May-Jun 2015: In Conversation - C K Meena, Nilanjan Choudhury
C K MEENA
Novelist, journalist, teacher, newspaper columnist and happy lurker of Bangalore streets C K Meena, or CK, as she is popularly called, came to Bangalore in 1978, purportedly to do her MA Eng. Lit., but in actuality to make a bid for freedom. She never moved back to Kerala and is now among the many who remain permanently seduced by this city. She has 3 novels to her credit: ‘Black Lentil Doughnuts’ (2005), ‘Dreams for the Dying’ (2008), and ‘Seven Days to Somewhere’ (2012), all published by Dronequill, with a fourth one in the oven.
Nilanjan is an alumnus of IIT Kanpur and IIM Ahmedabad. And like many such alumni he works in the software industry in Bangalore. He claims he took to writing on account of having the “motive, means and opportunity” – a desire to write, a recession and a long commute. His first book was ‘Bali and the Ocean of Milk’, which was well-received and his second novel, which is also the first in the Chatterjee Institute of Detection series, is ‘The Case of the Secretive Sister’. Nilanjan is a keen theatre enthusiast – he has written a full-length play ‘The Square Root of a Sonnet’ and also reguarly directs and acts in plays.
On writing your first book and the influence of market trends…
NC: I started Bali much before the big wave of mythological ‘retellings’ hit the market. I wanted to do a black comedy and this book happened. It is a ‘re-imagined’ story, not merely a retelling.
CK: My first book, as the cliche goes, was dictated largely by my own experiences. I cannot write to a trend, or do sequels on demand either… it’s really what grabs you at a particular moment. I wanted to try a detective story after my first novel, so I did. The third book was again different, though people expected another detective story.
Being the Other / Outsider and how it influences writing…
NC: In a way, Secretive Sister is about outsiders (in Bangalore). The ‘outsider’ feeling is known to me – I grew up in Shillong and we were called ‘Dakars’ (outsiders) because of the anti non-tribal movement then. I think Bangalore’s the most ‘American’ of our cities! Having spent a considerable part of my life in the east and the north, I find Bangalore very accepting of all communities, even easily identifiable ethnicities. It’s like a pub, the ‘chill’ factor is significantly high here!
CK: Well, there has been conflict here too, over Cauvery water, or language. At such times you wonder: who is an insider and who is an outsider? There can be so many points of ‘unbelonging’ – religion, language, appearance, region… A group of LGBT friends called me to Koshy’s – there was a gay character in Black Lentil and they wanted to know, was it inspired by so-and-so?! All of them bought the book even though that wasn’t its focus but it was about not belonging and that is also a kind of not belonging. It was written at a time when the movement had not really picked up steam.
NC: One set of people who find it extremely difficult to ‘belong’ here are the parents of young working couples! This in fact becomes Detective Choudhury’s motivation – he doesn’t know what to do with his life; he is a complete outsider. So he decides to engage with people. Secretive Sister was thus inspired by my mother-in-law and my uncle and people in the local elders’ club – they have just given up, just like the younger lot who don’t really engage with the city. Life revolves around work, shopping, apartment, school… do you really need to engage? Well, you might have a more meaningful stay here if you do.
From an idea to a novel…
CK: My first book, I didn’t know it would be a novel. It started with the personal. When characters entered, they were you, not-you, parts-of-you, bits-of-others… slowly a story emerged. Voices become characters, and more voices emerged and more characters. My first book had 3 drafts, each vastly different. The second one was more planned – I had the germ of an idea, and I’d always wanted to try it out, a murder mystery. I had to structure it right from the beginning. I knew the end but as I went along there were changes. Sometimes as you write you catch yourself by surprise!
NC: Yes. You see a tiny little shoot sticking out of the ground and you think gosh, that looks interesting and you dig, and it turns out to be the skeleton of a dinosaur! For Bali the basic idea was ‘sagar manthan’, and then I begin to think of what could have gone before and after. The second book – there was an idea, and also the personal experience of trying to get my daughter into school! The great fun is in not planning and plotting too much. It’s magical when things just start happening – you write a line or two introducing a character and before you know it that character has a life. In Bali, a servant girl came in for one scene’s requirement and became the 6th most important character in the book! In Secretive Sister, the episode at Coffee Day with street spy Manjunath was just out of the blue.
CK: You know, your theatre background is visible in your dialogues – I can really ‘hear’ your characters speak…
NC: I started writing because of theatre, my first and continuing love. I think in terms of scenes – some readers have mentioned a visual quality to my books and I actually do see pictures as I write. My characters are on stage, as I’m writing.
CK: When one book is over – I decide I won’t think of writing for a while, and then on a sudden, an idea flashes. Something somebody says sparks it off. It combines with something in my head, and I think, could that be the next one? And I open a new file. With Black Lentil I wasn’t doing chapters, I was telling a story. Characters came in, then background and plot, and the file expanded. For Dreams I had to plot a lot before the writing could start. For Seven Days, I was thinking about these schoolchildren killing themselves, and then I heard of a parakeet who had befriended a Mumbai family. I knew that the boy wants to kill himself – so what stops him? And I thought yes, parakeet Po. My friends commented that this was just my own madness, a parakeet, of all things, telling stories – probably it was my unconscious unbound by a parakeet! If I was writing for a market, it would have been young adult fiction – YA. But Po tells adult stories. Stories about people who are far removed from the child’s world. My second book I’d titled ‘The Weekend Wife’ which was shot down. The publishers said it sounded like ‘Mallu porn’…
NC: If you’d only subtitled it so, it would have sold 200,000 copies! I took 18-20 months to write Bali, and that while doing a day job (I have to confess I have been lucky with my employers). My wife and a close friend usually read my first draft.
CK: Black Lentil, I wrote only in the 3-month college breaks; I was teaching back then. The writing was concentrated into that time – I skipped administrative duties on leave-without-pay and wrote, morning to night, it was just great! Dreams took 3 years, though by then I’d stopped teaching. Close friends read early drafts. My husband deliberately doesn’t.
The detective fiction genre… parallels, influences and demands
NC: My friends asked me if Feluda – my most favourite Indian detective – was the inspiration for Mr Choudhury, but actually it was Jatayu, Feluda’s sidekick. Mr Choudhury is my idea of the detective Jatayu would be. Father Brown is a top favourite too.
CK: One immediately sees the parallel with McCall Smith; the ordinary nature of the crime, life’s every day little mysteries. That’s the charm of Secretive Sister.
NC: Well, a murder mystery today, the amount of premeditation it entails is significantly high! I plotted all manner of exotic murders that never led anywhere. If you combine Christie, Father Brown and Holmes, between them they’ve done it all! It is so difficult to find a murder that hasn’t been done yet. Although some might say that it’s the telling that really matters, I didn’t feel good about recycling an obscure short story by some old stalwart of the genre.
CK: Dreams was really a whydunit because right away the reader knows whodunit. I got into the head of the victim and started exploring relationships – then those people became characters, and motives emerged. I enjoyed throwing in the red herrings and the twists.
NC: There was this novel called Suspect X – everybody and the reader knows the wife has killed the husband. But her neighbour, who is in love with her, he says, I will manage your problem. And he does it – and the way he does it is simply superb! Then there’s Gone Girl. It’s not detective fiction, strictly speaking, but brilliantly done crime – and the language! Once in a while you come across such a book and you think, just as well leave it to them, what is the point!
Indian writing in English…
CK: That is an old debate. Ever since I was a teen, having been convent-educated and so on, I always had a feeling of being a ‘hybrid’. I can’t really read and write my own mother tongue; its literature is lost to me. I was defensive initially, but at some point you have to accept that this is what I think in. English is an Indian language, it is my language, and I use it the way I do – in hybrid fashion! It’s the way we speak here. Syntax and grammar is fine, but there is a way that Indians speak, and that is what the Indian reader will relate to.
NC: I studied Bengali from class 2 to 12. We had a drowsy old chap for a teacher, who would give us a page to write every day and cross it in red ink so we could not show the same page the next day. I developed a great distaste for it. But we had very good English teachers. After a few years I stopped thinking in my mother tongue. But on whether Indian writers use English effectively or not – I would say they do. So many of them use it very very well. And differently from how a writer from the west does.
On publishing and reader reactions…
NC: There was huge exhilaration at first, that somebody like Harper was publishing my book. It went from contract to shelf in 1 year – in spite of a few legal issues. There was mixed feedback but overall I was happy. It’s back to reality when you realise that your book is just all in a day’s work for the publisher, who is like the gynaecologist delivering the baby! The publisher is not as excited as you are – especially the marketing team. But the best part is opinions in reviews, and even more so, from average readers.
CK: New titles are coming out everyday now. I have an idea, I have a story, I will write, and publish. That’s the stuff in the market. People are writing, and writing. Whether these books are being read, or going to be remembered, we have no clue.
NC: But there must be a reason publishers are publishing too. Even the larger publishers are churning out many more titles than before. My suspicion is: nobody really knows what will make a bestseller. What they are going after is – print 3 to 5000 copies. The author will market his book anyway and you will at least break even. With the increase in titles publishers have given up marketing, publicity, distribution… even cover design; the author can take on as much as he /she wants.
CK: So publishers now seek writers who can market, rather than writers who can write – how many on your mailing list, how many followers on FB, how many on Twitter!
NC: Well, a lot of writers today do their best to push their work. It has become a lot more money driven too – retail chains are monetising shelf space now.
Characters, Caricatures, ‘Inside’ jokes
NC: The publisher asked me, will people in Delhi understand these potshots you are taking at Malayalis, like Bose, Jolie, etc. I said some will get it and that’s good enough. If you have studied Physics you might recognise the Canonical Variables – I used those in my Bali book – I knew that the 3 people who did would say, hey, that bit about the canonical variables! I did wonder if I over-caricatured Mrs Chaddha. I knew the south Indians would chuckle over this stereotyping of north Indians. While the latter cribbed that I overdid it. I’ve tried to spread it out. I got a nice reader comment – there is a lot of taking digs but there’s no malice. I did not want to take random potshots. This is my Bangalore, a salad bowl…
CK: These ‘inside’ jokes like ‘Hootie blow the fish’, or ‘Balika Bodhu’, or Nilanjan’s ‘Father Feluda’ or ‘Lijjat Sandal’ – you have fun doing them.You trust that enough people will get it and there will be some who don’t.
NC: We’ll be dead in xyz years anyway, and in all probability without selling a 100,000 copies of anything, so we might as well have fun doing it! I’m going to be obnoxious now, and say that only when you’re really local can you be really global – one of the reasons a film like Pather Panchali is loved by so many people everywhere, is because it is so local.
Political/social influences on themes
CK: In a sense aren’t we all political animals? I am not talking about party politics – ‘being political’ is a different thing. We think about the world and have our own views about it. Fiction need not be written with a message – indeed that would be dreary – but a writer has her notions of the world, and they come to the fore. I did not have Po’s 7 stories mapped out beforehand – I simply let the magic happen. I let Po start talking, and watched what came out. It wasn’t a story, it was a slice of life. I had experienced this ‘other Bangalore’ as a journalist, I’d seen the non-middle-class side of life in great depth. Towards the end, when the little boy gets lost and runs into this doubtful neighbourhood – I’ve been there, spoken to people there, been invited into their huts and sat on the floor with the drain flowing outside. All this is at the back of your head, these are your politics. Black Lentil is a coming of age story, but also political. I started it in 1996 and finished it in 2000. It had Hindus forming an ultra-nationalist party and bombing a place with a large Muslim population. At the time, it was a somewhat bizarre idea, a ‘hindu-fundu’ group indulging in outright violence! But what happened in the early ‘90s had preyed heavily on my mind and it came out in the book.
NC: You’re lucky to have your journalist background. I led a sheltered life – it was constrained in many ways. I was not sure I could pull off a realistic first novel. And I am a fantasy buff – even the second book, though set in the real world, is fundamentally fantasy; these things don’t happen! Everything is a little Wodehousian, as a reader commented! I have neither the skill nor the life experience of an R K Narayan who can take up the gentle ebb and flow of living and make it interesting. I need colour and situations and action. And I have to depend on imagination more than anything else. I have not been to war zones, or covered slums or riots and that’s ok. I have to use what I have.
CK: Not to hold you to it but what I’m trying to tell you is there is a political self in you somewhere which is underlying even Bali – it might be fantasy but one can see the feminist side, and there’s moral censorship, and so on…
NC: Yes, and in Secretive Sister the policeman talks about the water situation affecting farmers and land being indiscriminately sold off. My father was quite political. So I guess it rubbed off.
NC: My next book is going to be straight from the heart, about coming of age in Shillong.
CK: And my next is completely different from the ones before – again! There is a brother and there is a sister. They are in two different places and they don’t know that they’re connected…