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Interview

In Conversation with Anuradha Kumar

She has a strange mix of oeuvres. She flits between young and adult readers — writes for all ages across borders, across continents and across oceans, in newspaper, journals and in books. She has written thirty-one books in all (a number of them with Hachette India), has won the Commonwealth awards for short stories a couple of times, written under the pseudonym of Aditi Kay, worked in the Economic and Political Weekly for almost 9 years and now lives in USA weaving stories of people around her and the worlds she inhabits. Meet Anuradha Kumar, who has already released two books in 2021. One is called The Hottest Summer in Years and the other that held me mesmerised has been published with Weavers Press San Francisco and is called A Sense of Time and Other Stories.

The unique thing about A Sense of Time is that it stretches through different time zones, the past, the present and the future. It has stories that linger and leave an aftertaste of nostalgia and the past or encapsulate you in the future in a world where living and working in outer space is as much a reality as is the recurrence of pandemics. It carries you into a dimension that Kumar builds with words, a unique space where her perceptions evoke a sense of the unusual, the sensual and the real. A strange story about a bus journey of an American in India which uncovers the commonality of experiences of women across continents, of a man who trains to be Gandhi, of Indians in America, of a strange case in court, of friendship between a child and a wanted man, a murder in the train which travels in a strange way through time — the titular story — and many more.

What makes these stories riveting is they make you feel like you have tasted the manna from the land of  Lotus Eaters and for some time, you forget your own reality and live with the characters. They stay in your head even after you finish the stories. Reading her stories was a pleasurable experience and finishing all of them created a longing to read a few more from Kumar’s pen. Without more ado, let us plunge into a discussion on Anuradha Kumar’s wonderland.

Tell us Anuradha, what spurred the writer in you? When did you start writing and why?

It was quite an accident. I did write when asked for the school magazine, but the more serious kind of writing, like now, came later. I remember being very bored during my time in the corporate world and writing down something. And I found that quite a panacea for boredom. And soon, writing became more than just a panacea, and more than just a response to things other than boredom.

But your ‘why’ holds so much more, and I feel quite pompous answering that. But the more one writes, and reads, there are just more questions. So, while earlier writing meant getting things like character, plot and narrative arc in place—things a good writing programme can teach you—now it’s a bit more about the answers you are seeking to various things, and writing is one way toward that.

How many countries have you lived in and how has this impacted your writing? How long have you been away from India?

For a bit more than a decade. And we have lived in Singapore, and in the US, first in Maryland and now in New Jersey. I guess I must be bothered by questions of identity, and belonging, but also about how the self changes in response to alienation and isolation and movement. Changes that can at times not be visible and emerge years later or in entirely different circumstances.


At a point, you wrote as Aditi Kay. Were these all children’s books with Hachette India? Why did you take a pseudonym and what made you drop it? 

Adity Kay is how I write historical fiction; for older readers especially the three books on ancient India’s three ‘big kings’ (Chandragupta Maurya, Vikramaditya and Harshavardhana). These have been published by Hachette india and the last of the three came out only last year.
When I began writing these in 2012, I was already writing more children’s fiction as Anu Kumar. My editor advised that a different name would help in not bringing up any ‘association’ with the other name, and the series could be presented as something unique by a new writer. 

Recently, you have brought out an unusual collection of short stories, A Sense of Time. What spurred you to write such diverse stories — each one could be seen as a stand-alone that leaves a lingering after taste in one’s being?

These were written over the last decade. The oldest was, I think, the first one, ‘The Entomologist at the Trial’—I realised I was wackier then—and the most recent ones are the Pandemic love story, and ‘Comfort Food’ — both these set in worlds different from the ones I had known even a decade ago. I just had them and kept returning to these stories, revising them occasionally, and then early last year, Moazzam, my publisher, suggested I send him some stories, so I revised them again. And this book happened, all thanks to him.

You have a unique story set one hundred years from now. What spurred you to try a sci- fi in the middle of stories rooted in our times or the recent past. Did you research to write the sci-fi or is it fully from your imagination?

It partly rests on a historical coincidence. The influenza epidemic was just a century ago, and I read somewhere that pandemics similar to ours will never really go away. Neither will love, nor will our attempts to find it regardless of the differences that exist between us.  

What kind of research goes into writing all these stories?

I hope to learn from what other writers do. But it’s always a learning process. Every writing is a way to learning how to write for the first time. I (try and) read a lot of the writers I admire Alice Munro, William Trevor, Yiyun Li, Michael Ondaatje, Yoko Ogawa, and others, and reading must go simultaneous with the writing that one attempts. Looking back, as I gathered up and revised, and at times rewrote all these stories, what I found interesting was trying to remember where I was, what I was reading, when I wrote the initial version. For years and months later, how I looked at this story was different, and I wanted to now rewrite and revise it a different way.

Few of your stories leave the conclusion undefined and the reader wondering about how the aftermath links to the narrative. It is a distinctive style and unique. But what made you do it and why?

The conventional, old-fashioned story had a beginning, middle and end. I still hope that for my reader/s, my stories will linger in some way. That they will remain with the character, the story, for a while, maybe a long while. It’s much like what happens in real life. People we encounter, some of them linger on in our memories for various reasons. I’d like my stories to be that way too.

Most of your stories are outside a world caught in the pandemic, how do you see life beyond this virus? Do you think the future will be like the past?

I wish I had a ready answer to that.

I think this long isolation has made us reconsider and rethink various things, especially how we relate to one another. Questions about who and what really matter have always been important, and maybe this time has made us think on these things that much more.

Your stories are rooted in different issues that affect man. Do you see a commonality in the thread that runs through the stories, like you did in Coming Back to the City: Mumbai stories?

I can’t say quite so easily. I am curious about how people see the world, in everyone’s unique perspective, and also in trying to see the person under the skin. In fact, this latter thing, about trying to get under a person’s skin sometimes stopped me from writing a story, because I sort of got knotted up in all  the complexities within us, and sometimes not being judgemental isn’t a good thing when writing a short story, so I had to work  that out too. Am still working this out.

You don multiple hats in writing — switching between young adult and adult fiction and beautiful essays on history in online forums. How do you juggle your time to do all of it?

I just write, I don’t know anything else. And the good thing is, if you shut the world out, all the craving for attention, and just focus on what really matters, one does get better at it – at writing.

You moved your publisher from India to US with this book. Is there a reason for it?

I’ve lived in the US for around 9 years now. And I still am published in India. Am truly a borderless writer, Mitali!

So, your writing spans continents and the Pacific. Isn’t that wonderful! Your stories are based mainly in India. And yet you have been away for many years. How does that add up?

I think I answered this above. It’s that these stories were written over a decade. And I guess one can never really leave one’s country of origin. The more borders one crosses, memories of homes left behind seep in, and these change in texture over time. I found this while reliving my stories. I am still finding this out.

What are your future plans?

To be a better writer, a better person. Oh, and a better cook!

Thank you Anuradha for sharing your fabulous journey with us.

This has been an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.

Click here to read an excerpt from The Sense of Time and Other Stories.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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