Every January, India hosts the largest literary festival in the world — the Jaipur Literary festival. Founded in 2006, it gathers the glitterati of the literati in the Diggi Palace Hotel in the heart of the historical city. The festival directors are writers Namita Gokhale and Willian Dalrymple.

This year, it stretched from 23rd to 27 th January and hosted around 300 writers. Speakers this year include well-known names like Nobel laureate (2019) Abhijit Banerjee, Javed Akhtar, Madhur Jaffrey, Aruna Chakravarti, KR Meera, the controversial Shashi Tharoor, Magsaysay award-winning journalist Ravish Kumar and many more. Authors from other countries included Man International Booker Prize Winner (2019) Jokha Alharthi, Elizabeth Gilbert, Paul Muldoon, Stephen Greenblatt and Christina Lamb. More than 200 sessions stretched across five days with writers from 20 countries and literature in more than 25 languages.

Earlier, it had hosted names like Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and more big names. Subjects like climate change, the water crisis, history, economics, politics, feminism, fiction and non-fiction all came under discussion in these sessions. Even the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz that created such a stir in India was under discussion.

Anuradha Kumar, the author of Coming Back to the City, Mumbai Stories, in conversation with Mitali Chakravarty

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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.inEconomic and Political Weeklythewire.intheaerogram.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?

By Murali Kamma

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The cyclist at Church Square didn’t attract much attention initially, even though he was just going around in circles. Back then, in the era before cellphones and the internet, Church Square was an unsupervised, if not a seedy, public square — a sprawling, unevenly grassy open island where it wasn’t unusual to see gossiping idlers, walkers, yoga practitioners, and teenagers playing cricket or flying kites. Occasionally, people gathered there for a raucous political rally. A cyclist was perhaps less common, but even in the case of Rama—or Cycle Rama, as he became known—it was only after a few hours that he started drawing a crowd. And the reason for that was the amazing tricks he’d begun to perform on his black Hero bicycle.

At first, when he stopped pedaling and raised his legs without losing balance, while the bike continued to move steadily, it was unclear why he was doing it. But soon, there were murmurs of excitement when the onlookers realized he was a performer, an entertainer.

The growing interest didn’t faze Cycle Rama and he barely looked at anybody. Between his acts, he continued to pedal, going around in rough circles—and then, without a warning, he built up his momentum and became a stuntman again. There were whoops from the swelling crowd, but his poker face remained unchanged. As the news spread, a cricket match on the other side of Church Square broke up and Cycle Rama became the only draw in the area. The routines he performed were varied and he did them without stopping the bike or slowing it down drastically. On that first day, his ride ended only after it became dark and the crowd dispersed.

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Cover illustration for the London edition of Miguel Cervantes Don Quixote

In 1981, Salman Rushdie’s second novel, Midnight’s Children, with its focus on Partition won a Booker Prize. And now, more than four decades later, his new novel Quichotte, due for release this September, has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2019. But this time, his book is a take-off on Don Quixote, immortalised by sixteenth century Spanish writer Miguel Cervantes and often labelled as “the first modern novel”.

Midnight’s Children was given not just a Booker Prize but also a “Booker of the Bookers” Prize (1993) with its story set around the Partition of India and steeped in magical realism. His fourth book Satanic Verses (1988) was  a finalist for the Booker Prize. However, a  ‘fatwa’ was issued against his book calling for Salman Rushdie’s death by no less than Ayatollah Khomeini  one year after it was published. India had banned the book as “hate speech” against a particular religious group.

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie

In the pantheon of literature, the best novels manage to feel timeless even as they capture a snapshot of history, from Jane Austen examining Regency-era social mores in Pride and Prejudice to John Steinbeck depicting the Great Depression in The Grapes of Wrath. But writing about the present is a delicate balance — include too many gadgets, apps and cultural reference points and your story quickly feels irrelevant.