June 27, 2017

Author rewinds clock to set romance in British India for The Mute Anklet

An interview by Vinita Kinra (@VinitaKinra)

Radhika Nathan

Radhika Nathan

Radhika Nathan is the author of the historical novel, The Mute Anklet. She is currently close to finishing her second novel, and can often be found poring over her manuscript, agonizing over the behavior of her characters. She thinks of herself as a juggler, a meanderer, and a rolling stone. She believes in the miracle of words and the rain. Her favorite pastimes include reading, listening to pod casts and gazing at monsoon clouds. Her taste in books is eclectic, ranging from anthropology to old-fashioned murder mysteries, and if pushed, she would name Jane Austen as her favorite author for her believable, eternal characters. Travel is something she enjoys, and has been to more than a dozen countries for the love of meeting new people and discovering new cultures.

Vinita Kinra: Welcome to Global Asian Times, Radhika. What draws you to the world of historical romance?

Radhika Nathan: Thank you, it’s great to be here. I like the idea of examining the familiar in unfamiliar circumstances. Historical, Fantasy, Sci-Fi all of these genres essentially help set up a rich canvas ultimately to explore basic human emotions like love, anger, jealousy etc. It allows me as an author to create unusual conflicts to make a basic story more interesting.

Vinita Kinra: Why did you set your debut novel, The Mute Anklet, in eighteenth century India?

Radhika Nathan: Eighteenth century was still early days for the British Raj in India. The British had just suffered a major setback in North America, and were only one of the European players in India. Feelings of racial superiority had not yet set in fully. This is a ripe setting to have a character like Uma, the protagonist, who looks like an Englishwoman but has a very Indian self-identity. It is not a replica but a mirroring of the modern world.

Vinita Kinra: How did you tackle the delicate subject of romance in the backdrop of bloody war?

Radhika Nathan: Times of war force one to examine what the true priorities are. Under such great pressure, one is likely to look past superficial irritants and see what is really important in a relationship. This story, however, is not about two people in love set apart by war; their conflict is internal and is not caused by external circumstances. The war throws into sharp relief their own beliefs and prejudices. It allows them to grow as human beings as much as fall in love with each other.

Vinita Kinra: What is the biggest challenge in writing historical fiction?

Radhika Nathan: Initially, I thought the biggest challenge would be to be accurate about the costumes, the setting, the locales etc. But in reality, I could do research to find answers to such questions. What was more challenging was to be authentic in the emotions of my characters. While it might be abhorrent for a strong, modern woman in 2015 to agree to marry someone she has never met, would it be the same for someone in the eighteenth century south India? What would go through such a character’s mind when she is leaving Indian shores for the first time? I caught myself writing and rewriting the drafts to be more plausible.

Vinita Kinra: Share with us your publishing journey.

Radhika Nathan: I finished the full manuscript and was tweaking it forever when my friends and family urged me to try my luck with publishing. I saw that Westland had an email id to which I could send my submission, and I thought I’d do that. Printing out pages of the manuscript and sending it to various publications seemed like a lot of work. I was lucky. They liked the novel and it was great working with them to see it in print form.

Vinita Kinra: In your perspective, how different is love forged in eras bygone compared to the contemporary?

Radhika Nathan: I don’t think there are a lot of differences between love forged in modern times and in the bygone eras. The underlying emotions can’t be all that different, be it physical attraction or emotional pull. Opportunities, religious and societal circumstances likely affected the outcome.  But the emotion itself has to be ancient and basic.

Vinita Kinra: What inspired your main protagonists, Uma and Captain Ashton?

Radhika Nathan: Uma is inspired by those who grow up in an environment that is not racially similar to their own. For example, would a young brown woman who grew up in Toronto feel Indian in her heart or Canadian? To make it more complex, how would she feel if her foster parents were Canadian? Irrespective of how she feels, how will the world look at her? Can she be truly integrated with either identity she chooses? Uma looks white, but feels Indian. And the rest of the characters have their own views of her based on her upbringing and her looks. As for Ashton, I wanted to write a cool character. A hero I’d like, sometimes even want to be like. Someone who goes from amused detachment to equanimous involvement. I thoroughly enjoyed crafting him.

Vinita Kinra: Who has been your biggest mentor through your writing journey?

Radhika Nathan: My friends and family in general have been most supportive. I continue to torture them to read drafts, and answer tricky questions about the characters.

Vinita Kinra: Do you intend to explore other genres through your writing career?

Radhika Nathan:    Definitely. In fact, the next two plots I have in mind are not historical at all. They do have historical, romantic elements to them, but are very different from The Mute Anklet. I have an idea for a romance with the protagonists having different philosophical outlooks, even though I’m not sure if there is a market for such a thing. But in general, I am likely to stick to some element of history, romance, and mystery combination with varying percentages. I enjoy writing them.

Vinita Kinra: What are your future projects?

Radhika Nathan: I am currently close to finishing a contemporary novel. It has elements of romance and mystery to it. It is set in modern day Chennai and happens within a span of one week, unlike The Mute Anklet which takes place over many months. I hope to publish the book by January 2016. I have also started doing some groundwork for my next novel, which I am planning to set in the eighties, just before the advent of the IT industry and major media players that changed the fabric of south Indian society.

Vinita Kinra: Our readers would like to sample an excerpt from The Mute Anklet.

Three days later, Ashton walked into what looked like a retiring room and was surprised to see Miss Brooke. He had been told that the maharajah had summoned him and had not realised she was joining them. Evidently neither had she. Miss Brooke looked up, her eyes round, her hand poised mid-air, arrested in the act of arranging the chess pieces on a board.

‘Miss Brooke, how nice to see you again,’ said Ashton in a hearty voice.

She seemed to struggle for a response as she opened and closed her mouth and took a deep breath. ‘Captain Trevelyan,’ she acknowledged stiffly. She then asked the guard something in a sharp voice in the native tongue and, clearly displeased with the answer, went back to arranging the chess board silently.

‘I must compliment you for your command over the local language, madam; I can detect no hesitation or difference in the rhythm and tone,’ he said, and seeing she had no intention of inviting him to sit, chose the chair on the other side of the chess table and sat down. He leaned back, whistled a brisk tune, and looked around.

Her glance was full of resentment, though it did not extend to her next set of words. ‘Thank you,’ she responded in a bland voice.

Ashton was disappointed. She was not rising to the bait. He had expected her to say something caustic – perhaps point out that she had grown up there, that it was only natural that she knew the language well. Or she could chide him about his lack of familiarity with the local language.

Ashton looked with interest as Uma arranged the pieces, not in opening positions but some middle game. She must have played it often to remember the positions so well, and he noticed that it was an equal and complex contest.

Ashton gazed at the beautiful face in front of him. The exquisite nose and the gentle curve of her mouth, the sunshine gold of the strands of hair that played on her cheek and the blue eyes that were staring at him captured his imagination.

‘Have you ever seen cornflowers?’ he asked.

She frowned and then almost reluctantly shook her head.

‘The colour of your eyes, even the few dark streaks in them, I haven’t seen any other pair that would absolutely fit the cliché of cornflower blue eyes,’ he said and grinned.

She stood up abruptly, almost knocking the board, her face red, clearly not because she was happily blushing at his compliment but because she was inexplicably angry. Ashton rose slowly, puzzled at this odd reaction. He must be getting rusty.

‘I did not realise you had such a violent dislike to cornflowers. I can certainly oblige with a different comparison,’ he drawled.

‘Who do you—!’ She stopped in the middle of sputtering and turned to see the maharajah enter the room.

She strode towards him and asked something in the native tongue, her pleated eyebrows and the pronounced frown giving away her anger. The maharajah responded in few words with an unperturbed look. Then he said in English, ‘Captain Trevelyan will be joining us. You are welcome to leave if you do not care for his company.’

She glared at the maharajah for a moment and then stomped out of the room, her expression not unlike that of a grouchy child.

Vinita Kinra is a Toronto-based author, editor, speaker and activist, best known for her short story collection, Pavitra in Paris, launched to critical acclaim in 2013. She is also a contributor for India’s largest English daily, The Times of India.

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