Anindita Ghose on decoding India’s political zeitgeist in her debut novel – News
The Illuminated is a nuanced work of fiction that straddles multiple strands – from cultural jingoism to a fractured society to women who want more
Anindita Ghose is a Mumbai-based writer and editor. She holds postgraduate degrees in linguistics from Mumbai University and journalism from Columbia University. In 2019 she was Hawthornden Writing Fellow in Scotland. The Illuminated, her debut novel, made it to the prestigious HWR-Nielsen Fiction 50 Bestsellers list this month.
The novel connects the personal grief and struggle of a mother (Shashi) and daughter (Tara) to the broader socio-political concerns of contemporary India, which is grappling with a rise in life-impacting fundamentalism. of its protagonists.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
When did you realize you had a romance in you?
I always wanted to be a writer, which I think is true for most novelists. You don’t become one overnight. But I needed to have a career because that’s what I knew was an adult rite of passage, and so I chose journalism. As a journalist, I’ve often been approached by editors tasked with working on non-fiction books, but that never seemed to be quite the draw. I know the exact day I started thinking about this novel. It was in August 2015 at the Mountain Echoes literary festival in Thimphu, Bhutan. At the festival, a writer spoke very eloquently about the fact that writing fiction is sometimes about knowing your destination and sometimes just seeing what your headlights reveal. I realized that writing fiction was what I really wanted to do even though I had no idea what it would lead to.
I found L’Illuminé, a page-turner, a novel about perception. What was the thought behind the title?
Thank you Joydeep. ‘Page turner’ always recalls EM Forster’s maxim about the novel: “It can have only one merit: that of making the public want to know what happens next.
The Illuminated has a lunar pattern. It started with women’s names in chapter titles and eventually expanded to the metaphor of light. The metaphor of light is powerful, from the Upanishads (Hindu sacred treatises written in Sanskrit expounding ancient Vedic texts) to Rumi to Audrey Lorde. I was interested in challenging the accepted hierarchy of the solar system. Why do our lives have to revolve around the sun?
How did you find the mother-daughter characters of Shashi and Tara?
I was interested in telling a story through the perspective of different women and a mother-daughter duo with their common social background, but a different psychological makeup seemed like a good way to do it.
How hard is it to dive deep into South Asian female characters, which are well balanced? How did you go about defining each of these characters with distinctive personal traits?
Growing up, it was hard to find well-rounded women in books beyond the Jane Austen-George Eliot space. But suddenly there was Ammu in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and Nazneen in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, who weren’t just complex, but also South Asian. In The Illuminated, I was interested in creating female characters dissatisfied with the hand that was served to them. I was keen on female friendships that transcended societal barriers. And I wanted them to have a personal ambition that goes beyond love and marriage.
Was it a conscious decision to imbue the novel with mythology and Sanskrit in the context of the Indian right?
One of the questions that interested me was “what’s the other story?” Classical Sanskrit literature has an exquisite canon of poetry devoted to love and eroticism as well as socio-political commentary. But when we think of Sanskrit now, we only think of shlokas (Sanskrit verses) and liturgical texts. I wanted to introduce readers to another dimension of the language, to recover it from its associations with religious chauvinism.
Broader socio-political afflictions transcend personal tragedy in The Illuminated. Was it a conscious decision to set your first literary work in this milieu?
Novels are a product of their time and it would be impossible to tell a story of privilege and patriarchy unrelated to the political climate. Also, in an age of censorship and silence, I sincerely believe that fiction has a better chance of getting closer to the truth than journalism.
How has your writing residency as a Hawthornden Fellow helped your work?
This month-long writing residency in rural Scotland was a transformative experience. I’ve always thought that writing residencies were pretentious: why do you need to go somewhere scenic to write when most of the writing happens in your pajamas at home? But Hawthornden was important to me because it completely upended my routine and forced a new perspective. There were five of us and the administrator (who is a poet himself) and the cook (who is a cookbook author herself) isolated for a month in a medieval castle with poor internet and the rule of silence between 9am and 6pm . The castle grounds had deer and birds and I took lots of long walks. My editor was kind enough to give me leave on the condition that I check the pages of the magazine I edited several times a week – I used to go to a local bar which started stocking tea bags for me ! I had already been working on the novel for four years but managed to go from 50% to 90% during my time there. It was the most productive month of a five-year journey. I would highly recommend a residence if given the opportunity and kind bosses who would give them time off.
I felt The Illuminated had the potential for a good web series. Do you already have offers on these lines?
I’m glad you think so. I’ve been told it’s a very visual novel and there was early interest. My agent is in talks with several interested parties at this time.
Finally, what next?
I would love to call myself a full-time novelist and live that life, whatever that entails (laughs). But the economics of publishing unfortunately does not nurture this vision for a novice novelist. I’ve been busy with virtual book tours and book club interactions since July, but I’m about to start an editorial consultancy with India’s first NFT art platform, Terrain.art. I read and take notes for the next book next.