The debut novel of Mahesh Rao, “The Smoke is Rising”, is set in Mysore and takes up diverse issues faced by the city and the nation

Mahesh Rao’s recently launched first novel The Smoke is Rising was started in 2008 and concluded two years later in 2010. Due to the lack of publisher, it took a little more time before it hit the stands eventually. Meanwhile, unwilling to write a second novel he started penning short stories and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, the Bridport Prize and the Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest.

Educated in politics, economics and law at University of Bristol, Cambridge and London School of Economics, Mahesh worked as lawyer, academic researcher and bookseller in UK before moving to India five years ago and settling in Mysore. “I had just enough of it all,” says the author.

On his decision to start writing, Mahesh says “Once in Mysore it seemed to be a good opportunity to write a novel. I had the time, inclination and the idea.” As to what inspired him to write his debut novel, he says, “Living and staying in Mysore, I was conscious of R.K. Narayan – whom I adore – and one day while walking past his house I began to wonder what his creation ‘Malgudi’ will look like in present times.” Some of the characters were already etched in his mind which aided him in his endeavour.

Located in Mysore, the timeframe of the story circa 2008 and 2009 deals with a cross-section of the city. “I wanted to present a broad canvas with all sorts of characters from different social background and at varied stages of life with their own aspirations and ways of achieving them,” says the writer.

The tale takes up several pressing and prominent issues confronting the society. The narrative is woven around the urban-rural divide inspired by the agitation staged by villagers across the country in protest against acquisition of their land for different purposes. “The need for land is the fault line,” says Mahesh adding that “people perceive loss of land as a collateral damage in the process of development.” He further explains, “Since the stakes (of development and progress) are very high the acquisition is treated as an unavoidable movement.” Agreeing that profound injustices occur in this process the author wants everyone to “put oneself in the shoes of those whose home, hearth and social structure is uprooted.”

Dealing with domestic violence and status of women, the author brings to fore the problems faced by them irrespective of their status in life. Mahesh says, “Regardless of class or background the actions of many women in the society are circumscribed.” The three main women characters hailing from diverse milieu face different kind of pressures from their respective communities. On the staggering increase in incidence of brutality against married women, the author comments, “It is still taboo to talk and discuss about these issues though the maximum violence against women occurs at home.”

In the story the protest against injustice is led by a woman who ironically hails from the vulnerable segment. “It is a misguided notion that educated and professional people rescue the unprotected. On contrary it spouts from the very group which requires protection,” says Mahesh. On this character suffering severely for speaking up, the author states, “This what the society does. If you stick your head above the parapet it is bound to be blown off.”

Awaiting for the release of his collection of short stories One Point Two Billion, Mahesh wants to continue writing fiction which he describes as his age-old friend. “Fiction is firm and comforting and I do not recall a moment in my life when I was without a story book or novel.”