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Have Susan’s word for it!

“The Seine at Noon” portrays Paris shorn of glamour and wealth, author Susan Visvanathan tells P. ANIMA

Photo Sandeep Saxena

Spinning stories Tales pounded inside me, says Susan Visvanathan

The red brick buildings of Jawaharlal Nehru University loom with tales. Down the narrow corridor, the search is for Room 22. A tiny name plate on the door announces Susan Visvanathan, the author of “The Seine at Noon.”

Little pillars of books are the chief occupants of this decrepit room. “Joan of Arc”, Rosamund Lehman’s “The Weather in the Street” and heavy tomes on Christianity gently nestle with a brand new copy of “The Seine at Noon.”

Paris discovered

“The novella is about the intensity and innocence of Paris,” says Susan, warm and pleasant in a carelessly draped earth-coloured printed sari. In this slim volume published by Roli and IndiaInk, Susan unravels Paris, shorn of glamour, fashion and richness, to stroke to life its everydayness and the daily struggles of ordinary people. “The Seine at Noon” toys with friendship, love, loss, obsession, guilt and death to eke out a tale of relationships against a troubled political milieu. Susan’s protagonists, Stefan, the crippled son of immigrant Jews from Kochi, and Jacques, a Frenchman and the son of a rich and much-married mother who lives on a boat on the river Seine, highlight the “poverty in Paris.” “Everyday survival is the real test of people’s lives. Our reading of poverty is always in terms of suppression of workers,” says the professor of Sociology.

At a time when “assimilation” seems to be the norm, especially in Paris, Susan makes her statement with the bond between Stefan and Jacques.

“The aim was to de-link from the politicality of friendship,” says Susan, her frizzy hair knotted into a casual bun.

With the friendship between an immigrant and a native, man and man, Susan touches upon the rights of the immigrants and also “friendship as human rights.” People aside, Paris in effect is a character in Susan’s novel. If there is a rival to Stefan’s affection for his wife Esther, it would be Paris. “I was in Paris for a month on professorship,” says Susan unravelling the Parisian experience.

“Paris did not communicate strangeness, and we never felt like aliens. We just merged into a larger population,” she explains. For Susan, whose parents migrated to Delhi in the 1940’s, Kerala is “still home” and Delhi is where her work is. “I have no problem with this dualism,” she says. Kerala evokes mixed feelings for the protagonists in her novel. It touches upon the untouched Tengapalli in Kerala — the beach and the waves and the “green river”. For Esther, Kerala is still a pang, while Stefan views the place with measured detachment. The professor explains that it is not an autobiographical novel. “It is more about how the author sees the world on behalf of other people,” she says.

“The author puts herself in the place of others,” says Susan. It is “empathy” and “imagination” that becomes a framework for a creative piece.

Imagination and tales nourished Susan’s childhood. “Even as a child, I wanted to be a writer. Stories pounded inside me,” she recalls. It took some time before Susan embarked on serious writing though. But this year is turning out to be her “annus mirabilis.” Her collection of essays, “Friendship, Inferiority and Mysticism” was published early this year.

Two works of fiction “The Seine at Noon” and “Phosphorus and Stone” published by Zubaan and Penguin Books India are ready for publication. But Susan says most of these works took a while to get into print. They are all seeing the light of the day around the same time. “‘Phosphorus and Stone’ stayed with me for four years while, “Friendship, Inferiority and Mysticism” are essays written in the 1990s,” she says.

With three books moving out of her sphere, the writer inspired by Virginia Woolf and Iris Murdoch, is busy with new writing ventures. And then there is teaching.

As we take leave, university students huddled outside the room trickle in to get the signature of Professor Susan Visvanathan on their cards.

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