Under my byline

Small-town lives

Posted in Books, Q&A by Rrishi on 3 August 2008

Q&A: Usha K R

A Girl and a River
Usha K R
Penguin
pp 336
Rs 299

Usha K R won this year’s Vodafone Crossword Book Award for English fiction with this memorable story of three generations of a family in small-town south India. The novel is mainly set in Mysore state during the freedom movement of the 1930s, but there is also a voice from 1987. The two are interleaved so as to gradually reveal the truth behind the characters’ fate — which operates almost in the manner of Greek tragedy. She answered questions by e-mail.

In your books, the silent protagonist is the small town — the sine qua non behind the human characters. So far you’ve written cosmopolitan woman in small town (Sojourn), small-town woman in metropolis (The Chosen), and now the impact of metropolitan change on small-town lives. Is this a fair description?

That’s a very pertinent thread you’ve drawn — it bestows auteur-ship on me! To me, each space that I’ve set my novels in, small town or metropolis, has its own energy, a distinctive rhythm, it is a throbbing organic thing and the friction between this space and my characters who come with their own predispositions and destinies is a major preoccupation. I depend upon this interaction, this clash for the narrative force of my books. My next book too looks at how the city has grown in the last few decades through the ways in which it influences the characters.

For your 1930s characters, passion for a person and his/her cause is tied together. Do you sense a nostalgia for that kind of passion and rootedness — an echo of the earnest but woolly patriotism of Rukmini?

When people spoke of their experiences in pre-independence Mysore I was intrigued by their tangential approach to what we consider events of historical importance. An aunt said, “I remember going to the maidan to listen to Gandhi’s speech — I wore a sari for the first time, a green sari with a white border — I don’t remember what he said, he spoke in Hindi which none of us could understand.” As I listened to more anecdotes and read local accounts I was moved by the innocence and naïve zeal — earnest but woolly patriotism is quite right — of people performing acts or living lives that the future would decree as “history” — they were agents and pawns of history without realising it, without understanding how profoundly they would be affected by change.

At the same time, I did not want to reduce them to the state of children, with no control over their choices. Interestingly, this is the sense that one gets with Raja Rao’s Kanthapura, written in 1938, before independence, which was the only novel of some eminence written in English and set in Mysore that I could find.

Your (main) protagonist is very sketchily outlined, nothing like the vivid characters of the 1930s portions. Why so? And why set her in 1987, a generation behind us?

The 1930s are narrated in the third person, which allows for a broad-based, inclusive account. I chose the first person for the protagonist or the 1980s narrative because it allows you to be selective, to say exactly what you want. Moreover, I wanted to create a mood, a tone, a disembodied sensibility who was reacting to the earlier events. As for the year 1987, that’s pure arithmetic. The central date had to be January 1934, when Mahatma Gandhi made a whirlwind tour of many small places in Mysore state, and I had to work all other dates, people’s ages and so on, around it.

You use a number of Hindustani and Kannada words and phrases without translation, and when you describe something it is often in terms that only an Indian (perhaps only a south Indian) will recognise. Why is this?

This is quite inadvertent. I had no idea I was creating a dense text. The Hindustani/Kannada words have a natural affiliation with what is being described or spoken of, and I don’t think an exact match or explanation is necessary so long as the terms are understood contextually, that is if the reader can make out that an item of clothing or food or a ritual is being referred to. This is the direction in which Indian writing in English is headed, I think, so long as local words are not splashed on artificially or it becomes a purely mimetic exercise. This of course is very different from the playful use of Indian languages that a writer like Rushdie does.

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