Thursday, February 24, 2005

Meri Amrita - An Interview with Usha Rajagopalan

“I’ve always been a small town person. I lived in Anand, Gujarat, and now, at Manipal, Karnataka. Chennai is a big city for me in contrast, and I visit my mother and other relatives here once in a while. My daughter who studied here, became quite the Chennai girl at the end of her course!”says Usha Rajagopalan, author of the novel, ‘Amrita’. 

Usha was in town to speak to students of the Women’s Christian College, as well as to participate in a reading and panel discussion on her debut novel, at the British Council.

Usha’s relationship with writing began in her childhood. “I was always into reading and writing, and assumed that it was a part of every child’s life. My grandfather would insist I write a review on every book I read, and would later go through the reviews, marking out phrases or words that he thought were well used in the context, as well as those that could be improved upon or expressed differently.”

Much later, Usha worked as Executive Assistant to Dr. V. Kurien, Chairman, National Dairy Development Board, at Anand, Gujarat. She recalls it being an intensely punishing job, and she worked from 9.30 a.m. to 8 p.m., 7 days a week, with only a half-hour lunch break. This half-hour lunch break was the time when she did most of her writing.

“I wrote many pieces for newspapers that got published almost instantly. Many readers wrote in to share their opinions about my pieces and mentioned looking forward to reading more of my work.” Says Usha. Ever since, her articles, travelogues, short stories, poems and features, more than 80 in all, have appeared in almost all the leading Indian English newspapers and magazines.

After she left her job at NDDB, she turned to full-time writing. Usha won the Commonwealth Short Story prize for three successive years: 2001, 2002 and 2003 and also won prizes for her poetry.

How did ‘Amrita’ happen? “I wrote the first draft of ‘Amrita’ during my stint as the Andrew Fellow in Fiction at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver in 1999. This was a period, when I could focus wholly on my writing. Since that first draft, the story has undergone much editing and revision and it’s a relief, to finally see it in print!” she says.

“The inspiration for ‘Amrita’, came from a visual I saw on television, of a girl leading another. I wanted to write about siblings, about a girl whose elder sister is dependent on her. The reason for the dependence, in the final story, is mental disability. ‘Amrita’ is the story of the deep bond between the mentally disabled Amrita and her mercurial younger sister Maya. Their parents, Raghu and Kamala, are resigned to their fate but Maya is determined to bring her sister within the fold of the family and society.”says Usha.

Having researched the subject of mental disability in great detail, Usha, however, believes that the book is not for those with a mentally disabled child in the family. “It’s especially for those who have non-disabled children, for them to appreciate how fortunate they are not to encounter the kind of challenges that families with mentally disabled children face on a daily basis.”

“I have tried to portray the challenges that the rest of the family faces, especially the siblings. And the biggest issue in a family such as the one in ‘Amrita’, is one of breakdown of communication. Although many people who have read the book have told me that they know families exactly like the one in the book, the portrayal itself is a composite of many people I met, places I had visited and stories I had heard from those working with mentally disabled children. In fact, the antics of Amrita’s non-disabled sister Maya, in the book, is modelled after all the naughty things my son used to do as a child!”

So, where to, from here? Usha says, “Many people have told me that the book is incomplete without more on Maya. They’ve wanted to know if I will write a sequel. I have no idea what I will write next. But one thing I know for sure, is that having spent about five years writing my first novel and understanding the process, it will take me a lot less time to write my next!”

(edited version published on February 24, 2005 in Madras Plus, the city features supplement of The Economic Times, Chennai. Pic courtesy Third Eye, as published in Madras Plus. Book cover courtesy Rupa Publications)

1 comment:

Pratibha Jain said...

What a book that was - Amrita - truly a fantastic & poignant rendering. Saritha, So happy to see this article on Usha.