In Venita Coelho's Whisper in the Wind, one meets Jamshed Fali Irani, a writer struggling to finish his book. He encounters a madman who tells him to listen to the stories and secrets murmured by the winds. He finds little Alice running about in a graveyard searching for Sara, her sister who disappeared many years ago, and he catches the mysterious Tania, stealing water from the well in his yard. In the dead of night, holed up in a decrepit mansion in the Portuguese Goa of 1947, sounds float towards him: thick, pattering raindrops, jingling wind chimes, soft voices from the forest and screaming, like 'a woman in agony'.
Coelho, popular for her children's books which include several collections of ghost stories, has filled her latest Gothic novel with similar eerie, mysterious happenings complete with secrets, lies and a murder. Her protagonist, the writer Jamshed, is pulled into the thick of it when he promises little Alice that he will find Sara, and gets caught in dangerous situations, risking his life simply to put the puzzle together.
Twice the recipient of The Hindu Goodreads Award for Best Fiction for children, Coelho is an author, a screenwriter and an artist. She has written scripts for TV shows such as Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin and co-written the screenplay for the 2010 adaptation of Stepmom, We Are Family. In an interview with Firstpost, the author shares her approach to writing a mystery book, atmosphere as a character in a Gothic novel and listening to the ideas that whisper in our minds. Edied excerpts:
Could you elaborate on how you conceived the plot for Whisper in the Wind? Was there any mysterious incident that particularly led to the book?
Through one long monsoon in Goa I listened to the rain on the roof, the muttering of the wind in the trees and a story began to whisper in my head. Then came All Souls Day and the local graveyard dug up all the bones of the those buried the previous year and laid them out on the graves to dry. Most churches in Goa have tiny graveyards and graves are temporary. All remains are transferred into jars and put into tiny niches. But that sight of bones neatly laid upon graves, triggered a cascade of story ideas that worked their way into Whisper in the Wind.
Many of your works, including your children’s stories, have been written in the mystery/Gothic genre. What according to you is the allure of this style that makes you return to it time and again?
My mother had a fund of ghost stories that she scared us silly with when we were children. We were terrified and completely hooked! We’d creep closer and closer to her, asking in trembling tones — ‘And then?!’ I think we all love the story that makes us shiver, the tale that makes us look over our shoulders. We are, after all, descended from the caveman who huddled around his fire and wondered what was moving in the dark. Now we huddle around our digital fires but the fears have stayed with us. And we still love stories that take us by the hand and walk us into the dark.
Readers of this book can look forward to some interesting twists around every character. Could you describe your process of creating such intriguing stories for each one?
Take long walks. Take longer walks! I find that I do all my thinking in motion. As I wander through the very beautiful walks in the village that I live in, I slowly piece my plots and characters together. But yes, if you want to pull off a lot of twists, you are going to have to sit down and actually draw a graph to see how all the bits lock together. Because I am also an artist, I tend to think visually and every book will always really get started when I sit down and do a large map of how all the bits fit together.
The protagonist of Whisper in the Wind is a writer struggling to piece together a novel. Was this a deliberate choice? Why according to you do writers have the urge for finishing a story even if it could land them in trouble?
Absolutely. The writer in the book reflects my own struggle to shape a story and also the many choices that a writer makes as a story begins [to] shape itself. Creating a story is partly an act of listening to that story and seeing where it wants to go and then stepping forward to actively take it some place. The journey of the central protagonist in this book is one that every writer will recognise. At its heart is the dilemma that every writer faces — do you choose the tale? Or does the tale choose you? And as every writer will vouch, once chosen, the tale won’t leave you alone. We just have to know how it ended! ‘And then?!’ we cry, even when we know the answer is going to lead us into very dark places.
The title of the book itself draws the reader to listen to the secrets and the whispers that are hidden from the world. More often than not, why are some of the most fascinating stories found in these murmurs?
The book starts with the words ‘I met a madman today, who told me all the stories in the world are whispered in the wind.’ I truly believe that. As a writer your job is to listen intently to what whispers under the surface of the busy world. And so we are drawn to solitude and slow thinking. We are also drawn to telling the story that lies beyond the grand narrative that is forced upon us by the world. That grand narrative is often a lie that serves political or commercial ends. Take the story of manufactured patriotism that is being fed to us in papers, films, and digital media today. To hear the true story, the real idea of India, you have to now listen very hard for the whispers.
Why are elements like decrepit mansions, graveyards and madmen important in writing a thriller?
That is actually a classic element of the Gothic genre. Lots of broody atmosphere, haunted settings, and unreliable characters. What is a mystery without atmosphere? Take the atmosphere out and you’d have a straight action thriller. The atmosphere is actually a character in itself, and you have to craft it very carefully. It is what will make or break a book of this sort.
What are some of the stylistic techniques that you employ which bring out most effectively an engrossing piece of mystery writing?
Your most important device is your narrator. He is the channel of empathy through which the reader enters the world of the book, so you have to get him right. He is also a tool. The reader is limited to what the narrator knows at that point. You have to structure the revelations very carefully, so that by shining a little light at a time, you lead the reader along the path until you can flood him or her with light at the end. In any kind of mystery a key technique is Construction! Construction! Construction!
You have written for children as well as for adults. How do you change your method of approaching a story to cater to such different audiences?
Adult audiences have a bit more patience. If you are writing a children’s book and something hasn’t happened by paragraph two, you can be sure the child will put it down. It puts tremendous pressure on you as an author, because children are by far the toughest audiences. Whereas in this particular book, you’re not even sure there is a murder till page 100. I could only keep an adult audience going that long on nothing but shivers!
You are a screenwriter, an author and an artist. How do you make sure that the ideas you work on get the right medium of expression? For instance, how do you decide that a story is best told through a painting instead of being put into words in a book?
Each idea comes with its own imperative. Ideas choose you. And they choose the medium. By the time the idea has started to take working shape in my head, I am quite clear which medium it’s going to be. And woe betide me if I try to put it in the wrong slot. It will stop dead and retreat. So I do listen carefully to what my ideas whisper.
Have you already started working on your next book?
My next book is a little ‘Amuse Bouche’. It’s a murder mystery set against the backdrop of a black and white film being shot in the sixties. I have had the most marvellous time researching the films, falling in love with Fearless Nadia, being awed by the quality of the camerawork at that time, and revelling in the star gossip. And along the way I created a central character that I have really enjoyed. Sitara is stunt double for the heroine of the film. She was brought up in the circus and has a whole series of unexpected skills. And she’s no pushover! I am almost at the climax and I’m at the edge of my seat as I try and figure out whodunnit!
Author Venita Coelho's Whisper in the Wind has been published by Tranquebar, an imprint of Westland Publications
Updated Date: Nov 11, 2019 10:34:44 IST