As part of our efforts to bring our programming to more people around the world, SAJA is increasing our use of webcasts. You can listen live via the web or by calling into a NY phone number. You can ask questions via an online chatroom or live on the air, via the phone (you can call from a landline, cell, or VOIP). You can find a full schedule and listen to archived, downloadable recordings at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/saja
One such chat was with Manil Suri, author of "The Age of Shiva" (see our earlier coverage, including publicist info). On Friday, Feb. 15, I spoke to him for an hour about his books, his writing and various other topics. You can listen to the discussion one of three ways: By hitting play in the player below; by downloading the MP3 version; or by going here.
We are also providing some notes from the discussion for those of you in a hurry. Many thanks to SAJAforum's newest contributor, Lakshmi Gandhi, a student at the CUNY Journalism School, for providing the notes below (the numbers are the time code in the recording, you can forward to listen that particular section). Depending on the feedback we get, we will be doing more. And please post your comments below.
NOTES FROM... SAJA AUTHOR CHAT WITH MANIL SURI
By Lakshmi Gandhi
Manil Suri said critical reaction to his novel in India (3:23) was positive.
The thing is that with Indian audiences they're going to get all of the cultural references and they can really dig deep into the novel. Because there is a lot in there for people who really are from India or have an Indian background, and so that was great because there were some critics who really understood each and every thing I was trying to get across and put it there in the review.
Suri spoke about the growth of the Indian publishing industry and the surging popularity of English language novels (4:07). See our previous coverage on the Indian publishing industry here:
...happening is very interesting in India because there's been such an explosion in the number of readers that the stakes have risen considerably. When the "Death of Vishnu" came out, I was talking with David Davidar [author of "The House of Blue Mangoes" and former publisher of Penguin India] and he said that there were 5,000 copies sold of "the book of the year" the year before. So you know, the biggest bestseller would sell 5,000 books in the whole country. And now I was talking to somebody from Penguin and they said that they routinely publish 50,000 copies for a number of novels."
He described his new book as a coming-of-age story of a teenage girl in a newly independent India (5:18):
The story starts in 1955, although there are flashbacks to the partition itself. And it is the story of India, in a way. But it is also the story of Meera whose only about 17 years old at the beginning. And she's making her way through this very male-dominated landscape of India right after independence, seven or eight years after independence. This was a time that was very interesting because there were new ideas that were just beginning to emerge to challenge the prevailing orthodox view of India. and over the next several decades another thing that happened was that a religious right wing kind of political movement was developing. Where it was always a social movement but now the first seeds of it as a political movement were beginning to sprout as well. But primarily it is the story of Meera; how she is trying to make her own destiny. And in doing so she makes a lot of bad decisions. Part of the reason is that there were few real freedoms available for women back then, and there were all roles thrust upon them. And Meera basically rejects all these roles and she carves her own identity. And she finally finds redemption. Her son is very instrumental to her happiness as it turns out.
In addition to reading archived newspaper accounts, Suri interviewed some of his family members while doing background research (13:55):
My family came from Rawalpindi and so I tried to get information from, for example, from one of my uncles, who was in one the refugee camps when he came to Delhi from Rawalpindi. And he lived there for a few months. Unfortunately, not all of it helped because in his case for instance, I realized his experiences were not going to jibe with what I had in mind. So I was careful to make my refugee camp a fictional one on the other side of the Yamuna. And so that way I wasn't creating something that was going to go against what his experiences were.
The novel's themes seem to have struck a chord with audiences, Suri described a memorable exchange with an interviewer (14:55):
The one reaction I did have which was very interesting was I was in Kolkata and there was a younger, not younger - a middle-aged guy- who interviewed me. And he said "'his book really describes my own experience with my family.' His family had actually come from East Pakistan. You know, I was always thinking, ok, partition, that's the north of India because that's where my family came from. But his family was Bengali and they had also migrated. And he said that he thought it really accurately depicted how the scars of partition slowly faded over the decades.
Suri also discussed the challenges of writing about a female protagonist (24:14):
It was hard but it was also, you know, fun. It was an amazing experience. Just being in a woman's mind for all this time and being so intimate with her thoughts and even her feelings and what she felt physically in some sense. Because you have to do all this, you have to understand all these things before you can write about it. So like the first scene, which is breastfeeding, I have to really imagine, "what would it feel like to have an infant at my own breast?" And only then could I write about it.
While Suri originally intended his trilogy to represent the Hindu trilogy of Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma, he realized that the original meaning had evolved (30:00):
Initially I thought that the trilogy would really represent the cycle of destruction and regeneration in the sense that Vishnu is no more so Shiva would rise and the universe would end and then Brahma would come- he's the creator- and recreate the universe. But now, now it seems like the trilogy is more about India. Where the first book was really a snapshot of the country in contemporary times like the eighties or nineties let's say. And this book, The Age of Shiva, really shows the evolution, how did we get where we are in contemporary times from independence? And the next book is really going to try, I'm going to make a stab at the future. What could happen tomorrow? How will this story end?
A professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Suri attempts to bridge the divide between mathematicians and the general population (44:16):
It occurs to me that I have the good fortune of coming into contact with people who are not mathematicians. I mean if you are in academia and a mathematician you just talk to other mathematicians. I have this sort of in, I have this way of reaching at least through my website, the general population of readers who might be interested in my novels. So I thought it would be neat to have some sort of synergy between the mathematics and the fiction. So I've been trying to do some sort of mathematical outreach where I feel that math especially is so misunderstood, it is probably more misunderstood than India is in the West. And it's something that doesn't have to be that way. I think all of us probably have something within us, there's a book in fact that says all of us are all mathematicians. We learn to do mathematical tasks at a very early age, even infants are known to do these tasks. And so where does that go? And I feel my claim is that if you set someone down and show them some mathematics which they can assimilate and access and enjoy, then they will get something out of it.
- By Lakshmi Gandhi
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