C P Surendran’s first novel, An Iron Harvest, published in 2004, is one of the very few fictional works based on the Naxalite uprising in the 70s and the machinery’s stifling of it. Born in Kerala, he says he grew up in a Kerala where, “Literature, politics and culture had clear directions to go. The place and its people had a certain rooted identity.” He partakes of a sensibility that perhaps his father, Pavanan, an author with radical left leaning, nurtured in him.
He received his M.A. in English Literature from Delhi University and taught for a short while at Calicut University before moving out to find his calling as a journalist. He has worked with The Times of India , Times Sunday Review and Bombay Times besides others. He later became senior editor for the Times of India. His poems have been featured in Gemini II in 1994 and later published as independent collections - ‘Posthumous Poems’ in 2000 and ‘Canaries on the Moon’ more recently. He currently lives in Delhi.
Surendran’s second novel, ‘Lost and Found’ is to have a star studded release all over India. The book’s Mumbai release slated on November 20 comes with an exhibition based on the novel’s cast and locations, curated by Riyas Komu and Bose Krishnamachari. Set in the back drop of a high-voltage drama that resembles the Mumbai terror attack, it tells the story of Lakshmi, an online porn writer, Placid Hari, a journalist, Nirmal and Salim, two look-alike youngsters on very different missions and how the lives of these people get intertwined in an irreversible chain of events. Actor Mammootty will release the book in Thiruvananthapuram at Kesari Memorial Hall, on November 14 at 4.30 p.m. Surendran will also be participating in the Hay Festival, Kanakakkunnu.
Excerpts from an interview with
* I read somewhere that a trip to Kashmir became your inspiration to write poetry. Did you make a conscious decision that you are going to write poetry? Or did you discover that you wanted to communicate through poetry at that point of time?
Kashmir was not the inspiration. Snow was. The discovery of an old element, getting physical with a cold natural miracle might have helped release new words. Winter and silence help my writing. Equally, I could be fooling myself. People do it all the time. May be all I needed was a break from the squalid city which is what that trip was all about.
As for communication, my poetry, like most contemporary poetry, is a communication failure. The best form of communication is bonding. There was a time poetry was good at it. No longer. We are way past that tradition. Past the need to be quiet with the music of words. It might still live in patchy pockets here and there. But as the shared conscience of a race, it is dead. People still write it, of course, in perhaps aberration or accident, and then they go on to become cops, robbers or actors. Or novelists or critics. The last is the saddest.
* Is poetry a talent? How much of that should you have in your genes?
Poetry is not a talent. It is a suicidal wish, and it probably comes from your mother’s side. But poetry doesn’t guarantee death directly though. What it ensures is eventual neglect. It is an unnecessary art in a world full of shopping possibilities and discount deals.
* Your first novel, ‘An Iron Harvest’, has been criticised for painting a very apolitical picture of the naxalite movement. Are not the emotional truths that trigger an uprising a very important factor? What made you create those graves over which flowers bloom?
Some dumb critic says ‘An Iron Harvest’ is apolitical. So it becomes apolitical? That novel was a fictional version of a certain historical event, which is still alive in rural India in its many versions. India’s single biggest problem is its exclusionary development model and how Maoists have gained the moral high ground with the victims of development.
In Kerala, last fortnight’s hard sentence on the police chief Lakshmana after 40 years of the murder of Varghese is an indication how live a political issue Naxalism is. In the final count, Maoists and what they represent is not so much ideological as the old question of justice. Hunger and poverty and dignity are not conscionable. An Iron Harvest raises those questions in a fictional form. It was never meant to be a documentary as some literal minded critics made it out to be. And it was probably one of the very few books on the Emergency.
As for your other part of the question: Well, again, I am a writer, and I’d like to do my writing in some comfort: a/c, chair, desk, laptop etc. If that takes away edge from the writing, all I can say is that writing is not just good enough.
Alternatively, what is a novelist, say, writing on the concentration camps of World War II supposed to do? Grieve and starve him in memory of the victims? Most of our critics are failed writers. You read their criticisms and you know why they have failed. Indian writing is far ahead of its critics.
* You have expressed vehemently in an interview your aim to make money out of writing in English. Which one do you write to have it sold, poetry or novel?
That is not what I meant, though of course I’d like to make some money out of my trade just like a banker or stock broker from his profession. I did not choose to write poetry in English to make money. If you think and feel in images, poetry is what you get. I gravitated to English because I could say in that language a few things that might invite embarrassment and painful attention in, say, Malayalam. All writing is a search for refuge from oneself. I found English a better shelter for my various selves. Malayalam is the language of the middle class. With a few exceptions, that’s why you can say mostly only decent things in it. You try anything deep and honest, and perhaps subversive, and you run the risk of being labelled as a pervert, or at best an eccentric.
* So this whole story that has ‘typically Indian characters’ is also with two look-alike men who could be twins who got separated – one growing up into a jihadi and the other into the fateful savior – and a look-alike episode of the Mumbai terror attack. Do you want to tell stories about typically Indian characters or stories with typically dramatic situations that can either become ‘most-watched/most read news stories’ or best selling novels?
‘Lost and Found’ is a story that can happen anywhere. It’s about Lakshmi, an online porn writer who gets drunk at a party and kidnaps the wrong guy, Hari. Lakshmi believes Hari is the man who raped her 16 years ago on a train in Bombay. What happens to them in the next 24 hours against the backdrop of a terrorist siege is the story.
The ‘Lost and Found’ motive running through the novel is typical of the chance-ridden Indian narrative where the most unlikely of things could happen a lot oftener than other places simply because the chaos that makes a certain configuration of events happen is greater. Miracles are the stuff of mayhem. India is full of it. The 26/11 type of operation you’d read in Lost and Found is used as a backdrop, not as the main thing. The twins are straight out a Hindi movie, because Indian reality is incredibly like a tacky Bollywood movie.
* Do you think your career as a journalist offers you a privileged insight into the things and people around you?
No. But as a writer, a person has an insight into the patterns at work. Or he deludes himself into believing that he has an insight. But surely you must let him make his mistakes. A journalist is essentially an informant. He ferrets out information from someone and gives it to others for money and fame( A glorified scandal monger?) More fame than money actually. He is often a man who is desperate to see his byline on a daily basis, his little fix of fame. He has to read his byline to know he is alive. Placid Hari, the man Lakshmi kidnaps in the novel, is one such journalist. For a journalist the news is a means to his little immortality. He’d probably do pretty much everything to get his fix. A journalist has great potential to be corrupt. If he is indeed privileged, it is only because he gets to know firsthand how the sleaze of the soul works. He himself is not necessarily greater than the rot he reports.
n Can you share with us what made you name your column ‘Brief Grief’?
I also had another column called ‘Bitch’. That didn’t turn me into a dog, though. ‘Brief Grief’ because it rhymes. Besides, it was a 600 word column. Your grief had to be necessarily brief in that space.
* How do you justify the easy resolution of Sebastian’s grief at the end of ‘An Iron Harvest’ when the gnawing pain of Echara Warrier’s unresolved trauma is staring every Malayalee in his/her face?
Warrier couldn’t resolve his grief. Sebastian in An Iron Harvest could, but not so easily as you put it. That’s why they are different. Besides, I think Warrier was in fact deranged to an extent with his horrific loss. Warrier waved his grief like a flag over his head, perhaps justifiably: his loss made him unique and, I tend to think, superior, its unresolvability, a form of revenge that he inflicted up on himself and the world around him. I think he was afraid to let go because his sense of guilt was the only thing he could inflict on himself, a sentence of life long torture. That was perhaps his idea of personal justice. Sebastian is different. He is more of an extrovert. His energies flow outward. He is not into punishing himself, guilt is not his ruling passion.
As far as traumatized Malayalees are concerned, they are a bit of a sham. They are good at shedding tears and beating their chests, but I suspect deep down their eyes are peeled for the main chance. My experience is that a good Malayalee at heart is a totally gentrified gent. He will make the right, aggrieved noises, but he sets more store by his car, house, and he is very very particular that his fiancé should be a virgin. In short, a good man.
n What do you think necessitates the ‘exhibition based on the novel’s cast and locations’ as part of the release of ‘Lost & Found’?
It gives a different feel to the texture of the narrative by freeze framing the high points of the novel and helps the reader connect with the general context of the landscape of the book. You make a novel a visual experience.
* Bringing in celebrities for the release and readings should perhaps be read in connection with your eye on the international audience?
Perhaps. Riyas and Bose are my friends. In fact, the exhibition was Riyas’s idea. And the publishers liked it. As for other celebrities, say, some of them are great actors and readers. If they have no problem lending their voices to the novel, maybe one should be just appreciative of it? In the west, actors and theatre personalities welcome opportunities to read prose and poems. It is good for them, and good for the writers. In any case what’s an event without recognisable people? Going by your logic, why sell the book at all? Write it in the dark and shove it under the cot? What you write is your light. It’s your responsibility to make the world see itself in it. If celebs are good for that, take it. I would take the devil’s help if that is on offer.