A not entirely bookish chat, beside a waterfall

A not entirely bookish chat, beside a waterfall
Mahesh Rao

Sharjah - Author Mahesh Rao talks about India's rubbish bookshops, his love for deckle edge books, and how Susheela is a typical 'aunty type' name.


Nivriti Butalia

Published: Sat 14 Nov 2015, 5:03 PM

Last updated: Sat 14 Nov 2015, 7:22 PM

Writer Mahesh Rao is incredibly lucky, and he admits as much. Six years ago, Rao chucked up practicing law in the UK to move to Mysore in India to become a writer. And become a writer he did. A debutant at the Sharjah International Book Fair this year, this was also Rao's first time in the UAE.

Author of the Mysore-based novel, The Smoke is Rising, Rao has also written One Point Two Billion, a book of short stories set in different Indian cities. For both he's received several glowing reviews. The Guardian even attributed him with "a ventriloquist's gift for different voices, writing with equal conviction about a traditional wrestling school and a yoga institute for foreigners".


We're to meet at the lobby of Radisson Blu, Sharjah on Thursday noon at 12.30 pm. He's on time. We move towards a table near a makeshift waterfall in the background, which has me worried that I won't be able to hear him. But he's a clear enunciator, loud enough, and expressive about how much he's enjoying meeting students in Sharjah, and seeing people buy books at the fair, as also being put up on the 11th floor of a good hotel, and being flown business class.

Excerpts from a chat near an artificial waterfall:

You were a lawyer and a bookseller before an author. Tell me about your bookseller days.

Okay. So I was quite desperate to leave my legal job at that time. And I resigned without having another job to go to, and then I thought, I need a job, you know? And there was a bookshop, just near where I lived. And I just went there and said I. look I need a quick job. This would be a good job for me. I love books. I would be surrounded by them all day. And.. what I can do is I can read when the shop is quiet. So this would be an ideal job for me. You know in the old days -- this was in the 90s, so -- it was quite easy to walk into a bookshop and just ask for a job and they gave give you one. So it was wonderful. I met some of my best friends there. I had a wonderful time. I learnt so much. Not just about books. About people, you know. People tell booksellers all kinds of intimate things.you'd be surprised.

Like what?

Well, you know. they'll say things. 'I need to buy a book for my sister, we don't really get on very well. We've had all these difficult issues.', and you know, 'my mother always treated me very differently from how she treated my sister'. stuff like this.

And then what book would you recommend to someone who has these issues?

It's interesting. So you think okay I can't give her anything about sisters.(laughs) where the key plot line involves two loving sisters.that would be a mistake. SO you kind of think, maybe you need something um... funny or comical or escapist - something to lift your spirits. You have to ask them what they like. What were the last two books they really loved, and then once they tell you that you know what to recommend.

Sounds like a fantastic job!

I loved it! But I used to spend my whole salary in the bookshop.

But you get employee discount, no?

Even so! 40 per cent. But even so. (Laughs).

And how long did you do this for?

I did this for almost two years. But it was part time. .. I was an academic researcher at the same time. So I would research at the University of London. And when I would finish that, and I would do this. I would do this in the evenings, and on Saturdays. four hours in the evenings, two evenings a week, sometimes even on Sundays because I loved it so much.

And then you moved to Mysore?

No. Then I went back to law. I went back into refugee law, and I worked in refugee law for 6 years after that. And then I quit all of that to move to Mysore.

How long did it take to make that decision? To quit and move?

I think you get to a stage where you get to a stage in your life where it's now or never. You just decide. It's brave, people say. But it's also foolish. You don't know which way it would work out. I've been very lucky so far it's been okay.

Are you surprised at the trajectory your life has taken? Born in Nairobi, lived in Bristol, lawyer, bookseller...now Mysore.

Very surprised, very surprised. Yesterday, I found myself at the. India International School in Sharjah talking to a room full of 8-16 year-old girls in Sharjah, about literature. If you had told me that.this is what I would be doing 7-8 years from now. (laughs) you know, it's utterly surreal. How have I ended up in this place? How. do I now have this so called authority to be talking to these children about literature? (laughs)

What was that like? What did they ask you?

Amazing! You know, I was a bit unsure. they're a bit young, I thought - they won't know anything about me. What am I supposed to say to them? But we just kind of talked. I told them how I came to writing. They were very interested. And then they asked so many questions. They were very well prepared. Some of them knew the names of characters in my book. Like a little girl, she took the mike and she said, Sir, I want to ask you, why did you give the names that you gave to those characters, and how did you come up with them? And she was really young, and it's actually a very good question. It is something writers think about a lot, you know? Because names contain a lot of information -- about class, and religion, and community, and all sorts of things. So it's a very interesting, nuanced question from a little girl.

Did you have to simplify your answer very much?

No, see I don't know how to talk to children differently. I was a little bit worried. But no, it was fine. I just talked to them as I would talk to anyone. And it just somehow works.

So when the little girl asks you how you come about naming your characters -- how did you come about naming, say, Susheela?

That's exactly what she said. Susheela - how did you come up with Susheela? And I said I really needed a name for a 64-year old aunty. And I needed an aunty name. Susheela is a real aunty name. But it has also has quite a nice flow to it. And also, for me it's quite important what it looks like on the page. So it has two ss in it. It's sibilant. And it has a kind of symmetry in the front half of the name, and I like how it looks on the page. But most importantly, it has to be a name that a woman of her social class, her caste, in a small city - she would have that name, of that age. You know, no young person is called Susheela today. I needed the perfect aunty name. And I thought that was Susheela (laughs).

How do you read? Are you a kindle person? Paper?

I prefer paper, I prefer books. I think I absorb ideas better off a page than off a screen, I don't know why that is, maybe conditioning. And also I am a bit of a book fetishist. I love .. I love paper. I love covers. I love nice covers. I love, you know, a deckle edge. I love the book as an object. I really do. And a book will always be my preferred form of reading. But I'm not one of these people who are disgusted with kindles. I have one. I use it. Especially for travelling. It's very useful. I'm not anti kindle. I just love paper.

What about buying books? Are you an online-buyer or do you buy only in bookstores?

You know, in the UK, when I am there, I will always buy from bookshops. But in India. bookshops are terrible, generally. They don't have the kind of books you want to buy. The staff don't know anything. Most of the bookshops are full of teddy bears and badminton rackets and shuttlecocks and god knows what. And the books are all in a sad little dusty corner [... ] In India, they make no effort to make it a kind of nice retail experience for you. You have to buy from online retailers. Because you just can't get the books you want.

What's tedious about book fairs? And visiting so many back to back lit festivals.

Well I think it's a privilege to be invited. It's very nice. They treat you well. It can be tiring, but it's fun.

I was curious about how many languages you speak.

I speak English, obviously. Hindi, Kannada, French, and bad Spanish.

And how does this translate into your fiction?

Well, it's very important to me. Because I think being able to speak two Indian languages has been an immense help to me [.] as you go around India, certainly Karnataka and the Hindi belt. You can eavesdrop. You can tap into conversation. You can understand popular culture. So much of it is in Hinglish, or Hindi. You know, so many of the jokes, posters, adverts. You're really cut off from popular culture if you can't speak Hindi, at least. [...]

The other thing I think is really important -- everyone speaks English in a different way in India. So when you write about India in English, people have different cadences and rhythms in the way they speak English. So there is a lot of dialogue being spoken that borrows from the way that English is spoken in Karnataka. There are things that people say. They will always say 'I say' at the end of things, you know.

There are lots of little tics and expressions and stuff.  

So how do you do that? Do you asterix, do you italicise?

No, no, I don't. To me what is important - I don't have strong feelings about the italicising of terms. What I do.. is that they are not explained in the text. To me, that is very important. Then you're talking down to the people who have the most understanding. I don't want to do that. I want to address it to the people who have the most understanding. And for everyone else, you can look up this stuff. We all remember the days where you see dal and then comma a lentil dish simmered with spices. So I am very against that. I will never explain what a chappal is, or any of these things in the text.

And you were quite certain of this when you started writing?

Oh absolutely, in a way you're writing for yourself and for an audience like you. So you know, I don't want to have this stuff explained to me. It's . annoying (laughs).

What's your writing routine like? Do you do five hours a day at a stretch?

I have more of a word count. So depending on whether I'm writing a novel or a short story. When the word count is done, I'm finished for the day.

What is your word count for everyday?

Well, I've worked this out over a long period. For a novel it's 800 words. It's what gives me a sense of progress. And it's achievable. Because there's no point saying I'm going to do 2,000 everyday and failing everyday. That's just depressing. And equally you can't do 150 words a day. That's just sad. So for me, the optimum is like 800-900 words, for a novel.

Rewind 20 years ago. Did you want to be a writer? When you were studying law --

I don't think gave it that much thought, you know. I just fell into various things, as you do. I never wrote anything in my twenties. Not a thing. I mean, not fiction [.] I don't think I had anything interesting to say. You have to write when you have something reasonably interesting to say.

I'm sure that gives a lot of people a lot of hope.

You there is there is that wonderful story about that Pakistani author Jamil Ahmad, who wrote this lovely book called The Wandering Falcon. Very sadly he died last year. But he published his book when he was 80. He had been writing it on and off. He was a government administrator in Baluchistan. He'd been writing this book about the peoples of that region. And it got published when he was 79 or 80. And I think that's just wonderful. He published it when he was ready.

I read somewhere it was a bit difficult for you to find a publisher?

Yes. Yea. It was pretty hard. It got rejected a lot, a lot of places. A lot.

But you worked as a bookseller. You didn't have any contacts?

No I didn't have any contacts at all. I worked as a bookseller. But not in publishing. All I knew were my friends in the bookshop, you know (laughs) I didn't even know the process. I had to research it all online. How do you query and agent, how do you send something off, three chapters, what format does it have to go in. the information is all out there. There are hundreds of websites that tell you that stuff. I was very naïve.

Proud of yourself for having gone through that, gotten published and good reviews for your books?

Well, I was very naïve. I don't know if I had known then what I know now if I would have even gone through with it. Everyday I hear a horror story of what it is like to be published. It's extremely difficult especially in the west.

You know in India, somehow people manage better, because you know - I don't know why. You can send directly to publishers. There are various things easier in India. But in the UK no publisher would read a manuscript that doesn't come from an agent.

This is your first visit to UAE. Surprised at the rain?

Yes, I am surprised actually. Is it the season? [.]

And your impressions of Sharjah?

My impression is mainly of the schools and universities. And I love that. I love the interaction with the students. That was a brilliant experience. They were so engaged. And then the panel. I really appreciate the efforts they make here to do it in Arabic. Otherwise it becomes an expat festival. So I like that it is in Arabic. It opens up participation. People don't feel intimidated to come. And what was great was seeing people shop for books, you know. Buying literally trolleys full of books! I mean that was just a wonderful sight.


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