Anita Nair has won the Central Sahitya Akademi Award, the Hindu Literary Prize, the TOI Woman of Substance Award, among half a dozen other major honours. But ask the bestselling author, who will be attending the Sharjah International Book Fair later this month, to name her most cherished award to date, and her thoughts instantly race to Mundakottakurissi, a village near Shoranur in Kerala, where she was born.
‘There’s a small vayanasala (a reading room and library) in my village,’ she says, ‘and the local people there have set aside a corner of the library to my books; an Anita Nair corner, if you may. That’s something I’m truly proud of; that little corner is what really matters to me. It’s a place where my writing is being recognised by a group of readers rather than a jury and, to me, that is something unique.’
The former creative director of an advertising agency, who picked up the pen quite literally – she writes the first draft of her books in longhand – more than 20 years ago, is quick to add that she is ‘grateful that someone chose me for the awards, but in the larger scheme of things they don’t really matter as much as that little nook in my village library. That corner, to me, is a testimony to my writing’.
The village clearly means a lot to her. Her first novel, The Better Man, was a chronicle of sorts of a few residents of a village called Kaikurussi, a thinly veiled reference to her own birthplace.
To set the record straight, The Better Man was not Anita’s first book. Satyr of the Subway & Eleven Other Stories, a collection of short stories that came out in 1997 when she was still working in an advertising agency in Bengaluru, was her first published work.
A greenhorn at the time vis-a-vis publishing, Anita says she didn’t know anyone in the industry who could advise her on how to get a book published. ‘All I knew was that you send out manuscripts to a publisher and if they liked one, they’d come back to you, maybe pay you some money for it, and publish it.’
Having written a few short stories, she was keen to see them in print. Anita’s office, on Church Street in Bengaluru, was close to a bookstore on MG Road, so one afternoon during her lunch break, she popped into the store, went to the Indian authors’ section, randomly picked up a few books, and took down the addresses of a few publishing houses.
The next day, she wrote a cover letter and dashed off three of her stories to the first publisher on her list.
Some 10 days later, ‘the strangest thing happened’. She had a contract. ‘But I was like, oh my gosh, what do I do now!’ remembers the mother-of-one.
She initially considered checking out a few more publishers before taking the plunge ‘but then I thought what if they change their mind. Being a first-time writer, I had a lot of insecurities; not that the insecurities go away after you publish a few books,’ she says with a laugh.
If the 53-year-old’s literary success – she has written more than 18 books, including translating one of Malayalam’s most famous works, Chemmeen, by Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, into English – is any indication, one way to test the waters of the publishing world is by writing short stories.
‘I relate the experience [of getting published] to swimming… I started at the shallow end first before moving to the deep end; short stories [gave] me a sense of how to deal with form and how to handle dialogues… [before] I was ready to move to the deep end – the novel,’ she says.
Anita prefers living an experience as best as she can before getting down to writing about it. To that end, she has spent nights sauntering through crowded marketplaces in Bengaluru to get a feel of the hustle and bustle; watched a post-mortem being conducted; gone with social workers to railway station platforms at the crack of dawn to see first-hand how child traffickers try to snare unsuspecting runaway children; spent hours in police stations observing how cops behave with suspects… She is convinced ‘those experiences are important for the writing process’.
For instance, when she was researching for her first crime novel, A Cut-like Wound that is set in a place called Shivaji Nagar, Anita was determined to spend some time there first. She had heard a lot about the place – how it becomes a buzzing hive of activity during festivities, how people of different religious backgrounds live cheek by jowl in perfect harmony, but also how on some occasions, women’s safety could be an issue. The last, she would learn, was a myth.
‘A friend had convinced me that to get a real feel, I should visit the place between 11pm and 3am during Ramadan. So one evening, I decided to take a walk through Shivaji Nagar. But while it was extremely crowded, at no point was I ever groped and never was there any unnecessary touching, pushing or shoving. It was probably the safest place I’ve ever been to.’
The acclaimed novelist says that her book ‘would not have turned out the way it did if I had not gone on that walk. My personal understanding of the place made a huge difference’.
As part of her research for the same book, Anita also decided she had to witness a post-mortem being conducted because ‘I wanted to see and smell and understand the technicalities’ of what happened on the table.
Although it was a human rights issue, Anita secured necessary permissions to watch the procedure. ‘While shows on television and some movies might have prepared you, there’s nothing like seeing the real thing. It kind of hits you from within and from without,’ she says. ‘But I had to experience it for my book.’
If these experiences shook her very core, there were occasions when Anita also put herself to some amount of risk in her thirst to experience issues first-hand before including them in her book.
While working on A Chain of Custody, a follow up to Cut-like Wound, that navigates the disturbingly dark underworld of child trafficking, Anita would accompany a group of social workers, staking out at railway stations to rescue runaway children before traffickers could grab the innocent kids.
‘You’d see traffickers lurking in the shadows ready to pounce on a child who would have arrived on a long-distance train,’ says Anita. ‘Once a week, I’d accompany the social workers early in the morning and wait on the platforms. By the time I’d return home, it would be 4pm and I couldn’t eat or speak to anyone because of the horror of what I had witnessed. It would stay within me. Much later in the evening, it would all pour out in a torrent of words when I’d share the day’s experience huddled around the dinner table with my parents.’
Anita recalls the time she met a young girl who had been rescued from the clutches of traffickers. ‘Listening to her narrate to me how she was kidnapped and what happened to her after that… It was really chilling… and to think this is not fiction.’
That little girl’s experiences went into Chain of Custody, which tells the heart-rending tale of children who are lured with false promises only to be thrust into the murky world of prostitution. ‘Again, I wouldn’t have been able to write the book if I hadn’t met the girl,’ says the novelist.
She admits a lot of the research she undertakes ‘does take a toll on me. But, if it was not for those experiences, my writing would not be that layered or textured’.
The hard work Anita put in clearly touched a chord in her readers and critics alike. While The Guardian said ‘Nair captures the seedy side of shiny new India vividly’, Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin described her novel as a ‘harrowing but compassionate tale of modern India’.
So, does she prefer holding up a mirror to the human condition or would she like to get involved in some way beyond writing? ‘I look at it in two ways,’ she says. ‘When I write literary fiction, I’m holding up a mirror to the society that I’m a part of and of the human condition. When I write crime fiction, I try to get involved in some way.
‘Increasingly, my writing [has evolved and] is about what little I can contribute to bring about change in some way or the other.’
Anita also prefers to subtly nudge her readers into arriving at their own conclusions vis-à-vis her plots. A reason she leaves some of her books open-ended, she says, is because ‘the realist in me believes there’s nothing that can be really tied up neatly. I think it’s a bit of a cop out to try and do that.’
Instead, she wants to take readers along on the journey and encourage them to arrive at their own conclusions. ‘A lot depends on how the reader envisions the ending. If they are wildly optimistic, [they’ll believe] everything will fall into place and work out happily.
‘But if they are pragmatic, they’d think “let me give it some time; let me see how it goes”. If they are pessimistic, they’ll think nothing is going to work out. So, the reader can kind of finish the story for themselves.’
In literary fiction, the author expects a level of intellectual progress, she says, ‘where you expect the reader to meet you halfway. It’s not a commercial fiction book that is fast-paced and everything is stated with no room for ambiguity, and there’s no need to read between the lines or draw nuances and inferences.’
Literary fiction, she insists, is about making the reader think. ‘It makes the reader juggle thoughts in their mind and come to a conclusion. I don’t want to make that crossover and give them the fairy-tale ending that they would want to read,’ says Anita, who lists Vladimir Nabokov, John Le Carre, and John Updike among her favourite writers.
Constantly pushing boundaries because she finds remaining in her comfort zone ‘boring and unchallenging’ Anita also enjoys dabbling in different genres – crime, children’s and literary fiction among others (interestingly, she uses specific fountain pens for different genres). ‘I believe in thinking outside the box even when writing within a genre.’
That aspect is evident in her most recent book Eating Wasps where she went back a few decades in time – the ’60s to be precise – attempting to lay bare the mind of award-winning Malayalam poet and writer Rajalakshmi. For those who came in late, Rajalakshmi, a lecturer of physics, seemed to have it all but shockingly ended her life at the age of 35. The motive was never known as she did not leave behind a suicide note.
‘I remember listening to a radio play of a short story written by Rajalakshmi and my interest was piqued,’ says Anita. ‘I felt I needed to tell the story of what could have driven the writer to suicide even though she had a thriving literary life, was highly regarded in society and seemingly had everything going for her.’ The result is the story of Sreelakshmi, a character based on Rajalakshmi. Told in parts – a format Anita has employed to fine effect in other novels – Eating Wasps weaves the threads of stories of several women all deftly bound together by the cord that is Sreelakshmi’s tale.
Eating Wasps is an update of sorts on her 2001 novel Ladies Coupe, which detailed the lives of six women who at some point of the book enter and later exit the ladies’ coupe of a train and whose narratives are subtly interlinked to a lead character, Akhila. A middle-aged woman, Akhila is hoping to break away from her past and live life on her own terms.
In Eating Wasps, Anita picks up on the lives of the women, giving their tales a fresh jump start with a boost of modern-day technology. ‘Ladies Coupe was set in 1996; now I wanted to ask myself whether anything has changed over the past 23 years. I realised superficially a lot had changed but internally and emotionally, very little had.’ Anita makes it clear that Eating Wasps is not a biography of Rajalakshmi; rather it’s a ‘fictionalised account of what could have happened to a celebrated writer’.
So, what does writing mean to her?
‘It might sound like a tired phrase, but writing gives me a sense of my identity, an identity that is completely untouched by the external world. Everything I believe in, hold sacred and think I can do in this world… all find a place in my writing.’
Anita's 3 tips for wannabe writers
1. Write every day, even if you write just 400 words a day.
2. Write because you have a story to tell and not because you think it’s the way to fame and riches. There should be a burning desire within you – so stirring, you feel you can’t move forward unless you write it.
3. Be honest.
Sharjah International Book Fair opens on October 30 at the Expo Centre in Sharjah.