Keki N Daruwalla on his latest novel Swerving to Solitude, telling an Emergency story using imagination
Keki N Daruwalla's latest novel is set in Lucknow and tells the story of a young journalist who is a critic of the Emergency. The story is told through the letters she writes to her mother
Sahitya Akademi Award-winner Keki N Daruwalla, who is known as the 'policeman-poet', recently released his third novel, Swerving to Solitude: Letters to Mama, which has been published by Simon & Schuster. Set primarily in Lucknow of the 70s, the book tells the story of Seema, a 25-year-old journalist who works in Delhi and is a critic of the Emergency.
Written in the form of letters that the protagonist addresses to her Communist mother, the book describes the days of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and the imposed sterilisation through discussions, rallies, protests, processions, slogan-chanting and newspaper coverage.
In this conversation, Daruwalla speaks about Lucknow as a setting for this book, which form he enjoys writing in the most, and his next literary endeavour.
Swerving to Solitude: Letters to Mama contains vivid descriptions of Lucknow. You also compare its politics, journalism and literati to their counterparts in Delhi. Tell us about your special relationship with this city.
Yes, Delhi and Lucknow have been quite apart in culture and attitudes for centuries. I belonged to the Uttar Pradesh cadre, and so Lucknow was something to look up to—good restaurants, book stores, especially Ram Adwani's. I am talking of the 60s and 70s. I lived in Gautampalli from 1971 to 1974—a great city in those days with its own culture. During the sixth Muharram, people—even children—walked over fire embers. The political air was bracing, not intertwined with the caste-based muddle Mulayam and Mayawati threw Uttar Pradesh in its worst decade.
In the book, you write that “One of our eternal passions is to play with history.” Tell us how you undertook research for the book.
No research—more imagination. Everyone knows of forcible vasectomies. I imagined a scene. I read highly regarded journalist Coomi Kapoor's Emergency—a fine book. But I refused to take anything from it. Incidentally, I was in Delhi in 1975. Nothing is autobiographical in this novel. It is a red hot product of the imagination.
What is the story behind the book's title 'Swerving to Solitude'?
I wouldn't like to tell you the whole story—a novel builds up slowly. But a time comes in the narrator Seema's life when she faces solitude. And she accepts it, as most of us do.
Apart from Lucknow and Delhi, the book travels to Canada, Mexico and California. Are these accounts based on places that have left a lasting impression on you in the past?
I have never been to the places you named. Anyone willing to buy me an air ticket to Mexico, hospitality not exactly Hilton-ish (three-star will do) thrown in, of course? (I will pay for the beer!). Indian readers have yet to get on hand-shaking terms with the word imagination. Lalu Yadav has caught imagination by the forelocks—just one man out of millions. I must get the book translated into Bhojpuri.
Over the course of your literary career, you have written novels, short stories and poems. Which form do you like most?
I was asked the same question by Anil Dharker, who with Shyam Benegal flagged off my novel in Mumbai recently. My answer was facetious—I consider myself a novelist till I write my next poetry book. But that is nonsense. I consider myself primarily a novelist now. People have a mistaken view that you have to be born in Calcutta or Trinidad to be reckoned a novelist. I never heard that mishti doi and sandesh helped trigger the imagination.
Like your earlier novel Ancestral Affairs, this one too blends historical fact with fiction. What is the process you use to fictionalise historical events?
I do not necessarily 'blend historical fact with fiction.' I use history as a backdrop. This, of course, is not true of my first novel For Pepper and Christ.
What are you working on next?
I am writing a novel set in ancient India. One must change and challenge oneself. There's a yavana queen, and guys, how she kisses…My novel is already made!
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