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Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Author Interview: Indu Sundaresan, author of 'The Mountain of Light'


Elegant, enchanting and possibly a little mysterious are all terms, which can be used to describe the book, ‘The Mountain of Light’ and with it, the author, Indu Sundaresan. Her understanding of the subject is truly remarkable. You can catch my review here.

While I have read the ‘Taj Trilogy’, this book had something a little different.  The other books had to do with people, while this one had to do with nothing but a stone. Not just any stone, but the Kohinoor that remains enigmatic, and the author asks us to question the many lives which are involved in this fascinating piece of history. 

From the northern regions of India to Afghanistan, to the Punjab, and then to the British Raj, the reader is given to understand what exactly happened to it and why. Read it all here...

The Kohinoor has always fascinated readers. How did ‘The Mountain of Light’ come about?

I’ve also been fascinated by the Kohinoor, and for a long while, have thought about writing a novel about the diamond.  When I first started reading about the Kohinoor, I realized that it has a very long reach into Indian history, appearing first, in the possession of Lord Krishna in the Mahabharata.  And then, it resurfaces once a century from the 13th Century onward, owned mostly by kings in India, in its departures, by the kings of Persia and Afghanistan. 

Given this scattered timeline, I decided that the most effective way to tell the story of the diamond was to focus on its most recent history in India—the years when it was owned by the rulers of the Punjab Empire, Maharajahs Ranjit Singh and Dalip Singh, and how it was secreted out of the country by Lord Dalhousie to England and Queen Victoria.

What is the kind of research that has gone into this book?

The research was similar to the kind of reading I did for the novels of my 'Taj Trilogy' - I read widely and through various narratives.  Where it differed, was that for the novels of the trilogy, I had access to English translations of original 16th and 17th Century Persian manuscripts from the courts of the Mughal kings. 

For 'The Mountain of Light', most of my reading came from original
British sources—Governor-generals of India who visited the Punjab court, their relatives, the officials who were appointed guardians to the young Maharajah Dalip Singh.

The British sources are quite candid about the role they play in the annexation of the Punjab to British lands in India, whether liked or disliked by their contemporaries.  And in any case, when I read enough accounts of the same incident, from differing points-of-view, a whole story eventually emerges.

Any challenges you had to face while writing this particular book?

I set myself a challenge in the narrative of the book, more an exercise of the craft than any outside influence.  The Mountain of Light is structured differently from my other novel-length work, the characters are numerous and they all have an impact on the Kohinoor diamond’s history, and so India’s own history. 

So the test was in how to bring all these stories together into one cohesive whole, given the number of people you meet in the novel, how to give each of them a voice, to make their presence felt—and all the while, to have the reader remember that it is the Kohinoor that brought all these stories/characters together.

How would you relate this book and its characters to the lives today? Any similarities?

It was a different world, certainly.  I spend a lot of time developing the character of the ousted Punjab ruler, Maharajah Dalip Singh, who was only eleven years old when he signed the Treaty of Lahore giving away his kingdom, the vast wealth of his treasury and his Kohinoor diamond.  

By the end of the novel, Dalip is sixteen years old, travelling to England as a…semi-king—he’s aware of his importance in history, but in the end he’s just a king who’s allowed to keep his title, and there’s nothing behind it; no lands, no treasury, no people to rule. Here, is when Dalip Singh realizes all that he lost when he was eleven years old.

Perhaps then, it’s this that is similar to today’s world—no matter what our personal circumstances or our outside influences, love, and loss and treachery affect us in the same manner.  This is true all through The Mountain of Light, all through its timeline, and also true today.

It seems to be mix and match of love stories. Which was your favourite one and why?

As a writer, I read extensively all the stories that exist in current documentation, then I examine them carefully, turn them over and over in my head.  From which point-of-view should I tell the story?  Where do I infuse the fictional aspect?  What if the characters behaved in this way or that?

It’s one of these what-if questions—as I explain in the Afterword—that led to the love story in the second chapter, Roses for Emily.  In the third chapter, Love in Lahore, obviously there are two kinds of love—a romantic one and that for a child, and perhaps this story began with the latter kind and then transitioned, quite naturally into the former, because I saw Roshni as the person, eventually, who had at heart the best interests of the young Maharajah Dalip Singh.

The third love story comes in the final chapter of the novel, Diary of a Maharajah.  And here, I had to fictionalize very little—for the love story, such as it is, is detailed in Lady Login’s letters, both that and her denial of it.

How much of the story is based on facts and how much is fiction?

I explain this in the Afterword to the novel, just how much of the book is fact, and where it’s fictionalized.  As with the novels of my ‘Taj Trilogy’, most of the characters are historical, and for the most part, play the roles in 'The Mountain of Light', that they actually played in life. 

There is a feeling that there is no particular character that the story revolves around. What are your thoughts on that?

Maybe true.  Although the young Maharajah Dalip Singh takes up quite a bit of real estate in the novel—he’s a baby in his mother, Maharani Jindan Kaur’s, arms; he’s an eight year old child when Henry Lawrence comes to Lahore to be his guardian; he’s sixteen years old during his first trip to England; and he’s much older, reflecting back on the trajectory his life has taken in the last chapter.

Still, since there are many characters who step on and off stage during the narrative—it’s eventually the way I chose to tell the story of the Kohinoor diamond.

This is not your first historical fiction. How do you come up with the concepts and develop them?

‘The Mountain of Light’ is my fifth historical novel!  There are the three novels of the Taj Trilogy, ‘The Twentieth Wife’; ‘The Feast of Roses’; and ‘Shadow Princess’, and a stand-alone novel titled ‘The Splendour of Silence’, which is set in India during four days in May of 1942.

The ‘Taj Trilogy’ novels span, roughly, from 1577 until 1666; Splendour is set in 1942; The Mountain of Light is set between 1817 and 1854.  So, I’ve been dabbling around on Indian history’s timeline.

The ideas come from everywhere really, mostly from what I read and research for a book.  I knew I would write 'Shadow Princess' (Taj Trilogy #3) while reading for the first two novels.  I’d always wanted to set a book during the time period just before India’s independence from British rule, and I read to put together the pieces of the story—the American soldier in India (why would he be there?); the princely state of Rudrakot where the main action of the novel takes place (where would it be situated? Flora? Fauna? People?); and then the Indian Independence Movement (how do I bring that into the book?) etc.

For ‘The Mountain of Light’, this was relatively simple—it begins and ends with the Kohinoor diamond.  The only thing I had to investigate/ponder on was just what time period in which to set the book.  The diamond surfaces on Indian history’s timeline from the 13th Century onwards, about once every century, until it comes to rest with Maharajah Ranjit Singh of the Punjab Empire in 1817.  And, I decided that that is where the novel must begin, and it would end…well, you’ll have to read the book to see how and where it ends!

What is the main difference you see while writing historical fiction when compared to contemporary fiction?

I do have a collection of short stories, titled 'In the Convent of Little Flowers’, which is set in contemporary India.  All of my novels are historical.  

With historical fiction, you create a new world.  It’s not exactly new, but of course, you have to pay attention to the world around the characters—transportation, clothing, food, culture, everything. In contemporary fiction, you don’t have to detail any of the above really; your reader knows as much as you do.

What is the most fulfilling part of writing a book?

For me, even after six books (and two previous, unpublished novels) beginnings are always difficult.  As much as I know about the book before I begin writing, it takes a while, maybe a hundred pages or so, to pin down a voice for the book. 

Once, that happens, the writing is easier, the story comes together better—that is when a true sense of creation comes in, and it’s a joy that’s really, inexplicable.

What book is coming from you, next? When do you see it released?

I’m working on a new novel, quite seriously right now, and I usually don’t talk about work in progress until it’s done.  Sometimes, only just before it’s published!

Who was it that told you that you could become the author, you are today?

Hmmm… nobody did, actually.  When I’d finished graduate school, I decided I wanted to write a novel.  I wrote two, before I wrote
‘The Twentieth Wife’. And all that time, I told no one I was writing—I did it for myself first, before I thought I could send a book out for publication.

Any advice to writers that would like to be published today? How tough is it to be published in India?

Just that, the answer for the question above.  Write for yourself, be your toughest critic; if you don’t like what you’ve written, throw it away.  If you don’t like it, you can be sure no one else will either.
I don’t know much about (first) being published in India, because I was published first in the US (and other countries), so I came to the Indian publishing scene with a published book—that might have helped.

Who are your favourite authors and why?

There are just too many!  I read a lot of writing, across genres, history, mystery, literary, non-fiction.
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