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Penning her thoughts on life

Usha Rajagopalan, winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Competition for three successive years, speaks about her latest work, `Amrita'


USHA RAJAGOPALAN'S observations of people find their way into her stories. She is very clear about the kind of stories she writes. "I write what I, as a reader, would love to read," she says. There are certain elements that fascinate her when she reads the works of other writers. "Sometimes, you get hooked the moment you read the first few sentences."

Usha grew up on Enid Blytons and Perry Masons and a "voracious reader" that she was, she would read anything she could lay her hands on.

Luckily for Usha, having a grandfather who was passionate about literature helped her realise her skill for writing. Her grandfather, A. S. Iyer, used to encourage her to write.

"He would ask me to read books and write a small paragraph on each book that I had read. He would correct the errors and tell me where I had gone wrong," Usha recalls.

After her grandfather's death, it was Usha's uncle, Prof. A. S. Balakrishnan, who encouraged her to write. Her short stories, poems and articles have been published in various magazines such as Femina, Savy and newspapers such as Times of India, Indian Express and Deccan Herald.

The Andrew Fellowship in Fiction at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in 1999, says Usha, instilled in her the confidence to write her novel. "I love meeting people and I learned so much from the people I met at Vancouver during my stay there. It did me a world of good."

"I did not grow up thinking I'd become a writer."


As a child, I never quite wanted to become a writer. I used to write because I liked to write. Then, I went on to do my Master's degree in English literature. After I got married, I landed a job as executive assistant to V. Kurien, former chairman, National Dairy Development Board, Anand (Gujarat). I was unhappy; because I was doing something I didn't really want to. I decided to quit and concentrate on writing. I realised it is where my passion lies. On a visit abroad, I came across a handbook for artists and writers and wondered why nobody had thought of writing one such book in India. Then I thought, `why not write it myself?' That is how my first book, `Get Published' (Oxford University Press) came about. It was well received. Even last month I got the royalty for it.

"I cherish the three months that I spent in Vancouver."

I was given a laptop. I would diligently key in whatever I'd written every morning and night. I completed my first draft within 38 days. I cherish the three months that I spent in Vancouver. During the reading sessions we had to read out either our works or those of other writers. In one of the sessions, I read out one of my short stories, `Within the Family'. At the end of the session, the audience sat in silence. I was thinking `Oh! God. My story is so bad... no one seems to be responding'. And then, a Japanese lady became very emotional and said she liked what I'd read out. That is the day I realised the power of the pen.

"Amrita' was the outcome of a shot I saw on television."

I chanced to watch a programme on television that had a scene where two children were walking down a road, holding hands. I wanted to write about relationships. I thought I'd make one child physically challenged and dependent on the other. I gave up that idea when I read about special schools for differently-abled children. I decided to draw upon it for my story. We moved to Manipal in 1998. I visited a lot of special schools and decided to learn more about such children before I began writing my novel.

"A lot of research preceded the novel."

A friend told me to get in touch with the Jaivittals. I went to meet them and they introduced me to their daughter, Archana, who has Down's syndrome. She drew some pictures in my notebook. I tired to communicate with her, but she knew only Kannada, which I didn't. I would often visit the Jaivittals, spend time with their children and observe how Archana interacted with her brother, who was a normal child. If everybody was as caring as the Jaivittals are towards their daughter, there would have been no need for `Amrita'.

I also read a lot of books and met parents and teachers of `special children' before I sat down to pen my thoughts. I wanted my book to reach out to people who have normal children. I wanted my readers to think about how difficult life is for children who are differently-abled and how tough it is for them to cope with little things in life. It took me four years to complete `Amrita'. It has been an emotionally draining experience and a laborious process as well. I hope my next book will not take up so much of my time. I spent one-and-a half years polishing my writing to bring it to a certain standard. Five years later, I may think `God! I had written such rubbish.' But for now, I'm happy that I've written a book that I'd like to read. I want to write again, but I need to take a break.

"A writer must delve into personal experiences to be true and real."

I write about what I see happening in society. I feel the author's mindset should be reflected in the writings. What is most important to me is that I should be comfortable with my thoughts and writings. I like to explore relationships. In `Amrita', I have explored the strained relationships between two different families. Amrita is a differently-abled child who is dependent on her younger sister Maya. Maya initially dislikes Amrita, but later becomes her protector and tries to integrate Amrita into their family.

"I have taken cues from J. K. Rowling's writings."

I have scattered the leads throughout my novel and link them up at different points, in the same way J. K. Rowling has done in her `Harry Potter' series. It is more like a network that unravels as the reader reaches the end of the novel. I want my book to have an emotional impact on my readers. I do not want people to think while they are reading the book; I want them to feel Amrita's anguish and helplessness. It's difficult to write in simple language and I've deliberately chosen to structure the sentences in the simplest way possible. How else will you get veracity unless you draw upon experiences in your life? The feedback has been positive and I'm satisfied with my work. `Amrita' is my way of repaying my debt to my grandfather and uncle.

From the darkness of the interior Kamala looked out into the bright colours of the shrubs and crotons surrounding the house and conceded that Maya could cast spells on plants as well, not only on her sister.

Yet, she could not see the profusion of leaves and flowers without feeling stab of regret that had lost its edge over the years. The garden reminded her of Maya's conversation with her father when she said, "I want to learn how to handle special children."

SMITHA SADANANDAN

Photo: S. Gopakumar

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