Interview: Anindita Ghose on her debut novel, The Illuminated
The former editor of Mint Lounge talks about her forthcoming novel, about being irritated by the impulses of journalism in the Twitter era, and about what’s ahead for her in 2021
Your debut novel, The Illuminated (published by HarperCollins), is out this year. What is it about?
It is the story of two women, mother and daughter, who are forced to see the world anew in the wake of a personal tragedy. The husband/father figure, a renowned architect and an all-round giant of a man around whom their lives revolve, dies on page one.
The world the characters inhabit is changing rapidly. There is a rising tide of religious fundamentalism, among other things. The two women harbour very different world views and the novel attempts to explore these tensions.
The Illuminated is scheduled to be published in July so I don’t want to give away too much but I’d say it’s a novel about perception. When the light shifts, you see the world differently.
A lot of recent books by women, from Girl in White Cotton to These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light, to Women, Dreaming have delved into fraught mother-daughter relationships with absent father figures. Why do you think this is so?
That is an interesting observation and it’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to. We’ve all grown up consuming the minutiae of the lives of middle-aged men as literature. Like the protagonist in The Sense of An Ending getting his trousers repaired or the inner dialogue of the protagonist in Desire to cite a few examples — don’t get me wrong, I love Julian Barnes and JM Coetzee. But that’s been the dominant nature of literature for a while now, hasn’t it? In the last few years, more and more South Asian writers are writing layered female characters. And when women begin to write about women, how can the mother-daughter relationship be far behind? It’s the primary relationship a woman has with another woman.
However, my book is not about the mother-daughter relationship really but about how these two women, and several others around them, respond to the world around them. I doubt any novelist wants to be part of a trend. No one spends years of their life to cash in on a trend. It is simply a happy coincidence albeit a much delayed and welcome one.
As a debut author working with a literary agency, what would be your advice to aspiring writers? How has having an agent shaped your literary journey and how, in your opinion, is the publishing industry in India changing?
I’m a big champion of getting yourself an agent. Even half a decade ago, the scene was very different domestically. You either got yourself an international agent or worked directly with a publisher. But now there are at least 8-10 Indian agencies if not more, so there are lots of options. I must confess, I often hear horror stories from my writing peers so it’s important to vet your agent and ensure you align on your vision. You want an agent who is in it to support your writing career not just making a quick commission off one book.
For me, I can’t imagine the journey of this book without Hemali Sodhi of A Suitable Agency, which represents me in the Indian subcontinent. We were acquaintances but we got seriously talking at the Mountain Echoes festival in Bhutan in August 2019 and she became a champion of my book even before she knew she was going to start an agency. So when the time came for it, I followed my instincts and went with her.
In the book, Tara is a Sanskrit scholar while Shashi is immersed in philosophy. Having studied linguistics yourself, did that come into play while shaping these characters? What were the books you imagined your characters would be well acquainted with?
I have a Master’s degree in linguistics but I never studied Sanskrit formally. An interest and immersion in both the poetry and mathematics of language is common to both. Since my characters are rather scholarly in their inclination, I decided to read everything I thought they would be reading. So for Tara, I read a lot of Bhartrhari and Bilhana and Kalidasa in translation — she would be reading them in Sanskrit though. And for Shashi, Hegel and Sri Aurobindo. As a result, I hadn’t caught up on new books in the last few years at all! I’m reading them all now.
In what ways has your experience as a journalist and editor helped in developing your fiction?
It hasn’t necessarily helped except that it taught me how to respect deadlines.
In fact, being an editor was often detrimental to drafting because I would constantly self edit. I frequently fantasized whether it would have been more pleasurable to write fiction had my day job not involved writing and editing. Like, if I was a banker or an architect, would I be welcoming the chance to work with words at the end of the day?
Fiction demands an entirely different approach and sometimes the rationality and urgency of journalistic writing can come in the way. I know it’s romantic to say I woke up at 4 am to write but my daytime attention had to be devoted to the jobs I held so I would write from midnight to 2 am whenever I could and through the day most weekends. That way, I had some sense of a shift from one to the other.
I’m quite irritated by the impulses of journalism in the Twitter era, which is so much about a “this or that” culture, so much about virtue signalling and sparring with people who don’t wholly align with you. I feel fiction has the opposite impulse, to inhabit characters without judgement.
You were also a Hawthornden Fellow. How did your experience at a writing residency shape your book and would you recommend the same for other first time writers?
Oh, it was a transformative experience. I always thought writing residencies were pretentious. Any writer knows that actual writing happens in your pajamas in solitude under extremely unglamorous circumstances. But Hawthornden was important for me; it completely upended my daily routine and forced me to look at everything differently. It was five of us and the administrator (who is a poet himself) and the cook (who is a cookbook author herself) isolated for a month in a medieval castle with poor internet and the rule of silence between 9 am-6 pm. You don’t picture that kind of thing very often, do you? The castle grounds were stunning with deer and beautiful birds I couldn’t name. I took long walks, long bubble baths, went to the local bar once a week to check the status of the magazine I edited, but I still managed to go from 50% to 90% of the novel in my time there. It was the most productive one month of a five year journey. I would very much recommend a residency if one has the opportunity and kind bosses who’d give them leave.
How has the pandemic altered your reading and writing schedules?
I finished my first draft just weeks before the lockdown. It felt like a cruel joke because I’d been desperately trying to carve out periods of isolation for the last couple of years, then I got done, and the whole world went into isolation. I felt like I had been in preparatory mode. As for right now, the diminished social life makes for good, uninterrupted reading time.
What would you wish to write on next? Any genres that you would like to experiment with in your next literary venture?
I’m at the starting stages of my next work of fiction and also writing my first screenplay, which has been a whole new experience for me, exploring a different kind of skill set. It is a collaboration with two New York-based writers and an international producer and filming will begin mid year. Yes, I’m looking forward to 2021.
Simar Bhasin is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.