Features / Fiction / Interviews

Q&A With Anjali Mitter Duva

This past Monday, Bloom published an excerpt from Anjali Mitter Duva‘s upcoming novel, Faint Promise Of Rain (She Writes Press). Bloom caught up with Duva recently to talk more about the book’s genesis and her own background, and what drew her to the world of 16th-century India and kathak dance.

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Bloom: Your education and early career are in urban planning. How did you decide to leave your established career to pursue writing?

Anjali Mitter Duva: Like many of the zigzags I’ve followed, this one just presented itself to me. I had been working on a project in the electricity sector, funded by a large international institution. Our little team benefitted from a lot of independence, and we traveled to fun places: Cairo (this was before 9/11, and the atmosphere was very welcoming), Istanbul. But then the institution pulled the funding, and all of a sudden I was without a job. Fortunately, through my employer, I landed a freelance writing gig on the subject of shifting global economic markets for PBS. So I spent six months on mostly self-directed work, doing research, writing, collaborating with editors, and working on my own schedule. It was fantastic. My husband and I had started thinking about having children, and I realized the freelance route might make it feasible for me to be a parent yet still hold onto my own work. It took a while longer for me to integrate fiction writing, but this shift is what enabled me to consider it at all.

Bloom: You have a multicultural background—familial ties to India, growing up in France, and now living near Boston. How does having multiple cultural touchpoints clarify or complicate the storytelling and writing process?

AMD: It’s been a tremendous help, for both the writing process and the material from which to draw my stories. I think it’s been more complicated for the people I encounter than for myself. In my French public school, I was American, because the French have an obsession with America. In the US, despite my American accent, I was French, because that’s glamorous. Surely my name was actually Angélique? No one could figure out the Indian thing, even in India. My eyes are grey-green, my hair brown. Some people still think I was named by hippie parents. None of it really bothered me much. In fact, I reveled in my position in those three countries and cultures as both an insider and an outsider. I think this helped me hone my writing skills. Growing up, I often found myself describing situations to myself in fully formed sentences, even as I experienced them, so as to be ready to describe them to others.

Bloom: Tell us more about the history of kathak dance, and how it became one of the inspirations behind your new novel, Faint Promise of Rain.

AMD: Kathak dance started out, over a thousand years ago, as a storytelling medium. Itinerant dancers and musicians traveled from village to village bringing the stories of the great Hindu epics, the The Mahabharata and the Ramayana, to the people. Kathak then developed into a devotional temple dance. Young girls were “married” to the temple’s deity and served the temple as dancers. These young girls, usually given or sold to the temples against their will, had sexual duties toward wealthy patrons who, in exchange for their favors, helped support the temple. I discovered all this just as I started studying kathak. Around the same time, I traveled to India with my husband, returning to one of my favorite childhood destinations, the medieval fortressed city of Jaisalmer in the Thar Desert, in the state of Rajasthan. The raw beauty of the area—temples and fortresses rising out of the golden sand—made a lasting impression on me. Combined with the legends of Rajasthan’s battle-filled history and my discovery of kathak dance, everything converged. And then I read a beautiful and haunting anecdote in a guidebook to Rajasthan: it’s possible for children to reach the age of five without ever seeing rain, and therefore the ceilings and walls of royal children’s bedrooms were sometimes painted with cloud designs so that when it did finally rain, they would not be afraid. I wrote this image down, and everything else started spilling out.

Bloom: You help run a book club for children; do you find that children have a different way of reading than adults do?

AMD: Children approach books with an openness, a lack of baggage, that is refreshing. But they also place a lot of importance on the cover. Of course, adults do, too. But we are also able to see past that, to open up a book because someone we trust said we should, even if the cover does not inspire us. When I pick out the books for the club, especially books that are older classics, I’ll admit to trying to get the editions with the most enticing covers. These are kids who are used to flashy graphics, high production values. They get put off by fuddy-duddy covers. But once they get started, they are very astute readers. We’ve had some discussions during which they have really blown me away with their depth of perception, their incisive questions. We’ve tackled some complex topics—oppression, loneliness, immigration, technology—and the children have always impressed me with their insights.

Bloom: What inspired you to write historical fiction? Did you find unexpected things while conducting your research?

AMD: I never said to myself: I’m going to write a novel, and the genre will be historical fiction. As I mentioned above, the setting and basis for the story in Faint Promise of Rain really came to me as the result of a confluence of experiences. I didn’t even realize (or admit to myself) that I was writing a novel until I was a good three chapters in. So to me it is not the result of a conscious choice of genre, but rather this was the story that was there, waiting for me to tell it.

By the time I started officially conducting research for my book, I’d already read a lot about kathak and Indian history, but I did discover some elements that I hadn’t expected. One of them was the complexity of the behind-the-scenes world of the devadasis, the temple dancers, and the contrast between this world and their public personas. The same is true now of my research for my next book, which involves the world of kothas, or courtesan houses, in 19th-century Lucknow. There are parallels with the geisha world of Japan, in terms of the level of education, political acuity and independence these women had, despite the strict traditions that bound them.

Bloom: You are planning a quartet of novels based on your study of kathak dance—can you give us a preview of what you are planning? How did you decide to write four separate novels?

AMD: Beginning among itinerant minstrels, kathak moved into Hindu temples where it became a devotional dance. Then, under Mughal rule, kathak was brought into Muslim courts as a form of entertainment, performed by courtesans. Outlawed by the British in the 1860s for being supposedly immoral, it was kept alive by prostitutes in red light districts, then re-emerged onto the national and international stage in the 1920s and 1930s. From my own knowledge of India’s history, I soon discerned how the stories of the country and of the dance paralleled each other, with matching upheavals as power changed hands in India from Hindu kings to Muslim Emperors to British colonialists and back into Indian hands. And so my plan is to write four books, each set at one of these times of transition.

Faint Promise of Rain begins just as the new Mughal Emperor, Akbar, sets his sights on Rajasthan, still under the rule of independent Hindu princes. The second book, which I’m working on now, will be set in Lucknow in the 1850s, the years before, during and after the fall of the last Nawab, or Indian Governor, to the British. Lucknow, dazzling in its architecture before it was destroyed in battle, also happened to be a center of literature, music and dance, in large part due to the Nawab’s love of the arts. The main characters are a courtesan and her half-French son. And then there will be two other books, which I’ll leave a bit as a mystery, except to say that they will bring us up to contemporary times, and will draw on some of my own background in Calcutta and in France.

Bloom: On your blog, there is a lovely, entertaining, and very practical guide to designing your own writer’s retreat. You share that picking the right company is key—how did you meet your other fellow writers, and how does writing as a group compare to the stereotypical image of writers as working alone?

I laugh when people ask me if I ever feel isolated or lonely as a writer. My life, my days, are filled with people. I am fortunate to be a part of a very supportive and vibrant writing community in the Boston area, and it is in large part thanks to Grub Street Writers, an independent writing center that offers classes, workshops, consultations, an annual conference and, equally important, camaraderie. My first experience of showing my writing to strangers was at a Grub Street class, Novel in Progress. There, I befriended one of my classmates, Crystal King, who was also writing historical fiction. When the class ended, we wanted to continue the experience, so we decided to meet on our own every two weeks to share and discuss our work. Crystal then brought in two other women she’d met through a different class. We all hit it off tremendously well, and have become good friends in addition to writing partners. We write independently—we’re all working on very different projects—but we’ve seen each other through many (many!) revisions, the process of querying agents, of prepping for conferences, of finding a publisher. Six years later, we still meet every two weeks. Those evenings are sacred to me. They involve friendship, support, writing, and, always, good wine and food.

Bloom: Who are the authors who inspired you early in your writing career, and who are you reading now?

AMD: As a teenager, I fell in love with the works of Balzac and Zola. I was living in Paris, and became fascinated with how these authors portrayed the city in the 19th century as a massive, tentacled creature, like a living and breathing and digesting machine. I think that’s when I first became interested in networks and infrastructure, which I later studied in graduate school. Those books brought together amazing writing, storytelling and city life. I’ve been inspired by Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things for breaking some conventions, and for her ability to set the mood and atmosphere in just a few lines. I greatly admire the masterful storytelling of John Irving. I find inspiration in the versatility of Barbara Kingsolver, who is successful at writing short fiction, novels, historical fiction, poetry, essays and more, and also comes across as a lovely human being.

Right now, I am making it a point to read some local authors, some of my peers, people I want to support. Most recently I read A.X. Ahmad’s The Caretaker, which I really enjoyed, especially as I am familiar with all the settings. I also just finished Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng, which will definitely haunt me for a while. And I’m reading A Time to Dance, by Padma Venkatraman, which is aimed at a young adult audience, and which I’m considering as a pick for the children’s book club. Running that club has given me a fabulous excuse to discover some excellent middle grade fiction, as well as re-read some old favorites such as Bridge to Terabithia and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

Bloom: And the wildcard question: Anything you wish I’d asked you that I didn’t?

AMD: These were lovely and well thought out questions. Thank you! One additional question might have been: how has the experience of learning kathak affected my writing or the story? Aside from the fact that I would never have had the inspiration for this set of books without kathak, I do think that being on the dance floor, feeling the movements and rhythms, affected how I thought about rhythm and meter in my writing. There was always, somewhere in the back of my mind, the sound of the tabla (or pakhawaj at the time), the patterns of compositions. I enjoyed transcribing dance moves onto the page, and now I’m finding it impossible not to incorporate some movement into my readings at events. Kathak being itself a storytelling art, it all comes together in a way I find very satisfying.

Bloom Post End

Click here to read an excerpt from Anjali Mitter Duva’s Faint Promise of Rain.

Author photo credit: Kobo Writing Life/Michael Benabib

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