Here we talk to Anindita Ghose, bestselling author of ‘The Illuminated’, about her upcoming books, her life experiences and the future of India’s publishing industry.
Do you often attend literary festivals? What role have they played in your career as a writer?
A journalist for 15 years, I have taken part in the Jaipur Literature Festival, the Kolkata Literary Meet and the Mountain Echoes Literature Festival in Bhutan, covering it or hosting sessions over the years. my first novel The Illuminated was published in July 2021 and so it was only this year that I attended the Jaipur Literature Festival as an author.
I didn’t study creative writing formally. The closest I got to it was a weekly workshop from the legendary Judith Crist during my time at Columbia School of Journalism. Most of what I’ve learned about writing fiction has been through interviews with authors – whether I’ve conducted them myself, heard them speak at a literary festival, or have read interviews or essays in places like the Paris review. I hosted a session with Akhil Sharma at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2015 and we kept in touch. He kept talking the Illuminated. I also caught up with Jonathan Franzen, one of my all-time favorites, for a vogue interview in Jaipur in 2014. He too read my book and had valuable advice. I really believe that literary festivals have helped me in terms of inspiration but also in terms of meeting my literary heroes.
I read that you participated in a literary residency in Scotland. Can you tell us more about your experience?
In 2019, I was already working on The Illuminated alongside full-time journalism jobs for about four years. But I was frustrated that it took so long. I applied to the Hawthornden Literary Retreat at the suggestion of William Dalrymple. He thought it might help me progress. In the five years I have been on the novel, I truly believe that the month spent at Hawthornden was transformative.
I always thought that writing residencies were frivolous. Why do you need to escape to a scenic location only to be locked in your room to write? But Hawthornden changed my perspective. A residency offers the opportunity to disrupt your routine, to change your perspective. We were five in a 16and Century medieval castle in the Scottish countryside that once belonged to the poet William Drummond. He believed in the ‘rule of silence’ and so we had quiet hours between 9am and 6pm. I took long walks in the castle grounds and spent time in the very impressive castle libraries (they had all the Reviews of Paris!). In the evening we had an hour of sherry and an extravagant dinner, then we played cards. Still, the days were so productive and fertile that I think I wrote at least a third of my book in that month.
What other art residencies do you recommend for budding writers?
I’ve heard great things about Sangam House in Bangalore, which is open to new writers. Italy has some exclusive ones, but you have to be nominated for those. I find that those in the United States are not very welcoming to international writers.
What motivated you to write “The Illuminated”?
I was interested in women who seemed to have a fulfilling life but found that they had lost a part of themselves while playing the roles that were expected of them. I was interested in how right-wing political systems mimic national patriarchal systems. Men like Robi Mallick – the patriarch in my book whose death sets off a chain of events in the lives of his wife and daughter – are not inherently evil, they are products of a society that has taught them to stand in the center. They take all the air out of a room, leaving everyone suffocating. It was this and also a need to explore the nuances of truth in the #MeToo movement and comment on the dangerous and rapid rise of right-wing vigilantes in India, many of which are specifically concerned with controlling women.
Who is your favorite character in the novel “The Illuminated”? Why?
It’s hard to choose favorites, but Poornima is particularly dear to me. I see the novel as a book about privilege – in India, class, caste, education, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, these are all privileges. In the privilege scheme of the book, she is the least privileged. She is an uneducated Adivasi girl from the Sundarbans and yet she is the most powerful character in the book. More than anyone, I wanted Poornima to tell her story in her own voice, which is why she has an entire epilogue for herself in first person.
Are you working on another book at the moment? Please tell us more.
I started working on my second novel. What I can say is that it takes place in Bombay, a city I know very intimately. The Illuminated is set in five cities but not Bombay and I think that was partly because I was terrified of leaking biographical details in the book. I feel more comfortable with my second novel.
With the closure of Westland, there has been uncertainty for authors in India. Can you suggest ways to deal with this uncertainty?
Westland’s closure is a symptom of greater malaise. The systems are simply not designed to support authors. Take only the financial aspect. Except maybe five or ten fiction writers (it’s a bit better for non-fiction writers and celebrity memoirs), it’s just not financially viable. Very few writers I know today are full-time writers. They have unrelated day jobs, or they teach and so on. I guess it’s really up to the writer to be self-reliant, to invest in themselves, and to build systems to support themselves, both personally and professionally.