Anindita Ghose on decoding India’s political zeitgeist in her debut novel

The Illuminated is a nuanced work of fiction that straddles several strands — from cultural chauvinism to a fractured society to women who want more


Joydeep Sengupta

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Published: Thu 27 Jan 2022, 11:38 PM

Anindita Ghose is a writer and editor based in Mumbai. She holds postgraduate degrees in linguistics from the University of Mumbai and journalism from Columbia University. In 2019, she was a Hawthornden Writing Fellow in Scotland. The Illuminated, her first novel, made it to the prestigious HWR-Nielsen top 50 fiction bestsellers list this month.

The novel connects the personal grief and struggle of a mother (Shashi) and her daughter (Tara) to the larger socio-political concerns in contemporary India, which is grappling with a rise in fundamentalism as it impacts her protagonists’ lives.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

When did you realise you had a novel in you?

I always wanted to be a writer, which I think is true for most novelists. You don’t become one overnight. But I needed to have a career because that’s what I knew to be an adult rite of passage, and so I chose journalism. As a journalist, I was frequently approached by commissioning editors to work on non-fiction books but it never seemed like quite the draw. I do know the exact day I started thinking about this novel. It was in August 2015 at the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival in Thimphu, Bhutan. At the festival, a writer had spoken very eloquently about how writing fiction is sometimes about knowing your destination and sometimes just about seeing what your headlights reveal. I realised that writing fiction is what I really wanted to do even though I had no idea where it would go.

I found The Illuminated, a page-turner, a novel about perception. What was the thought behind the title?

Thank you, Joydeep. ‘Page turner’ always brings to mind E.M. Forster’s maxim about the novel: “It can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next.”

The Illuminated has a lunar scheme. It started off with the names of the women to the chapter titles and eventually expanded to the metaphor of light. The metaphor of light is a powerful one from the Upanishads (Hindu sacred treatises written in Sanskrit expounding ancient Vedic texts) to Rumi to Audrey Lorde. I was interested in questioning the accepted hierarchy of the solar system. Why must our lives revolve around the sun?

How did you come up with the mother-daughter characters of Shashi and Tara?

I was interested in telling a story through the perspective of different women and a mother-daughter duo with their shared social background but different psychological makeup seemed like a good way to do it.

How difficult is the craft of delving deep into South Asian female characters, who are well-rounded? How did you go about delineating each of these characters who have been endowed with distinctive personal traits?

Growing up, it was hard to find well-rounded women in books beyond the Jane Austen-George Eliot space. But then suddenly there was Ammu in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and Nazneen in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, who were not only complex, but also South Asian. In The Illuminated, I was interested in creating female characters who were dissatisfied with the hand they were served. I was keen on female friendships that went beyond societal barriers. And I wanted them to have personal ambition that went beyond love and marriage.

Was it a conscious decision to suffuse the novel with mythology and Sanskrit in the backdrop of India’s right-wing?

One of the questions I was interested in is ‘what’s the other story?’ Classical Sanskrit literature boasts an exquisite canon of poetry devoted to love and erotica and also socio-political commentary. But when we think of Sanskrit now, we only think of shlokas (Sanskrit verse) and liturgical texts. I wanted to introduce readers to a different dimension of the language, to reclaim it from its associations with religious chauvinism.

The larger socio-political afflictions transcend over personal tragedy in The Illuminated. Was this a conscious decision to locate your debut literary work in this milieu?

Novels are a product of their time and it would be impossible to tell a story of privilege and patriarchy divorced from the political climate. Also, in an era of censorship and silencing, I truly believe fiction has a better chance at getting closer to the truth than journalism.

How did your writing residency as a Hawthornden Fellow help your work?

This month-long writing residency in rural Scotland was a transformative experience. I always thought writing residencies were pretentious: why does one need to go away to a scenic locale to write when the bulk of writing happens in your pyjamas at home? But Hawthornden was important for me as it completely upended my routine and forced a new perspective. It was five of us and the administrator (who is a poet himself) and the cook (who is a cookbook author herself) isolated for a month in a medieval castle with poor Internet and the rule of silence between 9am and 6pm. The castle grounds had deer and birdlife and I took a lot of long walks. My editor was kind enough to give me leave with the condition that I checked the pages of the magazine I edited a few times a week — I used to go to a local bar that started stocking tea bags for me! I had been working on the novel for four years already but I managed to go from 50 per cent to 90 per cent in my time there. It was the most productive one month of a five-year journey. I’d very much recommend a residency if one has the opportunity and kind bosses who’d give them leave.

I felt The Illuminated has the potential of a good web series. Have you got any offers on these lines yet?

I’m glad you think so. I’ve been told it’s a very visual novel and there’s been some early interest. My agent is in talks with several interested parties at the moment.

Finally, what next?

I would love to call myself a full-time novelist and live that life, whatever that entails (laughs). But the economics of publishing don’t feed that vision for a debut novelist unfortunately. I’ve been busy with virtual book tours and book club interactions since July but I’m just about to start an editorial consultancy with India’s first NFT art platform, I’m reading and making notes for the next book alongside.

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