For love and honour

Anand Ranganathan

Anand Ranganathan

Anand Ranganathan is a writer who dons many hats. A scientist by day, who has been researching dengue and tuberculosis at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Delhi since 1999 and a teacher at the Special Centre for Molecular Medicine at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Ranganathan has also managed to squeeze in some time as contributing editor for the independent news website He is also a relentless tweeter with a 19,000-plus-strong following (@ARangarajan1972).

Oh, did we mention that he has also authored two books?

Ranganathan’s first novel The Land Of The Wilted Rose (Rupa) — planned as the first of a quartet — explored the concept of reversing colonial history: Britain is ruled by India and seeks to free itself through its own ‘White Mahatma’. The book was not a hit.

Fast forward four years and Ranganathan has decided to take a detour with For Love and Honour (Bloomsbury), a love story that is set in the backdrop of the Indian Government’s internal conflict with the Mizo Uprising of the 1980s.

Ranganathan talks to MetroPlus on his latest offering:

You’ve mentioned this book started through conversations with your filmmaker friend, Bharat Solanky. Why did you choose the Mizo movement as the backdrop?

When Bharat and I started our research, we were amazed how much there was to know about the Northeast, and how very little we, and if I may extrapolate a little here, the rest of India, knew about Mizoram. The Aizawl bombing of 1966, when Indian Armed Forces bombed its own people is not present in our school books at all. And the events that followed the bombing: the village regrouping, where 80 per cent of the population was displaced, is an even more of a cruel mystery to Indians.

Would the book have had the same essence if say, you’d based it in Nagaland rather than Mizoram, given the similarities in the nature of conflict?

Mizoram’s history — from the famine, to the Mizo National Front (MNF), to the bombing, to the Cambodia-like near-zero displacement and grouping of villages — is unique. But what is even more unique is the fact that, even after withstanding so much pain, the Mizos came to the table for a peace accord. And the peace has withstood.

You decided to release the book at a time when the Northeast became the focus of daily news (the Naga Accord, unrest in adjoining areas etc.) Was this planned?

The book was written more than a year ago. The fabulous editor, Diya Kar Hazra (Bloomsbury), took her time. Purely coincidental ( the time of the release ).

You mention this started off as a challenge to transplant Stefan Zweig’s Alpine Edith over the hilly climes of the Northeast. What’s that all about?

Oh, it is a marvellous book. There isn’t quite anything like it — or, at least in my opinion, very, very few writers can come close to understanding, and then putting into words what is called the Human Condition. Caldwell, Naipaul and Kapuscinski come close. But not close enough. Zweig, a close friend of [Sigmund] Freud had absolute mastery over human psychology and emotions. He was persecuted by the Nazis and had to flee Austria before finally committing suicide.

Does Alpine Edith contain struggles of a love triangle, much like how For Love and Honour does?

In a way, yes, but the theme of Zweig’s novel is pity, and the terrible cost one has to pay when one succumbs and gives the impression that he or she loves someone out of pity.

The greater part of your book is the love triangle itself. Two pretty sisters and a handsome army hunk. Lot of philosophising, and a lot of lovemaking too...

Writing [about] sex is the most difficult thing to do. If you look at the treatment of the two love-making scenes, they are quite different (and deliberate). The first one is interspersed with [John] Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ — it isn’t “love” making. It is just a sexual act. The second one is where sex happens between two lovers. It had to be treated differently, with a lot more emotion, and, if I may say so, a touch of bombast and extravagance. The setting itself — a tea estate, the claustrophobia, two flirtatious, very sexy women — lends itself to sexual instances. We tried to replicate a bit of [Satyajit] Ray’s Kapurush O Mahapurush . I’d have killed myself had this novel been devoid of sex.

That’s an honest admission.

Yes, even though a touch embarrassing! The thing with having Bharat (Solanky) as the co-imaginator of the story was that he is a filmmaker, and besides, I have great interest in films. The book, at places, becomes an amalgam of film and literature.

Your two male characters are both Indian Army paratroopers. What was the sort of research you did for them?

We read a lot, especially about the paratroopers. We are lucky that a few of our friends from college are now in the Armed Forces, and one of them is, in fact, a paratrooper, having been posted at Siachen. One character is the brooding type, while the other is the dithering type … We had two friends exactly like that.

Your book has been categorised as ‘historical fiction’. Is history better understood in the backdrop of fiction?

If written well, i.e. intertwined well with fiction, history, or non-fiction, can really come alive. Of course, all great fiction is also, as Naipaul calls it, “material”, i.e. non-fiction [and once, he cunningly converted all his non-fiction into fiction — for The Enigma of Arrival ].

But our book isn’t like that. The fiction part is not a true story. What may work for the book is the non-fiction part — the Aizawl bombing, the history of Mizoram, and the Northeast.

How do you manage to write a novel in the Twitter era?

My day job is of a scientist. I cannot afford to have a set routine like a [full-time] writer; I keep making and unmaking, writing and unwriting, sentences in my head during the day. Earlier, it used to drive me mad, because I didn’t carry a mobile phone till 2006, and did not carry a diary either. But now, I jot down thoughts on my smartphone as and when I can.

Twitter is a welcome distraction for me. I greatly envy poets, because I think their art is better, and tougher than prose writers. Twitter, because of its 140-character limitation, reminds me of poets trying to communicate. It’s wonderful!

This is your second book after The Land Of The Wilted Rose, labelled as part of a quartet. You took a sudden deviation and brought out For Love and Honour … Is the rest of the quartet project still on?

Yes, The Land of the Wilted Rose is very close to my heart. It was terribly difficult to write, it having elements of stream of consciousness (sorry, embarrassed at using this phrase). Unfortunately, it sank. I don’t know why. Hopefully, I’ll get to write the other three of the quartet someday. The next book is a collaborative project with a journalist. More on it later…

Tell us about your stint in Madras when you were a student at IIT. Were you pursuing Chemical Engineering?

No, [just] Chemistry. Then I left for Cambridge, shortly after. It was 1992, I think! I loved it! We were ragged at Marina beach.

And the food was out of the world, of course! Not the Yamuna hostel (in IIT Madras)… and especially the kitchen, that seems to have been straight out of Dante’s creation.

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Printable version | Jul 1, 2022 10:57:07 pm |