Here we talk to Anindita Ghose, bestselling author of the book ‘The Illuminated’ about her upcoming books, life experiences and the future of the publishing industry in India.
Do you attend literary festivals often? What role have they played in your journey as a writer?
Having been a journalist for 15 years, I’ve attended the Jaipur Literature Festival, the Kolkata Literary Meet and the Mountain Echoes Literature Festival in Bhutan, to cover it or to moderate 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 haven’t studied creative writing formally. The closest I got to it was a weekly workshop by the legendary Judith Crist during my time at Columbia’s Journalism School. Most of what I have learnt about fiction writing has been through author interviews—whether I’ve conducted them myself, heard them speak at a literary festival or read interviews or essays in places like the Paris Review. I moderated a session with Akhil Sharma at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2015 and we kept in touch. He went on to blurb The Illuminated. I also met Jonathan Franzen—one of my all-time favourites—for a Vogue interview in Jaipur in 2014. He too read my book and had some valuable advice. I definitely believe literary festivals have helped me at an inspiration level but also at the level of meeting my literary heroes.
I read that you have attended a literary residency in Scotland. Can you tell us more about your experience?
By 2019, I had already been working on The Illuminated alongside full-time journalism jobs for about four years. But I was frustrated that it was taking so long. I applied to the Hawthornden Literary Retreat on William Dalrymple’s suggestion. He thought it might help me make progress. In the five years I spent on the novel, I truly believe the one month at Hawthornden was transformative.
I always thought of writing residencies as frivolous. Why do you need to get away to a picturesque place only to be holed up in your room to write? But Hawthornden changed my views. A residency provides an opportunity to upend your routine, shift perspective. It was five of us in a 16th 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 9 am to 6 pm. I took long walks in the castle grounds and spent time at the very impressive castle libraries (they had all the Paris Reviews!). In the evening, we had sherry hour and an extravagant dinner and then we played cards. Still, the days were so productive and fertile, I think I wrote at least one-third of my book in that one month.
What are some other art residencies that you recommend to budding writers?
I’ve heard really good things about Sangam House in Bangalore, which is open to writers just starting out. Italy has some exclusive ones but you need to be nominated for those. I find the ones in the US are not very welcoming of international writers.
What sparked your motivation to write “The Illuminated”?
I was interested in women who appear to have fulfilled lives but still find that they’ve lost a part of themselves playing the roles expected of them. I was interested in how right-wing political systems mimic domestic 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 place themselves at the centre. They take up all the air in a room, leaving everyone else suffocating. It was this and also a need to explore shades of truth in the #MeToo movement and to comment on the dangerous and rapid rise of right-wing vigilante groups in India, many of whom are specifically concerned with controlling women.
Who is your favourite character in the novel “The Illuminated”? Why?
It’s hard to pick favourites but Poornima is especially 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 scheme of privilege in the book, she is the least privileged. She is an uneducated Adivasi girl from the Sundarbans and yet she is the book’s most empowered character. More than anyone else, I wanted Poornima to tell her story in her own voice which is why she has an entire Epilogue to herself in first-person.
Are you working on any other book at the moment? Please tell us more about it.
I’ve begun to work on my second novel. What I can say is that it is set in Bombay—a city I know most intimately. The Illuminated is set across five cities but not Bombay and I think it was partially because I was terrified of leaking biographical detail into the book. I feel more at ease about that with my second novel.
With Westland shutting down, there has been uncertainty for authors in India. Can you suggest ways they can cope with this uncertainty?
Westland shutting down is a symptom of a greater malaise. The systems simply aren’t built to support authors. Take just the financial aspect. Barring perhaps five or ten fiction writers (it’s slightly better for non-fiction writers and celebrity memoirs) this is simply not sustainable financially. Very few writers I know today are full-time writers. They have unrelated day jobs, or they teach and so on. I suppose it really is upto the writer to be a self-starter, invest in themselves and build systems to support themselves, both personal and professional.