I was born in Odisha, a time when it was still called Orissa. My first novel, fifteen years ago, was set there. Since then, I have written two other novels set in that state in India’s east; one in a town whose name I disguised, while my most recent novel is set in a place I have known only through the black and white photos of my father’s albums.
My father, a civil servant, worked in Odisha for a large part of his life. My father died three years ago, as he lived out his retired life in an apartment in Delhi’s trans-Yamuna area. I think now that he never felt at ‘home’ anywhere, not Delhi, or even Odisha.
This feeling of not finding home anywhere wasn’t just because being in the government, he was transferred often. When not in Odisha, my father worked in Delhi, and we, my mother, my siblings and I, followed in his wake. But my father never really recovered from the fact that he had had to abandon his childhood home in East Bengal, when it became East Pakistan soon after Partition of 1947. And by the time the war of 1971 was fought, and his hometown of Barisal became part of Bangladesh, my father knew he would never return.
I began this piece with my father, for my life, certainly the first two decades of it, was lived where my father worked. And till then, we never thought to call any place home, for it was only a matter of time before we moved again. I can phrase this differently too: that no place would ever let us call it ‘home.’ Now years later, especially since in direct and less direct ways, Odisha is where I have set my novels in, I am able to see belonging, and home, in different ways. It’s an argument that works both ways; two things have to fit neatly together. That is, you belong to a place, and a place lets you belong to it. You call a place home, and a place makes you feel at home.
I set three of my novels in Odisha because in the beginning, these places puzzled and intrigued me. I wrote about these places first to understand them, these towns I lived in. But only after I was done revising my most recent novel, the third one set in Odisha, did I realize that I was trying to understand other things too: my parents, and their past. For before wanting to belong to a place, you must first understand other things too. And his is true about one’s family, and the places one has lived in for some years.
When he first began working in Odisha, my father was a young man, unmarried and full of zest. He took photos, drove around in an old ambassador, and smoked cigars that came in soft wooden boxes all the way from Madras (now Chennai). I know of this only from his photos. Heavy and bound albums, black papered, a thin translucent sheet in between, and the pictures my father had taken, edged with four brackets on every side, carefully fitted on every page. He wasn’t my father then, but this young man remained forever in those photo albums.
Letters for Paul
I was ten when we moved to Cuttack. A city of congested streets, packed with rickshaws and cycle, and old houses looming down with their damp-streaked walls. Cuttack became the first place where I knew fear; a fear that had a shape, and a leering evil face. Fear that made me ask myself a dozen and more questions every time I stepped out of home. Fear that made me want to become invisible. A fear that soon encompassed an entire range of things. Later, when I first tried to understand this fear—the reasons, my own reaction to it—I could only in terms of rage.
It was in Cuttack that I understood that my parents feared for me. Their worries for my safety led to a ring of restrictions for me. A fear that speared itself into me because nothing was ever said. I learnt to fear going out, to be in the open, especially never alone, never unaccompanied by a man.
Years later when I wrote my first novel, Letters for Paul, these fears came to life. The treacherous roads of the town peopled by eve-teasers; the people one trusted who could turn out to be cruel and terribly deceptive. All this was subsumed in the book in the character of a villainous English teacher I once knew. The fear I felt and did not wholly understand then, had at least on page been transformed into a more recognizable fear. That adults of various kinds could betray one so easily; that they could be frightening with the power they had—whether it was eve-teasers, teachers, even other grown-ups—changed in my novel into a story of a young person avenging herself on them in secretive, fictitious ways.
It Takes a Murder
Sambalpur is a town in Odisha’s northwest, and given to more extreme weather than Cuttack. Summers can be hot, and winter mornings bitingly cold. Years ago, it was a town smaller than Cuttack, and yet it contained an amazing range of people – a Dogra family who were longtime residents there, an Iranian family fleeing from the revolution of 1979, a doctor and his family who had returned from Kenya, Marwari merchants, Punjabi businessmen, and those who worked in the nearby aluminum factory and other industrial complexes not too far away from the town.
The town’s local Oriya and Bengali families made up a kind of elite as well. They were the long-time residents of the town who lived on in big old houses, in their big tree-filled compounds, falling apart but held together with dignity, and age-hold habits. I knew them in school too, and as I see it now, it was strange that so few of my schoolmates were from the Ho, Santhal and Kissan adivasi groups, who for centuries too, had lived in this area.
My father as a senior police officer had a bungalow on the city’s main road. To one side of this old British-era bungalow was the river Mahanadi. The house had an old roof, corrugated with creepers running riot over it, rooms with high ceilings, panelled doors, and old-fashioned barred windows. A small gate led past the garden, and the grave of a British officer, to steps that led down to the river. Old, chipped stone steps, they were as old as the house itself but the river itself was much older. Upstream there was the Hirakud dam erected just thirty years ago from the time we lived there, but in dry seasons, the river water receded in the distance to reveal spires of old, recently submerged, temples.
I looked out at the river in every season, at the high thick forested mountains that lay on the other side. In summer months, we would see the garland of forest fires—deliberately set, as I think now, —at the kites flying high, and the airplanes too, that never touched down in this part of India, and sometimes I would catch a woman, or a man, shabbily dressed, passing by, past the old steps, holding up old branches, broken off twigs.
Those old stone steps by the river, weeds growing through cracks, an old prayer offering to ward away evil, often left on those steps on occasion, became ideal accessories to a story I would write later, seven years after Letters for Paul. One that featured a murder. This, and the variety of people who lived in this hot-cold town in north Orissa, almost in the heart of the country, led to It Takes a Murder.
The book began from stories I knew, and other stories that I wanted to be true—like a possible love affair between two schoolteachers. Only then did it become a story of murder, born of revenge. The novel also became a story of other possibilities. The other lives the people I knew could have led, in a city that I had to name differently, to make it part of a new fictional universe. Every one of these unusual people I met in Sambalpur, from Iran, Kenya, Kashmir, had their own stories, and figuring these out brought me out of myself, out of my fears, and set me on the path of becoming a writer. For at the end of this novel, its many revisions and drafts, I learnt of the joy that comes from telling other people’s stories, the adventure of stepping into someone one’s shoes, and seeking out their pasts.
The Hottest Summer in Years
Seven years and more since ‘It Takes a Murder,’ I just finished my third novel set in Orissa. The state, the place where I was born, still remains peripheral in the world in many ways. In the last two decades, I can relate, with little exaggeration, two events from Odisha that hit national, even world headlines: starvation related reports from Kalahandi, and the gruesome murder of an Australian missionary and his two young sons in Manoharpur. The violence fostered by state negligence or by elements who enjoyed state patronage, now seemed fused to all the fuzzy violence I had known since then – the roadside predators, sexual harassers or ‘eve-teasers,’ the cruelty of grown-ups, and for all the distance that now lay between me and the places I once lived in, the old confusions reappeared, now amorphous, and inchoate.
These old confusions and fears appeared in danger of fizzing away if I made no attempt these many years later to pin them down. It was while writing The Hottest Summer in Years that I realized that the attempt to understand is always multi-threaded, always more complicated than what it appears at the beginning, that the journey to understanding anything subsumes one, leaving one changed, made anew, regurgitated, resuscitated, and reconfigured. And braver too.
In The Hottest Summer, I tried to understand my past by going back to stories I once knew. Stories I had listened to, and eavesdropped on. Stories I had heard from my parents, stories from their past, stories that I knew existed in my parents’ photo albums, when my father had been a swashbuckling young police officer, and my mother, an unbelievably pretty woman who resembled a popular film star of those times. Stories that were true even as they were handed down to me. The past then became a multi-sphered territory that I could re-explore in many ways; the pasts of Odisha, the world’s recent pasts, and the past of my parents when they were young, and lived in the town of Raurkela, where The Hottest Summer in Years is set.
I realized I could never claim to belong to anything in any small way, if I did not first write about it. That the present can be understood by understanding the past. Writing thus became a first step to understanding, and this made possible an acknowledgement of everything else – ignorance, complacency and of course, fear itself. Or in other words, the willingness to understand, that there isn’t any other option, is always the first step before stepping into the unknown.