Q. Where were you born?
A. I was born in New Delhi, India. My father, an Indian diplomat, was posted to Geneva, Switzerland, when I was six months old and French was one of my first languages. Then my father’s career took us to Indonesia, New Zealand, Malaysia… I would be in international schools with great diversity for about three years and then in India for the next two years, in a vernacular school where I could learn to read and write Bengali, for “de-programming”!
I am deeply grateful now that I read Bengali and Hindi as well as English, but my growing-up years felt rather schizophrenic.
Q. What job do you do apart from writing?
A. I hold a doctorate in sociolinguistics and am working on a socio-linguistic project at Northwestern University in the US, but for Fall 2016, I am teaching Creative Writing at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.
Q. What is the name of your latest book and what inspired it?
A. It’s a novel called Shambala Junction. I was initially inspired by an article I read in an Indian community newsletter in Houston which described babies for sale in India, and how international adoptions were benefiting from the misery of Indian families. Then my story grew beyond the adoption racket to include Iris and her quest to find herself as much as the missing baby.
Q. How much research do you do? Have you visited the places you write about in the book?
A. Yes, I generally do quite a bit of research for my books and being in academia helps tremendously. I also live right next to the main public library in Chicago, so on days when I get stuck, I just go to the library and read about a detail I may use in a work-in-progress. This story is set in a fictional place but is loosely based on Gaya in India, where the Buddha preached his fire sermon. I visited Gaya after I’d finished the rough draft as I wanted to just write my version of the first draft, which I did in three inspired months. Then followed six years of editing multiple drafts with agents and potential publishers until the book won the Virginia Prize for Fiction.
Q. Tell us about your lead characters? Who would you like to see playing them in a movie version of your book?
A. Iris is my main character and she is in her early 20s; she’s a bit of a princess and clueless about India. I think anyone playing her would have to be really fresh-faced and I can’t think of a single established actress, in Bollywood or elsewhere, who would totally fit. I love Irrfan Khan in any movie he’s done, so definitely him for Aman-the-doll-seller. If Irrfan plays the role, I’d totally insist on a script rewrite to give him a meatier role
Q. What else have you written?
A. My novel Ode to Broken Things (Repeater) was released in the UK in May 2016, and this is a political thriller on modern Malaysia. My collection of short stories titled Rules of Desire was published in Malaysia in December 2015 (Fixi).
Q. Is this book a departure from your other work?
A. Shambala Junction is rooted in an Indian context, so yes, it is a departure from my Malaysia-centred writing, but I am still trying to shine a light on important socio-political issues of our times. I love reading light romance, but I can’t write anything purely escapist (I’d be making a lot more money if I could!)
Q. How do you write? Do you have a special place or routine?
A. A recent family tragedy has totally thrown off any routine in my life, but otherwise, when I am working on a novel, I try to write for about two hours at least every day, often much more when inspiration strikes. I prefer writing late into the night until it becomes dawn.
Q. What were you like at school? Were you good at English?
A. I was very good in English, and being in Wellington, New Zealand, from the age of 11-14 really helped me develop writing skills. I was awkward and felt ugly as a teenager in Wellington; there was racist bullying. Writing was my refuge and it gave me a standing among my peers, especially as my first poem was published in a paper in New Zealand when I was about 11. Seeing my name in print was addictive. I had some wonderful writing teachers who made me read all of Katherine Mansfield and encouraged me to write short stories. Then, somewhere in high school, I decided I wanted to be a journalist.
Q. What authors, or books have influenced you?
A. As a Bengali child, my earliest sounds were shaped by Tagore’s lyric poetry and the nonsense verse of Satyajit Ray’s grandfather, Sukumar Ray. I read everything I got my hands on, and depending on which country we were in, that could be limited to Enid Blyton school sagas to Alistair Mclean’s page turners.
As an adult, I remember the impact of Arudhati Roy’s God of Small Things. Before that, I fell in love with Anita Desai’s books and read all of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Now I love the craft of Margaret Atwood and Alice Munroe but I have recently discovered Anuja Chauhan’s hinglish chicklit and read all her books in a few weeks. I spent years as a literature major being a literary snob, but once I abandoned studying literature for linguistics, I appreciate books that are written purely to entertain
as much as those that enrich. Sometimes books can do both but we should make room for all kinds of books in our lives.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. A creative non-fiction book on the impact of my brother’s tragic accident on my family. I am also working on an academic manuscript on women and language change in Malaysia.
Q. What are you reading now?
A. Books in translation – I just finished Arunava Sinha’s The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told and will be diving into Perumal Murugan’s Pyre (I loved his One Part Woman). So much great literature is being written in the regional languages of India and the translators are now excellent.
Q. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
A. Make yourself sit down and write until it is a habit and you get withdrawal symptoms when you don’t do it. When Saraswati (or your Muse, or the Universe) comes with inspiration, it helps to know where you’ll be at a specific time. Writing should be essentially joyful for its own sake, otherwise, don’t do it, don’t pursue it for the money, for only a trickle will come even after you have written through years of rejections and the brutal edits that show how short you fall from perfection. You need arrogance to write, and although developing a reading habit will engender humility, developing a literary network will sustain you the most. Realise that your talent is a gift, it is a gift for which you are merely a curator, you are caught in a process that is miraculous and wondrous and so addictive that you will find yourself choosing this path over the many other ways of being that don’t feed your soul.