Anuradha Kumar is the author of eight novels, including Letters for Paul, It Takes a Murder (2013) and two works of historical fiction written under the psuedonym of Adity Kay: Emperor Chandragupta (2016) and Emperor Vikramaditya (2019). She also writes for younger readers, and contributes to Scroll.in, Economic and Political Weekly, thewire.in, theaerogram.com, and other places. She was awarded twice (2004, 2010) for her stories by the Commonwealth Foundation, and has received awards from The Little Magazine and Hindu-Goodbooks.in.
I wanted to read ‘Coming Back to the City’ as I’m new to Mumbai and I’d heard that the book is about this place. I enjoyed the book thoroughly. Anuradha’s narration is smooth, visual and makes us live the characters’ lives. This interview covers her latest book ‘Coming Back to the City’, published by Speaking Tiger Books, and her writing journey.
The cover of your book looks lovely. It’s filled with flamingoes. Can you tell us more about it?
The flamingoes are seasonal visitors to the city; yet are permanent to the Bombay landscape. There’s a mention of the migratory birds in a couple of the stories, and I thought it was a nice idea on my publisher’s part to have them on the cover. Birds make for much better photos, in any case. I thought the fact that the birds return to the city every year is an apt reflection of what some of the book’s characters too seem to do, and then of course, it has a direct bearing on the title.
What according to you does an epigraph achieve? I’ve been thinking about it recently and would like to know how you picked epigraphs for your book.
My editor at the EPW Krishna Raj had Attia Hossain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column on his shelf, and I read it then. That book and that sentence stayed with me. Patrick Geddes (the second epigraph) of course was a sociologist, and early environmentalist who lived and worked in Bombay between 1915 and 1921 or so. He’s written a lot on town planning, city living, and I thought those lines spoke to the city I was writing about.
Epigraphs to me are interesting for they shed a tangential light on the book, and the writer’s own inclinations about writing it. It could be a summation, though I’d rather this not be the case, or a hint of the writer’s sensibilities, and what really matters to them instinctively about the book, and the act of writing it.
Seven books later…Has writing become any easier?
It’s become more challenging, exciting and more of an adventure than before. Now that there is an acceptance of my writing (I hope) I can write about the things I really wanted to. There’s a complexity here. It’s only after time that you (a writer) really know what they must write about, and only after writing consistently and in a sustained manner over time that things to write about – one’s ‘subjects’ – become clearer.
You have published a couple of books using a pseudonym. Why is that?
When I began writing these three books of historical fiction, my publisher and editor at Hachette suggested that I try using a different name. For it was something different from what I’d done till then. This was 2012 or so. In any case, it didn’t matter then, nor does it now, so much. I just wanted to write. And hopefully be published. In that order.
You’re currently living in the US. What inspired you to write about Mumbai?
I lived in Bombay for about 14 years. It’s the one place I’d always call home. It’s the one place I feel that would let me call it ‘home,’ and ask me no questions. Before I came to live in Bombay (when it was still called this), I was honestly quite traumatized—and while I use this word with hindsight, there’s little exaggeration about it—with the kind of sexual harassment (‘eve-teasing’) I and every girl, every woman really, experienced elsewhere, wherever I’d lived in India. And I did find Bombay safe and welcoming. It was a relief. I did realize that finally here was a city I could find space to call my own.
While writing the book, did you have an Indian or U.S. audience in mind? How different is the reception of your book in both places?
You know, I am still looking for a US publisher; I am hopeful about this. But where I developed this manuscript, most of it as an MFA student in Vermont, I found I had to explain the basics of the Bombay situation for my readers here in the US. I worried that this might make the book more a sociological text than a work of fiction! But apart from that, I wanted to tell these stories, and the characters wanted their stories to be told. I went where they told me to go.
I loved that every story in the collection gave us additional insights into characters that we might have been introduced to in the previous chapters. Was it easy to plot an interlinked collection?
Yes and no. I thought of Pooja first, unhappy and crying by herself in the bathroom. That image stayed with me, and then once I had that first story down (the 4th in the book), I thought of the others whose lives touched her life and other lives and it became a book quite like the city itself.
You have a background in HR. Does your exposure to the world of commerce lend itself to your writing in anyway? I’m curious because I have a background in HR too.
Not yet, though people, I mean other writers tell me, that everything is material for one’s writing. But I think it will take me a while to put the corporate world into my writing. Maybe the hurt, the sense of failure and disillusionment is still too close. And I haven’t yet distanced myself from it. To give you an idea of how distance works for me: I wrote my first novel, Letters for Paul, in 2006. It takes off from a violent assault on a young woman in Orissa that I kind of witnessed, and where I lived in the 80s. But it took me 20 years to get it all down, and then first as fiction, and only now as nonfiction.
You have crafted the narratives of the characters so well that they’re memorable. Maria, Pooja, Neera Joshi…Can you tell us how you go about creating characters and are they the most important aspect of your stories, for you?
Partly. I think it’s the gesture, or expression, even a certain mannerism that draws me in. And then putting in the other stuff, that will make a person come alive. But honestly, I don’t think I thought through everything when I began. It began with one story, and then I moved beyond Pooja to talk of the chawl, the workers’ struggles, etc. In fact, I wrote the first story in the book after I’d about 6-7 in, before I wanted to go back to Pooja and understand her sadness.
As this book is about ‘Mumbai’, what kind of research did you do? Did you read other novels written about Mumbai?
Novels by Rushdie, Chandra, Desai, Nagarkar, and mainly nonfiction. I worked in the Economic and Political Weekly for eight years and had access to all its old volumes, with articles on Bombay and its history. Then books by historians – Mariam Dossal, Sujata Patel and Alice Thorner, Sharda Dwivedi and Rajiv Mehrotra, Jim Masselos, Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, Shekhar Krishnan, Neera Adarkar and Meena Menon. And Naresh Fernandes’ Taj Mahal Foxtrot. I lived and breathed in Bombay from all these books and more.
What is your writing routine like?
I try and write and read every day. I get cranky otherwise.
In your acknowledgments, you mention that this ‘novel’ began as a short story in your MFA class. Isn’t it a linked-short story collection? Why do you call it a novel?
Am not fussed up about what to call it. True, it’s a linked collection, and like a novel, it has a certain arc where it follows the protagonists’ lives to some half-closure. Even in a book, lives should remain mysterious, but I tried to develop them as best as I could.
Which was the most challenging part about writing this book?
Every character wanted their story to be told. It was unfair, I felt, not to have more of Ghatge or even Mahesh. But I felt this book needed to have more women. The women after all keep the city going.
Your book recommendations from 2019?
This is just what I read, and not all came out the last year.
Aleksandar Hemon’s My Parents: An Introduction and This Does Not Belong to You.
Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light
Natalia Ginzburg’s A Dry Heart
Iris Origo’s A Need to Testify
L Sophronia by Tim Bridwell (I read it a second time for a friend)
Shanta Gokhale’s A Foot on the Ground
Grace Paley’s Collected Stories
Lydia Davis’ Essays
Elizabeth Strout Olive Again
Which writers have been influences?
I admire and look up to a lot of writers. I like to explore complexities within a person and create whole new worlds to walk around in. I like writers who blend genres, mix in say, noir and mystery with elements of literary fiction. Like Patrick Modiano and Roberto Bolano. I love Alice Munro, Andrea Barrett, Nirmal Verma, Amitav Ghosh, and so many others.
What advice would you like to give writers who are starting out?
Write every day, at least 500 words to begin with.
What is it about fiction that draws you as a writer?
The chance to live in a different world. To be someone else for a while, and to try and figure out what it takes to be really human.
How important is community to you as a writer?
Am not sure. I have moved around a lot, and the friends I have are scattered everywhere. I am still not sure how a writing community would work for me. There has to be a certain discipline of sharing work, which the MFA workshops take care of, but writing is done largely on one’s own. I guess you need community to figure out the intricacies of the writing world. Which is fine. I am still figuring out the intricacies of the writing process!
Favourite childhood story?
I tried and tried, and thought very hard. And I am afraid I have none. Honestly, I was just very bad, and did fear I’d come to nothing. That I am here, you are asking me this question, somehow now amazes me. I’d consider myself very lucky to have been able to discover writing.
A novel set in the 1960s; and two works of nonfiction. Over the next couple of years.