“Constructive criticism is good for authors”
says Anuja Chandramouli, whose books have been on offbeat mythological characters and stories woven from her imagination while getting the facts right. In a chat with her, Janani Rajeswari S takes a quick plunge into her creative world of mythology with her latest offering, ‘Yama’s Lieutenant’. Excerpts.
Anuja Chandramouli is the author of Arjuna, Kamadeva, Shakti and Yama’s Lieutenant. Mythology has always attracted her. Here’s more about this budding author.
AABP: You’ve majored in Psychology and English too. Did writing fiction happen by chance or was it something you always wanted to do?
Anuja: During the formative years, I could not make up my mind about the ideal career choice for me as I went through and discarded some staid as well as outré ideas for a profession that suited me with lightning speed. These included a career in Bollywood, becoming an air hostess, pursuing Criminal Psychology, Forensics or medicine, and teaching as well. But I always knew that irrespective of what I ended up doing with my life, reading and writing would always be part of it. Given that, it made sense to pursue other interests of mine. Even today, nothing much has changed, even though I am a bonafide author now (Feels good to say that!). I still read, write and keep polishing my real or imagined skills hoping that someday I’ll get the chance to fight crime or work in a big film where the lead role was written especially for me by Quentin Tarantino or Imtiaz Ali.
AABP: How challenging is it reinterpreting mythology and why did you choose to write on this genre?
Anuja: Writing about mythological characters was not a conscious decision made after painstaking analysis, though usually I tend to think a lot before I act, which is usually counterproductive and leaves me scared stiff or mentally paralyzed. Getting started on my novel was a snap decision made out of the blue. The character of Arjuna is quite close to me and thus he was the obvious choice for my first book. The rest just happened. As to the question of reinterpreting mythology, it is important to treat this treasure trove with love and respect. Mythology has a special place in my life and heart and this allows me to reinterpret as I see fit while retaining its core integrity.
AABP: The characters you have written about like Shakti, Arjuna and Kama have indeed been unique choices. What is that made you choose these characters?
Anuja: The fact that they are unique really endeared me about them. Shakti is a powerful, enigmatic figure. Although her devout worshippers are legion, she remains a mysterious entity. So, I welcomed the chance to get to know her better. Arjuna is my first love and I am really fond of him, now more so after all he has done for me after writing about him. Kama, again, has an elusive presence in mythology and he turned out to be really interesting as I delved deeper into his world. The thing is more often than not, the characters choose me and I have no choice but to oblige wholeheartedly!
AABP: Coming to ‘Yama’s Lieutenant’, Yama is probably a character whose life has almost never been explored. What made you choose him?
Anuja: Yama has a very intriguing presence in the Vedic pantheon and he plays things close to the chest. Naturally, I was fascinated and wanted a closer look at what really makes him tick. A reader emailed me with a very appreciative review of Shakti: The Divine Feminine and gave me a few suggestions regarding characters he wanted me to write about. The character Yama caught my attention. Though I was planning a break from mythology, I invariably ended up writing about Yama and no one else. Though Yama’s Lieutenant is a fantasy with Agni Prakash as the protagonist, he insisted on the mythical elements, which turned out really great.
AABP: In the case of Yama, what is the kind of research that has gone into shaping and presenting the character’s life authentically?
Anuja: It was indeed quite an intensive research process which I enjoyed immensely since Yama is a wonderfully complex character with a lot of emotional arcs and depth. He insisted on keeping some of his secrets under the wraps, so I am trying to pry into them while working on the sequel.
AABP: What is the role that critics have played in shaping you as a writer? Could you tell us some interesting comments you have receives for your works by critics
Anuja: It is important to pay attention to what the critics have to say irrespective of whether they have praises or have been inordinately harsh. As someone who has had a taste of both, I try to take the bitter with the better. Constructive criticism is welcome as well. But it must be confessed that when I am pulled up repeatedly by a section of the critics for my ‘unnecessary use of big words’, I do tend to get a bit sensitive about the same.
AABP: When it comes to mythology, how much of fictionalisation happens in your books?
Anuja: Honestly, I have absolutely no idea. The truth is that fact blurs into fiction and vice versa, in the case of my books. I am happy to allow this to happen in an organic, harmonious blend and over thinking is the enemy of such a process, so I tend not to dwell over or worry about it. My yarns are intended to be intense and moving experiences for the reader and I just want them to enjoy the ride and take from it what they will.
AABP: I found the description of life after death in hell very interesting and a shuddering narration. Was it completely your version or did you do some referencing for it?
Anuja: It was fascinating to read up indeed. Most of it was inspired by ‘Garuda Purana’, which is a record of punishments meted out for various sins. There were also a few more sources and I also fleshed it out with my imagination about what would really take place in hell. Some of it is inspired from the accounts on prison systems in various parts of the world.
AABP: An interesting concept in the book is about the Kanya gurukul in a remote location which is surprisingly almost non-existent in the eyes of the rest of the world. Tell us about it.
Anuja: Actually, the part about the Kanyas, though entirely fictional, was inspired by the cloistered environments that have imprisoned women for ostensible reasons of safety over the ages. The Vestal virgins in Roma, the harems from where beautiful, powerful women fought to make their voices heard, certain religious orders and the like. It is like there is an iron curtain between them and the rest of the world. Also, I have always found the obsession with intact hymens extremely creepy and tales of virgin sacrifices that have been recorded all over the world always give me shivers. So, stray thoughts on the subject must have made their way into the pages of Yama’s Lieutenant.
AABP: In contrast to the Kanyas is the bold and unfettered voice of the character Varunya, a binding force of elements in the book. What is the significance of her character?
Anuja: I loved Varunya’s (Varu) character because she has so much spunk to it and her spirit is nigh unbreakable even against tremendous odds. Definitely, one of my favourite characters! I didn’t have a definite notion about how the character was supposed to play out. Instead, I was content to allow Varu to make her voice heard and take shape as she saw fit, with a little help from me, of course. She turned out to be perfectly lovely and I am really proud of her. She is in some ways the version I have always wanted to be.
AABP: Your favourite mythological character and some character you would love to write a book on?
Anuja: There are many but for now, I want to experiment with other genres. But if a certain mythological character were to capture my fancy, I am sure to write a book based on him or her.
AABP: What are your future projects?
Anuja: I am currently working on the sequel to Yama’s Lieutenant. It is lovely to spend some more time with the characters I have come to adore and I am confident that we will come up with something awesome between us!