THE HINDU Thursday, May 17, 2001

Pages from his story

History is about life. You can't invent even the minutest fact, but there is scope for visualising what had happened. Abraham Eraly - teacher, journalist and author, talks to SHREEKUMAR VARMA.

WHEN I inform him that his name is mis-spelled "Early" in the phone directory, he laughs: "But I'm always late!" He lives reclusively, far away from town among a scattering of houses in Thorapakkam. He writes obsessively, working on his word- processor, and unwinds at night with a VCD movie. He produced an underground magazine when he was still in school. His city magazine Aside redefined Madras journalism. He taught history to college students, and provided new historical insight through two books, The Last Spring and Gem In The Lotus, published by Viking and Penguin India.

A first-floor home, a womb of words and no one beside him. Meet Abraham Eraly.

You started out as a teacher, didn't you? In the Madras Christian College.

I taught there for many years. The workload was disgracefully minimal. One of my conditions was that I would never teach afternoon classes because I wanted to have a nap! And then I thought I'm only 30 years old, this is a retired life, what am I doing here! So I quit my job and persuaded my father to give me some money.

He was supportive?

No, he was very clear - he said whatever money I give you, every rupee of that you're going to lose! (laughs) So I started Aside. The publishing profession said - six months is going to be the life-span of this magazine. (chuckles) It lasted 20 years! It started in 1977 and folded up in 1997.

And you had a committed readership you could recognise?

It was largely an upper class magazine - a quasi-literary kind of stuff, you know. But I think we had a very loyal readership. (pauses) I had an idea - something I couldn't do but there's still a wonderful scope - to have a magazine for South India. I wanted to call it The New South. If you go to Delhi, we are some distant provincial people who are hangers-on to the Indo-Gangetic plateau! I thought there is scope for a magazine to address South Indian culture, politics, problems and so on.

Were you writing while the magazine was going on?

Well, I've always been writing! I come from a family that had a fair amount of interest in culture. As I grew up, the Communist movement was on the upsurge and Kerala was an exciting place politically. (laughing) My ambition was to translate the complete works of Lenin into Malayalam! The Communist Party was banned when I was in school; we ran an underground hand-written magazine. And once I left school, I started writing. My initial publications were poems and short stories.

And history?

Well, I was disgruntled with the history I was teaching.

After all, history is about life. You can't invent even the minutest fact, but there is scope for visualising what had happened, you know? And so I have used material most historians wouldn't use because they're not historically significant.

Was it difficult to get hold of such information?

Oh no! The material is all there. By sheer chance somebody presented to me a translation of Persian chronicles of the Moghul period. They have information about details of life - how they sat, ate, stuff like that.

When you read books with different points of view, did you...

These people were only chroniclers. (he pauses, remembering) I was in Parry's Corner in the early days of Aside and there was a procession going on. And suddenly, there was a riot. I came back and tried to write about that. I was an eye-witness. And I found I didn't know what the devil had happened! So we'll never, never know what actually happened in the past.

How academic are you and how excited are you in your work?

The research part is very exciting because that's when you aregathering material. There is the excitement of learning. The most wretched and miserable phase is putting it together! Millions of little data swirling around your head, driving you mad! But gradually the first draft emerges. Thereafter, it is a question of rewriting. For me clarity is the most important thing. The reader should not flounder when he's reading books! But energy is also necessary because otherwise, the reader is not carried forward.

You revise both content and style?

Structuring the facts. I know there are great geniuses in India, particularly some women writers, who claim they never revise! (laughs) But Tolstoy rewrote War And Peace four times!

You work on the word processor?

I'm tempted to dedicate all my books to my computer! (laughs)

Because if I did not have a computer, my Moghul book would have taken 15-20 years, and not five. I would get up at four in the morning and work, except for a jog on the beach. All my waking hours were spent working.

Your second book is on ancient India, isn't it?

It deals with history from the very beginning to the decline of the Mauryas.

You would find in my book material you wouldn't find in a single- volume book on any part of ancient India. Not because the material was inaccessible to others. They were all there but historians thought it wasn't important. Why is it important how Vedic women dressed?

In a recent speech you said you were an agnostic except for a leaning towards Buddhism.

No! The Buddha himself was an extraordinarily gentle and compassionate person. And Freud called him the greatest psychologist of all time.

As a person we don't know much about him - We do not know what the real Gautama Buddha was like. But to a very large extent, what we know from the legends is true of the person. Because there is an excellent harmony between the events of his life and his teachings.

Don't all these religions have the same essential features - compassion, love, wisdom?

I would say the ethos of Buddhism is vastly different from that of Vedic religion. Vedic religion was basically amoral, you could commit any sin and be redeemed by performing certain sacrifices. There is no repentance required, you don't have to change yourself. In the case of Buddhism, you had to transform yourself. It was a difficult religion, essentially of the elite.

Why do you think the masses were not interested?

The masses were concerned with their daily life. Buddhism was concerned with the higher things of life. You had to have the leisure, dedication and self-control.

What are you working on now?

I have already done a small book on Kerala legends. Working for ten years exhausted me bothphysically and mentally. So I wanted to do something that gave me immediate satisfaction.

You're writing a novel, aren't you?

I have had a fairly complex life with all kinds of upheavals. I have a serious interest in philosophy, religion and so on. All these things I wanted to crystallise and put into the form of a book.

There are two strands in it. The dominant one is the life of an artist in Madras. And like a background drone another story is going on about his ancestral home, landed gentry trying to cope with the process of socio-economic change in Kerala. What I would consider valuable in the book is - When two people talk, quite a lot of ideas come into our conversation. But we don't find that in fiction. So I thought if my characters want to discuss what life is about, they should! (smiles) Straightaway I can tell you it is not autobiographical!

Was it a fun book or a difficult one to write?

Oh my God! I can tell you, this was a vacation for me!