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IN CONVERSATION

The secret life

ARUNA CHANDARAJU talks to Anita Nair about her recent children's book and other creative concerns.

SURESH PARAMBATH

Happiest when writing: Anita Nair

THIS is a question I had always wanted to ask her (actually every author I meet) and I finally did. "Is there any book you have always dreamed of writing?" "A travelogue following the footsteps of Ibn Batuta," Anita Nair replies. Oh, and what would this modern-day travelogue be like?

"Well, I am very keen to do this Ibn Batuta book but what I need to figure out is how. Apart from everything else, he travelled with an entourage including a harem... and naturally his readings of a place would, therefore, be different from that of mine as a solitary traveller. I need to think it through carefully but I do know that one day I will do my version of Ibn Batuta..."

Anita Nair is without doubt one of the finest writers in English today and with an international reputation. Widely published — in 27 countries to be precise — and translated, her work is not only critically acclaimed but also best selling. Her literary output has been steady, if not prodigious. She was first published in 1992 when her poem was included in an anthology. She's been publishing regularly for the last seven years. Her first independent work — a collection of short stories called Satyr of the Subway — was published in 1997. This was followed by two critically acclaimed novels, A Better Man (2000) and Ladies Coupe (2001). A book of poetry, Malabar Mind (2002), and a collection of writings on Kerala edited by her (2003) have been followed by her latest release, Puffin Book of World Myths and Legends (a children's book, October 2004). In the pipeline are its companion collection (a larger one) and a novel on a male dancer.

Master of multi-tasking

She is also a doting mother, wife, and homemaker too, a very "house-proud" one at that, as she tells you. She travels a lot and also dabbles in her various hobbies: food, gardening, collecting antique furniture... So how does she manage so many tasks so successfully? "Compartmentalisation," she says. "I allot time for everything in a disciplined way. Also, I believe I have people-skills and know how to build a rapport with people around me, especially my support systems." What are these supports? "An understanding husband, a wonderful housekeeper who's been with me for the past 14 years, and parents who are always chipping in, especially when I am travelling (they come down to manage my home then). And also, though I am house-proud and finicky, I also know when and how to delegate." You recall to her what she says on her website: "Whatever I'm doing, there's still a part of me working on the story/ book, thinking about what it's saying, the direction it's going." How would you reconcile this with "compartmentalisation"? "When I say compartmentalisation, I am referring largely to the mechanics of everyday life. On the one hand there is the business of familial ties and on the other that of a writer... the only way I can cope is by segregating; I need to eke out time and mark space in clearly defined categories for me to fulfil my various duties and chores. But the creative process, even if I were to want it to be so, is a factor I have no real control over. It intrudes into my thoughts whether I am watching a film, reading a book or cooking or even helping my son with a school project. In that sense it is like the Betaal in Vikramaditya's story. A fixture that refuses to let go. Honestly though, I am not complaining. I relish this secret life I lead in my head. I think it enriches my life in ways that I cannot explain but know it for certain."

No need for labels

Her book Ladies Coupe was described as an important work of feminism by well-known publications. Does she describe herself as feminist? She almost shudders at the word "feminist". And at what she thinks is careless literary criticism. "Firstly, I don't like these broad categories and classifications. It is lazy journalism to use such generalisations. My first book (A Better Man) was described as erotic. I don't think it was. Also there were so many aspects to the book and so just classifying it as erotic literature was so superficial. In the same way, I was surprised when Ladies Coupe was described as feminist — another lazy generalisation. Also, I am not happy with the term `feminism'." "Why?", you ask. "Well, firstly it is outdated. Secondly, the word `feminism' implies a striving to be equal, a desperation almost, to get equal with men, while what is important is to know that you are equal and exercise that equality. To experience that equality knowing it is yours, naturally." She similarly dismisses the word liberated woman. "I don't like these labels. I don't need these words to introduce myself to another person or to make myself understood."

Her children's book (incidentally her first venture into this genre), the Puffin work, has just been released so it is natural to ask her about the next one. It is a novel, she reveals, about a male dancer. And the theme? "Who decides whether an artist is successful: the artist himself or the world? I had even been to Kerala and enrolled with a dance school as part of my homework. It is almost done, the book, but I have got to get to work again. On another one. I am happiest when writing." And reading too — she reads a lot. "More fiction than non-fiction." Her favourite authors, she says are: Jorge Amado, Barbara Pym, Peter Ackroyd, Alan Holinghurst, Sue Townsend. Since we are talking of eroticism in her book I also ask her what is the most erotic book she has read: The Story of O.

When did she actually begin writing and did she always dream of being a writer? "I began writing very very early; when I was about eight or nine. I didn't think of being published then. All I wanted to do was write; record my thoughts and do so in a way that made me know the joy of creation and that for me was a compulsion like no other... Like most young writers what moved me was nature and misery. And so I wrote poems that, despite my youth, Thank God, was me seeking answers rather than being maudlin. I still feel the same compulsion about writing. Except that now as an adult and a published writer that disassociation of "it doesn't matter whether I am published or not" is harder to cling to...." Of course, that is easy to understand. How hard does she work to get published? "I generally use long hand for the initial draft, and then type into a comp which is my second draft? There is at most a third draft before it is what the readers get to read."Of course, there is also time spent in cross-checking facts again and again. She is very meticulous in this respect "even if the reader doesn't know better, I have to know for sure what I am stating is the truth. As far as possible I try to experience something, you know, try and live (itals for the word live) that experience before beginning to describe it. Only then do I allow my imagination to step in."What is her muse? "Love and life." Well, then so much for the inspiration and perspiration in her work.

`Be honest'

Significantly, Anita has managed appreciative international audiences for her writings even without pandering to the appetite for Indian exotica. So, is there a lesson in this for budding writers? "My own stand on is that if people want to read exotica, they should buy travel books that fulfil this need. I also think that you can't be a writer of any enduring value by merely stuffing a plotline into what is essentially a tourism brochure. I believe and I think it is the truth that as far as my writing is concerned, what makes it appealing world-wide is that my story lines and characters resonate with enough strength to stand on their own without a mandatory elephant thrown in....You can't suppress honesty, in literature or life and that is what I always tell budding writers. Be honest. Anything else won't do. Anything else won't live."

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