‘Indian media is obsessed with obtuse authors’

CHETAN KRISHNASWAMY writes from Bangalore: On the many occasions we have swigged beer in Bangalore’s seedy bars, adwoman turned author Anita Nair has ensnared me with her intellectual vigour and literary range.

At other times, she has puzzled me with her flippant—and alarmingly consistent—appearances on Bangalore’s airy Page 3 circuit. It is apparent that Anita loves to gambol with the “wolves and lambs” at these events, although sometimes she vehemently, and playfully, denies it.

Her latest novel, the 329-page Lessons in Forgetting, brings out both these contrasting facets of the writer’s personality. “This is probably the most intense and complex novel that I have ever written,” says Anita, caressing the dancing ringlets framing her face.

The narrative style of Lessons in Forgetting is fast paced but nuanced in a sophisticated sort of way. The primary characters Meera and Krishnamurthy aka Jak, two very different individuals from two diverse worlds, find themselves staring into a bottomless abyss.

Afflicted by a deep crisis, the two individuals come together to exorcise the demons within.

The growing eye of a raging cyclone turns into a masterly metaphor, an unlikely cerebral backdrop for Anita’s story to take shape: “The only certainty about a cyclone or despair is the uncertainty it triggers. And as with despair, the cyclogenesis of a tropical storm is seldom announced. What is certain is the resultant turbulence.”

Lessons in Forgetting is Anita’s fourth novel, after a collection of short stories, a book of poetry, four children’s books and an anthology of essays on Kerala. Her latest novel will be available in bookstores across the country from Feb 1.

Excerpts from an interview she gave churumuri.com:

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Chetan Krishnaswamy: Lessons in Forgetting is a rather unconventional name for a work of fiction. How did it come about?

Anita Nair: Actually, I had a different working title, but that began to sound too poetic; it lacked the resonance. I wasn’t too happy with it. One fine morning, this title appeared in a flash. No rhyme or reason. Everytime I am swimming, I actually forget to breathe, and I keep joking that I should take lessons on how not to forget breathing while I swim. Probably, that was the genesis of the title. The final endorsement came from my 18-year old son, whose instinct I have trusted for years.

My publishers leapt at it and found it to be apt as well. Moreover, the title and the plot synchronized well.  Both the characters in my novel  Meera and Jak have had devastating experiences in life. They need to get past it all and move on. They are constantly wrestling with their memories. Even the minor characters need to put behind their past lives and surge ahead. The title seemed perfect.

At a basic level the story is seemingly straightforward, but beneath you realise that it is a highly textured, complex narrative.  I thought that using the scientific genesis of a cyclone as a metaphor to illustrate the evolving turbulence in the lives of your two protagonists was hugely creative.

Anita Nair: I was sitting with my friend Sudha Pillai one afternoon, and she told me that she was working on a cyclone film for National Geographic. That triggered of my quest to understand how cyclones are created and I incorporated my research with a literary touch in the story.

I began writing Lessons in Forgetting in October 2006. The idea was to write a light, feel-good novel. I even began the story with a typical Page 3 party, but eventually decided that I was not up to it. How could I work on some rubbish for three years? I started giving it dimensions, a fresh texture, and in due course found myself working on this rather complex narrative.A lot of the situations, I had to build in my mind, since they were not borne out of my experiences: The husband deserting the wife, raising a teenage daughter, the predicament of a woman not knowing how to cook, etc. I also brought in Greek mythology and constantly compared Meera to the Queen of the Universe, Hera. Indian gods and goddess are not given to perfidies but the Greek gods are more human, and I love those stories.

On the one hand, this novel comes with a strong feminist stamp to it. The women are very strong and independent minded. You bring up female foeticide. But then you also indulge in shockingly old fashioned stereotypes like how marriage becomes essential for a woman, how it gives a sense of security to the woman, how a divorcee or a widow does not find favour in a social gathering, etc. Why this contradiction?

Anita Nair: Being a bold feminist is aspirational and the sterotypes that you refer is reality of the day. I am a woman writer not a feminist. My plot is unintentional on most occasions. I write for the sheer joy of writing, not to make a statement. I don’t write to jolt the system.  I am not an activist.

Aren’t you abdicating your responsibility as a writer in the process?

Anita Nair:  I have often been criticized for being reticent. I believe that what I write should speak for itself.  I am against authors wearing their ideology on their sleeve. Authors themselves are so fickle. Their causes keep changing in keeping with their current obsession. I speak through my books and I don’t want to publicly voice my sentiments or thoughts.

You seem to be taking potshots at the preening Page 3 crowd in your book, something that you are an integral part of. That’s hypocrisy now?

Anita Nair: I haven’t exaggerated the Page 3 culture one bit in my book. It is a world where everybody feeds off each other. That’s exactly how it is. Since I am a part of it all, I may be deprecating myself through this novel. At these parties, there is always somebody hitting on you all the time. Now I am going to be in serious trouble. Nobody is going to invite me ever (Smiling) . Frankly, to this day, I don’t know why I am invited.

Like you mention in your book, the PR guys who orchestrate these events think that you are sexy, photogenic, probably that’s why.

Anita Nair: What rubbish! No seriously. I think they invite me because I stimulate the atmosphere with my conversation. I have also been living in this city for a long time and know a lot of people. I probably also find a place on the invitee list because of my food writing. Sometimes they want a few token intellectuals to add credibility to the event . Anyway I am not trying to take the high moral ground and belittle anybody. It is just a social observation.

How many guys have hit on you so far?

Anita Nair:  Thankfully I attend these parties with my husband. I can play beautifully obtuse when somebody propositions me. I act like a bimbette.  I remember this guy coming up to me and casually asking whether my husband was still around. He meant whether I was still married. I stupidly looked around and said yes, he’s somewhere around. For the discerning few, a lot of Bangalore’s page 3 characters are visible in my book.

Tell me, do you gasp for breath, get turned on, when you write those frenzied love-making scenes in your books, are you self-conscious at all about this aspect of your writing?

Anita Nair: Actually, when I write the many sexual interludes in my books, I write with a smile.  I cease to exist as a person. I write the scene in my head. Later, when I read them I am almost amused at my vivid imagination.

Sometimes I feel you are writing these graphic details merely to sensationalise or titillate to sell your books. Why would  anybody be interested in how a woman’s armpits smell? You do make that description in your novel, right?

Anita Nair:  No way! Each of these sexual sequences are integral to my story. A certain amount of self-editing happens almost automatically. I know when to stop and not go overboard. But I do have a lot of people coming up to me and perversely dwelling over these facets in my books.

In the early days as a writer, people would come upfront and make a pass at me without even thinking twice. They assume that because you write about sex you are probably sleeping around. They try hard to find out how many men I have slept with. I just play dumb. In real life, if I did everything I write, I would be leading a very busy life.

Do you think you have got your due as a writer?

Anita Nair: The simple answer is, No. The literary establishment has not recognised my efforts. Sometimes, it results in huge self doubts about my abilities. I hide behind this placid façade but it’s not easy. The measures that the media uses to judge creative works  is also completely inconsistent.

It is obsessed with writers like Amitav Ghosh, Amit Chaudhuri, Pankaj Mishra.

It almost seems that a work has more gravitas if it’s obtuse. But the moment a book becomes accessible, it seems to lose value. It’s probably because I haven’t shown the workings that go behind writing a book, the amount of research that goes in, etc. But I am happy when I get a letter from a mother from some remote part of the world telling me that her relationship with her daughter is much better after she read one of my books. These small changes,  that my books bring about in people’s lives are significant for me.

How important is it for a writer to be rooted in the vernacular, in the native milieu. In that sense you pander to the urban elite, don’t you?

Anita Nair: It is very important for a writer to relate to his roots and have grounding in a regional language. I read Malyalam quite extensively. I speak it very well and follow all the literary trends in Kerala. I will be translating a famous Malyalam novel very soon. I will also commence writing a historical novel on medieval Kerala shortly, a world nobody knows about and wrongly depicted in movies.