With the screen adaptation of her novel winning a National Award, Anita Nair stamps her merit on another genre
Anita Nair, the young girl, kept her scribbles a secret. Her family boasted painters and singers, but no writers. “They were artists whose art had an external manifestation. Writing was done in isolation,” says Anita. It remained an intimate personal possession for long. “I did not let anyone know of it.”
But once tugged out of the attic, writing has defined Anita’s life. A girl’s furtive notes have grown to be works published in over a dozen languages. One of the most prolific writers around, novels, short stories, poems, travelogues, humour and plays have strolled out of her wagon in the past 15 years. Her attempts at a new genre — screenplay too is reaping recognition. Her adaptation of her novel Lessons in Forgetting into a film directed by Unni Vijayan won the award for the best English film at the National Awards this year.
Anxiety about her work’s well-being turned her scenarist. “I am not possessive about anything but my work. I insisted on doing the screenplay,” says Anita candidly, her trademark cascading curls now strapped loosely at the back. “Writing a book has taken out of me so much,” she says. If fictional beings are closest to their maker, Anita felt obliged to make them at home in a new medium. “I wanted to retain the integrity of the characters,” she says on a recent visit to Kozhikode where her first book in Malayalam was published.
The screenplay experience appears to have been pleasant as Anita is stepping into her second. Her latest crime thriller Cut like Wound is set to unfold on reel. Directed by debutant Ravi Jose, the film will be multi-lingual. Do her novels have a natural cinematic quality? “They are rooted in our lives. I write scene by scene. I think it becomes easier to see it play out cinematically,” Anita replies thoughtfully.
Diligent and consistent is the writer. Anita goes about it meticulously, setting herself a word target each day and waking up early to meet them. Sure, she has bad days. “Then I stimulate my mind by reading something very different from what I am writing or watching a banal film.” Without this quota of words each morning, she confesses to being “grumpy.” She is still old-worldly when it comes to writing, preferring a fountain pen and paper. Once it starts, it is a lonely game, says Anita. “The reader is irrelevant then. It is about me and the characters and me figuring out how to take them forward to the next level. I am so meshed intricately with the lives of my characters that the reader is extraneous.”
But once she releases them to the world, they have held their ground. Her books have taken on an easy space, giving enough fodder to an engaging reader, yet not being inscrutable. “Books should not seem an effort,” she says. Anita, the writer, prefers to write books which Anita, the reader, likes to read. “The story can be difficult,” she says, “But if the idea is turned out well, it will never tax the reader. I want that residual feeling to stay after the book,” she adds.
In her transition from a closet writer to a much published and translated one, the difference has been confidence. Initially, “I was very, very unsure. You put your heart and soul into a project and it may not be anything once out in the open. You are constantly grappling with ideas.”
With each new book the craft has become easier, she notes. But a warning follows, “You can be confident about the craft, but not with ideas. You become very mediocre when you are complacent with ideas.”
Anita, meanwhile, is gearing up for her most ambitious work — a two-part historical novel set in 17 century Kerala and the rest of South India. Woven around the Mamangam, the Zamorins and a young warrior, the spark for it came from a folk ballad (pulluvan pattu).
Historical novels have been easy targets for critics. “But I am a glutton for punishment,” she jokes. She has been at it for the past five years, she adds. She even hired a research assistant at one point to gather material. “The bane of historical novel has been lazy writing,” she asserts. Information, tidbits, lore have all trickled in from libraries, the Internet, books and historians. She gathered vignettes about the Malabar almost 400-years-back, an era in relative darkness compared to other royal histories. “Apparently, the Zamorin needed two people to prop up his arms laden with diamonds. Even the tile roofs were used only for the Zamorins and temples,” she says.
With this novel, Anita again delves into her bottomless pit of raw material — Kerala. “My parents are not as Malayali as I am. I am obsessed with Kerala,” she says. “I may detest and be angry about many things. But my sense of rootedness comes from there.” Kerala, in particular the obscure Mundakottukurisi near Shornur, best defines her sense of home. “A friend of mine teases, ‘So, which is the movie playing at your talkies ‘Chemmeen’?’ But it is absolutely beautiful for me with its little curves and dips and I have built a small cottage besides my parents house,” Anita is eloquent. She is in Kerala every few weeks and among the many draws are, “The average laconic attitude (of its people) towards everything. Also the humour, as a State and people, they laugh at everything. The satire, the intellectual engagement interests me, coming as I am, from a defence background where it is all brawn. Then there is the navel gazing. These contradictions are exciting to capture.”
With stories ticking in her head, Anita admits to bombarding her publisher with ideas. The publisher, in turn, jokes all is taken care of till 2020. The multi-tasker is taking her Inspector Gowda (Cut like Wound) forward, a la Agatha Christie, into a series. “I have not said enough about him. I feel obliged to write books using him. Social commentary doesn’t have a place in literature, but with a thriller I can do that,” she says.
But does the war among stories for attention get to her? “I have stories that are at the top of mind and those that are at the back of my mind.”