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SK Das on his latest book

"It is because of my interest in Orissa's history, and more particularly, in the famine of 1866 that was so hugely destructive and yet, so transformative'' says the Luigi Napolitano Book Award winner SK Das about his latest book The Collector's Daughter.

books Updated: May 12, 2011 09:25 IST

Q. 1 What inspired you to write

The Collector's Daughter?

A. I was born and brought up in Orissa. The family lores always made a reference to the famine of 1866, which was perhaps the worst thing that happened to 19th Century Orissa.  One third of Orissa's population died in the famine and many more were left destitute.  The family lore also carried stories of the famine of how women sold their children and men ate each other.

Many members of my family had worked with the British administration in subordinate capacities during the 19th century.  So the family lores also carried the usual civil service gossip: How the British Commissioner of Orissa refused to get rice from other Presidencies or Burma and that was why so many people died during the famine. When I joined the civil service in due course and worked in different capacities, I was able to connect up the family stories with what might have happened and put it down in a fictional form.  While some parts of my book are based on history, some are the outcome of my imagination.

Q. 2 The story gives an account of the Famine that left Orissa in a dilapidated state during the 'Colonial Era'.  The period setting of the novel must have required delving into extensive research on the subject.  How did you go about it?

A. I did considerable research on the subject of the Orissa famine of 1866.  Of considerable help to me were the copies of the old journal Utkal Dipika which chronicled events of the time.  I also relied on the Report of the George Campbell's Famine Commission, and the book Memoirs by George Campbell.  Dr.J.P. Das's excellent Oriya book Desha Kala Patra was very helpful.  I also got inputs from Sir Verney Lorett's articles in Cambridge History and Sir John Strachey's book India. Another book that gave me a lot of material was a book by L.S.S. O'Malley  The Indian Civil Service.

Q. 3 Do you think reviews change the way one perceives an author?

A. Yes, I think reviews do change the way people perceive an author.  On this, I will like to quote Beckett who famously said, "What does it matter who is speaking?" Or, even Michel Foucault who wrote that beautiful piece, "What is an Author?" For Foucault, the author is not important; it is in how he is interpreted that he writes   becomes important.  So, it is the review that interprets what the author has to say and how he is perceived.

Q. 4 What made you pick this genre (Historical Fiction) for your book?  Which Indian authors have done justice to this genre of writing?

A. It is because of my interest in Orissa's history, and more particularly, in the famine of 1866 that was so hugely destructive and yet, so transformative.  It was destructive, but, it is because of the famine that railways came to Orissa, there were major engineering works in each district and minor village works as well, and there were embankments to the big rivers that turned the overflow of the river to useful purposes and canal irrigation.

Among the Indian authors who have written historical fiction, I will rate Kushwant  Singh and Monohar Mulgaonkar high, and even William Dalrymple, although I don't know whether I can call him Indian (he thinks he is one) and a fiction writer (though what he writes reads like fiction).

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