Among the many literary greats that South India has ever produced, it was the essence of author R K Narayan that was etched in author Mahesh Rao’s mind. He was fascinated by Narayan’s fictional city Malgudi and he began to wonder what Malgudi would look like if it were to appear in a novel today. That was how the idea of the book, ‘The Smoke is Rising,’ a book about a smaller Indian city very much like Malgudi first came to life. Then as the novel took shape, it became an expansive portrait of Mysore with stories of three women at its heart.
The author, lawyer and academic researcher, Mahesh was recently at Atta Galatta for a book reading event and in an interview he talks about the book and his journey as a writer.
At the centre of the book is HeritageLand, Asia’s largest theme park. This park is set to make its foray into Mysore but most of its residents have strong opinions on what this will mean for them. So it’s a story about the imminent transformation of the city and about who wins and who loses as a result of this process. Mahesh adds, “These struggles become a sort of white noise to many of us who live in India’s growing cities — we are vaguely conscious of them and there is little engagement beyond that. I wanted to show that in the novel by foregrounding the personal stories of the three main characters — Susheela, Uma and Mala, while the clamour in the background increases.”
The creative process
Having lived in Mysore, he didn’t have to do much active research for this book. He states, “I just had to walk around looking and listening. It’s the story of a city and so the realities of Mysore offered me the broad canvas that I required. I hope the different strands in the book show both the energy and the stasis of its setting.”
Unlike most writers, for Mahesh the challenges came only after he had written the book. He opines, “I think you really have to be prepared for what a long and uncompromising process submitting your work to agents and publishers can be. And the process is never complete for as long as you wish to write. There’s always anxieties about the next book and the next and the one after that.”
After he completed his book, Mahesh I began to write short stories as he waited to hear the fate of the novel. These stories, he says, have been very challenging to write — that strong focus on shape and brevity. He adds, “But I do think they can make you a better writer of novels too. The discipline of moving from sentence to sentence, justifying each one, focusing on a compressed structure — it changes how you view the chapters in a novel. There is less of a risk of being ill-disciplined with form and flow.”
Who are his literary influences?
He answers, “There are dozens and dozens. So I’ll just name a few whose work I’ve revisited in the last few months: Vladimir Nabokov, Muriel Spark, Junichiro Tanizaki, William Trevor, Graham Greene, Lydia Davis, SH Manto and Nadine Gordimer.”
What’s his advice for aspiring writers?
“Do it because it gives you a warm feeling, and you would feel lost and wretched without it, not because of any perceived rewards. It sounds harsh but it needs to be said: those rewards may never come or they may stop coming, no matter how deserving the writing. So you need to remind yourself every day of the real reason why you’re doing it,” he concludes.
First published in The New Indian Express