An Exclusive Interview with
By Meenakshi Shivram
Shreekumar Varma was born in Trivandrum but
moved to Chennai when he was four years old. He
taught for a brief period at the Madras Christian
College in Chennai and has been a journalist . His
first novel Lament of Mohini , published by
Penguin was recently launched in various metros.
The author speaks to Meenakshi Shivram about this
MS: Let's begin with the title. It is quite intriguing. Why "lament" of Mohini?
SKV:Actually nobody was very happy with the title at first - the first editor,
Jayapriya, who read the book said she waited for three or four days before
picking up the book because she thought it would be a depressing story. Even
Penguin's David Davidar and his team said they would like to have an
alternative title. They had an editorial conference and then decided to retain the
title. It seems at first to be depressing - yes, but that is not how the book is.
MS: Within the novel itself how does the title function? Isn't it ironic because
what is heard is the lamentations of the men?
SKV: Within the novel it is the book, the epic that is being written.The entire
novel revolves around that in one sense . It is ironical in that we are talking
what a matrilineal society where the woman is supposed to be all-powerful but
it is the woman who is subjugated even in so-called pro-women structures. In all these places - the royal family, the Namboodiri illam. In the illam it is more
conspicuous and is known for a fact, but it does exist even in other places.
MS: Your story is about men, isn't it? It is your male characters who are more
sharply drawn out. The family curse too is only for the men.
SKV: The story is from a male point of view. The family curse is for the men,
yes, but while the men die it is the women, the ones who are left behind , who
suffer. To me it seems that the woman is not the perpetrator of anything but
she takes the brunt of the tragedy. She doesn't initiate anything. Mohini stands
for all women in that sense - appearing to be the seductress and temptress but
eventually being the one to pay the price.
MS: There is this sharp dichotomy in your women characters - they are either
extremely sensuous or very plain.
SKV: It's not a dichotomy but it's the way the narrator views them. You have a
person like Nani for instance . The women of this class were used. There is the
episode where the old man calls the maid and I have used the phrase that she
stood like a cow in the market. That was how it was. There were no two ways
about it. The same applied to the women too. They too could summon the men
of their choice. The times were such and nobody had the power to object.
With Nani I am just recreating what actually happened in those
days.I have mentioned in the novel that morality was different
in those days.It is the Christian influence and convent
education which made it a little more rigid. The blouse
episode is symbolic. This was a real life event. I was told of
this incident where the maidservant quickly tore off her blouse
when her master appeared and looked at him apologetically.
Tatri's situation is that she has been locked up for so long and
her only recreation is literature. Even before she meets MVR ,
he is a figure of great importance to her. But her husband - Damodaran - is a
stranger to her, whom she doesn't encounter in her daily life. He doesn't even
know that she likes poetry. So when she comes across a figure whom she has
respected and admired for so long it seems natural for this to have happened.
Even with Gopi, it is the women characters who take centre-stage. Lekha, for
instance, remains in the background but she is the one who finally gives him
the strength. Then there is Sridevi - his Mohini. There is his own mother who is
a powerful woman. Aunt Sarada too. In many ways the woman is a major
influence in his life.That's why I've used this refrain in the novel that women
must stick together. I don't have a theory or thesis about the woman being subjugated. I only hope the message gets through.
MS: Why does Uncle Shankar die? He could have thrown away the chakram?
SKV: I don't know . Maybe it is a finale. He takes away the chakram with him.
I don't know. Finally it would be in the completeness of things, if the marriage
does not take place, the chakram goes away and he also goes away.
MS: The novel has a lot of exotic elements - there is a charm for which two
families quarrel, there are mysterious deaths, there is a family curse, there is
prashnam, there is the mythical Mohini who also becomes real to two people...
SKV:The chakram was something in my father's family and after I finished
writing I realised that a similar thing was happening in my wife's family as well.
You know, someone breaking open the temple and stealing the charm and the
burning down of a tree. Actually these things happened after I finished writing
about it in my novel and that was a bit unnerving. I was writing about
something that had happened in my father's family where the chakram was
taken off a temple near Kochi.
Another unnerving thing was this girl Tatri's encounter with MVR in the bath
house.There is a famous movie where the kathakali artiste goes in his full
costume to the antarjanam's room and they make love there which I thought
was unrealistic. A man in kathakalli costume climbing up the stairs
unobserved is difficult... and I thought that the only room where this could
actually happen had to be the bath house. Because that's outside. I named her
Tatri because there were only four or five names for antarjanams. Tatri is a
corruption of Savitri. Then I listened to a programme on Asianet and someone
who was talking about this Tatri incident mentioned that it happened in the bath
house. The book had already gone to Penguin by that time. These were a few
strange coincidences. Would they be exotic?
MS: You have insisted at book launches that there is no autobiographical
element in the novel?
SKV: I insist that there is no family history. Since this is my first novel, a lot of
what I think about, feel about is definitely there. The launching of the magazine,
which I talk about in the novel, is one of my own bitter experiences. Chacko in
the novel is actually my wife. She was the assistant editor. There is a part of
me in Gopi and in Rangachari and then there are people I have encountered. I
have just used Raja Ravi Varma's name as a painter .The Travancore history is
here. But I talk of Killikara which is a fictitious place. My mother's place is .
Mavelikkara. My father comes from a place called Kilimanoor. It is the
combination of these two places which becomes Kilikkara. A little bit of the
geographical details come from my wife's family house. A lot of elements I have picked up but it is a totally concocted space. And the novel does not trace my family history.
MS: Any particular literary influences at work?.
SKV: My mother - Indira Varma - used to write a lot. She's been a big influence.
She is one of the first women in the family who did her B. A. And then I would
count R.K.Narayan as a primary kind of inspiration. I have picked up a lot
unconsciously from him for he has been a favourite of mine. Then there is
Marquez and Nabakov.
MS: One finds in your work a combination of humor and pathos, something of
the kind one finds in the works of Basheer and Arundhati Roy. The funnier
episodes too have this undercurrent of pathos.
SKV: I believe yes that tragedy does leave a more indelible mark.Humour and
tragedy is a deadly combination.Humor can lead you up to a tragic moment.
And if you are bitter about experiences then the irony does not work. Which is
why R.K.Narayan is such a great writer. Even his wife's death he describes
with little touches of humour which make the tragedy stand out a little more.
Even Arundhati Roy, the way she uses language and combines humor with the
tragic is admirable.
MS: Another novel on its way?
SKV: Well... one has already begun and I have the ideas ready for two more.
A royal remembrance of things passed
By Aditi De
What can one say about Shreekumar Varma, whose debut novel Lament of Mohini has just seen the light of day? That he's witty and warm, and widely published. That he's a journalist, editor, publisher, printer and journalism lecturer. So far he's written award-winning plays, radio scripts, short stories, and even a children's book.
Perhaps this novel is Varma's bid to reshape the oral tradition. For Chennai-based Varma is the grandson of the last ruling Maharani of Travancore, and the great-great-grandson of the artist Raja Ravi Varma.
What happens when royalty is redefined in today's context?
What's the untold story behind your first novel?
A story had been with me since I was 20 or so. It kept changing. Meanwhile, I was writing short stories. In 1997, I had a break from business I was into computers and HR-training for youngsters when I began to write. It took me two years.
Is this a fictionalised rendition of your family history?
Not at all! The background is a carefully constructed mix of several "royal" households, people and incidents. I was careful to ensure that nothing would point to any particular household. My novel is steeped in a joint family tradition and owes about 85 per cent to my imagination! The remaining is a reworking of what I've heard and witnessed.
As for family history, I've never lived in a joint family. My grandmother was taken to Trivandrum and later became the regent maharani. The family thus became like a unique severed limb existing on its own away from our matriarchal roots in Mavelikkara. After my grandmother left Trivandrum and settled down in Bangalore, and my mother came to Madras, it was more or less a nuclear family situation.
The plot in your novel is unusual. It veers in and out of the main strand throughout. Was this deliberate?
The problem was the profusion of characters and incidents. I felt I couldn't sacrifice any of them. So I resorted to this episodic narrative one episode growing out of another. Since the writer Rangachari is influenced basically by the Mahabharata, this seemed to fit in. Editing did improve the structure, moving incidents from one place to another, making it more linear and chronological. Earlier, for instance, 'Diamond Week' appeared somewhere in the beginning.
Your language is occasionally creative, with concocted words. At other times, it's deliberately desi. Why?
There had to be a different mood to dress each occasion. Frankly, I love handling and playing with language. But when I write, I find I go along with the flow. I try and end each session polishing what I've written. The "concocted" words appear mainly when it's the protagonist's voice.
Among contemporary Indians writing in English whom do you especially admire? Why?
Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. I also loved An Equal Music, though I haven't got through Vikram Seth's other works. The way they use words, for one. The emotion, their ability to get into the plot. I also liked Anita Desai's Fasting, Feasting. And for sheer sensitivity and her brilliance of accuracy Jhumpa Lahiri.
How does it feel to be a part of the Great Indian Writing Boom?
I hope I'm still around when the boom settles and they start picking up the debris! We're a people who've recently stood up and stretched our limbs. We've become aware of ourselves and the world, and that is finding expression. The world is waking up to contemporary India, not just its past.