Though the ancient sage Ved Vyas was a virtuoso scholar who compiled the Vedas and who is supposed to have written a number of treatises on philosophy among other things, I like to think of him above all as the world’s first writer of metafiction. In the epic Mahabharata, Vyasa not only narrates the story of himself narrating the story to his divine scribe but also steps in and out of the narrative to advise his characters and even procreates some of them. This labyrinth of stories within stories within stories, the longest epic recorded in the history of humankind, is surely the epitome of metafiction.
Salutations to Vyasa on his birthday which is celebrated by students across India as a day of honouring their Gurus.
A Guru is much more than a mere tutor or instructor. The Sanskrit word Guru means one who dispels the darkness of ignorance. A Guru is one who shows the student the path to know themselves.
While I have been privileged to study from a number of excellent tutors, I have been blessed to learn from as many Gurus including venerable Professors and authors who illuminated my life from the pages of their books, starting from Vyasa to the Bard, the Poet, Nabokov, Barnes, Spark, Salinger, Coover, Barthelme, Gass, Scholes, Waugh… My Pranams to all of them.
“I hate solitude, but I’m afraid of intimacy. The substance of my life is a private conversation with myself which to turn into a dialogue would be equivalent to self-destruction. The company which I need is the company which a pub or a cafe will provide. I have never wanted a communion of souls. It’s already hard enough to tell the truth to oneself.”
― Iris Murdoch, Under the Net
In the past few months, more than once I have been filled with regret on not having read Murdoch much earlier in life, on not having read her first before I fell in love with the scintillating wit and wisdom of Muriel Spark as an impressionable teenager. Still, better late than never.
Last month I read from The Reengineers for the first time in public, to a most distinguished audience. More on that later. The day before, I had an interesting assignment to read a paragraph from an author who had inspired me the most at the Albion Beatnik bookshop.
Based on what I had heard and read about it, I had imagined a large bookstore like Starmark where hordes of people thronged in and out, and wandered into the separate cafe section which had gleaming chairs, deep carpets and soft background music, where poets and writers read.
It was nothing like that.
The Albion Beatnik is a small bookshop, which seems smaller than it really is, packed as it is from floor to ceiling with carefully chosen books. Small wooden tables and chairs are scattered around a colourful teacup rack, one side of which is fashioned roughly to look like a vertical pile of books, with more real books piled here and there around the place. The whole effect is rather warm and cosy, a place where one feels immediately at home – especially so after seeing the selection of books.
It was like being in a blissful dream, sitting huddled in groups around the little tables on that cold September evening, listening to a small group of like-minded people read or recite from the authors who meant the most to them. There was a hush as each person read, the kind of quietude that can only be found in a library or a bookstore. One reading was interrupted by one of our group leaning into a side rack, only to have a heap of books come crashing down – causing a smile to spread all around. It made the place feel more authentic, and more likeable. The sound of books falling down was engulfed by the silence that surrounded the place even during the readings.
There was W.H.Auden, Italo Calvino, Cormac McCarthy, John Green and James Joyce among others. And there was Muriel Spark.
This is the excerpt that I read. Earlier I had practised to read the first page of the novel, but chose to read these lines a few minutes before the reading. The sentences resonate strongly with me, just as most of the other sentences in the book.
“While I recount what happened to me and what I did in 1949, it strikes me how much easier it is with characters in a novel than in real life. In a novel the author invents characters and arranges them in convenient order. Now that I come to write biographically I have to tell of whatever actually happened and whoever naturally turns up. The story of a life is a very informal party; there are no rules of precedence and hospitality, no invitations.
In a discourse on drama it was observed by someone famous that action is not merely fisticuffs, meaning of course that the dialogue and the sense are action, too. Similarly, the action of my life-story in 1949 included the work I was doting when I put my best brains into my Warrender Chase most nights and most of Saturdays. My Warrender Chase was action just as much as when I was arguing with Dottie over Leslie, persuading her not to get him with child, as she came round the next night to tell me she was determined to do. My Warrender Chase, shoved quickly out of sight when my visitors arrived, or lest the daily woman should clean it up when I left home in the morning for my job, took up the sweetest part of my mind and the rarest part of my imagination; it was like being in love and better.”
From Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark
My interview in Techgoss, in conversation with writer and journalist Suneetha Balakrishnan
Chennai techie Indu Muralidharan graduated in Electronics and Communication Engineering at University of Madras and worked in a software product development MNC in Trivandrum and Tokyo before returning to hometown as Senior eCommerce Project Manager in a UK based company. Her word-prowess shows in her debut novel ‘Reengineers’, a coming of age novel with existential overtones.
Indu shares a birthday with noted Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov, used to write a column on life in Technopark in the New Indian Express and was a semi-finalist at the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2008. She is also an avid bibliophile and keen to improve her writing techniques by conscious study. Here’s our conversation.
Techgoss (TG): Could you give us an intro?
Indu Muralidharan (IM): I grew up in Madras as Chennai was called in the nineties, in a very interesting time just before the advent of the internet. I graduated in Electronics and Communication Engineering from the University of Madras and worked in a software product development MNC in Trivandrum for a few years, was posted in Tokyo for about a year in between. Now I am back in my hometown Chennai where I work as Senior eCommerce Project Manager in a UK based company.
TG: Tell us about Reengineers. The premise is very interesting. How did the book happen? What brought the plot to you? How much time did you take to write this?
IM: When I first started writing, I found myself gravitating to the path of writers who have explored and stretched the boundary lines between fiction and reality. I rejoiced every time I reread Muriel Spark’s novels about literary protagonists whose narrative interweaves between fiction and reality in the world of the book while being cognizant at the same time of the reality of the reader’s world outside it. Thus inspired, I wrote ‘The Reengineers’ which blends the metafiction genre with young adult coming-of-age fiction through the premise of a character who writes the story of his author.
In her wonderful book ‘Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life’, Anne Lamott wrote about ‘shitty first drafts’ of books which then become more and more and refined with each revision. As I wrote The Reengineers, I discovered that not only manuscripts but ideas too could go through shitty first, second, third and perhaps several draft versions before they take on a solid shape.
The Reengineers grew from a set of disjoint ideas and a few pages of early stories. A few years ago, I wrote a bunch of short stories about a young man called Siddharth who lived with his sister in the remote town of Conchpore. I thought about developing this into a full-length collection of stories called the chronicles of Siddharth. But I found that I hardly knew anything about Siddharth, except that he was very unhappy and wanted nothing more than to get away from Conchpore and his dysfunctional family.
Sometime later, I was writing random paragraphs about three teenagers from Madras in the early nineties who had been displaced into another time and space in a fictional world. I wrote many drafts of the story of these three kids. Somewhere along the way, they met Siddharth and that was the catalyst for the story, which turned into this book.
TG: You were a finalist at the Amazon Breakthrough Award, tell us about the experience. Have you been appreciated likewise at any other podiums?
IM: I was a semi-finalist at the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2008. I finished the first draft of The Reengineers just in time to enter the contest and was surprised and delighted to be chosen as a semifinalist. The semi-finalist’s prize was a review from Publisher’s Weekly which was encouraging, as was the feedback from readers who reviewed the book’s excerpt on Amazon.com. I had wonderful, productive interactions with fellow writers on the Amazon forum, discussing various aspects of writing, editing and publishing. I learnt a great deal from the experience.
I also received some very good constructive criticism from published authors, which made me look at my manuscript objectively and gave me an understanding of where it needed improvement. Based on this feedback, I set about reading a number of books on writing to study the basics of the craft (Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ and James N. Frey’s wonderful ‘damn good novel’ series were especially helpful) and rewrote the novel a couple of times before I eventually got the contract with HarperCollins.
TG: What else have you written?
IM: I have been writing since I was five years old. For a long time my writing was influenced by whatever I happened to be reading during the period. I remember writing my first novel at ten, and another at twelve, and two more when I was in college. I started writing seriously when I started working. I wrote a series of features in the Life Positive magazine, on spirituality in corporate life, management, folk art, travel and lesser-known spiritual masters. For a short while, I wrote a column on life in Technopark in the New Indian Express. My poems, book reviews and short stories have been published in a few magazines and literary journals. However after I wrote my first novel, I realized that I wanted to focus on the form of the novel.
TG: What or Who do you read? You have an active blog where you do book reviews. Tell us about that too.
IM: To quote Yann Martel, the greatness of literature is that in reading about fictional others, we end up reading about ourselves, a self-examination that makes us wiser and existentially thicker. For years, this has been my credo as a reader.
I have too many favourite authors, to list just a few – Muriel Spark, who is one of my greatest influences in writing. I adore her as a writer and as a remarkable woman who knew that her priority in life was her art, and celebrated her life as an artist in her work. Vladimir Nabokov, with whom I share a birthday. Though I was a precocious reader as a child, I stayed away from Lolita for many years due to the disturbing premise. But when I finally read it, I loved it so much that I carried the book with me everywhere for a few days, overwhelmed by the beauty of the prose. I greatly admire Julian Barnes and every once in a while, re-read almost everything he has published (Flaubert’s Parrot is on my top ten of favourite books of all time). Likewise J.D. Salinger, whose four books have been an important presence in my life since my teens.
I see myself as a humanist rather than a feminist but I greatly admire and respect the work of Fay Weldon. Nick Hornby, almost everything he has published (High Fidelity and Juliet, Naked are special favourites). Jeffrey Eugenides, each of whose books are by themselves a study in the craft of writing. Barbara Kingsolver, especially The Bean Trees which is one gem of a debut novel. Alexander McCall Smith is a special favourite – Besides the delightful Von Igelfeld novels, I absolutely love his Scotland Street and Sunday Philosophy Club series of books. Reading his Corduroy Mansions online on The Telegraph online was like being back in the days of Dickens’ serial novels, with the added advantage of interactions with fellow readers and sometimes the author himself on the web page.
Other writers I admire include Amy Tan, Yoko Ogawa, Kate Atkinson, Karen Russell, Julie Otsuka, Diane Setter field, Susanna Clarke, I could go on and on. If I like an author’s work, I try to read everything they have written and I tend to re-read favourite books multiple times.
Metafiction and YA are among my pet genres: Jorges Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, Carlos Ruis Zafon, Jonathan Stroud, Alan Bradley (The Flavia de Luce novels), John Green, Neil Gaiman among others. (I adored Stroud’s Lockwood series). I have learnt much about the writing process from Nathan Bransford’s blog and I enjoyed his Jacob Wonderbar novels.
As a technology enthusiast and literature lover, I absolutely loved Robin Sloan’s ‘Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour-Bookstore’. In this context, I greatly enjoyed Vikram Chandra’s ‘Mirrored Mind: My Life in Letters and Code’.
The coming of age novel with existential overtones is a favourite subgenre, I think The Reengineers falls in this category. Novels I love in this genre include Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of being a wallflower, Ned Vizzini’s It’s kind of a funny story and the wonderful ‘The Elegance of the hedgehog’ by Muriel Barbery.
Among Indian authors, Ruskin Bond, R K Narayan (but of course), A K Ramanujan, Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, Lavanya Sankaran, Kalpana Swaminathan, Rupa Bajwa, Chandrahas Choudhury (Arzee the Dwarf as well as his literary blog), Jerry Pinto, translations from Bengali literature by Arunava Sinha… once again a very long list. Srividya Natarajan’s ‘No Onions nor Garlic’ is an all-time favourite novel, one that I have gifted to several people. I wish she wrote more.
I enjoy reviewing books, diving deep into the various dimensions of the plot, the premise and the characters. I have not been very active on the blog and social media since last November as the edit of The Reengineers and writing my second novel had taken over all my time after office hours. I am slowly resuming blogging now.
TG: What’s your writing schedule?
IM: I spend two hours every weekday morning, writing or studying creative writing textbooks. On weekends, it is anywhere between four to ten hours, depending on my day job which sometimes spills into the weekends (no complaints for I love my day job and it is common enough in the IT industry to work long hours).
My day job in software complements my writing. I find that the precision, problem solving skills and out-of-the-box-thinking needed to create business solutions and project plans, and the mandate to meet tight deadlines, actually nurtures my creativity and gives me the discipline to pursue my writing and studies after office hours.
TG: What is your dream book, the one that hope to write some day?
IM: There are just too many great books that I admire for various reasons, which have reached out to me in different ways, and there is no way I can choose any one of them alone as a dream book.
I am constantly working to evolve my writing voice into one that is both literary and accessible, and I hope I am able to realise that better in each of my succeeding books. In the writing process, I find that all my thoughts are focused on whatever book I am working on at present, which makes my second novel my current dream book.
TG: What’s next?
IM: I see fiction as a teacher and a guide, as a source of strength and nourishment for the mind. Several books have helped me face and overcome setbacks and challenges, raise relevant questions on my life and find my own answers. Towards understanding this aspect of fiction better, I wrote my second novel, which is currently a draft in revision and am working on a third. I am excited about these books, both of which are about the energy that one finds in books and the healing power of fiction.
“I always hope the readers of my novels are of good quality. I wouldn’t like to think of anyone cheap reading my books.”
~ Muriel Spark, Loitering with Intent.
I was delighted to read about Muriel Spark’s new collection of essays ‘The Informed Air’. Spark is one of my favourite novelists of all time, and this is a review of my favourite book of hers.
“I was aware of a daemon inside me that rejoiced in seeing people as they were, and not only that, but more than ever as they were, and more, and more”, says Fleur Talbot, the fiesty heroine of Loitering with Intent – Muriel Spark’s semi-autobiographical gem of a novel. One of Fleur’s most delightful traits is how she views the people around her with amused detachment, analysing them as characters to be written in future books. And then, characters from her first novel start to come alive around her.
Lauded by many as one of the finest of Spark’s works and indeed one of the finest books ever, Loitering with Intent takes the reader on a pleasurable journey through London in 1949 through the recollections of Fleur who is writing her first novel at the time and is surviving on her job “on the grubby edge of the literary world,” as secretary to Sir Quentin’s Autobiographical Association. Sir Quentin’s group consists of an eccentric mix of snooty aristocrats who have led tediously plain lives, and Fleur amuses herself by embellishing their memoirs with spicy details as she types and tidies their manuscripts. All her thoughts and energy are focused around the manuscript of her novel Warrender Chase which she holds in higher regard than her part time job, employers, friends and boyfriends.
As the members of the autobiographical association begin to get depressed, hysterical and eventually killed, Fleur suspects that the snobbish Sir Quentin may have been blackmailing his flock, exerting his power over them not unlike the protagonist of her novel. When Quentin steals her manuscript in order to plagiarise from it, she finds herself drawn into the plot of her book. As she manages to retrieve her book from his clutches, she watches scenes from her book play out in real life even as she loiters happily around London all the while, rejoicing in her art and her life.
This is a quintessential work of metafiction, one in which the narrator as novelist is writing a book, creating a world of words which manifests around her as she had imagined it. Questions on the relationship between art and the artist, how art is created, the nature of faith, friendship and love are raised and explored through the effervescent narrative voice. The characters are remarkably sketched and memorable, from the manipulative Sir Quentin, his geriatric mother Lady Edwina (a ninety year old incontinent woman wearing pearl and chiffon, who makes for some wonderful comic scenes in her interactions with her son and with Fleur, with whom she strikes up an unlikely friendship), the assorted members of the autobiographical association who fall into Sir Quentin’s trap, the housekeeper Beryl Tims and Fleur’s ‘English rose’ friend Dottie, a weak woman who is easily led by Sir Quentin into supporting his malevolent plans.
Fleur Talbot remains to me one of the most likeable and strongest protagonists in literature, a woman after my own heart. She knows her place in the world as an artist, her priorities in life and is so much in tune with them that the minor frictions caused by interactions with lesser beings around her do not affect her as much as amuse her, as she quotes her beloved Benvenuto Cellini and ”by the grace of God, goes on her way rejoicing.”
Shades of Loitering… can be found in Curriculum Vitae, Spark’s autobiography that provides glimpses into her brilliant, enigmatic mind. I love the way she looks at the world and muses on it both critically and objectively without a scrap of superfluous sentiment. Spark sounds like a spirited woman who rejoiced in her life and her art, considered happiness to be a natural birthright and after all her struggles, actually found it.
Coming soon! The Reengineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality
As an avid reader of literary fiction who was brought up on the genre and reads it for pleasure, I find it disturbing when literary novels are not given the respect that they deserve. I still cringe when I remember a mid-list writer-politician’s article criticizing R K Narayan’s books in The Hindu about two weeks after that venerable author had passed on. I was equally upset on seeing the modified book display in a British Library when romance novels by a certain author were placed right next to the novels of Muriel Spark. It was distasteful to see those pulp paperbacks sharing the same shelf with those perfect novels by Dame Spark.
It was with the same feeling that I read some of the reviews on Karan Bajaj’s book ‘Johnny Gone Down’, in which the author has been compared for some obscure reason to a certain actress who is famous for her item numbers. I thought that the comparison was not justified, not only as it does not make sense to compare books with dances. It is just that both of Bajaj’s books are well-written literary novels that do not merit such an absurd comparison.
I started Johnny Gone Down with the high expectations set by Bajaj’s debut novel Keep off the Grass, which was a fine coming of age book about a young man’s search for the meaning of life. In his second book, Bajaj continues to explore the same questions that have carried heroes on their respective journeys from perhaps the beginning of all literature. Pulling the readers into its pages from the very first chapter in which the unconventional one-armed protagonist goes to play a game of Russian Roulette, Johnny Gone Down has a much broader canvas and takes the reader through a series of diverse and fantastic locations, times and experiences along with its protagonist Nikhil aka Johnny who starts out as an MIT student all set to conquer the world and in a sequence of unexpected events, metamorphoses into a genocide survivor, a Buddhist monk, a drug lord’s accountant and a software tycoon among other avatars before he reaches the end of his gruesome journey.
I read The Homecoming by Bernhard Schlink around the same time that I read Johnny Gone Down and was struck by how the journey of the protagonist in both novels bore a resemblance to the adventures of Ulysses. Johnny also reminds one of a number of classic heroes in literature, those who stand by the brink and observe with stoic detachment as life happens to them and around them – characters such as Evelyn Waugh’s Paul Pennyfeather, Murakami’s Toru Watanabe and Hari Kunzru’s unforgettable Impressionist, Pran Nath Razdan who goes through a similar set of transformations of the self in his quest for identity.
The book is well written in strong, gripping prose and though the violence was too explicit in some places as to be disturbing, it flows smoothly taking the reader with it through the extraordinary lives of its hero as he is tossed from one world to the other, encountering ruthless soldiers, hardened mafia members, compassionate monks, clichéd gold-hearted thugs, beautiful women, wretched refugees and struggling entrepreneurs among others, building up monasteries, business empires and virtual universes, only to abandon them all and start afresh each time, until he reaches the end of his journey, both literally and symbolically as he realizes the interconnection between the patterns making the patchwork quilt of his life.
I took a long time in finishing the book as I found some parts too violent and disturbing, and was unable to continue reading. I enjoyed the humor that came through even in some of the darkest chapters and the philosophical observations of Nikhil in each of his avatars made the book all the more worth reading. I especially liked Nikhil’s discussions with his employer Philip on building a virtual universe on the internet.
I did have a quibble about the characterization of the protagonist. Nikhil seems so detached from life itself most of the time that there seems to be a wall between him and the reader. One never knows whether it is altruism, heroism or merely apathy that prompts Nikhil to save his friend’s life, an action that marks the beginning of his blood curdling adventures. Hesse’s Siddhartha too, went through several stages and transformations in his life, but Siddhartha had an innocence and a vulnerability about him, that made him easy to relate to. And so did Samrat, the likeable hero of Keep off the Grass, to whom it was easy to relate to and understand.
Nikhil on the other hand comes across as a stoic superhero – decent, selfless, contemplative, detached and at the same time empathetic to his fellow beings. Yet his real self remains an enigma throughout the book, coming through only in rare instances like his interactions with his wife, his longing for his son, and his final burst of triumph that Johnny had finally gone down for good. Still, this trait is understandable as most protagonists of the classic books in Johnny’s genre are likewise detached from their surroundings, and also to some extent from their readers. It is as though the authors had imagined them into being that way.
It is also surprising that some reviewers have compared this book to the lowbrow pulp fiction being mass published today. All kinds of books have their own audiences and while perception of what makes good literature is relative, it remains that books like these can be definitely classified as literary fiction. These are well-written books addressing some of the most important questions that constitute the bulk of all literature.
That they happen to be readable cannot imply that they can be called light reads, and it is distasteful to make comparisons between such good books and garish item numbers.
Coming soon! The Re-engineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality
Today is Diwali, the festival of lights in India. Light is often used as a metaphor for life. Today I want to reflect for a while on the darkness that descends upon the mind, for it is while we are in the dark that we learn the real value of light.
The cold and the dark. These are two metaphors that my protagonists use euphemistically to describe depression. It is not easy to describe depression. The exact reason why depression occurs is not known. It can descend upon anyone like a cloak of darkness, trapping them in a state of inert limbo, leaving them incapacitated of even feeling grief at their condition. For depression is not simply a feeling of intense sorrow, rather it is a total lack of feeling and the resulting helplessness. As Barbara Kingsolver said in her wonderful debut novel The Bean Trees, “Sadness is more or less like a head cold – with patience, it passes. Depression is like cancer”
Sylvia Plath who is almost a poster girl for depression wrote an elegant semi-biographical account of her experiences with the disease, called The Bell Jar. Plath likens the world of a depressed person to a dead dream when she says that ‘“To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.”
Though she described a hopeful ending for her protagonist in the book, Plath died of the dreadful disease, succumbing to the darkness that threatened to take over her brilliant mind about two weeks after it was published.
The Scottish author Muriel Spark whom I greatly admire was another genius who was affected by depression. She describes this chillingly in ‘The Driver’s Seat’, a short book about a young woman alienated from life, which is so intensely written that Spark is said to have been hospitalised when she finished writing it.
J K Rowling gave one of the most apt metaphors for this ugly condition when she created the dementors – faceless, rotting beings that spread a deathly chill in their vicinity and suck out every happy memory and eventually the souls of their victims.
Today depression is no longer restricted to artists and authors, it affects almost anyone and is as one of the many banes of modern life. More often than not, a person realises the condition and yet is unable to do anything about it, which makes them even more vulnerable, setting forth an avalanche of pain and darkness.
I was deeply touched to come across this poem in the author Alana Munro’s blog:
She writes, “They say – ‘what could possibly be making her depressed? She has everything. She needs to wake up and smell the roses. …Don’t you know that this illness warps reality? All I can see are the thorns.”
Again, “I wish I didn’t feel so brittle, so painfully sensitive. Where every idle comment thrown my way could break me.”
This is just how a depressed person feels. How then, does a person cope with this terrible afflication in a competitive, fast paced world where one has to keep running even to stay in one’s position?
This is the place where my hero Sid finds himself, struggling to survive in a hostile world while trying to cope with the darkness that is slowly closing over him.
Sid survives, and makes the leap from the darkness to the light, passing through a boundary which stretches between reality and fiction. This is the theme at the heart of my novel The Reengineers.
To all my readers who celebrate the festival, Happy Diwali. I will write more in future posts about Sid’s journey from the darkness to the light.
Coming soon! The Re-engineers (HarperCollins) A walk through the boundaries between fiction and reality
A note of thanks to Dame Muriel Spark.
I have reread your books over the years with increasing delight, marveling at your insights into the depth of human nature, your wicked sense of humour and your views of the world through many dimensions. Above all, I admire how easily you transcended labels of identity and came across as a consummate artist who joyously and naturally lived her art.
Many aspects of your books have inspired me, the most fascinating being how the boundary between fiction and reality overlaps in your novels, a concept which greatly influenced my first novel.
I admire you greatly, as a writer and as a strong, independent person who lived life on your own terms.
Thank you for inspiring me as an artist and as an individual.