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INTERVIEW WITH RAMESH AVADHANI BY SUSAN TEPPER

 

BORN IN BANGALORE, YOU SPENT A THIRD OF YOUR LIFE IN BOMBAY THEN RETURNED TO BANGALORE TEN YEARS AGO. WHAT PRECIPITATED THE MOVE BACK?

Ramesh Avadhani

Photo: Anita Buehrle

Bombay and its more than ten million people is a stimulating milieu for anyone young and ambitious. I was 21, married and a father to boot when I started working there. The city kept me on my toes 24/7. The crowded streets and jam-packed trains, the vibrant marketplaces and buzzing offices, even the pavement vendors and belligerent hawkers-they seemed to throw a silent question at me all the time-When are you going to make it? But by the time I crossed 35 and achieved some success in my career, everything started to get jaded. I found myself asking the uncomfortable questions I'd ignored all along-Why were my personal relationships not working? What was preventing my personal growth as a human being? Why wasn't I happy writing oh-so- clever advertising copy? I needed a calmer environment to answer those questions.

TELL US ABOUT THE WRITING SCENE IN INDIA, IN PARTICULAR WHERE YOU ARE LIVING.

I don't know how it is in our more than twenty regional languages but in English the writing scene is pretty dismal. I guess it has got to do with market economics and tastes. India has the largest English speaking population in the world, but only a fraction of that population (less than 3%) actually buys books. Reading is not actively cultivated in our children. Parents are busy running the rat race. Teachers have to handle overcrowded classes. So children are left to amuse themselves with TV and video games. Most of the books that sell are non-fiction--self-development, philosophy, health etc. The Indian reader feels she gets her money's worth from those books. Also, most of the Indian fiction writers haven't come out with captivating themes. They write about the familiar and the gloomy, which doesn 't interest the Indian audience. In recent years, only Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things flew off the bookshelves plus of course some novels by the established authors like Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, and Vikram Chandra. There are a few others like Anita Nair, Shashi Deshpande, Kiran Desai, Ruskin Bond, who sell modestly. I think Indian writers need to get better exposed to the writings in the US and UK to achieve their kind of ingenuity and craft in theme and presentation while retaining the oriental idiom of expression.

YOU'RE A STORY WRITER AND NOVELIST, WITH A BACKGROUND IN JOURNALISM, ADVERTISING AND MARKETING. YOU ALSO DO WRITING GIGS FOR A VARIETY OF PUBLICATIONS WORLDWIDE. WILL YOU EXPAND ON THIS?

I gave up a lucrative business in advertising to devote full time to my first novel. It took me ten years to come up with a story that a New York agent thought compelling enough to represent. I had some savings to fall back upon but not enough: so I started to write non-fiction for various magazines. Merce Viader, the editor of Reptilia, the leading herpetological magazine in Europe, encouraged me a lot and it was enthralling to learn and write about snakes and crocodiles. I had to visit zoos, talk to officials there, and go up close to the deadly but beautiful animals. Stephanie Wilson, the managing editor of World and I Journal, which is an online magazine of the Washington Times subscribed by about ten thousand schools in the US, supported me handsomely. She asked me to write on a variety of subjects, from saris to chilis! The poet and fiction editor Henry Israeli of Dragonfire, the online magazine (now defunct) of Drexel University, was the first in the US to appreciate my fiction. I have recently started writing for Luke Martin of The Veterinarian in Australia. Veterinary Science is a fascinating subject but in India, one of the largest cattle owning nations, it is sadly much neglected. I hope my writings can contribute to correcting that situation! Writing for these magazines helped me gain confidence for writing the novel. I would go so far as to say that all aspiring fiction writers should periodically delve in nonfiction writing: acceptances are quicker, you get paid, and it buoys up your confidence levels. And what you learn while researching topics will come in very useful in fiction writing.

PLEASE TALK ABOUT YOUR NOVEL AND THE PROCESS OF WRITING IT.

I knew I had a solid plot, about a nave Brahmin boy who runs off with a sexy but older Catholic woman and the tribulations the mismatched couple faces, but I had a terrible time deciding on the narrator voice-whether the story needed two narrators or just one. The original story had three points of view-- the Brahmin's, the Catholic woman's, and the author's-with a lot of back and forth play in chronology. I was myself unhappy about how the story read. I decided to eliminate the woman's pov but kept the to and fro chronology. I sent the novel to an established author, Richard Lewis, whom I met on Francis Ford Coppola's online commune, Zoetrope. Richard emphatically suggested that I make the chronology linear. So another rewrite. This time I felt I had done it and started submitting to agents. But one of them read the first ten chapters of the novel in October last year and couldn't go further. The jolt of change of voices was too much, he said. It took me seve ral months to come around to seeing sense in his reaction and I had to again rewrite with just one narrator voice. This time I was absolutely certain the story worked. The agent agreed. He said that all his readers found the novel witty, entertaining, and charming. He signed me up last month. The novel is about 76000 words long. I believe that a majority of readers can't take in more than 80 or 90,000 words however well the novel is written. These are impatient and distraction filled times; it's foolhardy to pretend we don't have films, tv, and the internet.

I BELIEVE YOU ARE NOW WORKING ON A SEQUEL? DO YOU ENVISION A SERIES?

I have material for two more novels involving the Brahmin protagonist. The stories see him tackling more challenges as he grows into middle age. I have talked about this with my agent and he has given me a tentative nod but both of us also know that a nod is necessary from whichever publisher buys the first novel. Let's see what happens.

WHAT IS YOUR LIFE LIKE IN BANGALORE?

I go for a long walk every morning on the road that curves past India's premier law school. The eucalyptus, tamarind, and neem trees on either side are like loyal friends who whisper tantalizing secrets to me. Then, after a breakfast of traditional south Indian snacks in any one of the four restaurants in the neighborhood, I sit down at my pc. My writing is spasmodic, in bursts of fifteen to twenty minutes, and lasts from ten to five. In between, I visit my aging mother for lunch and listen to her talk about the old days-it's so much free fuel for my fiction! In the evening I watch nature programs on TV, chat up friends and shopkeepers in the neighborhood and read something or the other. I look forward to writing assignments that take me out of Bangalore-I believe one should travel alone to soak in the flavors of a new place. I rarely go to parties or functions; I find them stressful. I need to be calm to manufacture the stress that I put in my stories. On the whole, you could say my life is pretty predictable. Maybe in the future, to write more novels, I'll need to upset this predictability.


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