NAW Interview with Kavery Nambisan

Kavery Nambisan is a surgeon by profession. She graduated from St John’s Medical College, Bangalore, and did her surgical training and FRCS in England. Since then she has devoted most of her working life to practice in rural India and has worked as a surgeon in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. She is the author of several children’s books and novels. Her book, The Story That Must Not Be Told, was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008 and The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2012.

NAW-  When did your literary journey begin? At what age did you discover that you wanted to write?

My journey began when I was a child. It began with my colourful and varied childhood  lived in rural south India, and then in Delhi. Much of what I have written comes from the treasure-house of those memories. I read, I wrote poems and stories when I was in school, because I liked doing it. Sometimes, I was appreciated, at other times, laughed at. My medical career interrupted my writerly inclinations and I seriously picked up my pen when I was already a surgeon and working full-time. Now I practise both professions with equal passion.

NAW- Tell us about your book, ‘The story that must not be told.’ How did you get the idea for the book? Is it based on real life incidences? I am a writer myself so I know that all good fiction has its roots on some sort of real life of events. So if you will insist on saying that it’s all fiction, then I will reframe the question to- what was the trigger for the idea?

All my novels are a combination of experience, memory and observation. “The Story…” too was a blend of all these. I have lived and worked among the type of people in this novel. I know it intimately. But the story, the characters and the plot resolution are fiction.

NabisanNAW- When I read your book, I feel that you are more of an activist than a writer. The divide between the rich and poor in ‘The story that must not be told’ gives an impression that you were inspired by communism. I mean the struggle between Sitara and Vaibhav Housing society, so has communism been your inspiration?

No. Communism – as I have seen it here in India – is  more of an ideology than a reality that is practised and lived. I believe in the ideology but not the way in which it is practised. I never think of myself as an activist but yes, I have constantly battled for the values I believe in. I am very unhappy about the injustices in society and  try to live my life differently, both as a surgeon and as a writer. It doesn’t make me very popular!

The privileged class (to which I belong) will never admit the fact that most of us want the “unfairness” in society to continue. What I do and what I write makes them uncomfortable. I am, of course, talking of the majority. There are many, even among the privileged, whose work and conduct inspire me.

NAW- What were your aims intentions in ‘The story that must not be told,’ and how well do you feel you achieved them?  

Once I had created the character of Simon Jesukumar, I wanted to follow him and see what could happen, given the circumstances and his character. All city-dwellers, particularly in countries like India, live in such an environment. Many are blind to how other people live; Simon was foolish enough to want to know. I like him for it.

How well have I achieved anything, I don’t know. Um.. thats’ not true. I do know that I could have done better, gone deeper with some of the characters. Now it is for the readers to decide.

NAW- Please tell us in detail about your other works?

My first novel – The Truth (almost) About Bharat is about a medical student who’s running away from reality. The story is related in a male voice by the 19-year-old Bharat and is full of picaresque humour but also sadness. It came out in a new edition ten years after its first publication.

2. The Scent of Pepper is about a small community of people in south India who were ancestor worshippers with unique traditions that are very different from Hinduism. They became highly westernised under the influence of British colonisers but still retained their ancient culture. It is a unique story and perhaps my most popular novel. It was also published by Penguin UK and a new edition was brought out by Penguin  India in 2010.

3. Mango Coloured Fish. A contemporary story about a young middle-class girl faced with a marriage arranged by her parents. She begins to observe marriage as an institution by watching those close to her and then makes up her mind about what she must do. Shortlisted for the Crossword Book Award.

4. On Wings of Butterflies. A comic farce about the gender difference but with serious undertones.

5. The Hills of Angheri. A semi-autobiographical work about a woman surgeon. The main theme is the conflicts that arise in medical practice and the dilemma of failure in the surgical profession which I think is more important than success.

6. The Story…

7. A Town Like Ours is about the slow death of a village. Set in southern India, it is told by a retired prostitue who lives on the temple premises and relates the story of the four protagonists whose lives take unpredictable turns. The story-teller’s voice is in fact the voice of the village-turned-town. It depicts the very human tragedies that occur in such situations and affect people who are powerless to resist the changes. The book is just out in the shops.

My first six novels were published by Penguin India. The last by Aleph.

NAW- Did you face any trouble while publishing your first book? How did your first book get published? 

It was easy. I sent it to Penguin office in Delhi and after six weeks or so I got a letter from David Davidar the publisher saying it was very good and they would publish it. Living in the rural south, I was amazed at my luck. Subsequently I met the publisher and things have worked well. I worked with three very good editors – David, Karthika and Ravi Singh.

NAW- You have a lot of published works but what is the most significant thing that people don’t know about your works, that they need to know?

I write about things I care for, often mixing reality with my own eccentric imagination.  I try to create credible characters. I like to tell a good story. I don’t, I cannot write for a market.

NAW- Your work life must provide you with a lot of fodder for your books but do you carry out research also? How do you do that by interactions with people or by sifting through reference material in libraries?

I’m not into research. The only research I’ve done is for my second novel, for a few weeks when I happened to be in London and made use of the excellent India Library. Read a few great books about the place I was writing. It helped me a lot. But generally, no research.

NAW- How do you write, by intuition or through a well planned, structured process? Take us through your writing process.

I wait till an idea strikes me and takes root. Usually, I picture something, see an image, something in a dream, or some such trigger that gets me started on a character. I chew on this for months, sometimes a year and a story unfolds around the person. I try to stay true to the person and it helps greatly. Slowly, an invisible antenna begins to stick out of the head and it collects the material – god knows from where or how. I take down little things that occur to me, a line, a phrase, a thought. A conversation. I fill pages of a notebook thus, in my illegible handwriting but it is all very precious material. When I think I’m ready, I start writing longhand, rapidly if I can and finish a very very rough draft.

This forms the nerve centre of my novel. I type it out on my PC, read it and begin to understand what I’m trying to say. Then its work, work, work, rework, until I’m sort of happy enough to show it to my husband, Vijay who is an excellent writer and poet. His criticism can be scathing but always it helps.

I take anything from 2 to 5 years to complete a novel.

NAW- What are you reading right now?

Tom Wolfe’s Hooking Up. My recent, most memorable reading was Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel.

NAW- What are your upcoming projects?

Too early to say. I might work on some real medical stories. I might write another novel. I don’t know.

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