Anuradha Vijayakrishnan goes to the gym every night. But she doesn’t practise yoga or even pack a pair of trainers. In fact, she doesn’t even leave the house. “I go to the mental gym,” the banker-novelist laughs. That’s her way of explaining why she takes time out to write poetry every night. It’s a habit she can’t break even after publishing her first novel, Seeing the Girl, which was long-listed in its manuscript form for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007, and published only earlier this year.
But Anuradha, 39, is not your average writer. She’s a chemical engineering graduate who later did a masters in management and found her calling in the banking industry. In her day job she quickly rose to vice president of credit card operations at Citibank in Chennai, India, and moved to Dubai where she’s a consultant.
She juggles her writing and working life with looking after her two children – daughter Vishnumaya, 10 and son, Devnarayanan, three – spending time with banker husband, Deepakchandran, has no house-help, and claims to be a ‘fairly maniacal mother’. Which is why when the children are in bed and chores are done she finds time to write.
“For a long time, my colleagues did not have a clue as to my parallel life as a writer,” she laughs. “I was afraid of how I would be perceived as a professional, and a woman, in that world. I am quite an ambitious career person.”
However, she’s not very ambitious where her writing is concerned. “I love being creative,” she smiles. She’s just not interested in becoming a bestselling author. She even had to be pushed into writing her first novel.
Seeing the Girl came about after she joined a writing group. “I had just moved to Chennai, having taken a break from work,” Anuradha says. “I joined some writing groups there, and through their encouragement I sent off a short story in 2006 that was picked up by Granta for publication in a British Council anthology called New Writing 14.”
As a result of that Anuradha was invited to attend a Granta function in London, and met many literary luminaries, including David Godwin, the celebrated literary agent who has represented Arundhati Roy and every Indian winner of the Booker Prize except Salman Rushdie.
“He read my work, which was mostly short stories that I had written while I was in the writing group, and he advised me to write novels,” she says. “That was a time when there was this post-Arundhati Roy-Booker Prize euphoria that made them take me seriously, I think. There was a lot of interest in upcoming Indian voices, women writers especially. And the fact that like Arundhati I, too, hailed from the state of Kerala, also kindled their interest.”
So, with an almost guaranteed hit with David Godwin’s support and literary clout, why did she demur?
“The reason I didn’t go back to David was because I didn’t have a contract with him,” she says. “He spoke about me in the press and that was how it all got blown out of proportion.
“He was more of a mentor to me. He read my work and took an interest in it. He probably didn’t take it up because he didn’t feel it was commercially viable. It could also be my fault because I don’t pursue anything that is commercial connected to my literary work. I reserve all my commercial instincts for my banking career! We are still in touch, but on a personal basis.”
So, was that why she took so long to publish her book? The answer is a firm no. “That is typically what everybody asks me – why the hiatus?” she says. “It doesn’t feel like that for me because publishing is not necessarily the natural corollary to writing. For me, writing is not a commercial activity; it is something I do in my spare time. In fact, it required a lot of push from others for me to think of publishing. For me, reaching the end of the manuscript itself felt like an achievement as I spent several years tweaking and refining the text until I was happy from a creative perspective.
“Finally, when I was happy with the manuscript, I sent to LiFi Publications and they were happy with it too.”
Seeing the Girl hit the bookshelves in India earlier this year and was launched in Dubai last month.
Certainly, Seeing the Girl is not your conventional fiction. The story of three women – a mother and her two daughters – who influence each other (‘dangerously’, says the blurb), the reader will be at a loss to slot it into a genre. It’s an engrossing tale of a family, Janaki, Leela and Amma, who are all woven into each other’s lives so intricately that in the end it is difficult to critique them separately. In a way, it is in the form of looking at truth from different points of view. The language is lucid, and Anuradha has the capacity to make us see humour even in pathos.
It was a natural leap from short stories to a novel, but she hesitated to commercialise it. “I used to primarily write poetry and short fiction – people egged me on to write this after reading my short stories,” she explains. “I was cutting off my stories at a point when they felt they were supposed to go on – the characters deserved longer lives. I, too, felt that but I liked to cut off at that point.
“Short stories and poetry are difficult genres to place commercially; novels are much easier to sell. But that was not my perspective at all – it was just the creative satisfaction of writing. Some of my well-wishers pointed out that some of my stories could have been stretched into novels. Like Seeing the Girl. Initially it was born as a very short short story! But when I thought about it in that light, it just began to flow into a novel. There was no plan as such, just blind writing.
“I don’t research. I can’t stop at a point and go forward in the story because I don’t know what’s going to happen in future – it’s still in my pen. There is no plot or plan, jottings or guidelines. I read about JK Rowling’s spreadsheet for her characters in the Harry Potter series. I don’t even make notes to guide me. So much so that sometimes I even forget what my characters have been doing.”
But after nine months Anuradha had written 80,000 words and “realised I had exhausted the story”.
Coincidentally the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize was announced and friends told Anuradha to enter, as they were still accepting unpublished manuscripts at that point. Seeing the Girl was one of the 15 novels long-listed.
“What that meant for me was a stamp of approval – that my work actually amounted to something,” she says. “I didn’t think of it as a passport to being published. There were enquires from large publishers at that time. But they didn’t work out due to various reasons. One editor of a major publisher was willing to publish it if I changed a part of it. But I wasn’t willing. I was OK even if it was not published.”
Instead of giving into pressure, Anuradha used the time to go back to the manuscript and fine-tune it.
“It was a process of seasoning, so to say, before it matured into something worthy,” she says. “It grew over time, not in the body and spirit, but cosmetically. I would say I made it a little more accessible to the reader.
“I rearranged the narrative slightly, simplified it. All artists are fairly egoistic. Largely you are writing for yourself, especially when it is the first time. It also took time because I had a day job as a banker and as a wife and mother to two children.”
This time the book was snapped up by LiFi Publications, based in India. “I was surprised when they took it up,” says Anuradha. “I even asked them if they really wanted to as they were a start-up.”
While Anuradha was not keen to see her name in print, she’s coming to terms with being a published author. “With hindsight there are certain pleasures to being published – like when you occasionally come across a reader who’s connected with the novel,” she says. “No amount of feedback from peers or critiquing can give you that.”
Anuradha explains why she wasn’t interested at first in novels was because of her first love – poetry. “I started writing poetry at college, at the age of 17,” she says. “That was also when I encountered renowned and controversial Indian poet and writer Kamala Das, who took me under her wing, critiquing my poetry.
“She was editing the poetry pages of Femina, and sent off a couple of my poems. So I was published without my knowledge. It gave a huge boost to my confidence. I had no idea I could write. We were more focused on reading, which I feel is what’s missing from today’s generation. My writer’s credo is: read before you write!”
So now she’s a literary success, how will she juggle her myriad roles going forward?
“I believe that you don’t have to give up anything to do what you want to do. I am a fairly obsessive mother to two kids. I want to be the best mother possible; my children are very important to me and I don’t mind at all the time I spend with them and the effort that goes into parenting. There are 24 hours in a day, and if you don’t use them wisely then that’s just too bad.
“If I am not worn out by the time I go to bed, I don’t feel good. I have to be physically and mentally exhausted to sleep. Five to six hours of sleep is more than enough. I don’t enjoy sleeping. I am a night person. I write very late in the night. This novel was written between midnight and 3am.”
It’s her drive that means she’s constantly writing. “Maybe I am obsessive, but I can’t really stay idle,” she admits. “I have to keep doing something. On my laptop at any given time there are 13 tabs open, because I have to do many things at the same time! I read many diverse things at the same time. My life kind of mirrors that. I can’t just do one thing, and be just one person.”
Right now she is working on two stories. “They may turn into novels,” she says. “It’s too early to say.”
But one thing is certain: they will be published. “Now I know the writer is incomplete without the reader,” she says. “You are doing yourself an injustice by not actively pursuing the publication of your work. But for me the pleasure still lies in writing, not in being read.”
For that she has her poetry. “I write at least a page every night,” she smiles. She pauses. “Poetry is my mental gym – it exercises my mind.”
Seeing the Girl is available at Jashanmal book stores in the UAE, priced at Dh35