i­cally. I would say I made it a lit­tle more ac­ces­si­ble to the reader.

“I re­ar­ranged the nar­ra­tive slightly, sim­pli­fied it. All artists are fairly ego­is­tic. Largely you are writ­ing for your­self, es­pe­cially when it is the first time. It also took time be­cause I had a day job as a banker and as a wife and mother to two chil­dren.”

This time the book was snapped up by LiFi Pub­li­ca­tions, based in In­dia. “I was sur­prised when they

‘I feel read­ing is miss­ing from to­day’s gen­er­a­tion. My writer’s credo is read be­fore you write!’

took it up,” says Anu­radha. “I even asked them if they re­ally wanted to as they were a start-up.”

While Anu­radha was not keen to see her name in print, she’s com­ing to terms with be­ing a pub­lished au­thor. “With hind­sight there are cer­tain plea­sures to be­ing pub­lished – like when you oc­ca­sion­ally come across a reader who’s con­nected with the novel,” she says. “No amount of feed­back from peers or cri­tiquing can give you that.”

Anu­radha ex­plains why she wasn’t in­ter­ested at first in nov­els was be­cause of her first love – po­etry. “I started writ­ing po­etry at col­lege, at the age of 17,” she says. “That was also when I en­coun­tered renowned and con­tro­ver­sial In­dian poet and writer Ka­mala Das, who took me un­der her wing, cri­tiquing my po­etry.

“She was edit­ing the po­etry pages of Fem­ina, and sent off a cou­ple of my po­ems. So I was pub­lished with­out my knowl­edge. It gave a huge boost to my con­fi­dence. I had no idea I could write. We were more fo­cused on read­ing, which I feel is what’s miss­ing from to­day’s gen­er­a­tion. My writer’s credo is: read be­fore you write!”

So now she’s a lit­er­ary suc­cess, how will she jug­gle her myr­iad roles go­ing for­ward?

“I be­lieve that you don’t have to give up any­thing to do what you want to do. I am a fairly ob­ses­sive mother to two kids. I want to be the best mother pos­si­ble; my chil­dren are very im­por­tant to me and I don’t mind at all the time I spend with them and the ef­fort that goes into par­ent­ing. There are 24 hours in a day, and if you don’t use them wisely then that’s just too bad.

“If I am not worn out by the time I go to bed, I don’t feel good. I have to be phys­i­cally and men­tally ex­hausted to sleep. Five to six hours of sleep is more than enough. I don’t en­joy sleep­ing. I am a night person. I write very late in the night. This novel was writ­ten be­tween mid­night and 3am.”

It’s her drive that means she’s con­stantly writ­ing. “Maybe I am ob­ses­sive, but I can’t re­ally stay idle,” she admits. “I have to keep do­ing some­thing. On my lap­top at any given time there are 13 tabs open, be­cause I have to do many things at the same time! I read many di­verse things at the same time. My life kind of mir­rors that. I can’t just do one thing, and be just one person.”

Right now she is work­ing on two sto­ries. “They may turn into nov­els,” she says. “It’s too early to say.”

But one thing is cer­tain: they will be pub­lished. “Now I know the writer is in­com­plete with­out the reader,” she says. “You are do­ing your­self an in­jus­tice by not ac­tively pur­su­ing the pub­li­ca­tion of your work. But for me the plea­sure still lies in writ­ing, not in be­ing read.”

For that she has her po­etry. “I write at least a page ev­ery night,” she smiles. She pauses. “Po­etry is my men­tal gym – it ex­er­cises my mind.”

Anu­radha says all artists are fairly ego­tis­tic

The book was well re­ceived at the In­ter­na­tional Book Fair in New Delhi

Her Dubai book launch was a proud day for the fam­ily

Book read­ings, such as this one in New Delhi, are part of com­ing to terms with be­ing an au­thor

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