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'Chetan Bhagat has made readers out of non-readers'

Last updated on: November 29, 2012 17:05 IST

'Chetan Bhagat has made readers out of non-readers'

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Abhishek Mande

She cringes each time authors talk about books as products and at the thought of turning creativity into something almost formulaic. Yet Anita Nair refuses to write off Chetan Bhagat and the authors from his school of writing who many serious readers disdain.

Nair has been writing novels, short fiction and poetry for long enough to know otherwise. In an email interview to Rediff.com, Anita Nair talks about the art of writing, her latest book Cut Like Wound and more.

Anita Nair is the author of several critically acclaimed books including The Better Man, Ladies Coupe and Mistress among others.

Nair's books, often set in the leafy slow-paced lives south Indian countryside, offer fascinating insights into the human psyche.

Her first novel, The Better Man published in 2000 narrated the tale of Mukundan who seeks to redeem himself as he returns to his hometown in Kerala and has been published across Europe as well as the US.

Ladies Coupe, her second novel came in a year later and through individual stories of six women travelling in a train compartment explored women's issues in a male-dominated India.

The Better Man and Ladies Coupe have been translated into 21 languages.

Over the last decade and a half, Anita Nair has written consistently and in various genres including non fiction, poetry, short fiction and children's fiction. More recently, she also turned playwright, having adapted her 2005 novel Mistress for the stage.

Her latest book Cut Like Wound however is a distant departure from her other novels in that it explores the underbelly of a metropolis -- Bangalore.

It also introduces Inspector Borei Gowda, a flawed man but an honest officer who discovers a pattern in a series of seemingly disconnected killings and seeks to get to its bottom even as he negotiates with his mid-life crisis, an ex-girlfriend, a wife he cannot relate to and son he doesn't want to at home and apathy and ridicule at work.

In an email interview with Rediff.com's Abhishek Mande, Anita Nair talks about why her latest novel is so different from the rest, Inspector Gowda and why Chetan Bhagat is not such a bad thing to happen to the Indian publishing industry after all.

As a reader, I couldn't help feeling that Cut Like Wound was vastly different from some of your other novels. It was akin to finding myself on a crowded Bangalore street after having spent a lifetime along the backwaters of Kerala. While I did enjoy that feeling quite a bit, I must ask you what made you want to write this novel. What was the trigger point, if there was one?

As a full time writer, I need to constantly challenge myself to move into areas that I am not familiar with and this book was the result of one such detour.

It was while on a book tour in Rome May 2010 that a scene occurred to me. Now, all my novels are born from a scene that I see in my mind. The same happened with this noir novel.

Once I wrote the first scene out I knew that it couldn't be literary fiction of the sort I had written until then. Since I had never ever written a genre novel before, I was very unsure how to move forward. And then another image swam into my mind, that of Inspector Gowda -- of a flawed man but redeemed by his belief in justice.

In many ways he doesn't have the freedom to be the man he wants to be because he is still quite a traditional man at heart. A family man. And suddenly I knew exactly what this book was going to be all about. It would be literary noir and would trawl the underbelly of the city and have a complex police inspector as its hero.




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'Inspector Gowda was most unruly to sketch'

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Cut Like Wound 'introduces' Inspector Gowda. Will we see more of him in the coming years? Has he told you where he might be heading next?

Yes of course, Cut Like Wound is the first novel in a series that will feature Inspector Gowda. He has been dropping some hints as to where he wants to head next but you know what an unpredictable man he is. So I will have to wait and see.

Of all the characters you've written about -- from Mukundan (The Better Man) and Akhila (of Ladies Coupe) to Inspector Gowda -- who would you say was the most difficult to sketch? Who was the most unruly of them all?

It certainly was Inspector Gowda because he was one character I couldn't put my finger on that easily. Also as a character he wasn't someone I could call from within to create. Like all of us he is still searching to understand himself and this search is not easy as his job demands an exactness and precision from him. Add to this the corruption in the system and Inspector Gowda has very little option but to fight or just float.  And his life is a battle between one state or the other.

What sort of research went into the writing of Cut Like Wound?

It took me about two years to write the novel but it was an intense two years as I researched various aspects of the novel from investigation methods to post-mortems to assembling a particular murder weapon, talking to police officers and forensic experts to reading police manuals and forensic reports.

What according to you makes for a good story?

A novel is born from an idea or a thought that tends to disturb the calm of my mind.

Very often it is probably because I don't understand it enough. And so the novel that derives from this commotion happening in my mind becomes my own exploration of that idea and trying to understand it better. This is what according to me hallmarks a good story as it probes beyond the surface and leaves a residual impression in the reader's mind.

What has been the most revealing thing you've learned about yourself in the process of narrating stories to your readers and audiences?

It is almost impossible to build a novel (at least for me) with characters whose personalities and fates are predetermined. Writing a novel is such an organic process that characters and their lives develop as I go along. I may have a very loosely structured idea in which direction to head but that is all I decide before I start work. Also the characters who begun with sealed fates often up as caricatures.

I think it is very essential for a writer to stay connected to her roots if her subject of writing is the human condition. A writer of fantasy or science fiction needn't necessarily have to have a clear understanding of specific culture or living patterns. But it is crucial for a writer who writes about human drama to be knowledgeable about the settings the drama is to be laid out on. 

And so I think the most revealing thing has been that I keep an open mind.




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'I have never lost a manuscript; I still write by hand'

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Could you please do explain how you manage to be prolific not just in the themes you explore but also the genres you write in? What genre challenges you more than the others and why? 

I am a workaholic and also as my writing gives me the greatest joy I do not see it as work and instead go to it with the some eagerness that I had when I first discovered my voice.

However I am also someone who tires doing the same thing very easily. Hence to pump up the adrenalin I tend to experiment with themes and genres. But the only genre novel I have written is Cut Like Wound which defies the conventional noir canon.

On the one hand it has all the stylistic elements of the literary novel. On the other hand it is governed by the hallmark of noir writing. Unlike The Better Man, Ladies Coupe, Mistress or Lessons in Forgetting, Cut Like Wound is told in a linear fashion. It is also a novel that explores the lives of people but in an unambiguous manner. Perhaps the most essential difference is that Cut Like Wound offers social commentary unlike just another genre novel.

Cut Like Wound demanded a different approach from the rest of my writing. Unlike literary novels, thrillers are governed by time frames and action and hence it is easy to make mistakes. Pace was key as was making sure I didn't give anything away. In fact, the planting of red herrings is a fine art by itself. Also the characters had to be created with a fine pen so that they didn't seem as caricatures and their dialogues had to sound crisp and natural rather than long convoluted erudite prose.

How do you write? Are you a disciplined writer who insists on writing a particular number of pages each day or someone who just writes in spurts? What fountain pen do you use to write your first draft?

I usually sit down to write either in my study or in the dining room. The study on the first floor is where I have all my books, favourite paintings and online access. This helps me if I need to look up facts as I write. Right below the study is the dining room on the ground floor. This is my other work place as it gives me access to the rest of the house and allows me to deal with the kitchen, cooking, tradesmen etc. even as I write.

What the study and the dining room have in common is a large bay window with a view of trees and the sky. Natural light and bird song are integral to these rooms.

Yes, I use a fountain pen to write. And have different fountain pens I choose from for each book: a Parker, a Waterman and a Mont Blac. I have never lost a manuscript because of a hard disk crash because I still write by hand.

Who are your favourite writers? And who are the writers who made you think 'Hey, I have a story to tell too!'? What writers did you read while growing up and in retrospect did they have any influence on your choice of career (and education since you have a degree in English language and literature)?

I have too many favourite authors to list. However some of them who have made me want to write are Jorge Amado, John Updike, Tom Wolfe, E Annie Proulx, Harold Robbins.

As a child and a young adult I read so much and indiscriminately that all of them did leave a lasting impression on me which is perhaps why it is hard to pigeon hole my style.




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'I prefer to write for adults'

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How do you deal with a bad review?

The trick is not to be swayed by either a good or bad review and I have had plenty of both kinds... As an artist, one has to grow a protective skin to remain untouched by what the world thinks of you. As I am human, I am delighted when there is a great review and miffed/hurt by bad or vicious reviews. Nevertheless I would be failing my art by allowing such things to change the way I write or influence me in anyway.

Would you rather write for adults or children? Why?

Writing for children was a detour and purely accidental. However the experience was highly enjoyable. The primary difference between writing for adults and writing for children is that I am very conscious about who I am writing for and hence tend to craft my writing to suit a child's vocabulary, understanding of the world and lace it with humour and a sense of the absurd to make it enjoyable.

I however prefer to write for adults because it is an unconscious kind of writing that I naturally lapse into.

Much of the '90s was spent in talking about Indian writing in English finding its voice not just in fiction but also in poetry. About 20 years hence, what would you say of that voice? How much has it matured? Or has it?

I think the voice is still maturing and it is for this reason that it is exciting. The nebulousness of thought contrasts with a firm hand and this makes it still a youthful body of literature. 

These days I find it difficult to interview an Indian author and not ask about Chetan Bhagat. It wouldn't be incorrect to say that he has almost single-handedly reinvented the Indian book publishing business. And yet he is someone that serious book readers love to hate. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon?

Well he certainly has rejuvenated publishing in India. In the last few years I have had to be part of many discussions where authors from the school of Chetan Bhagat style of writing refer to a book as a product or commodity. As an old fashioned writer to whom writing, as all artistic pursuits, is a spiritual endeavour, I have cringed at this thought of turning creativity into something that is almost formulaic.

However I don't think I have any business to judge the kind of books he writes. At the end of the day even if a writer is being read merely as a trend, I don't think anyone should look down upon that. All of us want to be read and Chetan Bhagat has turned readers of people who otherwise disdained books, I salute that.

Anita Nair's Cut Like Wound is published by Harper Collins India and can be purchased here.

Follow this link to read an extract from Cut Like Wound.

For more books by Ms Nair, click here!




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