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Write of way
Sangeeta Datta (left) chats with Sangeeta Bahadur during An Author’s Afternoon, presented by Shree Cement along with Prabha Khaitan Foundation and Taj Bengal, in association with Siyahi, on Friday.

It was adda in true Calcutta style at The Chambers in Taj Bengal on October 5, as a group of book lovers gathered for An Author’s Afternoon, presented by Shree Cement, along with Prabha Khaitan Foundation and Taj Bengal, in association with the Jaipur-based literary consultancy Siyahi.

Steaming glasses of masala chai straight out of a ketli, sumptuous samosa and jhalmuri served in a thonga did the rounds as filmmaker, film historian and cultural commentator Sangeeta Datta got chatting with author Sangeeta Bahadur, who is also the minister of culture at the Indian high commission in the UK and the director of the Nehru Centre in London. Bahadur’s bestselling novel Jaal, the first title in the Kaal trilogy, was published by Pan Macmillan in May.

Sangeeta Datta: Being an IFS officer, why and how did you even decide to write a book?

Sangeeta Bahadur: Being an IFS officer was always a second choice, if not a third! What I wanted to do most, other than writing, was to become an airhostess. But my parents put their foot down. So I went and became an IFS officer.

As for writing, I have been doing that since I was 13. I wrote at least a dozen novels while still in school. Then, much later in life, I was introduced to the fantasy genre, through JRR Tolkien. I realised such a lot was being done with this genre, but not in India. As an experiment, I began writing Jaal. Soon the story took over and the book started flowing, like a movie, frame by frame.

I had finished almost one-third of the book, and did not know what to do with it when my husband [Yuresh K. Sinha] read through it and said ‘This is amazing, you should definitely finish it!’

Many people told me there was no market for a book like this in India, that’s why no one was writing such stories. But my husband said forget what others are saying and just write. And I did.

Sangeeta Bahadur signs a copy of Jaal for actress Gargi Roy Chowdhury as Sundeep Bhutoria of Prabha Khaitan Foundation looks on. “I found Sangeeta very interesting,” Gargi told t2 later.

SD: How do you manage it all — your work, your family, the world of Kaal? It must have been tough....

SB: It was pretty tough, not just because you have to take care of a full-fledged career and home but also because I have a young child who is in the autistic spectrum and she requires a lot of my time and energy. But I guess if you are passionate about something, you just manage to find time and make it work. Writing was the only time when I felt alive.

SD: Jaal has a great geographical spread — spanning several worlds, some real, some fantastic. Yet there is a sense of physicality about your descriptions, which I loved. I know you were born in Calcutta, but you have travelled a lot. Have your travels helped you build this fantasy world?

SB: Definitely. This is not a real world but a parallel one, which I have built brick by brick. But it definitely helped me a lot to have seen different ways of living, because there are so many cultural differences you notice when you stay in different countries. It has helped me create not just characters but whole societies, religions and socio-political interactions. See, if I lived my whole life in Calcutta, I would probably have a very Bengali outlook towards life. But when you move around and see so much, you realise none of it is wrong, they are only different ways of perceiving things.

SD: Did you have the structure in mind before you started writing?

SB: To tell you the truth, a quarter of the book just happened, without a structure. But one day, I suddenly said, ‘Hang on, how long is this story going to be?’ I had not started off with a trilogy in mind, but the way the story built itself up, I decided one book was just not going to be enough! Once you take a decision like that, you have to bring a structure to your writing, otherwise it becomes too chaotic. Despite the planning, there were times when the book just took over. Every author says it and seriously, the story often ends up surprising me. So, you can say that Jaal was part-planned and part-exploratory.

“Sangeeta said the book draws heavily from metaphysics and is not exactly a copy of Indian mythology. I’m sure that makes Jaal an interesting read,” said Bonian Golmohammadi (left), the secretary-general of the World Federation of United Nations Associations (WFUNA), munching on crispy jhalmuri and sipping chai from a glass.

SD: Coming to the genre you have chosen — fantasy fiction, or speculative fiction as many critics call it — I would like to extend it to our epics, which most of us have grown up with. What is your take on them?

SB: I believe any kind of mythology survives for centuries and millennia because they enshrine within them eternal truths that you can never get away from, be it The Ramayana, The Mahabharata or even the Odyssey. They also give you hope... that there is something beyond the immediate physical world, something bigger and profound, and humans are striving towards that ‘something greater’. I have tried to do exactly that through my book. Its flavour is that of a mythical story whose message is one of light and hope, though it has a lot of darkness in it. It is in a sense about a human being, Arihant, reaching his full potential and that is essentially what any epic is about.

But Jaal is not based on any particular mythology, be it Indian, Greek or Egyptian. I have, however, used basic Indian spiritual philosophies and metaphysics that have been in existence for eons, and I have also drawn on certain types of beings from our mythology like a yaksha or a kinnar.

SD: Yes, your hero Arihant goes on a journey to discover the self and find out his strengths from within. But I find your anti-hero or the dark hero an equally engaging character, like Ravana or Satan. The antagonist has to be sexy and intriguing, which you have managed to pull off.

SB: I am glad you mentioned this. Through the book, Arihant keeps asking ‘who am I?’ and undergoes a quest to find his purpose. But at the same time, the book is about the anti-hero too. There is not just one, there are several, one being a god, Aushij, the lord of Maya. With Arihant, I have somewhat played with the concept of avatar, where he is born human, but has to grow as an individual to achieve his full potential. He is the only one who can kill Aushij, because the other gods can’t.

But both Aushij and my other anti-hero have a very strong justification for being the way they are. It is not that they set out to be evil, they just have a different worldview. That is something that I have taken from our own spiritual philosophy, because in Indian philosophy and metaphysics, there is nothing like a devil. There are just people who go wrong because they cannot perceive the truth, because a curtain of maya warps their vision. So in the books, you will see that all these characters who you might superficially see as evil have reasons for what they do and you will even find yourself sympathising with them.

SD: Another thing I loved about Jaal are the vivid descriptions, the sheer use of colour in each page. I am sure you have thought of turning the trilogy into film.

SB: Sure, I have. I am very excited by the idea, but then I wonder whether the descriptions in the book can be translated into film. I guess, if it is done, it will be conceived of in a basic way, keeping to the story without going deep into the imagery. You are a filmmaker... tell me, can it be done?

SD: Yes, of course it can. You have technology now which can achieve it. Look at Avatar, it has used so much of technology to tell a story which is so profound and has so much emotional depth.

K. Mohanchandran (General manager, Taj Bengal):

There’s this sudden spurt in retelling mythology. What do you think has brought on this trend of publishing fiction, like

The Immortals of Meluha as well as others?

Sangeeta Bahadur: We are a nation of great storytellers; some of the most profound epics have been written here. After Independence, there was a whole new scientific outlook towards life. Anything beyond what you could feel, see or touch didn’t exist. So, at that point the only kind of literature being produced was the socially relevant kind. Fortunately, I think the Indian audience

has grown up. Today, when we enjoy Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings, we don’t feel ashamed. This generation doesn’t have preconceived ideas about what is the right thing to read. They are pushing the boundaries, they are expanding their views, and whatever grabs their interest is good enough for them.

Nita Bajoria (Aspiring author):

Being a woman writer, why didn’t you have a woman hero?

SB: (Laughs) Even my daughter was very upset that Arihant is a man. But you see, in the kind of situations the book creates, writing about a man offered me more freedom of movement. Secondly, one of the main anti-heroes is a woman. So instead of just exploring the positives of a woman by making her the hero, I wanted to explore the other side. Also there are several strong women characters in the book, like the 6,000-year-old Vakrini, who is a very powerful figure. While Arihant is just one, and we are exploring him at various levels, the essential aspects of feminity, some positive, some negative, some neutral, have been explored through several strongly-etched characters, who have a massive impact.

Sayara Halim (Columnist and poet):

People say fiction is truth camouflaged. So, it is easier to write about a real world where you imagine real people and then put masks of fiction on them. How did you create all these fantasy characters?

SB: See, some of the characters are very real, in the sense that they have a personality that is a mix of traits from people I know. The human characters are easier to write about, but the main portion is fantasy and they are not even remotely related to our life. Like the yaksha. You yourself as an author are not really sure what they are going to be like. They could be human, super-human or even supra-human.

Segi P. Idicula (Businessman):

You said you have been writing since age 13. Were you writing fantasy fiction even then? If not, what prompted you to write it now? Were you inspired by books like Harry Potter?

SB: I have to admit, back then I was writing romances, cute ones! As for what got me started on fantasy, I thought because I enjoyed reading this genre, I would probably enjoy writing it too. It gives a far greater play to my capabilities as it allows me to create my own world, the way I want to, rather than binding me with geographical and sociological factors. so, I was going through a troubled time on the personal front while I was writing this, so Jaal started out as an exercise to acquire a distance from what was happening. It gave me a sense of hope that what was happening around me was not the only end. For me writing Jaal was a liberating and a courage-enhancing experience.