She started writing a frothy romance and discovered she couldn’t keep larger issues away, reveals author Lakshmi Narayan

Many years ago, as a snooty young journalist Lakshmi Narayan met Charles Boon and made it evident she looked down on Mills & Boon romances. Never mind that she herself had read many of them on the sly in college. “We were told not to read them. And we did exactly that by covering the books in brown paper,” laughs the author. “Mr. Boon told me ‘Do you think it’s easy to write a Mills & Boon romance? The heroine has to be pure with no negative traits and she still gets the guy. You write one story and I’ll pay you 1000 pounds’,” recalls Lakshmi.

Years later, when Lakshmi moved to Singapore she started writing a romance simply to appease her Goan maid, homesick to be away from her boyfriend. “I wrote one chapter a day and my maid eagerly looked forward to the next,” says Lakshmi. She wrote 16 chapters and in the process, figured out she wasn’t cut out to write a frothy romance. “At one point, I thought I’d send this romance to Mr. Boon. But as I wrote, I saw the larger issues in society. I’ve heard that a book takes on the personality of the writer. That happened with me,” says Lakshmi.

Originally, she had written Bonsai Kitten with foreign characters and eventually changed them to Indian, then South Indian and then a Tamil Brahmin. “The writing is more honest when you write about your own community,” she reasons.

The book discusses the life of a young girl Divya and through her, discusses loneliness of expatriates and several issues relating to women. “The narrative was no longer uni-dimensional,” says the author.

Talking to us while in the city to launch Bonsai Kitten (Leadstart Publishing; Rs. 195) at Landmark, Lakshmi reveals it took her 17 years to complete the book. The completion was a personal triumph, since she had to battle health issues — Uveitis and later Sixth Nerve Palsy. “With Uveitis, I was told I could go blind in two years. Once I was cured of that I suffered Sixth Nerve Palsy which affected my sound-light coordination,” she says.

Lakshmi re-visited the book after seven to eight years. “My attitude towards things had changed. I resumed writing from the 17th chapter and later re-visited the first 16 chapters. A lot of changes had to be made,” she says. “Some of the language I had used for Divya made me squirm. When I re-wrote the chapters, Divya became mellow, tolerant and her sense of humour improved.”

The bonsai metaphor

“Once, my dog’s vet sent me an email about a crazy thing she found on the internet called ‘bonsai kitten’. Apparently, one could put a newborn kitten into a jar and inject it with some chemicals through a probe to soften its bones. Eventually, the cat takes the shape of the bottle. Later we found it was a hoax. But that title bonsai kitten stuck with me,” says the author.

Lakshmi used it as a metaphor to talk about the plight of young Indian brides. “This is what is required of an Indian bride. Catch the woman young, mould her to your liking, train her to be obedient and keep her at the bottom of the rung,” says Lakshmi.

Among the issues she discusses in the book is also the ‘colour bar’: “The protagonist, Divya, is erudite, has a good sense of humour and is keen on dance and music. But all this doesn’t seem to count because she is dark. Society considers her dark, therefore not good looking.”