In her latest book, Ismita Tandon explores the suffocating grip of love, that slowly squeezes the life out of the objects of its affection

After the disturbing Jacob Hills, which looked at love, lust and murder in an elite Army War College in the 80s, Ismita Tandon is back with Love Kills (Harper Collins, Rs. 299). Equally disturbing, the gripping page turner is set again in the hills in a de-addiction centre run by the charismatic Johnny W who may or may not have something to do with brutal crimes that take place there. The 34-year-old writer who has recently relocated to the hills of Himachal talks about the book, the prequel to Jacob Hills and the changing attitudes on drug and alcohol dependency. Excerpts.

You seem fascinated with period settings and institutions…

Period settings have a dark and secretive feel to them. Like fungus needs moisture to breed and multiply, a good mystery rides on a macabre setting. And there’s no place like the past to dig up some good old dirt. Ditto for institutions—most of them have enough sleazy stuff to churn out a novel or two.

Love Kills like Jacob Hills features multiple voices…

Just as there are many voices inside our heads, and without putting these voices together we cannot really know who we are, similarly, every character shows up in the story in his or her own peculiar style.

From the perspective of the mechanics of the plot and writing, was it difficult to sustain the mystery?

, keep things from the reader when you were sometimes telling the story from the murderer’s or key witness’s perspective?

Yes and no. Yes, because it was a challenge indeed to protect the identity of the murderer, as he or she spilled their guts out voicing their inner turmoil. It was like manoeuvring a big car on narrow, winding mountains. On the other hand, it was quite enjoyable to try and outsmart the readers by throwing in the murderer as a victim along with the other characters.

Can you comment on the exquisite character sketches in the beginning of each chapter?

A picture speaks a thousand words. My sister-in-law , Pavitra Tandon is an acclaimed illustrator and together we ideate and come up with these insightful sketches that give the reader a peep into the personality of the characters.

Why did you choose to set the story in a rehab?

I know from experience that most families are so afraid of what people would say that they never openly admit that they have an addict amidst them. The other angle is the alcoholics are so afraid of being admitted to a rehab, to be deprived of their routine drink that they’d rather die than be in a hospital.

What’s your take on addiction?

There’s definitely more awareness than there was 20 years ago. On the other hand, drinking and taking experimental drugs today is acceptable. The taboos of yesteryears are no longer there. The partying, pubbing culture has turned cities into drinking hubs where the young and the old only know one way to relax or have fun, to have booze.

How difficult or easy was the research?

Well, I really didn’t have to go very far, I am quite familiar with the effect alcohol has and the resolve required to move past it. The poem in the beginning of the book is a tribute to my father, who’d probably be alive today, had he agreed to the treatment.

Can you comment on the title?

Love as we know and understand can be compared to the grip of a python as it gently squeezes the life out of the people closest to us. Often we bind, hold and keep them from being who they are. And in that loving we often suffocate the ones we love , mentally, emotionally and in extreme cases physically.

Why are all the characters with the exception of Inspector Ray unlikeable?

It’s my observation that the more time people spend with other people, be it family or friends, they don’t remain likeable for very long.

What next?

I’m only doing poetry at the moment. Murder mysteries have taken a backseat.

What about the prequel to Jacob Hills?

It’s halfway done.

How do you write?

Do you set targets?

I like to write in the mornings, after I’ve finished running and meditating. It’s the most productive stretch of the entire day, as my mind even though, it’s brimming with ideas, is calm and resourceful enough to give many unpredictable twists to the plot. My writing is like the dancing leafs, wherever the winds take me, I follow. There’s absolutely no method to this madness.