Anecdotes and laughter peppered the launch of Renu Kurien Balakrishnan's debut novel, Four Aleys.
Dominated by an audience that was largely female, peppered with discussion about writing styles, the Four Aleys book launch was held in an unusual location -- a well-respected educational institution that was 145 years old.
The choice of the location was probably nostalgic. After all, it was here that debutant novelist Renu Kurien Balakrishnan has conducted creative writing workshops for nearly a decade.
The venue at the St Xavier's College in South Mumbai was packed on Saturday, November 29. The fact that most of the wooden seats in the large rectangular hall were occupied was testimony to the author's life, where she has played both teacher and animal activist in Colaba, a timeless part of Mumbai where people still know their neighbours.
As the sun set over the horizon, the pages of Four Aleys were formally opened for the first time by Renu's school friend, author Suraksha Giri. "There was never a doubt in my mind or, for that matter (in the minds of) the rest of us school mates, that Renu Kurien would be a well known, well read, well published author one day," she said fondly.
Walking through a friendship that has lasted 50 years, she shared flashes of memory that glitter through half a century...
Of a Renu who temporarily thought of becoming a lawyer, "donning a black robe and engaging in dramatic courtroom encounters. We had The Merchant of Venice as a text that year and Renu loved the drama of Portia outwitting Shylock."
Of a Renu who, even at that tender age, was considered the "poet laureate of the class".
Of a Renu as the champion of the underdog "who was known in school for taking up cudgels, whether it was for a scurvy mongrel, the weak domestic worker or an injustice".
Not that the book, for someone who shares such an easy relationship with words, was easy to write.
"Before I was a writer, I was a teacher," said Renu, "I taught for seven years. I wrote this book on scraps of paper and bits of envelope over eight years."
Much of the book -- which is about four women, each named Aley -- came out as individual scenes. They showed women who were unusually strong and were struggling to make their mark in a patriarchal society where women are generally dependent on men emotionally and financially.
What he read made him cry and "alarmed the stewardess," confessed his wife with a smile. When he returned, he told Renu she "just had to complete the book."
Connecting the scenes, and deciding which came before and which later, took more time than writing the scenes themselves, Renu added.
Hemali Kothari, who anchored the evening, let the audience in to the process.
"I first met Four Aleys six years ago. 'I started my novel,' Renu told me, 'and showed me a black notebook filled with her scribbles. Over the next few months, six more such notebooks emerged."
And Hemali thought the book was done.
"I did not realise this was the start of the first lap; there were many more laps to go. Over the next five years, I saw the story move and shake and turn and twist. Some characters were left behind and other came on board. Details were added and excesses removed."
Every time Hemali thought the book was finally done, she would discover she was wrong. Renu would find something that was not right and set about to correct it. And then, she passed on the book to friends and fellow writers. Each opinion and critique was considered. Again, changes were made.
"I am surprised Four Aleys is finally here," laughed Hemali. "I thought she would still be at it last night looking for something that was not quite right."
Publisher Renu Kaul Verma of Vitasta Publishing, who had flown in from New Delhi for the occasion, said, "From the author's note we understand she is a minimalist who does not like to talk about herself, but from the manuscript we know she is a perfectionist and a great story teller."
And the book, say those who have read it, is engrossing. "One is introduced with such warmth to the members of the Syrian Christian community," said Vatsala D'Souza, a member of Renu's book club.
Asked if the book was autobiographical, Renu's answer was an emphatic no. But she did say that there were a few influences from her childhood, particularly in the portrayal of Little Aley, who seemed to be the character she was most partial to in the book.
Anyone, she said, who had lived a joint family in Kerala in the 1950s and 1960s, would identify with Little Aley's experiences. More than that, laughed Renu, she would not say because she didn't want her family gunning after her.
Speaking fondly of her family, she said, "Belonging to a large, convoluted , multi-numbered family certainly added a lot to my experiences. I was born when my parents were too old to know better, so they let me do exactly what I wanted to. They didn't stand in my way when it came to any kind of creative spirit that I wanted to inculcate or develop."
Four Aleys is dedicated to her parents and, through them, to the spirit in which they brought her up.
"Quirky irreverence is always a part of Renu's creative temperament," says Suraksha, whom Renu fondly addresses as Su, "and there is plenty of it in Four Aleys."
You may also like to read Renu's short story: A 38-year-old woman died... just like that