Two new novels set in India bring out not only its beauty and history but also the unfairness and cruelty of its traditions and inherent patriarchy.
The two-part A Blue Moon Interlude (Become Shakespeare, Rs 299 for Book I and Rs 349 for Book II) by Viji Venkat revolves around an ancient secret that sets off a chain of momentous events and transforms the lives of three millennials. A mystery centred around the evil intentions of a powerful conglomerate of men, it covers topics of blind superstition and ecological damage, while also touching upon social inequalities that unite ancient and modern India.
Blood on the Sands (Amaryllis Publishing, Rs 299) by Sujata S Sabnis follows the story of Mankor, the wife of a BSF tracker living in a village on the Indo-Pak border. Written as a crime thriller that takes off from a brutal murder, the story uncovers murky secrets and an unexpected ending that reveals the underbelly of so-called Indian culture and the violence of our age-old traditions.
We spoke to both novelists about their books, inspirations and India.
A former educationist with a love of storytelling, Viji Venkat’s first attempt at writing fiction based on a television show garnered an online readership of over 127,000. She then completed two full-length novels, Wild Summer Echoes and Tempest Love. The two-part A Blue Moon Interlude took her three years to complete after rigorous research, travel and conversations. The book won in the best mystery fiction category at Coimbatore Literary Awards, 2020.
What is it that you love most about India?
India’s cultural diversity is something that has always fascinated me. Right from food, dress, language and customs, each state reflects an evolution that its inhabitants have embraced with dedication. It is a reflection of a society that has adapted to its heterogeneity. Every house, every town and every city in India has a story to tell. This range of richness, effervescence and intrigue is what I love about India.
What are our country’s greatest weaknesses that you wish you could erase?
First and foremost, gender bias against women in varying degrees and contexts affects the overall advancement of the country. Regressive outlook, preference for male children, poor representation of women in all fields, scant regard for the pre-natal welfare of women in certain section of societies are some of the things that I wish I could erase.
Another one of the country’s greatest weaknesses is that discrimination on the basis of religion and caste still persist in several ways reflected in everyday life. Discrimination at the grassroot level hauls the nation back from progression.
One example is requiring young school children in educational institutions to identify their caste and religion in administrative processes. I feel that measures designed to create equal opportunities for all must not inadvertently serve to further the inequities in their everyday implementation.
I also wish we accorded more dignity to work done in the unorganised labour sector. We take for granted the efforts of daily-wage workers. A lack of regard for their worth and their contribution, constricts us from growing into a stronger and more empathetic society.
Your book is set in Tamil Nadu. Why did you choose this region of India to set your novel in?
Ancient Tamil history dating back to fifth century CE, like ancient Egyptian history, is a period that falls on the blurred lines between history and mythology, where facts and folklore seamlessly merge with one another. Contemporary Chennai, the urban heart of Tamil Nadu, is a confluence of this history and this mythos, and the young adults of the Information Age.
The story is steeped in south Indian history, an area that has largely remained unexplored not just in fiction but also in the history text books of our schools. I visited the places mentioned in the story to get the actual vibes and talked to the locals to find more about the history associated with the town.
I have lived for many years in Chennai and New Delhi. While in Chennai, I was captivated by the Annual Car festival of Mylapore Temple in Chennai. This festival is dedicated to 63 Nayanars and there was something timeless about the whole ritual that intrigued me. Thus began my journey of researching into their life stories.
What do you think is the position of social justice including gender equality in this region of India?
Similar to the advocacies of the book’s protagonist Sindhoora and the old caretaker Nedumaran, an issue that is close to my heart is the impact of environmental challenges that the state has to contend with.
Rampant new constructions like monuments along the coast, erosion of sand and declining growth of mangroves have led to the battering of Tamil coast during the Tsunami and several floods. Moreover, there have been consistent reports of damage caused to coastlines, riverfronts, and mangroves in the state due to industrial wastage.
My experiences in the state, as I have tried to reflect through Sindhoora’s story in my book, have led me to believe that there is certainly enough spirit and enthusiasm in the youth to bring about lasting equitable changes in these areas.
Traditionally, the South has always garnered a reputation of relative gender equality. However, despite improved socio-economic development in the region, concerns regarding women’s access to resources and their participation in community governance persist.
Why did you choose to write a crime thriller based in this historical region of India?
Since I have lived in this region, I was familiar with the intrigue that was associated with ancient architecture and myths. I realised that these time-worn stories behind the curtains had all the essential elements that could be woven into a thriller.
Another reason is that I wanted to reveal the beauty and the antiquity of the region to readers in general. Many, who read the story, told me later that they wanted to visit the places that I had mentioned in the story. It was precisely what I had aimed for. The region has a vast amount of ancient architecture and mystery which, I felt, had to be shared.
SUJATA S SABNIS
A prolific writer, journalist and columnist, Sujata S Sabnis is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi. She has worked as a journalist with The Indian Express, and as a regular columnist for Mid-day, Pune. She is the principal writer for a web series that is currently being produced by MX Player, and a coorganiser of the Pune chapter of Kalam, a national organisation that promotes literature. Her previous books include Silent Whispers, A Twist in Destiny and Songs of Stone.
What are our country’s greatest weaknesses that you wish you could erase?
First, I wish I could erase poverty. Poverty is not romantic, nor moral. It’s instead both demeaning and limiting, denying both basic comforts and opportunities. We have many divisions in our country but this is the biggest of them all.
Equally painful are other divisions like caste, religion and the one my book talks about – gender disparity. It’s shameful that, even today, women have to struggle under a social system which frequently treats them as lesser beings.
Your book is set in Rann of Kutch. Why did you choose this region of the country to set your novel in?
After I thought of this story which revolves around female infanticide, I dived into intensive research on this terrible social evil. The sad thing is that I could have set it in so many regions of the country – Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, UP, Bihar, Haryana and so on! In all of these regions, the girl child is under threat.
Each region even has their own preferred method of killing her! Ultimately, I chose the Rann of Kutch just because I found their method of doodh peeti even more horrific and dark.
To do further research, I went and stayed in Khavda, an hour away from Kuran and the last border village of Rann where the story unfolds. I was there for nearly three weeks.
What do you think of social justice including gender equality in this area?
Rann of Kutch is an incredibly beautiful and haunting space with an equally haunting past. Life is tough, the weather harsh and resources few. The very nature of the landscape means reduced job opportunities. Add to this the demands of caste and community and you see a society jagged with disparities.
A girl child is considered a burden for many reasons, the most prominent being the threat of dishonour to the family and the need for dowry. Traditions have shaped deep-seated attitudes about the position of females.
In 1814, a British census discovered that no girl child had been born for the last hundred years in some Jadeja Rajput villages! With this kind of tradition haunting a society, how can just legislation be ever enough? We have to find ways and means of changing the attitude and the thinking behind it.
Why did you choose to write a crime thriller in this part of India?
It’s not as if there is no data about female infanticide out there in the public domain. There are plenty of articles and books. Problem is, how many read it? Another issue is that whatever you read about such social evils is mostly numbers. Abstract. And numbers dehumanise. They dilute the horror.
I have tried to change the statistic to a story. So that you feel the horror and not just think of it. I have tried to shrink that abstract world to this small family of Mankor, Virender, Samar and Ranu and what happens to them. The effort is to create empathy and hit you with its horror at a personal level. And I have chosen a crime thriller to deliver the story because it is a popular genre which makes for easy reading.