With her second novel Leela's Book just out, Alice Albinia reflects on how her stay in India and the country's history has impacted her fiction.
Quiet flows life with Alice Albinia. She speaks with an unaffected air so remarkable for somebody so widely sought after. Since the launch of her new work Leela's Book at the British Council in New Delhi recently, she has scarcely had a moment of leisure. Summer afternoons no longer allow the luxury of quietude.
It is a rarefied world Albinia has built up with lots of patience and keen observation. For over 10 years now she has been an eager observer of the unfolding contours of our nation. A few years ago she was rankled enough by the Bharatiya Janata Party's politics of exclusion to pen Empires of the Indus, a book that got her hordes of admirers, and a Royal Society of Literature prize.
“For an outsider coming here, it was shocking the way the BJP was subverting history. The sectarian version of common history shocked and hurt in equal measure. Empires of the Indus was a reaction to the way they were forcing Indians to look at their history, and for a while they were successful. They legitimised rhetoric and made the talk of minority-majority an everyday affair. Points of commonality were deliberately ignored. The thing that really baffled me was the kind of conversation taking place about history in society. The hawkish view often dominated social talks and it seemed they were toying with history. My books are a reaction to the way they were forcing a certain view of the country on Indians.”
The eye-opener, for the woman who did English literature at Cambridge University before coming to India and working in various newspapers and magazines, meant there was no resting on the laurels of the first book, well received as it was. Result? Leela's Book, a Random House publication, continues the attempt to “explore”. “Actually, both the books kind of happened together. When I was working on Indus, I was writing Leela too! Some might it call it fiction but this book is about history too.”
Leela's Book weaves a tale of contemporary Delhi across socio-religious boundaries, reaching back to the age of the Mahabharat. It talks of Vyas, Ganesh and then makes allocation for modern social currents. It is both playful and inquisitive. The book imagines the revenge Ganesh takes on Vyas by writing his own book!
Why not a simple history book instead of straddling both history and fiction? The answer is disarmingly frank. “I love reading such a book,” she says, then adds, “I wanted to explore the place I was living in. This mix of history and fiction gave me the freedom to do what I wanted. I could not have got that from a mere academic book.”
Indian history is characterised by a lot of watertight compartments with barely an opening for fresh air. Is that why she avoided going down the drab academic lane? “I have heard a lot about that. And I did read a lot of such books during my research for the novel. I feel sometimes you need a straightforward fact without any colour added and you can quickly go to a history book. There is a role for academic books. It may not be terrific writing but it has its purpose. But as for me, this genre is just fine. It is a thing about storytelling. As a raconteur you are not only reeling out facts, you are telling a story. It gives the reader a pleasure and gives me the same in equal measure.”
Indeed. Albinia has a way with stories. In Leela's Book, she subverts the story of the Mahabharat and brings Ganesh centre-stage. “India is a country commended for storytelling! This book is homage to the best epic of them all. As for subverting the epic, I did not plan it that way. Maybe it stemmed from my journalistic experience. When I read the Mahabharat, I fell in love with Ganesha. I found he is surprisingly cut out. He has not been part of critical discussion either. Usually, Ganesha was taken as a writer of the text without being an author. He kind of became an easy fall guy. As someone coming from the West, I was intrigued by Ganesha's personality. I found many legends about him.”
Albinia has had a long .association with India, its culture and mythology. “As a child I watched the Mahabharat on television, something I believe countless Indians did. Then as I grew up the story stayed with me.” It stayed with her during her M.A. too as she wrote a paper on the Ganesh dictation episode. That ‘story' inspired Leela's Book.
Now, Albinia feels, it is time to take a break from India and concentrate on writing about Britain. “My next book, in fact, my next two books are about Britain. I think they are long overdue.” Here is waiting for Albinia's books!