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NRI writer keeps India as mainstay of her work

Indu Sundaresan is happy to be able to affirm both her Indian and American cultural identities.

india Updated: Oct 09, 2006 18:55 IST

Indian American author Indu Sundaresan, whose novels bring 17th-century India to life in vivid detail, says her stories provide a way "to maintain a strong connection" with the country of her youth while living in the United States.

"I do have a lot of family in India, as also in the US, and that is how I define myself. I am Indian and I am American," she told participants at the Frankfurt Book Fair during a live web-chat from her home in Seattle Thursday.

Held annually in October, the world's largest literary trade fair brings together authors, publishers, booksellers, librarians, researchers and readers.

India is the "guest of honour" country this year, and the book fair is focusing on Indian literature, with speeches and appearances by authors who write in English, Hindi and several of the more than two-dozen other major languages of India.

During the web-chat, organised by the US embassy in Berlin and the US consulate in Frankfurt, Sundaresan, who came to the United States for graduate studies in economics at the University of Delaware 16 years ago, answered many questions about her writings as well as her experiences in India and America.

 
 Cover of Indu Sundaresan's novel The Twentieth Wife which has as its subject the empress Nur Jahan

"The happiest realisation still is that in the US you can be part of the society and still maintain your own ethnic and cultural identity. I am, today, both Indian and American, more effortlessly than in any other country in the world, I think," she said.

Sundaresan is best known for her novels The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses, which paint a vivid picture of the life of one of the most powerful women in Indian history, Mehr-un-Nisa, who in the early 17th century became the empress Nur Jahan of the Mughal empire.

Nur Jahan was also the aunt of Mumtaz Mahal, whose death inspired the building of the Taj Mahal.

"I wrote The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses because I was fascinated by Mehr-un-Nisa's life - the fact that she was a woman who wielded such enormous power in 17th-century India, from behind a veil, behind harem walls," Sundaresan said.

"No one else has bothered to write out her life story in such detail - and there really is a wealth of information out there in historical documents if you go looking for it, as I did," Sundaresan added.

Most of the places she describes in the two novels still exist, after some 400 odd years, and considering their age are in excellent repair, but one place that comes entirely from her imagination is the huge chess board in The Feast Of Roses, she said.

 
 Novelist Indu Sundaresan

"I made up a life-sized chess board in one of the palaces for the scene where Mehr-un-Nisa plays chess with a courtier, Mahabat Khan, and defeats him, thereby establishing her supremacy over him. The two players use "live" pieces to play with - the rooks are baby elephants with mahouts that command them to move from square to square," Sundaresan said.

However, the idea for this scene, she said comes from a life-size Parcheesi board that is engraved on the floors of one of the courtyards at Fatehpur Sikri - an entire ghost city in red sandstone near Agra, abandoned soon after it was built in the 1570s.

Legend has it that Emperor Akbar used slave girls as "pieces" and had them move from one square to another when he called out the moves.

In some ways Splendour was easier to write from the point of view of creating an atmosphere, Sundaresan said for the story is set in four days in May of 1942, and the last few years before Independence from British rule in India are very well documented.

Sundaresan believes "most Indians who leave India to live elsewhere find themselves in a time freeze - the India they know is always the India they left behind, and I do find myself constantly surprised that things have changed - attitudes, perceptions".

"But of course, there is always an evolution, I am just not in India to see it, and as a writer it is always interesting to watch and listen when I visit India - who knows, story ideas for the future, perhaps?" she said.