Monideepa Sahu, fiction editor of Kitaab, interviews Indian author and columnist Kishwar Desai
Indian author and columnist Kishwar Desai’s latest novel The Sea of Innocence has begun to make waves. She started as a print journalist before switching to a career in television. Kishwar wrote a play, Manto! Her first book was a biography of two Indian film stars, Darlingji: The True Love Story of Nargis and Sunil Dutt.
Her novel, Witness the Night (Harper Collins, India and Beautiful Books, UK, 2010) won the Costa First Novel Award and was long listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize and long listed for the DSC South Asian Literary Prize, among others. The story of social worker Simran Singh explored the issue of female foeticide and infanticide in India. It has been translated into over 25 languages.
Her critically acclaimed second book in the Simran Singh series The Origins of Love was published in June 2012. It examines the growing commercialisation of Artificial Reproductive Technology (ART). This has become a huge international business and a very exploitative industry, led by the medical profession trying to “help” infertile couples.
She has recently finished her third and the last book in the Simran Singh series, which is set between Goa and the UK, and deals with the brutal death of a teenager on a Goa beach.
Kishwar Desai is deeply interested in Indian cinema. She writes columns and is also a member of the Steering Committee of the International Film Festival of India. She is married to economist Meghnad Desai, a member of the British House of Lords. She lives between London, Delhi and Goa—travelling all too frequently!
Kishwar Desai took some time out from her busy schedule to speak exclusively to Kitaab.
Please tell us about your books; some anecdotes perhaps, of how they happened.
My first book, Darlingji: The True Love Story of Nargis and Sunil Dutt, was something my husband, Meghnad and I had discussed as a book we would do one day, together, as we are both very interested in Indian cinema. And, after we met Sunil Dutt, we even started planning it. However, very soon after, Meghnad became busy in the UK Parliament, and I ended up doing the research and writing the whole book by myself! The trilogy of novels featuring the social worker cum detective Simran Singh, on the other hand, was something I had wanted to write for a long time. Especially the first book, Witness the Night. It evolved out of a chance meeting with a woman who told me how she had survived an attempt by her family to kill her as a new-born baby. As a journalist I had written about female foeticide–but this woman’s story was so moving I wanted to make it into a film. At that time I was working in TV. So after writing Darlingji, I sat down to write a film outline for Witness the Night–and it grew and grew into a book. And then my publisher liked Simran Singh so much I was asked to write a second and a third.
Among your works, which is your personal favourite and why?
I love all my four books equally–as they are my children, after all! For some time I had thought I enjoyed writing Origins of Love (a novel about surrogacy) the most because it has a very complex plot —but now I find I am still very involved in the recent one, about gang rape, The Sea of Innocence, even though it was written more than a year ago and published in May, as it is has remained very topical, and has given a lot of opportunities to readers to discuss the issues raised within it. In fact, I am attending book events because of it –right up to next February.
What role does technology play in your creative life? Do you revel in holding the pen, or prefer computer programs to assist you with the more mechanical and messier aspects of self-editing?
I enjoy writing straight onto a computer, and I am afraid I have a very messy handwriting …so yes, technology has been very helpful for me!
Do you begin with a well-defined outline when you weave your novels?
I don’t have a hard and fast outline as my books tend to evolve. I do know how the book would start and how it would end—but much of the plot in my book is driven by my characters who tend to become quite dominant as the book shapes up.
Do you rely strongly on your personal observations when you create fictional characters? Do you begin with a detailed character profile, or let your characters evolve as the story progresses?
Most of the characters are fairly clear to me before I begin the book. As my fiction so far has been written like crime novels—the characters have to be well-defined—and I have to know who the ‘villain’ is –who is the ‘grey’ character, etc. All characters however, as I mentioned before tend to develop more and more as the story unfolds.
Any pitfalls of being an attractive female writer, and being married to another famous personality?
Thanks for the compliment! I haven’t noticed any pitfalls—but then I don’t think there are any advantages either! After all, writing is very hard work—looks don’t matter! Being married to a famous author means that one can be overshadowed, and I used to be worried about that—but fortunately since my books are very different from the kind that Meghnad writes—I have managed to retain my own identity.
We live in a market economy. How has that changed writing and publishing?
Well, all authors want to write books on subjects they are passionate about. So far, it has been very good for people like me. But I can see that there is a lot of pressure now ( when we see how bestsellers have been ‘created’ and ‘sold’ in India) on writers to go out more, interact with the trade and marketing personnel—which did not happen before. Social media has also become very important. All of this is very time consuming—and I suppose writers like me who want to be a little reclusive will have to try harder to learn all these new ‘techniques’. But I still hope that ultimately if a book is good, it will sell.