Here we have today, Saiswaroopa Iyer, the author of Abhaya
Let’s start with a traditional question – As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up? Let us not really go there. I wanted to be a million things. Perhaps that’s why I took writing because that is one way I can live a million lives. But on a serious note, I thrived on imagining worlds and meeting dream characters, creating new characters in existing worlds, drawing inspiration from their tales when I needed it and those fantasies helped me survive tough times. It was a bit later that I discovered that this is what is needed to be a storyteller. And here I am.
Did you have any goals for this book when you wrote it — to get published, or just to finish, or bring up some new topic, etc.? When I started writing the very first draft of Abhaya, I never dreamt of publishing it. It was like the characters strongly prodded me to write it. I thought I would find peace once I simply write it down. But as I wrote, I felt more and more obliged towards the story and the characters that I wanted to improvise and hone it further. When it started taking shape, my husband, my mother and a couple of early readers told me that I should pursue the idea of publishing it. That led to another whole new phase of rewriting the draft. So after trashing drafts counting to more than 280,000words, this current final manuscript arrived!
How did you begin writing? Did you intend to become an author, or do you have a specific reason or reasons for writing each book? Again honestly, I had not thought about becoming an author early in life. As a high school student, I did have a couple of articles and stories published in Gokulam. But now I think each book is goaded by a very compelling inner calling that transforms into a story. With each book, we also need to test newer limits in weaving stories, experiment with new world ideas and characters. For example I am now working on a Vedic fiction which is set in a world that is radically different from the world of Mahabharata where the story of Abhaya took place. I aspire that in future, I might be able to write about little known kings in medieval India. Every story dawns with an inspirational trigger and I hope to provide for it while writing.
What authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you? I love the books of historical genre more than others. But if you ask me to name one above everything, it has got to be Krishnavatara by KM Munshi (of BharatiyaVidyaBhavan). I learned to see characters in their vibrant forms as against the poetic molds in traditional narratives. I would also mention Saartha and Parva by SL Bhyrappa. His is a unique combination of ruthlessly shoving the readers away from their comfort zones while drawing them back with incisive arguments. I love the novels of Kalki Krishnamurthy, especially for balancing rich descriptions with adequate drama which makes the most minor of the characters look really lively. Coming to modern Indian authors, I love reading Venkatesh Ramakrishnan, Krishna Udayasankar and ShatrujeetNath. It is my dream to emulate Douglas Adams in his classy sarcasm and humour. I would have practically given up on non-fiction if not for the likes of VamseeJuluri and Sanjeev Sanyal.
If you were to describe your book “Abhaya” to someone who has yet to read it, then how would you do it? Abhaya is the episode of Narakasura vadha reconstructed and narrated from a fictional protagonist, a princess Abhaya. This is the story that has been narrated on the occasion of Deepavali traditionally as a tale signifying the victory of light over darkness. But our reductionist mentality tends to dichotomize one side as the ‘light’ and one side as ‘darkness’. My book Abhaya tends to shed light on this ‘darkness’ and also see the ‘light’ free of its blitzkrieg.
The story also traces the journey of Dhatri, a woman wronged by extreme rigidities of the system that she grows to hate the civilization of Bharatavarsha. The trajectories of Abhaya and Dhatri take interesting turns when they encounter Krishna and Bhauma (Narakasura) respectively. And it is no longer a battle between two women with differing beliefs, but a clash between a selfish lord who has subverted a religion and those people who believe in their civilization despite its rots.
Being successfully published in an eBook platform in the era of widely read paperbacks, what hurdles did you face in the journey? Paperback still is much sought out channel in India and with paperback, come the various challenges of inventory, logistics, distribution blues and what not! Staying outside India makes the issue even more challenging for me and hence, I stuck to the digital edition for now. It feels bad to tell those who are waiting for a paperback edition that they would have to wait. So, the challenge is to balance all options and make tough choices. I hope that a day would come when a self-published author can sell on par with a traditionally published author in India. Western world has reached there as a bulk of book purchases happen online and that makes life easier for Indie authors. We might be having the last couple of years to beat before we arrive there.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing? Reading, dreaming the next story or on Social media voicing opinions.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned while writing your book? Writing the story and rewriting it was a philosophical roller coaster for me. A lot of my own beliefs went through a scanner and I learnt to make peace with the independence that the characters ought to be given in carving their story. Holding the strings like a puppeteer does not work with writing. Here, we need to trust our characters and they generally don’t let us down. To quote an example, Dhatri, the woman without who we cannot imagine the story of Abhaya, did not manifest till the third and final draft! Now I have come to believe that unforgettable characters take shape as a result of a Tapasya we writers do over our stories. I strongly feel that writing itself is like meditation and a prayer and characters are its deities.
What was your family’s reaction to find their gem engrossed in writing? Any incidents you would like to share with us? Family is the reason why I could complete the book and put it there for the world to see. I would like to quote my mother’s feedback on the very first draft of Abhaya. She had taken the print outs with her on a journey, read them in the train, written down feedback which literally made me feel I have to rewrite it all over again. From there I have written it all over again and again and again. Her words of encouragement mean a lot not only in this aspect but in every little step I take.
Another pillar of support is my husband. He kept my faith up in phases where I felt like giving up. He encouraged me to write full time when I could finally take a break. He also took me out on treats every time I crossed a milestone in the manuscript. I have to admit, I would not have done it but for him.
What message would you like to give to the young generation and aspiring writers? Completing your book is not the writer’s problem, but the characters’. As writers we need to believe in them and give them their space to write their own stories through us. It is important for us to remain humble. We are not giving voice to our characters. They have chosen us as their medium and we need to remain aware of that. Writing a story means subjecting ourselves to a virtual journey that might effectively shake us up. We need to be prepared to undergo that process. From a craft’s perspective, we need to always work hard to keep our narrator’s tone under check. It must be the characters who speak and we should refrain from qualifying them.