Anita Nair tells that a folk ballad served as a springboard for her historical novel, Idris

The Idris journey began with a ballad. “It boils down to this folk ballad that I read,” says Anita Nair. “It refers to a mamangam (a kingship festival where all the vassal kings declare their allegiance and troth to the Zamorin) of 1683. That was set as a date for me and I worked backwards. Kandavar is mentioned in it. One of the things I found interesting is there is a reference to Kandavar’s dark complexion. That set me thinking. I know there was trade with East Africa at that point of time and I thought what if there was this tall, black man who landed in Malabar, what if Kandavar was his son…”

Anita says she used that snatch of song to create Idris, a lyrical celebration of a journey from Malabar to Ceylon with stopovers in Thoothukudi and the diamond mines of Golconda. The novel is a breath-taking adventure, a passionate love story and a voyage of discovery with the tall, dark, mysterious traveller, Idris, as the still centre of the story.

Idris didn’t start off being the centre of the story nor was the book the first of a trilogy. “The book was meant to be about this little boy, Kandavar, and his passage from boy to man,” the Bangalore-based writer says with a smile. “Idris was to play an insignificant role. One chapter was all he was going to get. And then suddenly he became so important that I thought instead of making it just one book and a rather cumbersome one at that, I would break it up into three sections which would allow me also to dwell on detail.

“One of the most fascinating aspects of historical fiction for me, is understanding how people lived. If I were to try and put everything into one book, there would be an information overload that would weigh down the story. This way I can dwell on the 33-year period I am going to write about in three segments.”

Describing the research as arduous, the 48-year-old author says: “We don’t have enough historical material of that period. Every resource I was looking at was going back to the same sources. Apart from Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s massive tome on the political and economic history of southern India of the 1600s, I relied on foreign traveller accounts. I got little bits and pieces from different sources. Like there might be a bit about navigating the seas around the peninsula where I might find some stray bit of information. It was really like scrounging around for information.”

Anita says she intentionally kept the chapters short. “When you are filling in so much information, the reader is going to find it tedious. Whatever I wanted to share, I thought I have to do it in such a way that the excitement I felt is also felt by the reader. Short chapters keep the pace going.”

There is a serendipity in how Anita zeroed in on the name Idris. “I was looking for a medieval Arabic name, I wanted something that had a flavour of distant lands. While I was doing my research for names, I found Idris, which means interpreter. In a strange coincidence I discovered Idris according to Wiki is supposed to have discovered celestial navigation and the use of pens; so it just fell into place beautifully.”

Like the Ancient Mariner, Idris can literally fix you with his glittering eye. “I like to let Idris hover between this completely, cold, clinical man and this emotional, sensuous human being. The jewel in the eye became a kind of motif for me to represent that side of him which is removed from human relationships. It is basically a dead eye that shapes the person he is. There is a bit of vanity in him when he tells his son ‘I don’t want people to say he is the one with the dead eye’.”

Idris describes the rigidity of the caste system, which is responsible for the heart-breaking ending.

“That was how it was,” Anita comments. “If you were to juxtapose the things in the book against contemporary India, you realise that some things never change. Take the Chaver, warriors, whose sole mission is to assassinate the Zamorin. The reason for killing the Zamorin is lost in time. What I want to explore in the next two books is what goes on in a person’s mind, what turns them into somebody who believes in honour and death and so on.”

Animals have a starring role in Idris and are treated very well. “I love animals!” Anita says as Sugar, her 11-year-old Labrador, sits contently at her feet. “I included the ox, cat, dog, horse and even a donkey as they seemed part of a journey.”

Describing the novel as “a journey of a man discovering himself and that of a father and son,” Anita says: “We don’t understand what travel can throw up. Someone once told me, ‘The farther you travel, the closer you come to yourself.’ I wanted that to come out in the book.”

Talking about Idris’ religious practices, Anita says: “He is so much of a traveller and has experienced so much that he perceives divinity in pretty much everything. He doesn’t need religion to reach divinity.”

For all the mysticism, Idris’ encounters with women are a sensual celebration. “I wanted to lead up to the point when he comes to Thilothamma. It cannot be that he is celibate who suddenly discovers Thilothamma. He comes to her after two very different encounters. We see how he is with Kuttimalu, Kandavar’s mother, which is more like a one night stand. We also see him with the young sex worker, Margarida, who he goes to for release. By the time he comes to Thilothamma, it is an erotic need of the mind as much as of the body.

The second book Anita said, “Ideally should be done with in two and a half years, so that the story is kept alive.” But the next book Anita is working on is a sequel to her police procedural, Cut Like Wound featuring Inspector Gowda.

“I needed to work on it because I was getting kind of distanced from the here and now.”