The Bangalore Literature Festival is an annual flagship event on the cultural calendar of Bangalore and focuses on rekindling the romance with literature and fostering fine reading and writing, especially amongst the young population of the city.
The fourth edition of this much anticipated literary festival in the country has just been announced. The Bangalore Literature Festival will be held at the Royal Orchid hotel (Near KGA) on 5-6 Dec 2015. The event is free to attend but early registration is recommended. Click here to register.
The two-day festival will feature writers from India and abroad. Open Road Review’s Kulpreet Yadav interviewed one of the prominent Indian writers, Jaishree Misra, who is scheduled to speak at the festival.
Kulpreet Yadav: You have been published across the English speaking countries. The reader’s preferences vary with geography. After choosing to settle down in India from England, did you make any changes with which you approached your writing and themes? Or you believe, like most writers, in the universality of stories & don’t factor in likely reactions of the readers.
Jaishree Misra: For the last many years, my life has in fact been quite itinerant, moving between London, Delhi and Trivandrum, so I don’t think there has been any geographical under-pinning to my writing which also moves mirror-like between these three worlds. Even my historical fiction covers the British Indian era so it’s the same territories, just exploring another time zone! Curiously, the books that were written when I was physically far away from India (‘Ancient Promises’ being the strongest example) delve far deeper into Indian culture than those written while I was actually living here (‘A Scandalous Secret’, for example). Yes, I do believe that good writing is universal and the age of the Internet has further intensified that because of easier access to distant places and readers.
Kulpreet Yadav: There has been a tradition of storytelling in your family. Your great-grandfather was a Jnanpith awardee. How did the environment at home influence your writing?
Jaishree Misra: Thakazhy Sivasankara Pillai was my grandmother’s brother and a true son of Kerala. He started his writing career while working as a young and idealistic lawyer, representing the poor fisherfolk of Haripad, and I think that was where the deeply affecting story of ‘Chemeen’ came from. Despite the fact that he was already a literary legend, I grew up seeing him as a kindly and slightly eccentric uncle whom we saw when we went to Kerala and who visited us every time he came to Delhi to collect awards or attend seminars. This probably provided me with a healthy and normalising early glimpse into the world of writing where the business of being an author carried no particular mystique. It must surely have contributed to my feeling able to take on this role without the usual burden of fear and self-doubt that besets us all at the start.
Kulpreet Yadav: You have set some of your books during the period of India’s struggle for independence & as far as I can see you have experimented with both the perspectives: Indian in the case of your novel ‘Rani’ which is about Rani Ki Jhansi, and the British in ‘A Love Story for My Sister’ where you explore the Stockholm Syndrome as experienced by a British General’s daughter who is being held captive by the Indians. Why is this period of history so important for the storyteller in you?
Jaishree Misra: Before starting to writing ‘Rani’, I had taken a deliberate decision to try turning my hand at historical fiction and the most obvious period to choose was the period of the British Raj in India. I was living in England at the time and, in practical terms, I knew it would be far easier to access the archival materials I would need for such a project. On another level, I was also struggling a bit with my own identity, having just received my new British passport. Was I now to be totally British? What of the Indian sensibility I had owned all these years? Was it possible to own a bit of both nationalities at once and not be disloyal to either? These were all the questions that were crowding my mind at that time and I now think that they fed into the novel in some ways, shaping the direction it eventually took. The character of Major Ellis (the real life political agent of Jhansi state during Rani Lakshmibai’s reign) represents that paradox to some extent as, like a lot of other East India Company men at that time, he’s as Indian as he is British and loves both countries equally. It breaks his heart to be sent away from Jhansi by Lord Dalhousie who did it to punish him for having helped Rani Lakshmibai. This became the emotional thrust of the book. I got into trouble for that, as you may know, and for showing Rani Lakshmibai as a flesh ‘n’ blood character invested with emotions, rather than the uni-dimensional martial figure so beloved of nationalist writers. The ban of ‘Rani’ in UP state was ridiculous as I draw a very admiring portrait of the kind of woman Lakshmibai must have been. So, to some extent, ‘A Love Story for My Sister’ was a response to the silliness of the ban, initially setting out to show the ‘other side’ of that bloody conflict of 1857. Again, Margaret Wheeler was a real-life 18-year-old who was kidnapped by a sowar and never came home. As in any conflict, there are inevitably losses and tragedies on both sides and this was what I was trying to show. Somewhere along the way, the novel developed a more contemporary narrative with the parallel story of Tara emerging as I could not ignore the violence that women in modern-day India continue to face.
Kulpreet Yadav: You have transitioned from being a literary writer to a more commercial one, the reasons for which you have explained in many interviews. We know it was due to a lucrative book deal which the publisher offered and you had your own reasons not to refuse it. The question is which form of writing do you enjoy more and why?
Jaishree Misra: My more natural habitat is probably literary fiction—certainly this is the genre that I read more of. Having said that, I read quite eclectically and I think most other people do too. We generally don’t like being told to either read or write exclusively in any one category and so I will probably carry on writing whatever catches my interest, whether agents or publishers like it or not! The interesting thing is that I seem to find entirely new sets of readers every time I make a genre shift. The downside being that older readers get rather annoyed when they don’t get what they expect from me!
Kulpreet Yadav: Trivandrum where you stay has the sea, whereas Bangalore boasts of gardens. As a writer what are the similarities that you see between Trivandrum & Bangalore?
Jaishree Misra: Generally the South Indian cities share a certain civility that is in stark contrast to the more belligerent and patriarchal north. But I don’t see many other similarities between Bangalore and Trivandrum, especially seeing how much Bangalore has grown and changed since I went to school there as a 14-year-old. My memory of Bangalore as a green haven seems a bit out of date now so Trivandrum might have an edge in that respect. And, yes, the sea is a huge attraction. We found a small plot right by the sea and have built a tiny studio on Veli beach—the ‘room of her own’ that Virginia Woolf wrote about so evocatively. My dream is to offer it someday as a writer’s retreat for people whose normal lives do not allow for the time and space to write.
Kulpreet Yadav: Do you have a favourite writer from India who is under 40?
Jaishree Misra: This is a very good question because I genuinely worry that most of the young emerging talent in India think they should write like Chetan Bhagat in order to be successful. Not that we shouldn’t have a number of commercial fiction writers like Bhagat drawing more and more people into the world of books but it would be a shame to lose out on the diversity that is surely waiting to be discovered out there. Luckily, once in a while, a truly lovely voice emerges and one such is Tishani Doshi’s. Poetry appears to be her favoured genre but she seems quite determined not to be strait-jacketed and has written fiction and non-fiction too. I think her essays are marvels of cogent and entertaining writing. I’ve also recently started reading a non-fiction history book called ‘The Ivory Throne’ by a 25-year-old called Manu Pillai. It’s a marvellously written and meticulously researched account of the Travancore royal family, bringing their story all the way up to the present-day intrigues surrounding the treasures hidden within Padmanabhaswamy Temple. I am thrilled by the notion that one no longer needs to rely on colonial texts (or, indeed, foreign authors) in order to access this rich history of ours in English. Manu Pillai is definitely an author to be watched.