Kaveri Nambisan – In Conversation with Deepa Mishra
Kavery Nambisan, a surgeon by profession and a novelist, says that "it is life that feeds literature". Like leaves growing to a tree in the natural process, the desire to write germinated in her naturally. She started writing because she liked, she says, to see her name in print. After the favorable response received for the story published in the children's magazine Target in the 1980s, she felt encouraged to go on. Rosalind Wilson the editor of the magazine Target commented that "Kavery has a rare gift of telling stories". Widely read in Kannada and English literature she has been greatly influenced, as she admits, by Mahatma Gandhi and Thoreau "who have inspired me in my medical work as well. I admire their directness of approach, the ability to address every issue in a simple and truthful way."
As a writer Kavery mainly deals with deprivation of Indians who are below the poverty line. As a surgeon, she prefers to work in rural India where poverty is more visible. Thus, she is directly witness to the suffering of the poor which she clinically portrays in her novels. Commenting on her own writing she admits, "I deal mostly with patients who are already under considerable financial stress. Learning about their life, being a sort of adviser and friend has been a privilege that can not be measured…Yes, it has influenced me as a person, - therefore my writing".
Further, she says that she uses observation and imagination to weave stories. .Even though her novels are peopled by the poor, their poverty portrayed is not meant to provide pleasure to the "haves" at the cost of the "have not" as it is usually done in the movies Slumdog Millionaire, and Adiga's novel The White Tiger. Kavery, on the other hand lays emphasis on how such character think of the privileged, "Do they hate us ?". Her novel the story Must not be told primarily aims at highlighting the pains and pangs of the poor. Influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and Thoreau, Kavery admittedly is an idealist and realist. Kavery Nambisan's novels include The Truth About Bharat (Almost), The Scent of Pepper, Mango-Coloured fish, On Wings of Butterflies, The Hills of Angheri, the story that must not be told. This interview was an opportunity to interact with her and to get to know her views first hand. She was prompt with her response in a customary down-to-earth, and unassuming manner.
Deepa: Tell us something about your childhood, especially in Coorg. Did your parents in any way inspire your writing?
Kavery: I have very clear memories of childhood from the age of three. Those years of my life continue to feed my imagination. My parents were simple, good people. My father was a Gandhian and politician who never gave up his principles for power or money. Later, in my teenage years and afterwards, he was in high cabinet positions but he did not let us children ever feel that he or we were in any way special.
My parents were not literary in any sense, but I think it is life that feeds literature, so in that sense, my parents influenced me, and therefore my writing.
Deepa: How is that you decided to become a writer?
Kavery: I was and still am a loner by preference. It does not mean I don't like company; but generally, I'm quite happy being by myself or with few people at best. I always loved reading. In my early years in Coorg, I read avidly in Kannada and later in English, when I learnt the language. I did not actually decide to become a writer, I only wrote a few pieces when I wanted a break from my work as a surgeon and then found that I liked doing it.
Deepa: To what extent does your background of medicine help you as a writer? And do you feel that it is an added advantage for someone with a different professional background to pursue creative writing?
Kavery: I find that having a job/career worked fine for me. Surgery is a very different field – of precise knowledge, training and learning certain skills. It is team work. Writing is where I use observation and imagination (in solitude) to weave stories.
Deepa: What sort of relationship have you carved out between the parallel programmess of social service and writing? Do you find them mutually complementary?
Kavery: As a doctor, what you call social service is simply my job. I never thought of myself as wanting to do anything other than be a good doctor. Now that I also write, I know that my colourful experiences in the surgical field have helped my writing. I deal mostly with patients who are already under considerable financial stress. Learning about their lives, being a sort of advisor and friend, has been a privilege that cannot be measured. Yes, it has influenced me as a person, and therefore my writing.
Deepa: Is there any specific person who has encouraged you for your writing?
Kavery: Readers mainly, but also an excellent children's book editor, Rosalind Wilson who worked for 'Target' magazine in the 1980s. She liked my writing and would often tell me that I had a rare gift for telling stories. My husband, Vijay, too, has been a terrific influence.
Deepa: Who are your favorite writers? Has your writing in any way been inspired by these writers? Is there any specific book that shaped your writing life?
Kavery: I am inspired by a handful of writers: Dostoevsky, Kipling, Robert Graves, Thoreau, Gandhi, George Orwell. I think Indian writers Ismat Chugtai, Girish Karnad and Mohammed Vaikom Basheer have influenced my writing; I admire all these writers very much.
I have learnt different things from each of them. Particularly, Mahatma Gandhi and Thoreau have inspired me in my medical work as well. I admire their directness of approach, the ability to address every issue in a simple and truthful way.
Deepa: In today's world of experimental writing your endeavour has been on a realistic track. Is it something deliberate or just situational? And are you going to shift to experimental fiction any time in the near future?
Kavery: It is not a conscious decision. Before I write a novel, I struggle to hit the right tone of voice and if I find it, I go ahead with the writing. There is no other plan of action or writing in a certain way. I think because of this, each of my books has a different style, if that's what one wants to call it.
Deepa: One finds you a critic of established Indian traditions particularly as regards women. However, it is believed that the Indian system in many ways is supportive of women. Has it ever occurred to you to create a balance between both dimensions?
Kavery: I don't know what gave you the idea that I am a critic of Indian traditions. I'm well aware of its positives, but being a realist, I'm not carried away by any sanguine notions about a woman's status in India, nor by the 'happy family' picture that is often romanticised. I worry constantly about the oppression of those without power or a voice of protest, be they women, children, men or animals. I hate the inequality and injustice that exists. It is certainly not only a woman's thing.
Deepa: How do you handle one of the most important aspects of Indian writing in English i.e. ".Indianness" in your novel?
Kavery: Indians are generally multi-lingual and so we think in several languages. I'm very much a gut-level writer. That is, I put down my thoughts quickly as they come, so the Indianness is bound to be a part of what I write. Looking back, I find that I use a lot of Indian words.
Deepa: Which novel of yours is very close to your heart?
Kavery: Each one in its own way. I guess I have favourite characters from my own books, because I really like people and their idiosyncracies. So there is Bharat, Nanji, Cachera Machaiah, Megha Dasi, Paru Aunty and Uncle, Budhi, Simon, Thatkan…
Deepa: One finds a glimpse of yours in the character of Nalli in The hills of Angheri. Was this novel in any way inspired by your real life experiences?
Kavery: Yes, indeed. Nalli is after my own heart, there is no escaping it. Her personal life is different from mine, but the surgical situations are taken from my own life or what I have observed and later fictionalised.
Deepa: Do you stick to any specific time or schedule for your writing?
Kavery: I don't have that luxury. It is always time snatched here and there, between my surgical career which has been very demanding and my personal life which has always been a quiet one. I work best in the early hours and never in the evenings. I am just too tired by then.
Deepa: How does Mr Vijay Nambisan, who is also well known writer, react to your work?
Kavery: Ah. He's such a good writer, with a perfect command of the language and with good knowledge of other languages. I'm a shabby sort of writer, I need to go back many times to correct grammar, spellings etc. So I get it from him, which is okay. We criticise each other and it brings out the best in each of us. Most of the time!
Deepa: Your latest book the story must not be told has been inspired by slum life. It is also a fact that quite a few well publicized popular works - whether literary or cinematic - have been done of late on similar concepts. Have you in a way tried to capitalize on the current readers' sentiment?
Kavery: I know. The movie Slumdog Millionaire and the novel The White Tiger were both making news at the time when my novel was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008. I still haven't seen the movie, I have since read The White Tiger. I think my novel is very different. I have lived amongst the type of people I describe in the story…, my surgical life has brought me into close contact with such people. The main thrust of my novel, besides the lives of the characters, is how Simon tries to find out what these people (who live in slums, in this case) think about privileged people like us. Do they hate us?
Deepa: What message or advice you would like to give to the new generation writers?
Kavery: Write only if you love words, love language and understand the power that they have on your readers. Stay true to your muse. Read everything, read widely and when you find your favourites, read them again. Write without feeling self-conscious.
Tennyson in, In Memoriam tells "For words, like Nature, half reveal/ And half conceal the Soul within". But in this interview Kavery Nambisan pours out her feelings in "full-throated ease". It appears as if "her heart is on her lips".
Being a doctor and a writer can be tricky. Medical colleagues who discover that I write (fiction, that too), exclaim: “You write stories?” as though it were something as inapt as wearing a see-through blouse. At writers' conferences, my medical degree evokes a few ill-concealed smiles; if coughs and upset tummies occur, they are taken to a ‘proper doctor.’
I have learnt to bend my careers to fit my needs first and then everyone else’s. When I’m asked how I balance my two interests, my answer is, “By not doing anything else.” Which is almost true. I have discovered that by stubbornly eschewing every task that I detest, I can garner the resources for what I love doing.
One question I’m asked is whether I use my medical experiences in my novels. I use them like any other experience. So much powerful human drama passes before my eyes at work. Some unforgettable incidents settle in the subconscious and nudge their way to the surface at inexplicable moments. They sometimes enter a story taking shape in my thoughts. What finally comes on page will perhaps have a flickering resemblance to the real thing. In one of my novels, however, I have used real-life surgical situations and scenes. The story itself is fiction.
Not long ago a patient I had once treated began to knock, insistently, on the doors of my memory. All that had transpired during his stay in the hospital four years back appeared before me like an album of pictures.
Madeva was a casual labourer from in a village near the rural hospital where I was surgeon. He had come to our area to pick pepper. The work demands nimble-footed climbers who go up trees on which pepper vines wind upward in decorative whorls of dark green. Madeva was new to the job. On his second day at work he fell from a height of eighty feet and broke his neck. When he came to the hospital on a stretcher, he was paralysed from the chest down, his breathing troubled and there was but a flicker of movement in his fingers.
He was unwilling to go to the nearest city hospital with facities for spinal surgery which we did not have. The100 km ride over rubble roads, a long stay in a crowded government hospial with indifferent nursing meant that often patients got worse. They developed bedsores and other infections. In our sixty-bed rural hospital, with carefully considered conservative treatment and good nursing care, we had better results. Most spinal injuries involving the lower back ultimately walked home on crutches.
But when the neck was broken it was difficult, no matter what the treatment. Over the next few weeks, Madeva’s breathing became normal, he could move his arms a little and turn on his side. But he was unable to do anything useful for himself like wash his face or eat. His bed in the Male Surgical ward was nearest to the toilets. Not that Madeva could use them himself but the hospital staff found it that much easier to clean out his bedpan.
Fated to a wheelchair life, the twenty-six-year-old was naturally devastated. His chiselled good looks suffered from the strain and his eyes filled with sadness. His medical problem was compounded by a personal one: Six months earlier, in a moment of anger against his constantly nagging wife, Madeva had moved out of his home to live with another woman. She was caring enough after the accident but as the weeks wore on, her conduct towards him changed to one of thinly veiled disgust.
Workers like Madeva who are injured on duty are eligible for compensation paid through an insurance taken out by the employer. We submitted Madeva’s forms for the claim, and a week before he was discharged the money was ready. With some wheedling over the phone, the insurance agent agreed to deliver the demand draft of one lakh directly to the patient.
As soon as this news became known, Madeva was befriended by several patients who had suddenly discovered their affection for the permanently stricken man. His wife and his mother were now regular visitors. The three women pressed around him to demonstrate how much they cared. His mother claimed to have gone through terrible hardship to bring him up; his wife said that she was the mother of his children and would always be there for him. His other woman smilingly revealed that Madeva had promised to marry her. Each of them also quizzed the nurses about his chances of survival.
One evening when he was alone, I spoke to Madeva. His body was damaged but his mind was whole. If he held on to that belief, it could make all the difference. He listened silently for the five or ten minutes that I spoke to him.
Madeva left the hospital accompanied by one of our employees (Raju, a lab assistant) who helped him deposit the money in the bank nearest to his home. A month later, we sent Raju again to check on him.
Surprisingly, Madeva had gained weight and looked cheerful. “Stay till noon,” he told Raju, lighting a bidi. “You’ll understand everything.” As the sun rose over the mud house, the three women appeared one by one, bearing tiffins full of flavoursome food. One started to wash his clothes, another made his bed and the third massaged him. “They’re still tying to guess which of them is my favourite,” Madeva whispered. “If I praise my mother one day, my wife will be the next…. You see? It keeps them on their toes. Tell the doctor I’m using my mind.
He lived only for ten more months. But he lived like a king.
I have just returned from a month-long plunge into the difficult task of promoting my novel, with book launches, readings, talks and interviews. I only have Goa and Bombay to visit now and then I’ll be back to my quiet and peaceful life.
Tired I am, but it was truly enjoyable. One of the greatest pleasures of having a novel out is the response from readers. There’s been a steady flow of them and I am happy that the The Story... resonates for so many people. Here are some news items: http://epaper.timesofindia.com/Repository/getFiles.asp?Style=OliveXLib:LowLevelEntityToPrint_TOINEW&Type=text/html&Locale=english-skin-custom&Path=TOICH/2010/11/12&ID=Ar02500
You may not know that my earlier novel The Scent of Pepper (Penguin India 1996 and Penguin UK 2001) has been released in a new, revised edition. Why revised? There were a few historic facts I wanted to include and it was also an opportunity to make small changes that enhance the story. My publisher agreed and so I typed the entire novel into the computer and got going. Do read this novel. It is set in Coorg (Kodagu) where I belong.
Sarita Mandanna’s Tiger Hills published in July this year by Penguin is also set in Coorg. It is a lovely romance, and the story covers the same period as mine. The similarity between the two novels ends there. But there has been much talk of plagiarism, because a few passages in Sarita’s book resemble passages from mine. I have carefully gone through her novel since this accusation came up and I certainly don’t think there is any plagiarism.
Also: I am misquoted as having said, “I did not expect it of Sarita.” What I said, when asked before I read her book was: “I do not expect it of Sarita.”
Each novel is different in its own way and has its own merits. Read both and enjoy a piece of history about a people you will find quite fascinating.
MY earlier novel, The Scent of Pepper is also out in a new, revised edition.
The Delhi launch is on 27th October (after the CW games fever has subsided), B/lore on 4th November and Madras on 8th. Bombay on 26th Nov. Please do come and buy a copy. Your views on the novel will be valuable.
Venue: Delhi at the Gulmohur Hall, Habitat Centre. 6pm
Bangalore: Time Out Book Store, 6pm
Madras: The Landmark Book Store, Nungambakam, 6pm
Bombay: Crossword Book Store, Kemps Corner, 6pm.
If any changes, I shall keep you posted.
Apologies to anyone who might have wondered why I’d gone off the blog for a while; apologies to myself for not talking to myself as much as I like. Reason? I’ve been slogging away in a remote corner in Dharmapuri district, Tamil Nadu.
Here two doctor-friends run a hospital that caters to the medical needs of more than fifty surrounding villages. It is a busy place, the number of outpatients in a day often exceeds 100. Right now I’m the lone doctor here and that means I have to attend to every emergency as well. Sleepless nights I do not like, having done my share of night duties and calls all through my surgical career. I hate being disturbed once I’m home from work. But then, an acute abdomen cannot wait; nor can a very sick infant, a severe chest pain, a snake-bite, a road accident, a woman in labour or a case of poisoning.
I guess it is good once in a while to go back to the basics and that’s what I find myself doing here. I have to be the junior and the senior. I must ask my own questions and chastise my erring self, remember forgotten modes of treatment, and learn from the nurses who have all worked here for ten years or more.
But wait. There’s more. My doctor friends let me and my husband stay in their home while they are away. A terrific place with a wild garden, hundreds of butterflies and bees, lovely fragrances, innummerable insects, two dogs, four cats, frogs, bats (hanging from the roof in the bedroom) and a few other beasts. One day I returned from the hospital (a nice walk of a km and a half) to find Vijay and the maid who comes in to help agitating in the garden. “A cobra!” shouted Vijay who was brandishing a stick at the two dogs that jumped excitedly at the foot of what we in Karnataka call a parijata tree. The dogs managed to scare the cobra down, one of them caught it and ran around with it clamped in his jaws until Vijay brought down the pole on its head and ended the agony.
The very next day we had a scorpion in the kitchen and the following day a palm-sized spider in the living room. Forget the centipedes, there are just too many of them.
A rewarding experience, to say the least. We’ll soon be heading back home. With my new book ready for release in a month’s time, I have other things to think about. But for a long while I will dream of this beautiful place and feel thankful for the experience.