[Issue 9 / May 2014]


By Kulpreet Yadav

Mahesh RaoMahesh Rao’s first novel The Smoke is Rising (Random House India) was released in April 14. His work has been shortlisted for the 2013 Bridport Prize, the 2012 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and the 2010 Zoetrope: All-Story Short fiction Contest. He lives in Mysore. This short interview was conducted over e mail.

Kulpreet Yadav: The Inspiration for writing The Smoke is Rising? And why do you think readers should read this?

Mahesh Rao: Living in Mysore, thoughts of RK Narayan’s Malgudi are inescapable, and I began to wonder what Malgudi would look like today. What would the contours, characters and conflicts of such a place be in the 21st century? Through numerous drafts, this eventually led to the novel in its current shape, set in Mysore. Many of the novels set in urban India are centered in Delhi, Bombay or Kolkata, but our smaller cities are also experiencing massive growth.  This is a novel about what that might mean, leavened, I hope, by its satire.

I think readers should read this book because the minor characters include a sharp-tongued librarian, two gossipy public sector bank officials, a self-important local newspaper editor and a Kannada cinema star.

KY: Writing short fiction before attempting a full-length novel, how has it helped?

MR: It was the other way around, in fact.  I only attempted my first short story after I had finished my novel.  I have always loved reading short fiction but knew how difficult and unforgiving it could be to write — the fear of the form’s compression prevented me from even attempting it, that intense pressure to justify the inclusion of every single word. But as I was submitting the novel to agents, the waiting period seemed to be a good time to try something new that would not involve the lengthy process of writing a novel. And I became strangely addicted.  There is something so compulsive about the way short fiction takes shape, a process that is intense, puzzling and painstaking. And, of course, there’s the fact that you can easily abandon it if it’s turning out be a complete dud.  It was quite a wrench to begin a second novel.

KY: The life of Uma, the maid servant, who is trying to forget her past, how tough was it to create a character like that with her life in a chawl, shared public toilets and unimaginable poverty?

MR: What made writing her character difficult was her diffidence and guardedness, rather than her economic status. What level of detail to put in and how much to leave out? She reveals little about herself and feels that forming close bonds with others in her neighbourhood will only lead to harm; as a result they endow her with a sense of malign mystery. I wanted to present an alternate view of that mystery but without laying out long sections of back story — this was a challenge.

KY: The prominence to Susheela took some of the sheen off Mala, who I thought had a more engrossing conflict to deal with, and as a reader, I had found her life more engaging. Your comment?

MR: I think to some degree it’s inevitable. I have also heard from some readers that they felt more drawn towards Uma and Susheela.  This is one of the difficulties of a tripartite story structure — that some readers will have a preference for one of the narrative arcs over the others. In spite of this, I felt compelled to put these interlaced stories at the heart of the novel. This is after all a portrait of a city and needed to be peopled by a range of characters that would reflect its realities.

KY: I have noticed your vocabulary is vast and the construction of sentences interesting. What is your writing process like? And who are your literary influences?

MR: ‘Interesting’ is a beautifully ambiguous word, but I’ll be brazen, if I may, and take it as a compliment.

Writing process: I give myself a word count a day (different for novels and short stories) and sit there till I’ve reached it. As any writer will say, there are days when you go well past it in a couple of hours and can spend the rest of the day having lunch; and then there are other days when all you can hear is the cosmic echo of the futility of your existence…and you’re still at 129.

Literary influences: almost anything great that I have read. It’s not a good idea to ask me about them since it only unleashes a stream-of-consciousness outpouring a bit like this one — Anton Chekhov, RK Narayan, Edith Wharton, Emile Zola, John Steinbeck, Katherine Mansfield, William Trevor, Shiva Naipaul, Nadine Gordimer, John Dos Passos, Richard Yates, Toni Morrison, Evelyn Waugh, Jean Rhys, James Baldwin, Margaret Atwood, Vladimir Nabokov, Hilary Mantel, Chinua Achebe, Muriel Spark, Graham Greene, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, James Salter, Rohinton Mistry, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Ondaatje…I could go on all day but I had better stop.

KY: And finally, your ambition as a writer?

MR: I was going to say ‘to keep writing’ but that doesn’t sound terribly ambitious. I would say ‘to keep writing better’ and, of course, to find a good publishing home for whatever I do write.