In 2010, author Prajwal Parajuly started his writing career with a two-book, 13-country deal, becoming quite the poster boy of writing about lives of the Gurkhas in Sikkim. His second novel, Land Where I Flee, is a moving story of a Gangtok matriarch and her family who has reasons to celebrate but just as many to be unhappy. Parajuly tells Kareena N Gianani about sudden fame and how writing about his community is convenient, but now a bit tiring
The way your writing career started makes for a rather compelling (and enviable) story — quitting a job to travel, then writing, finding an agent who had tremendous potential in your work, and then the two-book deal with Quercus. But what is it really like for you to lock yourself up and write? Do hype and expectation daunt you, and how?
The hype and expectation started well before my first book was even published, so, of course, I was nervous then. Publications that hadn’t read a word of what I had written — simply because my books hadn’t even hit stands — called me amazing names. So, yes, there was some staying awake in the night and wondering what would happen if I didn’t meet expectations. That’s when I realised that I should detach myself from whatever was being written about me. Don’t get me wrong. I still Google myself a dozen times a day. But I don’t get super-thrilled when there’s something positive being written about me and don’t get extremely upset when there’s something nasty. I become a more productive writer that way.
Author Prajwal Parajuly. Pic/Courtesy/Rilang Grave
You now have two books behind you. What prompts you to write, and how different is it from the reason which prompted you to write The Gurkha’s Daughter?
I write books because I enjoy writing. Or I enjoy writing at least some of the time. I wrote The Gurkha’s Daughter because I was bored out of my mind and because it was a good way of keeping well-meaning people off my back. Now that there have been prize nominations, excellent sales and all the critical acclaim, I think I — dare I say? — may be good at it. At least now I don’t write to legitimise my existence. It’s become a nice little career. I will continue writing until I stop enjoying it.
In a previous interview, you said that you knew you’d write a book someday. Did you also know that your initial works would explore your community? What is the easiest and toughest part when a writer decides to do that (especially in the context of Land Where I Flee)?
Writing about my community was a convenient thing to do, but I’d be lying if I said I am not tired of it now. The toughest part has been trying to convince the world that I cannot — and will never — use fiction to raise awareness on the struggles and accomplishments of my community. I write fiction to tell stories — it’s as simple as that — but so many people in my community don’t get that. Case in point? This text I received form an uncle: “How terrible of you to give us Brahmins a bad name just when this is just the time we need proper PR.” Ha.
What did you set out to say when you were chalking out characters for Land Where I Flee (the layers to Prasanti and Chitralekha are particularly enjoyable)?
I wanted to have fun with the characters and for people to have fun getting to know them better. I get so many messages from readers that say, “Oh, I loved that Bhagwati did that in the end, and I loved what Manasa did in the end” — it means they grew attached to the characters, and I am happy about that. I didn’t want Chitralekha to be your average, meek 84-year-old Indian woman. I wanted her to be a badass. And I didn’t want Prasanti to be a caricature. It would be too easy for her to be that way. The way Prasanti evolves as the novel progresses is, I think, one of my favorite things about the novel.
Where do you stand with respect to the Gorkhaland struggle and what role would you like your writing to play when it comes to your views on this.
Gorkhaland as a cause is valid. There’s absolutely no reason for a Nepali-speaking region to be a part of a Bengali-speaking state. Mamta Banerjee may be borderline insane but the way she manipulated the movement and brought it to a halt last year, making a few Gorkhaland politicians look like idiots was impressive. That’s the kind of stuff Chitralekha would do. I don’t, however, use fiction to tell the world about the Gorkhaland movement or of the plight of the Bhutanese refugees. I’ll write opinion pieces, essays, etc, to bring attention to the plight, but choose to steer away from it in fiction. The reason you find so much of the movement in Land Where I Flee is because I can’t write about people without taking into account their environment.
How do your growing-up years in Gangtok shape Land Where I Flee, the imagery, the people, the conflicts and the lives they lead today? Tell me a bit about the kind of research that went into this book.
My Gangtok was so much simpler than the Gangtok of today. I am proud of the fact that although we haven’t been endowed with the natural beauty of many other hill stations in India, we decided to take matters in our own hands and beautified the town to make it look better than those places. But there are problems — the roads are atrocious, the suicide rate is shocking, construction is rampant and howling street dogs are the bane of my existence. Of course, you find all that in my novel. I’ll give you an example. When I was writing The Gurkha’s Daughter, I’d often go to my parents’ terrace after a night of work to see the Kanchendzonga change hue. It was a fitting end to a productive streak. When I was writing Land Where I Flee, there was no mountain view at all because a neighbour constructed a building which obstructed the Kanchendzonga completely. Phew. My frustration manifested itself in a sub-plot in the book.
The most research I have ever done was for Prasanti, the eunuch character. I wasn’t satisfied with all the books I read, so I got a female friend to convince a eunuch in Siliguri to talk to me. It took a lot of effort and some amount of money.
In your next book, will you move away from the socio-political issues discussed in your previous works, or is there more for you to tell about that?
I have absolutely no clue what my next book will be. A children’s book? A sequel to Land Where I Flee? A prequel? Didn’t I say I was tired of writing about the Nepali-speaking world? A sequel to all the stories in The Gurkha’s Daughter? An American-campus novel? A historical novel? What do I know?
What are you currently reading, and how do you find it/them?
I am reading Enid Blyton books to my two-year-old nephew. London is cold and miserable now, and I love that Noddy’s adventures are transporting me to a sunnier place.
Land Where I Flee is a story of three siblings who fly to their ancestral home in Gangtok, Sikkim, to celebrate their grandmother’s Chaurasi — a significant celebration of a person’s 84th birthday. Agastaya cannot reveal the reason for his reluctance to get married, Bhagwati must find her way into her grandmother’s heart after eloping as a teenager and Manasa is yet to come to terms with the kind of mundane and meaningless turn her life has taken in spite of having an Oxford degree. There is Prasanti, the hijra domestic help who has her own reasons to stay back, and Ruthwa, the fourth sibling who uses family secrets to propel his writing career.
Land Where I Flee
Published by Penguin India