Radhika Swarup’s latest novel Civil Lines tackles the subject of #MeToo.The book takes the reader into the lives of Rupa Sharma, Maya and Siya, while bringing gender dynamics to fore. Sayantan Ghosh, Senior Commissioning Editor, Simon & Schuster India, informs that the book is about two sisters who must negotiate a difficult sibling relationship while claiming a meaningful place in the world for themselves.
“As the book also tackles sexual harassment at the workplace, the #MeToo movement was discussed in it. But it wasn’t just about that. This is a layered book with multiple narrative strands, which is why I immediately got interested in the project.” Excerpts from an interview with author Radhika Swarup:
Were you prompted by real life events to write this #MeToo novel?
I had been wanting to write about a family haunted by their mother’s trauma, but the precise contours of the story were not clear to me. Then, the #MeToo saga unfolded in 2016. Suddenly people were talking more about these issues, and everything fell into place; a bereft Rupa Sharma, a decaying house, a diffident Maya, and an isolated Siya.
I found inspiration in the #MeToo movements across the world, starting with the Nirbhaya incident. I have always been interested, not just in the big news stories, but also in the little ones that go largely unreported. I have spent a lot of time trying to understand these shifts and tensions and the new power dynamics they have created, all of which have fed into my work.
When I began to write the book, I knew I couldn’t leave the house in disrepair or the sisters estranged. They all felt like such a metaphor for a truncated way of life and for a country that has endured and overcome that, the book had to have a hopeful ending. The recent court ruling acquitting journalist Priya Ramani bears out my belief in this justice.
What led you to set the novel in Delhi?
I grew up in Delhi, so it is the most natural setting for me. And the inspiration for the novel came from a crumbling Delhi home I visited years ago that made me wonder about the lives of its inhabitants.
Beyond the obvious symbolism in placing the sisters and their magazine in a location called Civil Lines, there is a unifying link in the name. Most Indian cities have a Civil Lines, and these are usually in the old, heritage sections of these towns. It felt natural for the house and the sisters to be placed in a location that has seen plenty and is now dwindling into a genteel obscurity.
Tell us about the research that went into the book.
As a novelist, I am allowed greater remit to rely on my imagination – call it my creative licence! Having said that, I have been a keen observer of the monumental societal shifts that the world has seen over the past 30 years, and in India that has included the economic liberalisation, urbanisation, migration and technological progress, and those have all formed my work and the tensions in Civil Lines.
Why did you choose to write the novel from the viewpoint of Siya? As someone who used to live in Delhi but lives in the UK…
The novel starts with abandoned hopes, and the UK – with the recent chaos of Brexit – felt like an appropriate place for Siya to begin. That physical distance also allows her to be slightly removed from all the upheaval of her sister and her late mother’s lives and the country of her birth. She’s been removed from the sweeping shifts in her country’s consciousness, but despite her distance, she’s wedded to the idea of the India she grew up in.
What are the dynamics of class relationships and gender in the novel?
The book sees the clash of generations and classes and genders. Tasha-di as an older woman is unable to understand the need for calling out abuse, and Saloni, as the new bride of the driver, feels unable to point out her talents as a copy-editor until noticed by her husband’s employers.
On the gender dynamics, we see the trope of the traditional female role breaking down. We have the maid Shanti, apologising for her son’s insecurity in his marriage. For Pradeep, I think there is a natural reserve he feels towards his westernised and independent employers, and I think there is an all too human response to feel threatened by his wife gravitating towards words and thoughts alien to him.
What’s next for you?
With the pandemic, travel to Delhi has been denied, and I find myself thinking with great longing of the street I grew up in in the south of the city. And so, I have been writing a series of linked short stories set during the lockdown in that very Delhi neighbourhood. I started it in the summer of 2020, and it has given me great joy to imagine myself back in those streets again.