ksatchidanand
 
SEPTEMBER 2008: SARAYU SRIVATSA
 
 
sarayusrivatsa

Q) You studied to become an architect when did you realise that you actually loved studying structures of words?
A) Actually it didn’t strike all of a sudden. When I was studying in I was writing in magazines on architecture. When I came back to India I was editing magazines on architecture, I wrote my first non-fiction book called Streets Of India. It seemed like an accident then but I later realised that I always wanted to write.

Q) You have written books that are very socio-political in context like Out Of God’s Oven
A) Actually Out Of God’s Oven happened because of the timings. It was a very topical book. India was celebrating its 50th Anniversary of Independence so it was about rediscovering an India that was changing. The Long Strider was a period book. There was variety in the topics.

Q) The Last Pretence is fiction and seems to handle an entirely different array of emotions.
A) The Last Pretence began when I was writing this book on streets. And you know, in non-fiction the structure doesn’t allow you to explore, especially when you are writing history. And I had always wanted to write about history in a more interesting and imaginative way. So when I was writing this particular chapter on Udaipur, I wrote it out like a dream sequence. I wrote out the event as if I had dreamt it. Of course the publisher edited it out. He had a good laugh and said you can’t do that with non-fiction. That is what triggered off the possibility of exploring fiction in itself.

Q) How easy or difficult is it for a woman in India to be a writer?
A) It is not easy or difficult, I think women have made a position and status for themselves. But I know what you are saying because even abroad if you remember J K Rowling wrote with her initials because she thought the publishers might not be interested if they know she’s a woman. There’s this feeling that if a woman writes crime fiction the men are not going to buy it. I was writing a book on underworld of Bombay which I had come to know so well due to my previous book. In fact, when I was in Japan I was writing as Mr. Sarayu, so somewhere I think it is embedded in our minds, our upbringing, those disappointments we have had during the process. But I do think there are so many women who have made a position and who made positions open for other women. It is true that where publishers are concerned they do think there’s a smaller market for women.

Q) It seems that although women do write non-fiction, when it comes to writing books, they tend to choose feminine topics like motherhood, domestic life.
A) Yes, simply because they are more comfortable. When you write fiction you have to very instinctive. You belong to the society, you cannot say I am liberated, I emancipated so I’ll write anything. I have grown in this society so it comes like a reflex to write about women’s topics. But I prefer to write about women and men’s problem

Q) It is impossible to be talking to Sarayu Srivatsa and not mention the legendary Dom Moraes. You have co-authored two books (Out of God’s Oven and The Long Strider) with Dom Moraes, how has the experience helped you?
A) We were working on our third book when he died. First of all we were two different individuals, him being a man, a very famous writer and disciplined writer and not only has he travelled a great deal but has immense exposure, so he was worldly-wise which I wasn’t. To things that I would get excited about he used to say, “Oh, this has been done before.” There was a certain amount of guidance.

But in spite of the differences of him being a man, me being a woman, of different age groups and coming from different social and cultural backgrounds, as an individual I was as obstinate as he was. If we were to write a book together the very fact that he was famous and established was undoing. The fact that he was established stopped him from exploring, experimenting or trying various topics.

Q) How did Dom react when this book was proposed?
A) When I had proposed this India-travel book he was unwilling as he had never co-authored with anyone before. Also it would have cost a lot of money. So then I raised the money with help of some friends and some sponsors. When the money part was over he was worried how we would manage the creative process. He was worried about what his readers and reviewers would think about writing with a lesser known writer. He also warned me that the media was going to focus on him and totally neglect me or be over-critical. But I said that was okay.

But when the entire buzz was about Dom and hardly any mention about me, it was really heartening that Khushwant Singh said that Dom was the best writer on this side of Asia, and he had finally met his match for the first time. Even Hindu had praised so it was worth the effort. It was Dom who called me and showed me those articles. So that sort of fostered me.

Q) A lot has changed since you co-authored Out Of God’s Oven in 2003 if the book was to be written now, would the India still be a fractured land?
A) I couldn’t say that it is healing and not fractured but it probably changing direction. It is still fractured but not in physicality but in people’s mind. As a nation we got invaded so many times that in the process we lost a lot that was ours. All that we are calling change is really a consumerist culture emerging only in the urban part of India. There is also an increase in the number of strikes, farmer suicides and terrorist attacks. All this is just economic change and not social change. When we began writing, liberalisation had just begun and we could see the rawness of the country.

The frightening thing about writing about this India is that it is a very superficial, economic face of India. Yes, we are marching ahead in terms of having new airports, malls etc. but what has it done for the poor? But I do accept that when any developing nation like India moves toward capitalism, this is bound to happen.

And one mistake we did in the process was, we tried to educate the women about the importance of education and family planning instead we should have educated the men because you need the pragmatism to realise that that section of society is still male-dominated. But good things are happening gradually.

Q) I am sure lots of people want to know why it took you so long to come up with this book.
It isn’t really so, because fiction takes time and I just intended to explore it to find out how imaginative I could be. I had sent the book with a friend of mine to an editor who liked it a lot. But for on the personal front I didn’t feel I was ready so I took the book back. I wasn’t sure if I had the focus and attention required for the book. It was an entirely different book dealing with the underworld and builders of Bombay. But I was not quite content.

But since I knew this life (builders, underworld) so well there was no point in calling it fiction. Subconsciously you will pick up people you know and make them characters. After working on it for four years I decided to leave it and picked up this totally fictitious character from this novel and decided to write about him.

And I am glad about this because now if I decide to write about the earlier story, my writing has become more structured and I feel I have more control over myself.

Q) I was reading some old articles where you have mentioned this episode, about two Japanese women, who questioned your being Asian, how does it feel to be longlisted for the ‘Man Asian Awards’?
A) Oh you have completely taken me by surprise. It definitely feels good to be nominated with other Asian contestants. And you know there are 11 Indians. They feel we are not Asians. I think they will notice. Our cultural and psychological make-up is very similar. We all have a string of commonality running in our rituals, customs, and the superstitions.

Q) Tell us something about The Last Pretence.
A) The Last Pretence is about Mallika whose firstborn daughter Tara dies at birth, finds herself incapable of loving Siva, except when she believes him to be Tara. Siva, eager for his mother’s love becomes increasingly confused about his gender, and his sexuality, and he is pushed into a terrible psychological condition and a tragedy unfolds.

This happens in Machilipatnam, a small town on the Coromandel Coast. A publisher friend of mine was surprised to know that I had actually never been there but only knew a few general things about the place. But in fact, has helped me weave magic into it.

Sarayu Srivatsa has written extensively on the evolution and growth of cities in newspapers and journals. Her book Where the Streets Lead (1997) won the JIIA Award. She won the Picador-Outlook non-fiction writing award (2002), and has co-authored two books with Dom Moraes: Out of God's Oven, nominated for the Kiriyama Prize, and The Long Strider. The Last Pretence is Sarayu Srivatsa’s first work of fiction.

 

 

 


 

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