Adhirath Sethi, author of Where the Hills Hide their Secrets, on managing multiple plot-lines and being inspired by everyday life
Where the Hills Hide their Secrets has a way of being familiar and relatable, interspersed with unimaginable surprises being sprung at the reader.
A gripping murder mystery, the story follows the events leading up to, and following, a murder in the fictional South Indian hill-station Nalanoor.
Sethi talks about his influences and the everyday ‘What if?’ moments that led to his book.
So the stories, they all come from some personal experience.
Adhirath Sethi’s second novel, Where the Hills Hide Their Secrets, is a gripping mystery.
The story narrates the events leading up to, and following, a murder, in the fictional South Indian hill-station Nalanoor, a place where incidents the police face are often limited to locating the misplaced bicycles of children.
As events unfold, everyone in this peaceful town is forced to attend personal shortcomings, and face harsh realities for which they are often not prepared.
Weaving together the lives of three characters as they navigate the ups and downs of everyday, Where the Hills Hide Their Secrets has a way of being familiar and relatable, interspersed with unimaginable surprises sprung at the reader.
In an interview with Firstpost, Sethi talks about his influences and the ‘what if?’ moments that led to his book. The following are the edited excerpt from the conversation:
Q. Where did the idea for the book come from?
This, and my first book, are just extrapolations of what a [particular] scenario looks like, they just sort of come to you. I’m lucky enough that I have some amount of time to play around with, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be weird if something like this happens?’ And then see how it plays along, what you can throw into the mix to make it more exciting.
It’s effectively three stories; it’s got Vishnu’s, Mridula’s and Mani’s story. And all three were born of different things.
Vishnu’s is born of my childhood experiences in Coonoor, where my grandparents lived. And a lot of these societies that I created and the British colonial leaning against the Indian caste system is actually born from what I experienced there. I wouldn’t say to that extreme, but you see undertones of a lot of this just playing out in front of you.
And my grandparents themselves; my grandfather had a lot of British colleagues and friends. And this was the kind of life that a lot of girls that married into the executive households had, where you would have an Indian executive working in a British company who has already been quite Anglicised and then you have a shy girl – most of them were arranged marriages – marrying into and having really quickly to adapt to that whole thing. So both Maya and Mridula were products of my experience with seeing that. There have been a lot of stories, good and bad. My grandmother, for example, was similar to Maya. It was very easy for her to learn new things and adapt, whereas I have often heard of girls who completely would break down and not be able to handle it because it’s a lot of pressure.
And Mani – writing him was my favourite, because he is like a lot of us. He doesn’t want anything great out of life, his needs are quite simple and yet he is being pulled into things. So similarly, there was a music class going on next door at one point, and I was really annoyed, because on Sundays it’d just keep on going and that’s when I said ‘what if I just start singing along with these people?’ and ‘how much can I annoy them?’ And I didn’t do it, but obviously at some point I said, ‘that would be fun’.
So the stories, they all come from some personal experience.
Q. In a technical sense, what was your process of developing the plot?
There is a lot of interconnection. So effectively I just make a chart and start drawing lines and figuring out which line has clashed with the other. And where there is an incongruency, you can smooth that out. At the end of the day, it is, as far as I’m concerned, three separate stories that you have just allowed to run amok. And wherever they kind of collide with each other is where you step in and say, ‘now what happens?’
Q. The dedication of your book reads ‘For my grandparents… for creating a world worth writing about’. Can you please tell us about the influence they have had on you and your writing?
My grandmother was quite a remarkable woman. She remained, by society’s definition, a housewife all her life. My grandfather’s quite successful, he was chairman of a number of companies and he would always say that it was partly because she was so good at charming, anytime he had a social event.
My grandmother also loved to write, although she wasn’t, by her own admission, very creative. She would love to translate mystery novels into Tamil. And she never got published, she never got any kind of acknowledgement or accolades from anywhere. But she would just keep doing that. That was something that she cultivated over years.
I spent a lot of my childhood in Coonoor, which is where they had this beautiful house which is basically Vishnu’s house as I have described it. I remember him [his grandfather] being very kind to everybody that worked with him or for him, whether it was the dogs or employees or us. He used to have this elegant way of dealing with people, making everyone feel as if they were being held in the highest regard when he attended to them. So Vishnu was basically that, derived from his character.
Q. Why did you choose to set your book in a fictional town?
Primarily because I left when they [his grandparents] sold the house in Coonoor. I was only about nine and a half, I think. Obviously as the years go by, memory starts knotting at the edges; you may think one thing but it’s another. So rather than recreating or trying to map something that existed, I said let me take what I remember and love about my childhood and then layer this different world on it. And eventually that just turned into a fictional town that has some roots in a typical south-Indian hill station. But no firm way to say that it’s definitely there.
Q. What was your process of writing this book? It captures details, such as the lives of the South Indian elite steeped in English tradition. How much, and what type of, research went into it?
Research-wise, a lot of it is based on real life. My grandparents went through this. So a lot of it’s been lifted off that.
Tim’s character and life – I myself spent many years in England, so there’s a lot of my own personal understanding of the dynamic. To be honest, he is probably an amalgamation of a number of my British friends, and so it was just fun to write him as well, in a sense, because I got to choose those bits of people that I wanted to portray.
And beyond that, for the medical stuff I have spoken to a lot of doctors and have a few friends in the line, so checked with them and said, ‘is this feasible? Is this something that, if you were in the 1960s... would carpal tunnel syndrome, for example, be something that people know?’ And they said no. So yes, that would have been something that a doctor could have confirmed and verified.
Q. None of the couples in your book are actually what they seem at the start. Was all this to add to the sense of mystery or were you making a conscious decision to question the social perception of relationships?
Exactly, yes. Everybody has something that they don’t show. In fact, the only character I would say is blameless and always strives to do the right thing is Mani. And Vishnu.
In Mani’s case you have the situation of someone who is experiencing loss, and effectively by all accounts losing at life. But eventually ends up realising that what he has in front of him is actually an amazing thing and learns to appreciate it.
And Vishnu’s a little backwards. His story starts with a victory, and you feel, okay he is on a high, got a beautiful wife, has a baby on the way. His life, in itself, is not being rocked. He is trying to do the right thing and that’s wonderful. And then you kind of realise at the end that it’s actually untrue. It was in fact rocked from the very beginning, and nobody knows. In fact, he himself probably would never know.
Q. Your book comments on the caste system. What motivated you to write about that?
I think in our generation, we weren’t completely aware of how religious the previous generation was, how staunchly they have maintained their beliefs. It was much later that I realised a lot of Brahmins see Christianity as a way of having come and taken away the ‘lower caste’ and given them some new categorisation which they were obviously not informed about. They were never happy about that. And so that dynamic that it caused in the entire caste system was always interesting to me, how does any of this make sense.
Although it’s not humorous in the book. For me it is always funny to see that, ‘hey listen, he’s wriggled out, he has made it, he doesn’t care about what you guys think anymore’. It would just be hilarious for me to observe that, to get them so annoyed and riled up. So it stems from there.
Q. The book reads easily and has a lot of humour. How would you describe your writing style?
I guess light, humorous and reflective, but without leaning too heavily on any of those. I like being able to jump from a theme that’s sort of humorous to something that’s a little darker and possibly more in need of introspection. I guess at the end of the day it’s just what works for the story.
Adhirath Sethi’s Where the Hills Hide their Secrets is published by Tara Press.
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