Anuradha Kumar, the author of Coming Back to the City, Mumbai Stories, in conversation with Mitali Chakravarty
Anuradha Kumar has been writing for two decades and in that span of time has authored eight novels, including Letters for Paul (2006), It Takes a Murder (2013) and two works of historical fiction written under the psuedonym of Adity Kay: Emperor Chandragupta (2016) and Emperor Vikramaditya (2019). She also writes for younger readers, and contributes to Scroll.in, Economic and Political Weekly, thewire.in, theaerogram.com, and other places. She was awarded twice (2004, 2010) for her stories by the Commonwealth Foundation, and has received awards from The Little Magazine and Hindu-Goodbooks.in. Recently, she has brought out a novel, Coming Back to the City, Mumbai Stories. In this exclusive, she tells us more about her journey as a writer.
You have written eight novels and children’s stories/books. How many years of your journey as a writer does that span?
About two decades. I’d my first collection of short stories out from Writers’ Workshop in 2002. What I remember is the lovely handwritten note Prof. Lal (who set up the workshop) sent me in acceptance of my manuscript; that, and a translated copy of his Avyakta Upanishad. I sort of remember what he wrote in that note. For a long time, those words encouraged me. I forgot them at times, but early words of encouragement and support stand by you, especially in not so good times.
Can you tell us about your latest book, Coming Back to the City, Mumbai Stories? How did it come about? You have been living overseas, did you return to Mumbai and then write it?
I lived in Bombay for 14 years; and for eight of these years, I worked at the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), a fifty plus year old academic journal; rated highly in the world of the social sciences. I think I always wanted to write about Bombay — especially, when it became possible that I could write, and I realised that I was a writer, I could try and write about this city like so many others and in much better ways.
It began, and it’s easy to look back, with one story. Pooja’s crying by herself. It’s not so odd, in a crowded city, there are millions of unhappy people. And they have all their stories, and I first wrote that story out.
You have used an unusual format in this novel. Each chapter can stand on its own as an independent story and yet there is a common thread that bonds it into a novel. Can you tell us a bit about the technique you have used?
Yes, it works like a linked collection. The best-known example, and it’s a book I read after I had two or three stories down, called Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, and its sequel, Olive Again, where this crusty, kind-hearted, Olive appears in every story, and the book moves forward in time, and her life. Pooja appears in every one of the stories, and then so do many others. I think it’s more a book about the city, written I hope, in a way different from other books about Mumbai.
You have written children’s fiction, novels and murder mysteries. Which has been the most challenging and which, the most interesting? Which one gave you most satisfaction?
The chance to write something—and in ways easily communicable—that reflects how complicated things really are. For example, there’s a thing one of editors said about a novel I wrote some years ago, It Takes a Murder; that a murder just happens in the book, and there are other things happening, with the lives of a few people who live in that town. There were lost histories, lost romances, and a murder too in that book. A book could be a bit like life itself. I mean we like to think of ourselves as complex beings, which we are, and that we have all our complicated lives and yet we want to be understood. A book too might be like that. Even works of historical fiction, that show the sweep of history, and people’s lives in a certain moment in time might not be straightforward accounts, falling into a certain genre, but something more, something that blends genres. I was trying some of this in my historical fiction.
You lived for a while in Singapore. Did that impact your writing? Have you written about Singapore? Please elaborate why or why not?
Yes, for two years and a bit more.
As a matter of fact, Zafar Anjum published some of my stories as one of Kitaab’s first books, The Girl Who Ran Away in a Washing Machine and Other Stories. Mine and Abha Iyengar’s (a lovely collection) were couple of Kitaab’s first publications. And some of the sci-fi stories I wrote found a place in that. I remember at that time reading some local Singaporean writers and I was struck by the fact that there was so much of fantasy, science-fiction writing going on there.
I did write a few more — stories and stuff like — and these are all still drafts. Stories — some in the science fiction mould and some that are sort of mysteries, set in Singapore. But I do need to revisit them.
You have lived in a number of countries. Which ones are they? And how have they impacted your work?
A number of places, actually. My early life was spent in various towns in Odisha for my father worked in the government. And Delhi, Bombay, Singapore, and now two cities, two states here in the US.
I was able to write about Odisha a good two decades after I’d left it. A lot of course had to do with how I came to write, and what I thought I might write about, but it takes time, years probably for a place to seep into you. And sometimes you can only write about a place decades after you’ve left it and can even no longer come back to it.
Have any writers, musicians or artists influenced your work?
It will become a numbers game here, for there are so many: Teachers, friends, and those I’ve read, listened to. Very early on, I really loved the way Amitav Ghosh plays with time, moving from past, to present, the near future, and back to the past again, in his The Shadow Lines; how Alice Munro can convey the very nature of the relationship two people share by means of an ordinary gesture; and Patrick Modiano can bring a city alive, a city you’ve never been to, by his details of how a street looked at a certain point in time. And I love the work of historians like Carlo Ginzburg, Natalie Zemon Davis, Robert Darnton in the way they show how “small lives” and ‘little events” can literally and historically have a big impact. Writers of crime fiction like Andrea Camilleri can bring a place alive, as he does with Sicily.
In an earlier interview with Kitaab in 2013, you had said that you started writing to get away from corporate world boredom. You have a huge repertoire; do you still feel that way? Is this all a product of your boredom? Or, something else? What did you do in the corporate world?
I worked mainly in human resources (HR), and for about five years, when I changed about ten jobs. That is now about two decades ago. I remember how bored I was at work and just wrote something out. Of course, it was bad, but it made me feel good and subversive in a way. And I just went on doing this, whenever I could. It wasn’t about getting published. That very thought was laughable then. It was the time Arundhati Roy had won her Booker and there were such fine books coming out. I’d just read Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh; Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate, and there were writers Penguin India had begun publishing: Anita Rau Badami, Brinda Charry, and others.
But those were also years of discovering the internet and quite hesitantly I sent the stories out. Those early web magazines don’t exist anymore but I felt encouraged. And then I came to work for the EPW and I came back to history, a subject I’d loved all through college and university, and I met – first via the old-fashioned telephone – writers like Shama Futehally and Kiran Nagarkar, who were encouraging, and the writing went on, and every time, I pushed the envelope a little bit more. After I got my first rejections for my first novel, I just sort of became more determined, more resolute about getting this book out. It was like I had been such a failure in everything else, that I had to prove myself to myself, at least once. But then after that, and though the rejections keep happening, I never could stop.
Why did you use a pseudonym, Adity Kay, to write your historical books?
Eight years ago, when my editor at Hachette asked me to write these books, I was seen to have written more books for younger readers and as Anu Kumar, so that was one reason. The other was that they wanted to do these books, featuring ancient India’s great rulers, as something new and altogether different, so everything had to be on a clean slate, even the author’s name.
What are your future plans? What are you working on now?
I like working on historical stuff — fiction and non-fiction. There’s something immensely fascinating about the early South Asians who came to the Americas a hundred or so years ago. So, I am working on something about them.
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