I first met Karthika Nair through a common friend, at the World Writers’ Festival in Paris in September 2014. The festival was spread across several venues, linked by the metro and several streets that looked alike, requiring us to wind in and out of stations and alleys whose names few of us could pronounce. Nair was the only festival participant who seemed to know where she was and what she was doing at any given time.

As she negotiated directions and languages, I wasn’t sure what I envied most: her Parisian chic, her no-nonsense efficiency, or the speed with which she disappeared into doorways. But the next day, hearing her read poems from her work-in-manuscript, Until the Lions, I knew her skill was creating sublime poetry,  both primal and sophisticated.

By day, she is a dance producer and dramaturge. A long-time producer for contemporary dancer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, she has scripted Desh for dancer Akram Khan, who is also adapting poems from Until the Lions for a dance production of the same name which premieres in January 2016. Her children’s book The Honey Hunter has made its way into several books-of-the-year lists, including Biblio’s. Her debut work of poetry, Bearings, was well-received. And she is already busy with her next project, as dramaturge for a dance adaptation of Farewell My Concubine by Yang Liping.

This interview with Karthika Nair was conducted over a month in person, over the phone, and by email, as she toured India with Until the Lions. At some point during all this, the news arrived that Until the Lions had beaten a formidable list of nominees to win the Tata Lit Live Book of the Year for Fiction.

You just beat Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh to win the Tata Lit Live Book of the Year for Fiction. How does that feel?

It’s both awesome and unbelievable. Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh both shaped my writing, my worldview in so many ways. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever see myself sharing space, any space – least of all a long list – with them. Winning toh door ki baat thi.

Until the Lions has been a very long journey in the making. You did years of solid research, and even more as you wrote. Were there times when it became really hard to go on, or when the poetry felt like it was stuck?

The toughest part was to map out the structure of the book, halfway through the initial phase following my two years of researching the Mahabharata. I was stuck for several weeks trying to work out the most plausible and effective blueprint, the connective tissue. Satyavati was the real breakthrough that carried the rest of the narrative forward. Then, of course, there were weeks when writing became an impossibility, either due to ill-health and pain, or my day job.

I remember you were speaking about whether to go with ‘Aravan’ or ‘Iravan’, and debating over which characters should remain nameless. How did you know the book was over, that these were the voices you were going to use, and these were the stories you were going to tell, and that’s it?

For the voices, I worked through instinct, and structure. The only poem I discarded in the years of writing the book was one in the twin voices of Ambika and Ambalika and I knew–even as I was writing it–there was something affected, artificial about it. I asked two excellent sounding boards–Anita Roy and Juhi Saklani–and they agreed, brutally honestly. So I jettisoned that poem—in retrospect, an act that saved the book because I found Satyavati’s voice as the narrative thread just after.

There were more voices I’d have liked to explore. Initially, I’d wanted to end the book with Jaratkuru, primarily as homage to Arun Kolatkar and Sarpa Satra. But as it grew, it became clear that the padavits (foot soldiers) needed to bookend the story: they were meant to have the last word.

One of the first poems I heard from Until the Lions was Constancy V, which has  to do with a padavit and his wife speaking to each other on the night before the war. There was this sense that the people who fight in a war have nothing to gain or lose. The decisions are made by others, who will be far less affected, far less likely to die. Do you think your army background makes the idea of war more personal to you?

Yes, Constancy V is a duet between a padavit and his wife or lover. And it was strongly influenced by something my father (then an officer in the Indian Army) had told me when I was nine: that there were no noble victors in war, no altruistic battles either; that most ‘saviour’ armies were scarred by self-interest, by pillage and abuse. He had fought in all three of the 1960-70s wars, and overheard me boasting about that one day. This was what he told me to erase all my false, romanticised notions about war.

In a story like the Mahabharata, you don’t have distinct binaries. Right and wrong are relative, and there is no one dominant narrative. You see Duryodhana as evil, but also as a righteous king; you see Karna as wronged, you see him as loyal. In such a case, what are the advantages and disadvantages for a writer?

For me, that is the most fascinating aspect of the Mahabharata, why it’s constantly topical. In the critical edition, the prominent characters do get a chance to express themselves, to have their perspectives told, so you do know that Karna is wronged, you realise that Duryodhana–despite being a horrible cousin–is a really good king and that’s why, for instance, he has many more allies than the Pandavas at the time of the war.

The lack of binary, in a sense, is what made me want to approach this: because the Mahabharata is an interrogation more than anything else. A palimpsest on which you can see what you want to see, almost, and one of the things it does constantly bring to the fore is moral relativity. And Krishna pretty much says that, that it’s much more about social order than some kind of ultimate, unequivocal righteousness. For a writer, that’s great, because there is much to look at what lies beneath heroic or godly actions, beneath constructed notions of right and wrong.

The disadvantages? Well, in a multiple narrative, there may be no one person you’re rooting for; that’s much easier in an epic like the Ramayana, or the Bhagavatham, with their tales of glory, tales of struggle, all located in one person. It takes a lot more persuasiveness in sustaining a single narrative with the Mahabharata. I think some of the retellings become a little more problematic in the attempt to have an all-knowing protagonist. Randamoozham I find absolutely great because M. T. Vasudevan Nair does not attempt to hide the subjectivity of the protagonist. So, Bhima, to the day he discovers that Karna is his brother, hates the man. He makes no attempt to stop distrusting Karna, or to see anything good in him: that is perfect, that’s how it would be, since his knowledge is limited.

You spoke about how you decided not to have Draupadi as one of the voices, because you couldn’t find anything new to explore with her character.

I didn’t think there was anything I could say. (Laughs)

But you have explored mostly the female perspective, human as well as animal. Were you worried when you started that the content itself might not be new, that what you want to convey through them may have been said earlier?

There was one thing I was pretty clear about, at the risk of being polemical: that in art it’s very difficult to do something completely new. John Steinbeck says it so well in Sweet Thursday, ruing that one of the sources of human discontent is the eternal question: what can you do that is new, that is different? So much has been done, and so beautifully. What can you do to beat that? And I discussed this with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui long back, and he said, 'You can’t. But you can bring in your voice, and that’s what matters.'

With the Mahabharata, that was something I knew. I mean, Arun Kolatkar has written the most magnificent minority view of the Mahabharata from the snakes’ perspective [in Sarpa Satra]. And the snakes are dying ... it’s actually written while Jaratkaru sees her kin being dragged away into the sacrificial fire. It can’t get more marginal than that. There’s an impressively powerful, detailed, almost biographic retelling, of Karna’s story in Mrityunjaya by Shivaji Sawant. So, technically, everything has been done!

What I was genuinely worried about was making the voices distinct, rather than mine. I needed them not to be Karthika Nair. I needed them to be themselves.

When I first heard you read the Mohini poem, and how vehement it was–you actually have her cry, 'A curse on Krishna!'–it made me wonder if, with India in its current state, ruled by the BJP with its RSS elements and so on, you were worried that it might have negative repercussions on the book?

When I wrote that: no. Firstly, it was a completely immersive poem, a frame of mind. I was very ill on the day I wrote it; a lot of the poem was triggered by that anger, that rage, that helplessness. (Laughs) And then, I saw it as an emotional matrix. This is god cursing himself. This is the ultimate cosmic power who steps into a human form and takes on a very human emotion, commitment, and sacrifice; and then loses that omniscience or detachment, and experiences that human condition. This is his indictment of himself. And I think in the epics, such things have been recorded. I If we cannot imagine a situation where god empathises and takes on human qualities, what kind of god would that be?

I’m glad you brought that up, because one of my favourite things about the Hindu epics is that the gods are humanised so often. You have gods who are capable of mistakes, who pay for their mistakes, who do penance and so on. In this context, does the current political milieu of India shock or upset you, because they haven’t been able to go back to the basic cornerstones of what the epics have taught us?

It doesn’t shock me. I think it never ceases to cause grief and near-apoplectic levels of incomprehension and rage. Because it is the imagination they are trying to control. If you try to control the imagination, you’re destroying the only unique thing about the human race, the only thing that redeems it at the end of the day, because it’s a pretty horrible race otherwise.

And what we see right now is the worst of human: whether it is intolerance, desire for control of actions or beliefs or expression or speech; that you are willing to take away basic human rights to keep hold of your tenuous idea of what should be a nation or a people.

Do you think living in France in some way has influenced how strongly you feel about freedom of expression? Considering how the people went out into the streets en masse to stand up for the right to expression after the terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo office.

It was also the India I grew up in, an India of multiple narratives. We had a great deal of freedom that does not exist today. When I was growing up, my parents did not think twice about taking me to the church, to the mosque, to the nearby gurudwara, or to the temple. It was a natural, fluid process. This sense of otherness was not there.

Also, I grew up in an army milieu, and I think, at least in those days, that was the most secular milieu. People were people. There were different kind of beliefs, but they all went out to fight in the same war. So I grew up used to a multiplicity of beliefs and opinions and expressions of belief.

It's great to have a government that will support freedom of expression but that is not a binary either, because that law has its imperfections. The French vision of secularism is very different from what the Indian vision of secularism used to be. Neither is perfect. There have been extreme reactions in France as well, with exhibitions cancelled because they have religious illustrations or calligraphy or things termed “questionable. This 'fear of offending' is becoming a universal one.

But living  in France reinforced my belief in freedom of expression. To have a government that, instead of telling you, 'Shouldn’t you be shutting up and thinking about how you’re offending people in so many different ways by just your thoughts' says, 'You have every right to express those thoughts'.

Were you disappointed by the reaction, or the lack thereof, of the Indian intelligentsia to the Charlie Hebdo massacre?

I think Charlie Hebdo was terribly, terribly misunderstood, to begin with. It was shocking that largely, reactions in India (and the Anglo-Saxon world, in general)–even from writers and artists–focused on the cartoons over Mohammad. There can be many things said about those cartoons--that it was in bad taste and so on--but Charlie Hebdo is not a magazine of good taste. It’s a satirical magazine: satire is not a polite, tame beast.

So not to know the DNA of an artist, a magazine, or a newspaper, and then to make sweeping judgments that it’s racist, that it’s a white fratboy club of privileged liberals ... I thought those were reductive and sad.

You were based in India for a long time, during which period books including The Satanic Verses were banned. Does the current government and its threat to freedom of expression seem worse to you than the Congress of the time?

Firstly, I don’t think any recent government in India has espoused the cause of freedom of expression (the courts, fortunately, are often a different matter). The Congress banned the import of The Satanic Verses. More recently, as part of the UPA-led government, it did precious little in the face of flagrant abuses like the removal of A. K. Ramanujan’s Three Hundred Ramayanas from a university curriculum or the threats on the late M. F. Hussain’s life.

The population too has never placed freedom of expression high on a priority list, considering it to be some sort of an elitist, first-world-ish privilege that is not really required in India. This, I think, is the real danger. Expression, intellectual enquiry, artistic exploration—these are the fountainhead of human activity.

Previous governments have played the belief versus expression card, again and again, for political mileage. This government, I find, does it not merely out of expediency but as a matter of principle. Never, I think, has there been so much pressure to conform to this kind of invented monolith-state and a homogenised, compliant citizenry.

To get back to the book now, I’m reminded of  Subramaniya Bharatiyar’s Panchali Sabatham, in which Draupadi berates and shames everyone who is witness to her disrobing, including Yudhishthira and Bheeshma, two men whose virtues are never questioned. You too seem particularly irked by the purity accorded to these two members of the Kuru dynasty.

‘Irked’ and ‘you’ both strike me as irrelevant in this particular context! Because the book is one of intersecting gazes, and to attribute one or all to my authorial position–instead of to the voices they represent would be misleading. For instance, Amba directs unalloyed wrath at Bheeshma: in her eyes, he represents nothing so much as injustice, cowardice, brutality and the worst aspects of a patriarchal order; one that destroys her universe. Satyavati’s perceptions of Bheeshma change: there is hatred at first, hatred at his superciliousness; then unwilling admiration; exasperation at his obstinacy, his immaturity, for she gets to see how his celibacy, his renunciation also stunt his emotional growth. The padavit father admires him as a great general and a leader of unquestionable integrity; the son, on the other hand, sees Bheeshma break his own rules for battle at Kurukshetra, and has no illusions left. In Until the Lions, many of the characters take on variegated shades depending on which lenses they are seen through.

You knew as you were working on the book, that Until the Lions would be adapted for an Akram Khan dance production. Do you think your familiarity with him and his work played a part in driving the structure and form of any of the poems he will be using?

The adaptation did not exist in my mind while I wrote the book: it was to be an offshoot, and a partial one at that. Akram decided only at the end of 2013 that he wanted to adapt the Amba poem (which had been written nine months earlier), and to borrow the book’s title, the marginal perspective and one story for his production. So, the book Until the Lions grew before, and completely separate to, Akram’s adaptation. Secondly, while this book does reference dance and performance extensively, almost none of it is related to Akram’s work (unlike in Bearings).

Is it difficult to deal with watching it take on a different form, with makers who have their own creative inputs, when the book is still so close to you?

I am used to watching my writing take a different form, it is actually the most riveting part of a dance or music adaptation because only the ossature remains yours: flesh, blood, nerves and skin come from other media. The difficulty is not because the book is so close to me. But Amba is a magnificent, complex character–also story–that deserves to be rendered with depth and power. And I can only hope she will get that, but it lies entirely in Akram’s and his dramaturge’s hands.

You chose both the images used for your book covers–the Harper Collins publication as well as the Arc Poetry one. Why did you want them for the covers?

The Harper Collins India cover of Until the Lions is a photograph from the archives of the Archeological Society of India (circa 1909): the excavations at Sarnath and the discovery of the Lion Capital, the symbol of the Indian State. It was love at first sight: the image represented everything, the detritus of empires, the transience of power and glory, the 'voiceless' characters who were sent to salvage the wreckage and whose names would never be known or remembered. Everything Until the Lions tries to archive.

The Arc Publications cover wears a photo of sculptor Antony Gormley’s Another Singularity, a magnificent installation that reminds us of the enormity, the singularity of the cosmos, the nature of existence and the universe that owns it, I feel, beyond human intervention. For me, it is also a reminder of the pulsating force of the epic, of the births and deaths of narratives.

Uttaraa’s poems after the death of Abhimanyu gave me gooseflesh. She calls the sky 'dead skin split open, drained of all music and blood'. Your book has a lot of bereaved wives and mothers. How did you ensure they were different?

Form was my most valuable and versatile ally. And you’re right: it was a major concern. When I began the book, it was my greatest doubt, as to how I could channel them all and be true to their voices and not sound like myself.

In poetry, you can work with many things–you can work with form, with shape, with visuals. They all came in handy. Form became very functional in this book, unlike in Bearings. It was my greatest tool for shaping what I felt the voices had to be.

A powerful female voice in the book comes from Shunaka the dog. And now I think I have a better idea of where she comes from, after having met your parents' dog Shwanan.

(Laughs) Yes. So, Shunaka has various sources. I like to think of her as the literary descendant of Arun Kolatkar’s Ugh, who is the debonair, hugely self-assured narrator of the first of the Kala Ghoda poems.

But, there’s also a Kolatkar-ian influence in that these are characters on the outer periphery of the events, as in Sarpa Satra, where you suddenly see these characters not as horrible, inimical serpents, but as fathers and mothers and nephews, little ones and aged ones.

I think the Mahabharata in particular is quite dispassionate about its account of cruelty to animals. You have the burning of the Khandava forest, the sarpa satra, the odd example of cows being killed ... (laughs) –oh, dear, cows are a dangerous topic today. And you have the horse being butchered at the end of the ashwamedha yagna.

So I did want to look at it from the perspective of non-humans, to whom there are no good and evil men, but just a race that is thoughtless, gratuitously cruel, and very rapacious, which I suspect is how a lot of animal species look at us.

Your title draws from a proverb quoted by Chinua Achebe – that 'until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter'. To me, the title found most resonance in three poems – Uttaraa’s words 'the dead have no songs ... it is we that find and feed them the songs'; Dusshala, who names each of the Kaurava brothers, with a couplet to speak of her memories of him; Bhanumati, who reminds us that Duryodhana was an admired ruler, a generous man, a respectful husband, immortalised for his words, 'Shall I pick up the beads or string them together' in a Tamil poem that describes his reaction to seeing Karna grab Bhanumati by her waist chain, scattering the pearls.

Well, I was trying to capture the different kinds of lions, and the different kinds of voices and histories of the lions. We perceive something as being supreme and powerful, but it’s not, and the order is constantly being changed. Who the lion is constantly changes, and who the hunter is can also change.

Are [the poems you mentioned] the most representative ones? Not necessarily. But there were things I specifically wanted to do. I specifically wanted a poem in which there are no discussions about Duryodhana’s good or evil, but just loss and grief. And that is what Bhanumati does. That’s perhaps the most abstract poem, because it could be any devoted wife mourning her lost husband. That’s also what I’ve done with the Constancy poems [in the voices of spouses and lovers of foot soldiers], by people at the bottom of the food chain. It is about loss, the fear of loss, the helpless anguished wrath and rage that has to be controlled because you cannot confront the people responsible for this.

But with Dusshala, I wanted the naming to be there. I did not want the Kauravas to be lumped as a nameless, faceless collective. And the only way I could do that was have her invoke each one, and make him more than a name, so you could get a sense of what may have been a life, now half-spent.

You know, in this bizarre time in India, where you have homosexuality recriminalised and restrictions on which animal you can eat and so on, we often turn to the scriptures and speak about how much more chilled out everyone was. The stories of Brihannala and Aravan are often laid out as examples of fluid sexuality. You’ve taken things a step further, with one of the Kauravas being openly gay.

I think myth and mythology all over the world, but particularly in the Indian cosmogony, is full of examples of very fluid sexuality, whether it’s Vishnu turning into Mohini, which comes not just with Aravan but in the churning of the ocean, and you even have a son born of two male gods, Ayappan. And as for what is happening now, I find it troubling that we are supposed to define morality by precepts that were given 3,000 years ago, whereas we have no compunctions about taking an aeroplane or wearing trousers or using the mobile phone, though I suppose you can find equivalents for all that in the myths if that’s the bandwagon you’re going to hitch. (Laughs)

When you speak of those who fought the Kurukshetra war, from the kings to the padavit, there’s this sense of a higher ideal: whether it is shedding your low caste or reaching heaven. I felt it resonated with what is going on in the world today. The language used in that mythological war is the same as that by which terrorists and anti-terrorist soldiers are brainwashed today, into fighting a war with no victors.

Absolutely. That was not a coincidence at all. When I wrote Ulupi, it was very close to certain political events in my part of the world, abounding with accounts of families distraught because sons or daughters had disappeared, and were found in Syria. And I was curious about that, because sometimes it came from the desire to be closer to a (metaphorical) father. And the father can be a larger thing: it can be a mythical community going to fight the holy war.

And that’s why the book ends with a padavit telling his father there is no such thing as a sacred war, there is no such thing as a sacred battlefield, there is no Kurukshetra. The resonances were real. The Ulupi poem was defined by what is happening now, and I have her saying, 'I knew it would kill, I knew the ache to belong would send him here, to this crazed dissonant swansong of war, for sons will slash their lifelines for distant fathers, to please kin who have disdained them all along'.