The curse of empathy

Debutante author Divya Kumar discusses The Shrine of Death on the eve of the book’s launch

Updated - April 26, 2018 03:48 pm IST

Published - April 26, 2018 02:51 pm IST

CHENNAI, TAMIL NADU, 16/04/2018: Author Divya Kumar during an interview with The Hindu, at Writer's Cafe, Gopalapuram, in Chennai. Photo: R. Ravindran.

CHENNAI, TAMIL NADU, 16/04/2018: Author Divya Kumar during an interview with The Hindu, at Writer's Cafe, Gopalapuram, in Chennai. Photo: R. Ravindran.

Divya Kumar wrote her first story at the age of five, about a fish and a tortoise who were friends. “I think my mother still has it saved somewhere,” she smiles in reminiscence, before moving on to discuss her first published crime thriller, soon to be turned into a trilogy.

The process of writing The Shrine of Death , she says, began in 2012. “I woke up one morning, and the character of Jai, the empath, was just fully formed in my head,” she says, “I didn’t even connect it to the term ‘empath’ back them: I just knew that this was a character who could feel what other people felt.”

“I started reading up online, and found that there are other such cases, and such stories, and it’s clearly something difficult and traumatising. Of course, it’s a bit in the realm of clairvoyance and telepathy - more pseudo-science, really — but it gave the character an interesting psychological profile.” It intrigued her, she says, how such a person would respond in everyday life and how they would be misunderstood by others.

As important as her characters were for this author, the plot went hand in hand, sometimes jostling for equal space along the way. “It started with this character, but was also equally driven by my interest in idol thefts and smuggling rings. Around that time, The Hindu was covering a lot of these idol thefts extensively,” she recalls, “I came across this case of two 800-year-old Nataraja idols that were stolen around 2008: the theft was discovered, and that triggered a series of events which led to the busting of an international smuggling ring. My whole story became a sort of prequel to that. Of course, it’s highly fictionalised.”

The balancing act between the plot and the interplay of characters’ relationships kept her on her toes, she says. It wasn’t even remotely a seamless process when she first sat to write, “There are three key characters: at points, I would be intensely driven by them and I’d write and rewrite their interactions. At other points, I would work very intensely on the plot. That was very different, because the plot was like writing code. You know, when you hit a bug, and you have to rework that...,”the former Computer Science students breaks off with a frustrated shrug.

The first novel has barely been released — and is still going through the initial hiccoughs of logistics and online supply — but Kumar has already moved on to the second book in the series. She’s halfway through, in fact. “The story won’t let me be, I need to finish the trajectory of the characters. I’ve been working on that for the last year.”

The trilogy was not something she had intended, or even seen coming. Kumar had originally begun writing The Shrine of Death purely for pleasure, as a much-needed “me time” exercise in the midst of a busy life. She didn’t even consider getting it published till rave reviews came pouring in from friends and family.

“The process of writing took three and a half years, because it wasn’t something I was doing continuously. When I started, my daughter was just a little over a year old, and I was a full-time mom. I was still writing freelance fairly regularly. So, this was something I would do for myself. The story was in my head, so I would often write late in the night after my daughter fell asleep. On weekends, I would leave her with my husband and go write in a coffee shop. It was just something to enjoy creatively,” she smiles.

The book launch for The Shrine of Death will be held at Writer’s Cafe, Gopalapuram on Friday, April 27 at 6 pm.

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