California Literary Review

An Interview With Novelist Indu Sundaresan

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April 3rd, 2007 at 9:36 pm

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Indu Sundaresan

It takes leaving the homeland to feel the tug of one’s roots. Battling a bout of homesickness and leafing through India books in her adopted home of Seattle, Indu Sundaresan chanced upon a fascinating story about Mughal harems. Ironically she found her future in India’s past, as a storyteller telling tales of an era and a way of life that lies buried in library tomes. Regularly pulled up for inattention during school History lessons, no one is more surprised than Sundaresan that today, three books later, she occupies the position of a writer of historical fiction. Her most recent book is The Splendor of Silence. Indu Sundaresan spoke recently to the California Literary Review about her work and inspiration.

Your first work of historical fiction, The Twentieth Wife, took eight years to research and write. Does the process get easier when you get to the third?
In the initial foray into reading for each of the novels, there is always a lot of imbibing of the background and atmosphere, a searching for story, an investigation into details. Then, I will settle into intensive research – read and reread a few select books and manuscripts, cull points of interest, look for aspects that provide movement in my own story. That said, all research in the end depends on the book I want to write.My first book The Twentieth Wife and my second, The Feast Of Roses, had to be as historically accurate as possible since they are fictionalized accounts of Empress Nur Jahan’s life. The Splendor Of Silence is set in India, during four days in May in a fictional desert kingdom called Rudrakot, and all the major characters are fictional.
So in some senses, it was easier to research Splendor – here I only had to capture the essence of the time period and imbue it into my characters’ actions and words; in the first two novels, everything — background, characters, storyline — had to be accurate.
Tell me what fascinated you about the subject and the period in Splendor?
I wanted to write a novel that was constructed around WWII, and the nationalist movement in India, and yet not write directly about these two events at all. What I mean is that the characters in Splendor are all affected in some way or the other by the war and the freedom movement, but these are not the primary obsessions of their lives. So Sam Hawthorne, an American soldier who finds his way to Rudrakot in search of his missing brother (and so falls in love with the daughter of the political agent, Mila) is in the China-Burma-India theatre of war as an OSS officer. Mila is the daughter of a man who is, by the very nature of his job an imperialist, and yet she finds herself influenced by the nationalist movement when it sweeps her brother Ashok into its embrace.In the end I wanted to write a novel about the British Raj that was not about the “British” of the Raj, but the thinking, educated Indians who were on the fringes of the nationalist movement and still very aware of the roles they were meant to play toward freedom from British rule.

All your books feature strong, heroic, daring women; women who are ahead of their times. What is it about these characters that draws you to them?
My first two novels were based on the life of a real woman, and she just happened to be strong, heroic and daring during her lifetime, and then faded into relative obscurity compared to her niece (Mumtaz Mahal who lies in the Taj Mahal). In Splendor, Mila Raman, the main female protagonist is all of these things too, strong, heroic and daring, and this is partly due to her own personality and partly due to her upbringing.I haven’t tried this yet, but it would be enormously difficult for any novelist, I think, to structure a character who was weak, self-absorbed, unlikable — even the greatest villains have to evoke some sympathy in the author and the reader. All my work is constructed around female protagonists (except for a couple of short stories) and I always want to explore in these women the possibilities of stepping beyond society’s restrictions and to see then what would happen, how they would react, what would really matter to them.

How much of a historical novel is fact and fiction? Where do you draw the line? What is the creative license you might take? Give us examples from your books, please.
Here again The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses differ from Splendor. In the former instance I tried to be as historically accurate as possible, given that I was reconstructing the life of an Empress who lived and ruled in 17th Century India. Most of what I considered to be creative license was also well-thought out, and came in some form or the other from historical documentation. There is a scene at the end of The Twentieth Wife where Mehrunnisa’s father comes upon her digging around in a melon patch, and this scene found its origins thus: Sir Thomas Roe, the first official ambassador to India and the Mughal Empire and British East India Company representative in the early 1600s had left a memoir of his time there. I was reading this one night and Roe mentions that Mehrunnisa’s father comes to him in the heat of summer and gives him three muskmelons that he claims his daughter has grown with her own hands. The gift of melons from an Empress to an ambassador, though seemingly trivial, was actually a sign of royal favor and so Roe notes it in his memoir.The next morning when I awoke, I still remembered this incident and I had been wondering for a long while what an Empress did in her leisure hours to relax, and realized that she liked to garden. This little fact (if indeed it is true) does not exist in any other documentation from those times, but I used it anyhow and it is probably true.
Splendor is more of a fictional novel, of course, but in every instance, I researched facts and used them as much as I could, or changed them but with a keen awareness that I was doing so. Sam’s brother Mike was a second lieutenant in the Rudrakot Rifles (an Indian regiment) and he could do this without giving up his American citizenship — this is true from a memoir I read. Sam himself was an OSS officer and the OSS had a strong regiment in Burma toward the end of WWII to help in the retaking of the country from the Japanese. The one fact I changed a little was that Sam was in Burma in April of 1942, in the midst of the monsoon rains, but the monsoon rains began on May 10th, 1942, according to my notes and research, a fact I had to change to fit into my storyline!

You are now well entrenched in the role of ‘writer of historical fiction.’ Is that an advantage or a disadvantage?
My short stories are set in contemporary times and I am just beginning to put them together into an anthology, so I do wonder how they will be received by my readers. In my fourth novel, I return to Mughal India and a few years after Nur Jahan’s death, and that will be historical again.I don’t want to be categorized as one or the other, and understand that such terminology is necessary for the market, but I still hope to be able to move fluidly between one genre and another…we’ll see.

Do you see yourself break out of this mould and setting your stories in a contemporary setting?
For my short stories, yes. For novel length fiction, I would probably have to explore the Indian diaspora in the United States, and immigrant life here — a field that has many novelists in it already. What it amounts to more importantly for me, is that to write about contemporary immigrant life here, I would have to place my own life and those of my friends and acquaintances under a very strong scrutiny — something that I find very difficult to do. It’s not easy to analyze your own life when you are actually living it (it takes away from the living of it, destroys any sort of spontaneity) and as a novelist I would not be able to create the distance and so the unprejudiced perspective I would need before writing.
How does your writer support group help in the making of an historical novel? Many of them may be completely unaware of the setting, the culture, the history of India …
My critique groups help in the writing itself. As for the setting and the culture, it’s always interesting to hear from them when something is unclear or not well explained in the text — details that are so ingrained in my being that I overlook them as I write.
You live with these characters for so long during the creation process. Is there a hibernation period between novels?
Yes! When I write, I inhabit the world I create so completely that life around me seems just to exist to support my writing. I almost have to do this because the worlds I have fashioned so far in my novels have been so different from contemporary life — and this can get exhausting. So after a novel is completed comes a period of winding down, of thinking about the next piece of work, of beginning to read about it, of living my own life, not that of my characters.
Why do you believe historical fiction as a genre is becoming popular?
When I was out with my manuscript for The Twentieth Wife, no one seemed to be interested in historical fiction or to think that it had a place in the market. Since its publication, though, I’ve noticed a growing interest in the genre — why, it’s always hard to fathom. But I do know that I wanted to write in this genre for a very specific reason, in that there is so little literature in the world that deals with Indian history and explores it in a fictional manner as faithfully as possible, and because I think that history is best and most easily interesting only when told in a fictional context, with all the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of a bygone era.
  • anoop

    She has a beautiful face :)

  • sonie

    i love her novels.a big fan if her writing.gud love to meet her one day

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