MS: You have insisted at book launches that there is no autobiographical element in the novel?
SKV: I insist that there is no family history. Since this is my first novel, a lot of what I think about, feel about is definitely there. There is a part of me in Gopi and in Rangachari and then there are people I have encountered. The Travancore history is real. But I talk of Kilikkara which is a fictitious place. A lot of elements I have picked up but it is a totally concocted space. And the novel does not trace my family history.
MS: One finds in your work a combination of humor and pathos, something of the kind one finds in the works of Basheer and Arundhati Roy. The funnier episodes too have this undercurrent of pathos.
SKV: I believe yes that tragedy does leave a more indelible mark.Humour and tragedy is a deadly combination.Humor can lead you up to a tragic moment. And if you are bitter about experiences then the irony does not work. Which is why R.K.Narayan is such a great writer. Even his wife's death he describes with little touches of humour which make the tragedy stand out a little more. Even Arundhati Roy, the way she uses language and combines humour with the tragic is admirable. Meenakshi Shivram INDIAINFOLINE
A royal remembrance
of things passed
What can one say about Shreekumar Varma, whose debut novel Lament of Mohini has just seen the light of day? That he’s witty and warm, and widely published. That he’s a journalist, editor, publisher, printer and journalism lecturer. So far he’s written award-winning plays, radio scripts, short stories, and even a children’s book. Perhaps this novel is Varma’s bid to reshape the oral tradition. For Chennai-based Varma is the grandson of the last ruling Maharani of Travancore, and the great-great-grandson of the artist Raja Ravi Varma.
What happens when royalty is redefined in today’s context?
What's the untold story behind your first novel?
A story had been with me since I was 20 or so. It kept changing. Meanwhile, I was writing short stories. In 1997, I had a break from business I was into computers and HR-training for youngsters when I began to write. It took me two years.
Is this a fictionalised rendition of your family history?
Not at all! The background is a carefully constructed mix of several "royal" households, people and incidents. I was careful to ensure that nothing would point to any particular household. My novel is steeped in a joint family tradition and owes about 85 per cent to my imagination! The remaining is a reworking of what I've heard and witnessed. As for family history, I've never lived in a joint family. My grandmother was taken to Trivandrum and later became the regent maharani. The family thus became like a unique severed limb existing on its own away from our matriarchal roots in Mavelikkara. After my grandmother left Trivandrum and settled down in Bangalore, and my mother came to Madras, it was more or less a nuclear family situation.
The plot in your novel is unusual. It veers in and out of the main strand throughout. Was this deliberate?
The problem was the profusion of characters and incidents. I felt I couldn't sacrifice any of them. So I resorted to this episodic narrative one episode growing out of another. Since the writer Rangachari is influenced basically by the Mahabharata, this seemed to fit in. Editing did improve the structure, moving incidents from one place to another, making it more linear and chronological. Earlier, for instance, 'Diamond Week' appeared somewhere in the beginning.
Your language is occasionally creative, with concocted words. At other times, it's deliberately desi. Why?
There had to be a different mood to dress each occasion. Frankly, I love handling and playing with language. But when I write, I find I go along with the flow. I try and end each session polishing what I've written. The "concocted" words appear mainly when it's the protagonist's voice.
Among contemporary Indians writing in English whom do you especially admire? Why?
Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. I also loved An Equal Music, though I haven't got through Vikram Seth's other works. The way they use words, for one. The emotion, their ability to get into the plot. I also liked Anita Desai's Fasting, Feasting. And for sheer sensitivity and her brilliance of accuracy Jhumpa Lahiri.
How does it feel to be a part of the Great Indian Writing Boom?
I hope I'm still around when the boom settles and they start picking up the debris! We're a people who've recently stood up and stretched our limbs. We've become aware of ourselves and the world, and that is finding expression. The world is waking up to contemporary India, not just its past. ADITI DE THE HINDUSTAN TIMES
EXCERPTS: Relaxing on a couch in Robert Clements' (of Bob's Banter in The Daily) house in the suburbs Shreekumar Varma, author of Lament of Mohini opened up his writer's mind and held forth on why he loves telling stories. Descendant of the legendary painter Raja Ravi Varma and grandson of the last ruling maharani of Travancore.
Shreekumar Varma has a legacy to carry on. Varma left the palace in Travancore when he was four years old,so he hardly has any memories of the royal living.
Lament of Mohini, however, is a story of five generations of an aristocratic Kerala family. The story is set in a town of Varma's imagination. Yes, the story is based on his observations, experiences...
"As a little boy I would regale people with my own stories. I loved making my own stories but sadly took it up professionally quite late."
"Nothing is boundless, not even imagination. For the writer, the subject is his framework, for the artist the canvas is his space boundary..."
Varma doesn't need an `environment' before he embarks on his writing journey though "Waiting for a perfect setting and frame of mind, you'll never be able to pen a word. It's the mind which has to enter the world which you have created, not your body."
He believes that writing is an extension of self. "Agatha Christie once remarked that if she wasn't writing all those murder mysteries she would be committing murders herself. I do believe that the choice of one's writing mirrors the person. The first novel is a reflection of the author."
INDIAN EXPRESS, mumbai
Shreekumar Varmapresented the first edition of his debut novel Lament of Mohini to the
Mahalsa temple at Ponda. He speaks to BEVINDA COLLACO of his book and the writing of it
Varma was a definite let-down. Especially a grand son of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, the last maharani of Travancore.
Forget about turning up with gaily caparisoned elephant, howdah and outriders, the quiet pleasant looking man who smiled
apologetically while I gulped down my lunch looked like he could be absolutely at home in a monastery.
Calm eyes, high forehead and pleasant well-modulated voice; there was no in-your-face attitude, no allusions to his royal roots. He sat down before me aware that I knew zilch about him, his novel or of the principality of Travancore. He came to our office in pouring rain after he presented his soon to be launched novel, Lament of Mohini to the Mahalsa temple, at Ponda. Way back in 1996 when Varma worked out his first few chapters of Mohini, he visited the Mahalsa temple at Ponda. He mentioned his book and learned that the deity Mohini, the female avatar of Lord Vishnu, was also housed at Mahalsa. Shreekumar Varma made a pledge then, that if his novel ever got published he would present the first printed copy to the Mahalsa temple.
The rest is history and through some strange coincidence, the day he visited the temple a special puja was being performed to Mohini.
His royal lineage was not half as exciting to a lowly feature writer like me, as the novel he has written. A published novelist is a blue-blood among writers. A Penguin published novelist at that too. Varma did his M Phil in English Literature and after a diploma in Journalism, he worked in the Indian Express, Mumbai. After that he has been editor, publisher, printer and lecturer in English and Journalism. He has written a children's book, The Royal Rebel, he has designed and broadcast radio programmes and has also written two award winning plays......... GOMANTAK TIMES, Goa