Saturday, 12 April 2008

DISTANCE NOTWITHSTANDING

Ameen Merchant “can’t imagine” himself as not writing. “I could have expressed through paintings or music but I am like lost in the world of words, they come naturally”, he tells me before the launch of his debut novel The Silent Raga. That has been nominated for the coveted ‘Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book Award’.

The otherwise dull evening becomes rather pleasant the moment two of us begin interacting over coffee at the Crossword bookstore on Senapati Bapat Road, Pune. Seeing me jotting down his words, Merchant laughs: “We all are almost always doing our jobs. And for me it’s nice to work on something I love”. He then recounts the time when he got himself into a writing programme at Alberta in Canada to write. Merchant began writing the novel sometime in late October 1999 and finished writing in 2004.

The protagonist in The Silent Raga is a woman named Janaki. She’s a talented musician who flees her home for Bombay for a better future. She returns after a span of 10 years and the memories of affection and betrayal comes out from the closet. Is this a feministic novel by any chance? Merchant dispels that idea. Though there is “slight undertone, still it’s not feministic”. According to the novelist, feminism is “defined by the culture in which it’s set”. Thus, Indian feminism is “much different” from that in any Western society. Again feminism in Khaled Hosseini’s Afghanistan will be different from that in some other east-Asian country, Merchant adds.

I ask him about the choice of the locale, the characters and the time in which the story is set. The Vancouver-based novelist goes back to early ’70s when he along with his parents shifted from “Muslim neighbourhood in Mumbai to predominantly Tamil-Brahmin neighbourhood in Madras”. It was there that he came closer to Tamil life and learnt the language. That experience did help to provide the typical Tamil-Brahmin aura to the settings of the imaginary town Sripuram that gets connected to the Madras and Bombay (“I still prefer to call the cities by those names; that’s how I knew them”). For him, no work can be exclusively imaginary. It’s always a mix of observation, recounting experiences from the past and imagination that “helps the seed of a story to germinate”.

Listening about his days in Madras (Chennai), I have no doubt the authenticity of the novel. But being based in Canada, how easy or difficult was it for him to write about the land he had left? Merchant looks outside the glass pane and takes few moments to reply. “Distance helps to bring the faraway land and the memories of those places closer. But for me there has never been a sense of losing those days. I feel like living those times even now,” he explains.

I then draw his attention to the time factor. Is Janaki of the ’70s still relevant today, I ask. Merchant replies promptly: “She’s very much relevant even in 2008 in the big and small towns all over India. Things haven’t changed for many and they need support for better fulfilment of their lives. But the support is not always forthcoming”.

Written in first person (in case of Janaki) and also in third person, the novel is divided into different chapters that are named after the different sections of a Carnatic concert. That isn’t surprising, not only because of Janaki’s musical passion but also because Merchant is a “good listener” of music, specially the Carnatic variety of Indian classical. “Even the length of each section is appropriately divided according to the duration of each section of a concert”.

Talking about the nomination to Commonwealth Writer’s Book Prize, Merchant sounds happy. Though “thoughts of awards never occur” to him while writing, still, it implies there is “greater validation” about the work. And it is satisfying for Merchant “to see that the book about India has a resonance all around”.

Referring to his favourite writers, Merchant mentions Rohinton Mistry, Arundhati Ray, Amitava Ghosh and several others. Their works have been “inspirational” Merchant hopes more such talented writers in English and Indian languages will emerge from the Indian sub-continent.


When asked about his writing process, Merchant says “there is always a plot” in his mind – “the beginning and the end and these points are gradually joined”. And that’s what he will do back in Canada – carry on with his next novel. Merchant will also get busy with the works of a television channel.