Kerala has been fertile ground for literature, spawning writers of national and international stature such as Arundhati Roy, Shashi Tharoor, and Shashi Warrier, just to name a few contemporary writers in English. Now, we should add the name of C.P. Surendran to that illustrious list.
Surendran is a well-known poet, novelist and journalist who lives in Mumbai. He has worked with The Times of India, Times Sunday Review, Bombay Times and until recently, was the chief editor of the daily newspaper DNA.
He has published several collections of poems: Posthumous Poems, Canaries On The Moon and Portraits Of The Space We Occupy. His first two novels are An Iron Harvest and Lost and Found.
His most recent novel is Hadal, which has attracted a great deal of attention in India because of its unusual theme and the choice of narrator. It is a tale of international espionage, loves lost and found, desire and power set in Kerala, Surendran's home state.
It's based on a true story. At the centre of the plot is Miriam Zacharias, a young woman from the Maldives who has lost her family in the tsunami. When she appears in the novel, she has resigned as a minor security officer assigned to the president of the island nation.
Just out of her marriage, she wants to pursue "her dream of writing a novel".
Miriam goes to Kerala, looking for her former lover, Roy, a senior scientist in the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Then she also comes across Honey Kumar, a disgruntled policeman who is the narrator of the story. Kumar has been thrown out of Delhi for a case of bribery.
What follows is a story of libidinous drive, lust for power, intrigue which snowballs into an international spy scandal.
"The ISRO/Rasheeda story was a classic instance of how a whole people bought into a myth," Surendran told me in an e-mail interview.
"The media because a woman as a spy was involved; the politicians because they are always looking for distraction; the bureaucrats and the police because a story like this invariably helps further their careers. There is a whole economy in scandals.
Real events as a launchpad help because you actually have the seed of a plot.
"It's another thing - and a very inspirational thing at that - what you do with it. But I must underline that Hadal is not a docu-realistic effort; not an investigation into the truth of the scandal. I am quite aware that the odd critic will turn perversely literal minded if only to get a sense of superior purchase on the book and point out Mariam Rasheeda has been wrongly spelt as Miriam."
Surendran added that Hadal's focus is on how we bring into being a phantom world whose crowdsourced nature allows us to indulge in our phantasies.
Even though Surendran appreciates the fact that his novel was picked by a mainstream publisher like Harper Collins India, he is not very happy with the state of Indian writing in English.
"Indian publishing is going through a political phase. Most publishing houses are dominated by women, and that is almost as bad as men dominating other walks of life. As a result, my reading is that editing decisions tend to be taken on themes of correctness.
Honey Kumar in Hadal is an incorrect, corrupt male voice. Miriam is seemingly a victim. These narrative positions have been adopted because Hadal's fictional word resonates India's seamier and - what I take to be - its truer side.
"For that reason I had a tough time getting this book published. The other abiding problem of Indian publishing is that the market is still immature. The publishing houses naturally are either resistant or quite incapable of recognising a new voice. All over the world, editors and agents put up a great show of being on the lookout for the great new voice. The fact is that they are not having a good time recognising one.
"That is what happens when you play it safe. Everybody is in it for the business. Which is the reason why a substantial number of published books are of the same type and tenor. The little literary fiction from India consumed internationally tends to feature the migrant theme, or just India as exotica.
And of course that there is no money in publishing here does not help. All in all, Indian publishing needs a kick."
The talented Surendran has also written a film, Gour Hari Dastaan, which releases in theatres on Aug 14. The film, directed by Ananth Narayan Mahadevan, is a biopic depicting the real-life travails of Gour Hari Das, a freedom fighter who fought the government for 32 years to be recognised as such.
Over the years, I have observed that readers very easily fall for novels or non-fiction titles about the corporate types and bankers seeking spiritual bliss. A new novel on a similar theme to hit the best-selling charts in India right after its release is Karan Bajaj's The Seeker. Previously, Karan wrote some bestsellers such as Keep Off The Grass (HarperCollins: 2008) and Johnny Gone Down (HarperCollins: 2010).
The Seeker, Karan's first international novel, was published by Penguin-Random House in India in June and slated for a US/world release in early 2016. It was inspired by Karan's one-year spiritual sabbatical learning yoga in a south Indian ashram, meditating in complete silence in the vedantic tradition in the Himalayas and living as a Buddhist monk in a Scottish monastery.
Now back in New York, Karan is a certified yoga teacher attached to the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center while working his day job as the chief marketing officer of a start-up.
"The Seeker is a pulsating, contemporary take on man's classic quest for transcendence," he told me in an e-mail. "It follows a Manhattan-based investment banker who becomes a yogi in the Indian Himalayas.
"To be honest, I've completely let go of the idea of the author trying to say something with a novel. All I'm trying to create is a fictive dream, a world in which the characters inhabit their own universe and learn their own lessons. In that way, The Seeker is my purest book yet.
I've just been a medium for the story to express itself without an active sense of authorship."
Zafar Anjum is a Singapore-based writer who runs a literary start-up, kitaab.org. tabla! reads is a monthly column on books, writing and publishing.
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