Mahesh Rao’s debut novel, The Smoke is Rising, won the Tata First Book Award and was shortlisted for several others, including the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and the Crossword Prize. His second book, One Point Two Billion, is an ambitious collection of short stories, set in various locations across India, and has been greeted with rave reviews. In this interview, the author chats about the other Naipaul, books that need to be carried on wheelbarrows, and what he has in common with Boney M.

I know some of the short stories have been published elsewhere, but given the skill with which you write, one has to ask: What have you been doing all these years before publishing your first book?

Well, that’s very kind of you. I did, in fact, produce my first significant piece of writing at the age of 12. It was a play—a rather worthy farce about the importance of multicultural harmony. Its success was unexpected, immediate and overwhelming. Lauded by teachers, it won some sort of prize, was produced at two school assemblies, a parents’ evening, and I think on a couple of other occasions. Sadly no copy of it exists and I can’t even remember what it was called. Buoyed by its success, I went on to write a second play called “The Mad Monk”, which drew on my childhood obsession with Rasputin. (Imagine my delight when I discovered that this was an interest I shared with the mighty Boney M.) But as is so often the case with sophomore works, the play sank without a trace. I think even my fairly benevolent English teacher just slipped a copy into her drawer and hoped that we could all move on. I found a copy the other day and, well, in its defence, it’s not terrible. Anyway, I didn’t write any fiction again for over 30 years. But in the meantime I read everything I possibly could, which is the best grounding for any writer.

There are several strands in The Smoke is Rising, and I get the feeling you’d been toying with some of the plotlines for a while, and there was a sudden click which made it all come together. Was it the hyped launch of Chandrayaan-1 that became the spur?

Yes, I think I had been thinking about the three main narrative arcs in the novel for a while, but without knowing what kind of resolution they would reach. The ‘click’ that made them come together was actually sitting down to write the book. There is an incremental and, I still feel, magical, order that comes from the discipline of putting the words on to paper every day. The launch of Chandrayaan-1 was a fortuitous accident, really. I was looking for a scenario that captured many of the themes threaded through the book—India’s lopsided modernity, the exhausting bluster of the 24-hour news cycle, the simultaneous cynicism and ambition that we see around us all the time—and it all seemed to come together one evening in the arresting visuals of the rocket launch that happened to take place as I was writing the first few chapters.

In writing a book like this, where you’re looking at so many things—road rage, land acquisition, class tension, abusive relationships, societal prejudice, post-retirement first-love (I’m struggling to find a politically correct term for ‘geriatric love’), goondagiri, and even comedy of manners—you must have faced a serious challenge in bringing it all together. Was there any point where you nearly gave up? Or did you edit out some of the plotlines and shift them to your next book?

It’s completely awful to quote myself, but I think the description used in a fictional magazine article in the book is: ‘Silver sweethearts: second time round for seniors!’This is going to sound dreadful but I didn’t find it at all challenging. There is of course a certain challenge simply to sitting down and making sure you write a certain amount each day. But beyond that, weaving together the various strands was something that came very naturally. I think I was just really ready to write the novel. It had been a long time coming and the story lines seemed to appear in a white blaze.

The question of what’s happening to our cities as they grow exponentially is central to the novel. And more particularly, who benefits from these changes, who pays the price,and how different power structures come into conflict. 

I suppose the central theme in The Smoke is Rising is the irony of India thumping its chest over space missions when the poor and powerless are fighting the rich and powerful to hold on to their inherited land, the source of their meagre livelihoods. Land is also the subject of a story in One Point Two Billion. Now, the flux in Indian society is a constant preoccupation in fiction and non-fiction written out of India. What plays on your mind as you weave a story that touches on this theme, but that has to say something new, something different, something that will not be dismissed as yet-another-India-story?

The question of what’s happening to our cities as they grow exponentially is central to the novel. And more particularly, who benefits from these changes, who pays the price,and how different power structures come into conflict. The issue of land acquisition has become our everyday white noise; it’s there somewhere or other in newspapers and on TV, but I’m not sure that it registers much. At the same time, the last thing I wanted to do was write a desiccated, didactic novel: those aren’t the kind of books I like to read. What I really tried to do was to explore these fundamental questions about our society but within the context of three women’s lives, threading in vignettes from different urban milieus, drawing on all sorts of popular culture from Kannada films to radio plays and TV reality shows, and giving texture to a broad canvas by using satire and farce.

Do you think style has begins to take precedence over content as writing from a particular region matures? If, for instance, one looks at early post-colonial writing, whether it’s Tamas or Things Fall Apart or Wide Sargasso Sea, there is arguably more emphasis on what is being said than how it is being said. Do you think that, as regions find their multiple voices, the focus in literature from that geographical space tends to shift to how it is said?

No, I don’t think so at all. I disagree that stylistic concerns took a back seat even in the books you mention, such as Things Fall Apart and Wide Sargasso Sea. I think one of the major changes wrought by early and later post-colonial writing is the legitimacy they conferred upon experimentation with language and story-telling. For example, The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon is a seminal novel dealing with the experience of West African immigrants in 1950s London. In particular, its use of a balladic plot structure and a particular version of Caribbean dialect achieves extraordinary results. And moving back to the Caribbean itself, Shiva Naipaul’s Fireflies, which is one of my favourite books, is a novel of incredible style and flair, both for its dazzling Trinidadian dialogue and the way in which his writing balances pathos and the darkest of humour on a knife edge.

You spoke earlier about reading everything you could, and how it’s the best grounding for a writer. Has there been a particular writer, or a particular book, which you would single out as having startled you and excited you by the way in which the story was told, or even by the story that was told?

There would be dozens of authors that I could cite and so many more books. But the book I have probably read more times than any other is Fireflies by Shiva Naipaul, which I mentioned above. It’s the story of a prominent family of Indian origin in Trinidad, and we see their fading social and economic status through the eyes of Baby, the youngest sister, and Ram, her bus driver husband. It works on many different levels: a darkly hilarious family saga, a satirical portrayal of race and class divisions in Trinidad, and a devastating tale of commonplace aspirations that are whittled down to the most meagre contentment.

When it comes to short story writers, I often return to my copy of William Trevor’s Collected Stories. It’s a thick volume (more than 1,200 pages) and is in a disgraceful condition: the spine is in tatters, some of the pages are almost the colour of tobacco, great sections have fallen out and have had to be coaxed back into the book. By this time next year I’ll probably be carting it around in a wheelbarrow like autumn leaves. And yet I can’t seem to bring myself to replace it. Whenever I’m grasping at the wrong words in a story, I go back to William Trevor. There are no linguistic pyrotechnics in his writing—its power lies in its restraint and its ability to show heartbreaking moments of transformation with a quiet exactness. There is melancholy but there is also spiky humour, shades of the macabre, and, always, the most profound empathy.

You grew up in Kenya. So I’m guessing Mysore was a place you visited on vacations, or in which you stayed for weeks or months at a time. When you moved there, and began to write about the place, what differences did you notice in your perspectives? Did you have to recalibrate your understanding of the city?

Yes, it was a place I had visited from time to time. But none of my preconceptions about the city proved a problem as the first draft of The Smoke is Rising was set in a fictional city, for a number of plot-related reasons. It was only when an early reader pointed out that I had in fact written about Mysore that this became apparent to me. I think this was the most surprising thing to have occurred as I wrote the book: the fact that a place can insinuate itself into your writing, in spite of your intentions. The fact of your physical presence and daily experiences in a particular location end up having a profound effect. My notions of a place that had sprung from my imagination were completely misguided but at that moment I really didn’t have the distance required to see that.

There is a constant tug-of-war between what someone wants, and what society expects of him or her. I was intrigued by the choices each character made; there are times when someone with a lot of fight is beaten back by the weight of forces against him or her; there are times when someone whom the reader sees as weak and indecisive makes an enormous decision and doesn’t look back; there are times when people bow down to criticism. What do you think drives these decisions—class, age, upbringing, family ties, worries about the consequences of one’s actions for, say, unmarried daughters or sisters?

I think it’s all of those things and many more: all the influences that are brought to bear on our intellectual and emotional capacities. I was very interested in quiet heroisms in this book, the sort of unsung courage that lifts people up every day but doesn’t make it to the front pages or breaking news. I wanted to write about the point where personal agency meets hazard, and the choices ultimately made—whether artlessly daring or unexpected failures, and the sound or misguided decisions that lead there.

In that context, was there any character who surprised you with his or her agency in reacting to the hazard you put in the character’s way?

Writers are often asked if they know from the outset how a book will end—which I suppose is another way of asking: ‘do you know how your characters will react to all the things you put them through?’ I don’t usually know, especially where a novel is concerned, so the mere fact of a satisfactory resolution is often a surprise. And by ‘satisfactory’ I mean that there is coherence to the characters and they illustrate whatever truths you are exploring. It may not necessarily be a happy outcome but it is a truthful outcome.

Both The Smoke is Rising and One Point Two Billion look at various kinds of forbidden love. Do you think the pressure to deny one’s instincts comes from society, or a kind of self-censorship?

The latter must come from the former, I think. And there are so many taboos across the various social strata of Indian society that there is no shortage of material. The idea of any kind of transgression brings with it so many layers to mine through. And there is something very appealing about characters in that state of suspension, when it feels as though anything is possible. Certainly as a writer this is very rich terrain, full of secrets, dissimulation, fear, danger and, sometimes, hope.

I get the sense from your characters that, while they are three-dimensional enough within the context where we know them, they also have a life outside to which we don’t have access. In that way, they are rather like people we encounter in our daily lives, even acquaintances about whose lives we know a little bit, and not everything. I was wondering—do you know more about your characters than we do? Do they only reveal as much to you as they do to the reader, or do you know their backgrounds, their families, the way their minds work, but choose to leave a chunk of that out?

I think at some point I did know a lot more about them. Living with characters, particularly in the context of the length of time it takes to finish a novel, can be all-consuming. You find yourself arguing with them, berating them, reassuring them, inhabiting their world completely, sometimes out loud in public, and it ceases to matter that people around you might think you’re unhinged. They occupy so much of your headspace and reveal all sorts of details about themselves that won’t make it into the final edits. It’s important to leave much of this out so that it doesn’t clutter the narrative and allows readers the space for an active and immersive engagement. But it’s also important to move on. Old characters fall away as new ones take their place. I probably can’t remember the names of one or two of the more minor characters in The Smoke Is Rising.

Your book of short stories is ambitious in its scope—you take on voices from various geographic locations, spanning genders, affiliations, age, class, you-name-it. In this sort of situation, where does one find the balance between research and imagination?

I generally do as little research as I can get away with because, (i) I am quite lazy when it comes to poring over facts, and (ii) if you do conduct vast amounts of research, you end up using a fraction of what you discover anyway. I think, unless you’re writing historical fiction, etc., research is a springboard: it gives you direction and momentum but then you have to rely on everything you’ve learnt from observation, practice, and reading—and use your imagination to construct a particular voice and a particular universe.

Somewhat related to the above question—there has been a lot of debate on who has a right to write about what. There have been literary spats over non-Indians writing about India and so on. You’re looking at regions where there is a lot of political tension, where people believe no one from outside can understand them, and so on. Were you worried about authenticity of voice? And where do you stand on the question of the right to take up a subject which may be perceived as alien?

This is definitely a concern and I think the only way to tackle it is head-on. Make sure you know why you’re embarking on the project and do everything possible to get a solid grounding in it. Seek help; I’ve often found people to be extraordinarily generous with anecdotes, source materials, checking of drafts. I’ve said above that I do as little research as I can get away with but occasionally that does end up being a fair amount. You have to treat your subject with respect, acknowledging that being able to write about it and be published is a privilege—don’t squander it.

While I do believe that anyone ‘is allowed’ to write about anything, I think it’s also important to have the humility to recognise that sometimes other people will be able to do far better justice to a story than you. And if that’s the case, find another story. There’s no dearth of them.

Your debut novel was a success on the awards circuit. Do you think that put any kind of pressure on you while working on the second book? Or did you try not to think about that at all?

These moments of recognition are lovely but that is all they are, literally, moments. After that, all the normal anxieties, frustrations, and yes, sometimes thrills, flood back in and you become obsessed with character, plot and word counts. The pressure is always to make the work the best that it can be and that never changes.

When you moved on from writing a novel, which allows you unlimited space to explore characters and multiple plotlines and ideas, to writing a set of short stories, what are the adjustments you had to make? I can see some of the themes from the novel echoed in the stories, but each has to be self-contained, and also induce the reader’s empathy for a character, and also his or her interest in this particular episode of the character’s life. All this without the space to get into the character’s mind, or life, at leisure.

Working on short stories is very different. It involves the discipline of moving from sentence to sentence, justifying each one, focusing on the compressed structure. There is a sort of constant vigilance about the shape of the story, the economy of language, the facts that you reveal and those that you hide. This continuous pruning and paring makes it a much slower process than writing a novel, where you allow yourself a certain amount of drift and slack because that’s the nature of the form and you have to keep a certain momentum up to finish it.

I want to look at some of the stories in One Point Two Billion in a little more detail. But, first, let me ask—I’m sure there were different triggers for each story, and some of them may be personal, and I wouldn’t want to pry. But is there any incident that stands out and that you don’t mind sharing, something you experienced which turned into a story?

In my experience, with almost every story there is one spark—a phrase, an image, a snatch of conversation, a memory—that ignites the narrative. For the stories in the collection, those first flares came from all sorts of places: an anecdote about a man peeking at his daughter-in-law through the bathroom window (“The Agony of Leaves”); a magazine article about female preachers in Punjab (“The Earth is Flat”); a YouTube video taken in a Salwa Judum camp (“Drums”); a throwaway line of dialogue in Mad Men (“Fizz Pop Aah”); a series of photographs of young wrestlers at a traditional wrestling academy (“Hero”).

While reading your short stories, I was reminded of some aspects of 19th century Russian writing, where the focus was on those momentary ugly impulses which could, if one were choose to give in to them, change the course of one’s life. Several of your characters are caught in that moment. And it seems their decisions are made by something outside of them, something they cannot help. Would you agree?

I think that is very much a trait of the form itself. There is in all good stories what Ali Smith calls ‘the momentousness of the moment’ and what William Trevor calls ‘an explosion of truth’—and how characters arrive at that explosion or momentousness and what happens next are its basic elements. And that truth has to be important enough to you in a more generalised sense to warrant the story being written. This isn’t always clear to me until I’m part of the way through a story, when it might become apparent that ‘the truth’ is in fact cliché, or implausible, or, as it happens, just stupendously dull. It’s most annoying, but what can you do— you have to abandon it and start another story.

So, when it comes to these tipping points and their resolution, do you ever struggle between doing what comes naturally to the character and what might surprise the reader. Is that a first draft versus second draft conflict?

I don’t think those are necessarily mutually exclusive, but in all cases I think I have to feel that a character is acting within the remits of the personality that I have constructed for him/her. Of course, surprises and instances of drama are important, but readers should never feel that they have been cheated or that you are sacrificing the integrity of your creation for a quick plot fix. What you’re trying to achieve is tension and resolution but, always, for the characters as you’ve consistently written them.

If you had to find one emotion that runs through your short stories, one theme that ties them together, what would it be?

I think I’d say ‘transformation’ but that is a bit of a cheat’s answer, because I think that this lies at the heart of all good short stories. My intention with the stories in the collection, given that they were traversing the whole of India, was to make them as diverse as possible, in terms of character, plot, setting, and voice. So perhaps it is mainly that essential pivot or metamorphosis within the story that does unite them.

(First published in the May 2016 issue.)