Stories from melting pots

"One can convey the nuances of complex concepts through what comes to him or her naturally.
In my case, English is the immediate vehicle, though thoughts come from my Kerala roots.'' 

Shreekumar Varma is a peripatetic writer, and
his wanderings bring him close to people and their
milieu.  Like many uprooted Malayalees, he lives away
from his cultural base, in the melting pot that is
Chennai, but his affinity to his chosen city is strong
enough for him to call it `home town'. This may sound
cliched  in a city with strong contingents of
residents from all over the country. But not for
Mr. Varma, who is inspired by such diversity.
His latest novel is on the `nightmarish experiences'
of a Chennai-settled Malayalee on a visit to Goa. T. Ramakrishnan listens to the litterateur who straddles the Madras of old, a Travancore royal connection and the social milieu of Kerala juxtaposed with `hip hop' Tamil cinema today.

SHREEKUMAR VARMA was four when his family moved to Chennai in the late 1950s. At that time, Nungambakkam High Road looked like a `village'. His home stood approximately where Hotel Ganpat lies now. ``Then, even a dog's bark could be heard at Gemini Studios, which was on the other end of the road,'' he recalls.

But, by the time Mr. Varma's family decided to end its `ties' with Nungambakkam in 1981, the road had become one of the congested corridors of the city with two-way traffic. His next stop was St. Mary's Road, which resembled, in many respects, Nungambakkam High Road of the 1950s. But in just 15 years, this road in south Chennai also turned into a choked corridor of urban confusion. Now, Mr. Varma lives in a southern suburb, Neelankarai.

Despite having to become a roving resident periodically, his love for the city remains undiminished. ``Chennai is one of the vibrant urban centres, culturally and in other respects,'' he says. Existential worries about crime are, however, inescapable. Of late, crime has increased here, he says, expressing hope that the city police will do something about it.

Cities evolve over the years, and in the case of Mumbai, it is not a happy change. Recollecting the three years that he spent in that city about two decades ago, the writer points out that once upon a time, the general atmosphere of that city was great. ``Now, I find it stifling.'' There is a skein of humour in Mr. Varma's works but it rests on the foundation of serious issues in life. Author of several poems, short stories and plays, he wrote two award-winning plays, `The Dark Lord' and `Bow of Rama', the last one dealing with the power struggle in a Kerala village. What is more, most of his works are in English.

He acknowledges that there are difficulties in conveying complexities of Indian society in English, an `alien' language.

While writing in English, one has to provide explanations about various aspects in a Malayalee's life or a Tamilian's culture to make them comprehensible to readers from different backgrounds. ``Some concepts are so unique to Kerala or Tamil Nadu that a Punjabi is as similarly placed as an American or a Briton to appreciate them. Take the matriarchal system, which even a Tamilian finds it not so easy to comprehend. But, one can convey the nuances of complex concepts through what comes to him or her naturally. In my case, English is the immediate vehicle, though thoughts come from my Kerala roots,'' he explains. Grandson of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, who was the Regent Maharani of Travancore during 1924-31, Mr. Varma says he knew her only as `my grandmother'. He heard that she had, in her official capacity, interacted with stalwarts such as Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. Many years later, when she settled down in Bangalore, her world was practically confined to one room. ``The person, who once enjoyed power and dealt with great personalities, had no problem in adapting herself to completely a different environment later.''

There were severe restrictions on members of the royal family in those days. ``They had no freedom and were in a golden cage. They could not talk to their relations on an equal footing,'' Mr. Varma muses, pointing out that his mother, Indira Bai, was the first woman in the royal family to take an under-graduate degree in a college. Sethu Lakshmi Bayi was the granddaughter of the eminent artist Raja Ravi Varma. ``For some of his paintings, she and her mother were models,'' the younger Varma says.

In another dimension to his involvement with language, Mr. Varma teaches Creative English at the Chennai Mathematical Institute. ``My function is to remove hesitation from the minds of the students to engage themselves in creative writing. I believe that whatever be one's current passion, everyone has the sense of creativity. One must recognise it and act on it.''   The Hindu

Chasing a dream

Shreekumar Varma is a journalist, novelist and
a playwright all rolled into one

"There's a dream," says Shreekumar Varma. His debut novel, Lament Of Mohini (Penguin India, 2000), was nominated for the Commonwealth and Crossword awards, and was on several 'Top Ten' lists. The story is set in Kerala and Chennai, and explores the effect of family history on the present. For the first time the matrilineal way of life is dealt with in detail. He writes about eccentric matriarchs and timeless patriarchs.

Is it autobiographical? "For the hundredth time, no!" he says. But the question - which has been asked through most of his interviews - is inevitable. The story is about an aristocratic Kerala family. And Varma himself is a scion of the Travancore royal family, great-great-grandson of the artist Raja Ravi Varma and grandson of the last ruling maharani of Travancore.
"If the story were true, I'd have been sued by my own family members ages ago! Come on, give me credit for some imagination. In fact, it's become a habit to dream. The belief is, if you dream hard enough it's possible to live your dream!" he says.

Varma is also a playwright. The very first play he wrote, The Dark Lord, won the second prize at the British Council One-Act Play (South India) competition. "I didn't know a thing about theatre," he laughs. "I imagined an audience in front of me and wrote as honestly as possible. Of course, one thing I always rely on is humour. That's the life of the party. When the results were announced I was so surprised I didn't write a play for ten years." But he did experiment with the form, trying to perfect it, writing skits and spoofs and small theatrical pieces for anyone who asked for it.

"Mostly for college students, the Rotary and Round Table," he says. He then springs a surprise. Novelist Anita Nair acted in that play. "She was a young girl those days, but she played an old woman in The Dark Lord. An eccentric old woman."
"And you have to be daring enough to dream with conviction. Then nothing else matters and you can focus on your work."
Ten years after the first play there was another chance, an all-India competition organised by the Madras Players and The Hindu. This time his play, Bow Of Rama, won the top prize. "See, you sit in isolation and write a novel, and you know your readers are also going to sit in isolation and read it. They have ample scope to interpret your work. But in a play the audience gets an already interpreted work. There are so many people involved, director, actors, stage people, producer. Your play goes through all these people and finally reaches your audience. But then, the thrill of watching an audience watching your play - laughing, being moved, reacting in so many different ways - that's a thrill you can't beat!"

"The dream has to start when you're young. In my case, I was writing all along - different forms, different forums."
His novel came late, however, because of other "necessary preoccupations". But he never stopped writing. He had printing, publishing and computer training units. He worked as a journalist for a national paper, he published and edited a magazine, taught Literature and creative English. But he feels the novel was a turning point. Lament Of Mohini placed him squarely on the road to his destination. "This was what I'd been waiting to do." His second novel is already finished. It is set in Goa and is a "psychological sort of novel". He isn't keen on talking about it as yet. "I'm preparing for the third," he says instead. That is going to be back in Kerala, a large family affair. In the meanwhile, he has finished two more plays and several poems. Poetry is "rare but rapid - something of a cleansing thing." His website has several of his poems in it. "A play is also a very private thing till someone condescends to produce it. I have so many plays lying around it isn't funny! I wonder if I'll ever see them on stage."

"I like interviewing people. It's a way of approaching the core of people, trying to know how they work, what makes them tick - you're sharing in their dreams, and it definitely helps your own growth."

Varma believes he will never stop being a journalist. And in a way, that's a good thing if you're a writer, whether as a novelist, a poet or a playwright. He is "investing in his knowledge of people. So I feel," he adds, "if you're a good journalist, you've already acquired one of the basic qualifications for being a novelist."

He has published several short stories and articles, poems and interviews besides his novel. Also a book for children, The Royal Rebel.

He can be contacted at Writing is a full-time job, and keeps him busy. "I still have a dream," he smiles.    DECCAN HERALD