So! What is it like to live with an (imaginary) thirteen-year-old girl for almost two years? Rather, what is it like to live inside a thirteen-year-old girl for almost two years? Be her, speak her thoughts, feel her emotions, write her story? Sounds like a case of possession, doesn’t it, like some spirit got hold of me and insisted on making me do its bidding? Well, I guess writing is a bit like that, especially if you’re writing through the ‘I’ of someone who is clearly not ‘you’, i.e. not me, the adult author, but she, the teenage protagonist of my first YA novel.
Why do I keep signalling it as my first YA novel? What’s YA? Young Adult. All right. But the protagonist of my second novel Land of the Well was also a Young Adult, all of seventeen going on eighteen, my academically brilliant, socially dysfunctional boy-hero who fell head over heels in love with a woman much older than him and decided to do anything and everything to win her attention (if not her love). So why didn’t I (or anybody else, including the publisher) call it a YA novel? Maybe because Land of the Well was constructed very differently from Ela. It’s not just the age of the protagonist that makes a novel YA, it’s the protagonist’s concerns, the scope and shape of his or her universe. The nameless hero of Land of the Well was on the cusp of adulthood, he was almost all-adult, but he didn’t tell his own story. He was at the mercy of the omniscient narrator, namely me—me as in Sampurna just in case you’re wondering how many ‘me-s’ there are lurking around in this labyrinth… I spoke of him, I spoke through him, I described him, I made him do things, say things, I created his interior landscape, I surrounded him with people as if to emphasize his solitude and I held him at a distance. The things that happen to the boy are all bad, grown-up things, he is both victim and hero, both audience and storyteller (he’s the one who tells the fable of the Land of the Well that gives my novel its title), he isn’t as helpless as we might believe right at the beginning of the story. His voice—the lonely shy love-struck hero-worshipping then-accusing eighteen-year-old voice that comes through in glimpses, pieces of him scattered through the book—is a strong voice. But it is one voice among many. Even though he is the entry point into the story, the one around whom the action turns, he still does not dominate that novel the way my thirteen-year-old Ela dominates this one, even to the extent of giving it her own name!
So here’s the thing (or rather, here’s one of many things which we shall not go into now).
In Land of the Well the nameless boy was the key to unlocking my obsessions. My obsessions were adult (not young-adult, but adult-adult) obsessions, grim stuff, slightly twisted and often cruel.
In Ela the named girl was the key to herself. I wasn’t using her to work out any pet theory or grand obsession of my own. She was using me to tell her difficult tale, one that needed telling. I was interested in her ‘predicament’—a word that one of Ela’s friends loves using—and I wanted to see what she would do with it. I wanted her to lead me into her world, and see where we landed up, together. It was her obsessions that I lived with, the shape and scope of the universe in this book was hers, not mine (though soon it was hard to tell the difference). She, Ela, a very-young adult, all of thirteen, was—to borrow a phrase from the Elders in the book—“all, and everything.”
So, Ela took over. Ela made Sampurna give way. Ela made that older nameless boy-hero from Land of the Well appear even more of a loser than he was. Ela decided what she would do or say next. Ela ruled.
Really? Is that how fiction works? Oh, I’m not going to answer that one, am I? Of course not. What I am going to say, however, is that in this case, unlike when writing Land of the Well, I knew, instinctively, after initial drafts, that Ela needed to be told through her own ‘I’. It had to be her from page one. I couldn’t say, as I had done in Land of the Well, “This happened to someone else.” I had to say, “This happened to me.” I had to dive inside her teeming head, and inhabit her world as if I had no other existence. Of course I dramatize! I love dramatizing! There’s nothing remotely dramatic about writing a novel—you sit at a desk day after day, typing away, growling when you’re disturbed, snapping when it’s not going well, over the moon when it is, you become a kind of monster, but nothing seems to be going on when someone peeks into the monster’s den—there she is as usual, hunched over her laptop, typing away, why doesn’t she go get a life?!
As it happens, every time I write a new book I do go get myself a life, not just one, several. The lives of my characters, with all their traumas and tics. I want to know everything about these people who decide to move into my books, some with advance notice, some without warning, some who stay a couple of days, others who insist of becoming permanent residents. I have a whole new battalion of people living in my head, and there I am fighting their battles as if they were mine.
That’s how Ela happened. She popped right in, and refused to leave until I’d dealt with her. Sometimes I struggle with the names of characters (Jonaki in my first novel Rupture was Sreya and then Riya before she finally-perfectly became Jonaki). Not so in the case of Ela. She was Ela from the start. It was everything else about her that was a mystery. And it was to solve that mystery that I spent the last almost-two years living not just with her in my head but with me living in her head as well.
Soon, she will no longer be merely a figment of my imagination. She will be tangible and concrete in all her bookness (and her bookishness). Until that moment, these ramblings from her author, who sometimes hated her when she didn’t cooperate, but misses her now that she’s gone.