‘Young readers are as rigorous and demanding as older ones, if not more’: Anuradha Kumar

Anu_kumarAnuradha Kumar is one of those rare writers who straddle the worlds of writing for children and adults with equal ease. Today, when the publishing market is competitive and segmented and subdivided like never before, finding success in more than one genre is not easy–and the fact that Anu sails successfully in more than one genre is a testament to her huge talent. Yet she started out without much ambition, as she mentions in this interview with Kitaab. “I started writing stories when I found myself bored in the corporate world, then submitted these to online magazines and then I just wanted to do more,” she says.

Anu’s first book was In Search Of A Raja And Other Stories published by Writers Workshop. This was followed by The Dollmakers’ Island and Letters for Paul. Her most recent novel is, It Takes a Murder (Hachette). In between all these novels, she has published many successful books for children. Eminent author and scholar Pankaj Mishra has described her as a writer to watch. Read this interview and you will know why.

How and when did you start your journey as a writer?

Around a decade ago, but I wish it had been earlier.

I started writing stories when I found myself bored in the corporate world, then submitted these to online magazines and then I just wanted to do more. And more.

Before that, I never did think I could write anything beyond school essays and stories for the school magazine. It seemed such an inconceivably audacious thought. When I read history in college and later, I was more conscious of the fact that I wasn’t one of the bright ones in the family, for I had shown neither knack nor ambition to study engineering or medicine, like all my cousins and a sibling. I would have loved to go on and do research work in history but decided to take the management exams, and it was thus quite a convoluted route to the world of writing, I took all the forked paths that led here.

it_takes_a_murder_cover-190x300From children’s books to a crime novel for adults (It Takes a Murder). How did you manage this transition?

My first book was a collection of short stories that Writers’ Workshop published in 2002. I went on to write a novel after that, the manuscript was read by Shama Futehally, Pankaj Mishra and Kiran Nagarkar too read some parts. They were so wonderfully kind and generous and I learnt a lot from them, especially Shama Futehally who died before ‘Letters for Paul’ appeared in 2006. Mapin published it and it did get good reviews. I did a kids’ novel after that, a historical fiction one called ‘Atisa and the Seven Wonders’. Am not really sure why this children’s writer tag should cling to me. Not that I mind it but wouldn’t ‘writer’ be simpler and far more appropriate?

Why did you choose a crime story for your latest novel? Or was it the story that chose you?

‘It Takes a Murder’ is actually a work of literary fiction, so the murder is one of several incidents that happen in Brooks Town and how it impacts and shapes other stories in the book.

Yes, I knew a place like Brooks Town, a place I had to get out of my system and of course writing about it didn’t help but at least it made for stories that had to be written about.

I may as well have you know that my previous novels for older readers, ‘Letters for Paul’ and ‘The Dollmakers’ Island (Gyaana Books 2010) involved crime in some way. In the first one, a girl becomes the tragic victim of an acid attack in a small town in India and there is also an unexplained murder that dates from an earlier period but it shapes all that Aditi, the protagonist, imagines and experiences in the book. ‘The Dollmakers’ Island’ has a more surreal crime, in that the narrator of the book, a woman called Leela loses her ‘voice’ and this allows every other story, some forgotten in history to float in and out of the book. That book like ‘It Takes a Murder’ also has several stories but I think now, too many of them.

What is more challenging? Writing for children or writing for adults? And what is more satisfying to you as a writer?

Both really. My fiction and non-fiction for young readers is mainly historical so one has to be careful and detailed with the research. Young readers are as rigorous and demanding as older ones, if not more. I love writing stories set in the past or those where I am able to have the reader involved in unravelling the puzzle. ‘The Dollmakers’ Island’ was one such experiment, and maybe I didn’t really succeed, because readers especially older ones like a story to be ‘explained’ to them, in fairly uncomplicated ways and of course I am a reader myself!

What are you working on now? Will you keep writing for both adults and children in future?

Yes of course, I hope I continue writing for both.

Am working on something commissioned and also on a long neglected manuscript which I hope will see the light of day like ‘It Takes a Murder’ just did. I finished this Murder book 5 years ago and let it sleep. Maybe it slept for a bit too long for I looked at it again only towards 2010 or so, and by then the book had changed, so had I, and perhaps the time was right to begin working on it. Books are like that, in many ways. You have to carry the idea, the thoughts and even the book itself in you for a while before you feel it’s ready to let go.

You are based in Singapore now for sometime. Will you write something set in Singapore or your books will always be set in India?

I’d like to, and yes have worked on something. And then there are old manuscripts I haven’t quite discarded yet with stories set in India.

Am a bit diffident though. The other day, I met a writer who told me one could only write about a place one has stayed in for at least five years. I found that demarcation strange and hard to follow. The real Brooks Town was a place I stayed in for just three years or even less, and a writer or anyone will have her own different way of seeing the world and things. Its why we read, we make friends, or do anything at all, and being rootless also means you find a home somewhere. Being a writer also means, as I have hopefully learnt from other writers, is that you can’t really think of borders first. What matters is how you tell the story, you’d know this too, right?

How do you find the writing scene in Singapore?

I am not sure how to answer this (smiles). Well for one, writers are wonderfully supported by institutions such as the Arts Council and the Books Council. I have found the Books Council headed by Mr. Ramachandran very supportive and encouraging, and they have invested a lot in every way in children’s literature. But a writing scene to be vibrant needs readers to challenge them in every way, and this is a universal issue really. For little is invested in literature and the liberal arts by and large, so a reader is then unable to learn for herself what good writing and literature is all about, and the kind of books that will get written and published will then depend on the kind of reader you bring about. Very many readers will want a quick racy read, because we have lost the time that is necessary to invest in a different kind of book and that can only be a pity.