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There are people listening


Sahitya Akademi Award recipient Malathi Rao on her novels and on writing as a means of finding a structure for this world…

No more speaking in the dark: Malathi Rao.

“Life is a monolithic creature, and you want a space where you can feel hope and confidence that you can manage this creature; and that’s what writing is for me.” This is Malathi Rao, who won the 2007 Sahitya Akademi Award for her English novel, Disorderly Women. Though she has been writing for a long time, with a novel, three collections of short stories and scores of newspaper articles to her name, according to her, it is only with this award that she actually feels “recognised”. “I would have been unknown without this recognition; now I feel that I am not speaking in the dark, that there are indeed people listening.”

Malathi Rao discusses many things during the hour that we spend in her Shankarapura flat , but the recurring note is that of an acute need to write; she describes writing variously as a “means of self-expression”, a way to “hold chaos” and as a “call from within”. Excerpts from an interview…

Why do you think it took this long for the recognition to come? Does being in the South have anything to do with it?

Well, I wasn’t published by any of the big publishers, two of my books came out as Writers’ Workshop publications and the other was done by a small publisher in Delhi. The publisher makes a big difference; readers automatically go for books from the larger publishing houses. And yes, of course being in the South is a disadvantage, because it’s difficult for writers from here to be in touch with the big publishers who are all in Delhi. Delhi has monopolised the scene; not only are the publishing houses there but so are many of our writers, who are visible and articulate and in touch with the media.

Does the media play that big a role, and are there any efforts in Bangalore by writers to do something that will attract the media, draw their attention to Bangalore-based writers?

The media is the main maker of fame, everything is tailored to them; the literary festivals for example are all filled with big names, people who can draw the media. The literary scene in Bangalore is very scattered; we don’t have a Bangalore festival, there are no literary groups where writers can come together and share their work. And though we do have good writers, famous writers here, they don’t reach out.

So where could such an initiative to bring together, and perhaps celebrate, Bangalore’s scattered literary efforts come from?

It could come from bookshops; we have stores like Crossword making small attempts by holding readings, giving literary prizes etc. It could come from colleges, where writers could be asked to visit and share their work, or perhaps seminars and the like could be organised there. It could come from industries. Like ITC’s Sangeeth Sammelans, we could have big industrial houses sponsoring, organising events and generally helping in spreading a love of literature. The media of course could also play a role!

Do you subscribe to the popular view that reading habits have changed for the worse? And if it has, what does it mean for you as a writer, and for other writers?

It’s the age of the quickie; people don’t have the time to “stop and stare”, everything has to be done fast for instant consumption. So, much of the writing being done now is the popular kind not the thought-provoking kind — there are no Jane Austens today. But then, we have to move with the times, if you look at our syllabuses, you’ll see that they are more directed to popular tastes. It’s not true that you have to write committed literature.

Apart from an active and discerning public, what else do you wish for as a writer?

I feel the lack of some kind of mediation between the writer and the publisher; we don’t have literary agents here and if you don’t have connections in the publishing world, it becomes difficult.

What is your writing concerned with?

My concern when I write is to find a structure for a world where I can feel happy; this world of language is a way of channelising emotions, a way of facing life. I write about women and men but the women stand out.

Are there influences on your writing that you are conscious of and have to negotiate with? Did any of these influences make you want to be a writer?

Influences are everywhere; I write about a purely Kannada ethos in an alien language. Is that not an influence? As for writing, I don’t know where the desire came from, I would read a lot, and I think I’ve always been enamoured of writing, of the ability to create an alternate world, where you, the writer could order things.

You’ve talked of the problems of reaching publishers and of publishing houses going for big names and a certain type of novel; apart from these, what other hurdles come between the writing and the birth of the book? Are you able to be an effective critic of your own writing?

There is the language problem as well; those who write in Kannada write in magazines and for serials and there are lots of people reading them, especially women, in magazines like Sudha and Taranga. For those writing in English, there is not that much visibility. And no, I am not really a good critic of my work; I usually give it to someone else to read. But if I put it away for a long time, when I come back to it, I can see the gaps and absurdities.

What do you read now? Who are your favourite writers?

Now I read all the Indian writing in English I can lay my hands on; among favourite reading are the works of Henry James, Raja Rao, R.K. Narayan, of course, and, above all, Shakespeare.

Are you working on another novel now?

I have finished a novel, it’s on a CD and I just want to revise it once before sending it to a publisher. It’s called Inquisition and it’s about women on a university campus.

What advice would you give to young writers?

I say “Just write”! Let nothing come between you and the writing.

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