It's been pure pleasure to know author Usha K.R. Warm, welcoming, always ready to offer encouragement to floundering new writers, she is a gracious human being. And oh, she's a lovely hostess. We last met in her home in Bangalore. The scents of cinnamon and fresh baking, the aroma of steaming filter coffee, went well with writerly conversations. My complete interview with her is published in Reading Hour Jan 2011.
Here are some excerpts:
Critically acclaimed author Usha K. R. radiates inborn charm and grace. With soft-spoken serenity, she can make you feel an instant connection, while her twinkling eyes belie a keen intelligence. Her first novel, Sojourn, was followed by The Chosen.
Shortlisted for the for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize (2008) and winner of the Vodaphone Crossword Prize (2007), Usha K.R.’s third novel, A GIRL AND A RIVER, is exquisitely crafted. The author has brought to life the freedom movement and its effects upon the people of the former Mysore Princely State. Mylariah's rise and ultimate degeneration, Sethu's callousness rather than any active malice, which causes terrible tragedies; it is all brought out beautifully. Dr. King, Ella, Shyam, Shanta Kole, Kalyani, all the major and minor characters are well rounded and multifaceted. The protagonist Kaveri's tragedy is summed up beautifully when we finally find her in a 'home' for lost causes. There is a Kaveri in almost every family in the region, blooming with life and hope, and then burdened over the years with neglect and disappointment. Her story repeats itself in many silent tragedies.
The novel ends in a note of hope embodied by the offspring of Kaveri’s brother Sethu and Kaveri’s daughter, who is her niece and also her granddaughter.
Usha K. R.’s latest novel, Monkey-Man (2010), takes a fresh and insightful look at life in Bangalore, India’s fastest growing city. As a new millennium dawns, a strange creature attacks passers-by in the streets of Bangalore. Is it a malevolent avatar, or a sign of the displeasure of the gods? Is it the grotesque mascot of a city that is growing too fast, or merely a lost monkey? Shrinivas Moorty, a teacher in a city college, call center professional Pushpa Rani, Neela, secretary to an influential man, and Sukhiya Ram, her office boy, are the first to sight the strange creature. They are invited by popular RJ Bali Brums to discuss their experience on his popular radio show.
The lives of these characters become intertwined in unexpected ways. They also personify the multiple hues of tradition juxtaposed against and vying with modernity and westernization; a theme running through the heart of Bangalore and many Indian cities.
Neela, for example, continues secure yet stagnant in her sinecure job, spreading concentric circles of pettiness and inefficiency of the old order. Pushpa Rani successfully overcomes a deprived upbringing to take on the world from her desk at a call center. Rising from a city where glass and aluminum skyscrapers overlook shanty settlements, and where ancient temples stand proudly in the middle of busy streets, the story of Monkey-Man entices the reader into a deeper understanding of human nature.
What were your influences in the early years? And later on as you matured as a writer and published author?
UKR: I can’t think of any conscious influences, but I admired Jane Austen for her polished irony, her restraint, her ability to do so much with so little. Reading Austen, Dickens and Henry James brought ideas and possibilities of exploring the dilemmas of one’s world and engaging with it intensely but quietly. At the same time, there was Indian mythology, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata with their direct story telling, their colour and their noise. Shashi Deshpande’s early work brought home the fact that English was an Indian language and could be the language of fiction, my fiction.
How do you develop your characters? Were Kaveri in A Girl and a River, and Pushpa Rani in Monkey Man, for example, based on people you knew?
UKR: Here, I must quote Amitav Ghosh who when asked if he based his characters on real people, said: If the answer was ‘yes’, I’d say ‘no’. There may be a single trait or an impression you have of a person which seems to sum up his or her essence, or even a person or event you read about, and then you spin it out, depending on the requirements of the story and the circumstances you place the character in.
Many authors say that there is a little of themselves in their stories and characters. Do you feel this is true of your own writing? Do you rely heavily on personal experiences, write from what you know, or do you rely more heavily on research and external knowledge.
UKR: Initially you begin with personal experience and then realize that direct experience can only take you thus far, and you would have a very limited board of characters. It is a mix of personal experience, research and reading, animated by one’s intuitive knowledge of people and circumstances.