Author Rahul Srivastava spoke to us about the inspiration for his riveting murder mystery What Happened to Regina That Night, his writing process and about books that spill over labels—
Your book is one of the first titles to be released under Nova, Scholastic’s new YA category. A number of other publishers have also started imprints that cater exclusively to children and young adults. Do you think the YA publishing scene in India is finally picking up?
Rahul: Well, the young adult publishing scene is making a more marked presence felt for sure these days. The readership on the other hand, has always existed. I believe that passionate readers from the age group of 13 + read voraciously. Such readers may even be put off by the category young adult fiction. One must be careful not to slot things too neatly. For me young readers are serious readers and in fact read with intensity and enthusiasm, which, more often than not, starts to fade away as the years go by.
You’ve trained as a social anthropologist. How did writing fiction come into the picture?
Rahul: I realised quickly that fiction provides a more sensory and multi-dimensional space to express ideas and engage with the world than social science writing. If social anthropology opens up worlds for you, it does not fully allow you to express yourself in a wholesome way. On the other hand the discipline stimulated my imagination hugely – more than a formal training in literature would have. For me the interplay of the two – writing fiction and engaging with the world through anthropology – is spontaneous.
What kind of research did you do for the book? How did the plot evolve?
Rahul: In terms of the setting, the book derives a lot from my childhood spent in railway colonies in small towns all over India. The theme and the plot is based on my fieldwork among missionaries in tribal India and my admiration in particular of their adventurous, large-hearted spirit. The emotive trigger was the burning of Graham Staines and his children in Orissa and the poise that his wife Gladys showed when she visited my college in Mumbai, where I was teaching in the early 2000s. The plot evolved in the process of writing and as characters came into their own to shape the story. I myself did not know who the killer was, till the very end.
Tell us a bit about how you created Antarpur.
Rahul: Antarpur is composed from a mosaic of memories. Colonial railway towns in the north where I spent a few years as a child; the edge of forests around coal mines in Chattisgarh, where I had once visited my cousins; tribal hamlets on the outskirts of Mumbai city and all over Maharashtra where I did fieldwork. Essentially by traversing the sub-continent on trains, and being fascinated by all I saw. There are worlds within worlds in there, not all immediately discernible. Different time-zones are layered over each other. A late nineteenth century Church in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, a tribal hamlet at the edge of a gigantic metropolis. Antarpur was inspired by all of them.
Who are your favourite mystery writers? Would you say that crime fiction is a relatively new territory in Indian publishing?
Rahul: Oh, I used to read very indiscriminately – and crime fiction was definitely one of my favourites – along with sci-fi and historical fiction. From Umberto Eco to Agatha Christie, if there was a twisted tale, it had me hooked. Yes crime fiction is definitely new in India– once again as a category. Books continue to have a habit of spilling over labels though. My favourite genre-defying thriller remains Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome. For many of us in India, who love stories beyond categories, have lived a particular kind of life in our crazy cities, have experienced the world through a mongrelized imagination, that tale touched a special chord, in a way that is difficult to explain. It continues to haunt and is firmly entrenched in my head.
What are you working on at the moment? Is there another book in the pipeline?
Rahul: Yup, it is the complete version of a short story I had written some years ago – called The Secret Lives of Billy Billimoria, set in Bombay and Mumbai.