As part of the ‘Author Interview’ series, today i would like to invite NAMITA ROY GHOSE to my blog. A Creative Director with HTA, she left after 13 years to start her own film company, White Light, one of India’s top ad film outfits. A social activist, she is the founder of Vanashakti, an NGO that works to protect the environment. Namita has done pro bono work on issues like domestic violence, child welfare, sexual harassment and forest preservation. She is an avid traveller, a photographer, foodie and teacher.
During a school project on ‘The most memorable day of my life’, NAMITA wrote about a Russian girl on the day WW2 ended. She got her first rejection slip from the teacher for making things up. Ever since, Namita has established her storytelling skills through her scriptwriting, screenplays poetry, fiction, legendary advertising campaigns, and as a renowned advertising film director.
Her latest book ‘THE WRONG TURN:Love and Betrayal in the Time of Netaji’ which she has co-authored with SANJAY CHOPRA is available for the readers.Do get your copy.
1. What inspires you to write?
The need to tell stories, to make things up. During a summer school project on ‘The most memorable day of my life’, instead of writing about myself, I, all of 13, chose to dream up the story of a Russian girl on the day WW2 ended. Don’t ask me where that came from. I got my first rejection slip from the teacher for “making things up”. This is what fascinates me – to explore the lives of imagined characters, to get into their skin and bones and heads and find out how they live and react and deal with the terrible things that life does to us. It’s like an alternate reality I can slip into, where there are no limits or do’s and don’ts. Also, the fun of imagining “what if….” There are so many crossroads you come to in the process of writing fiction. At every one, you have a world of choices, of exploring something you have not experienced before, of taking decisions which reverberate through the narrative, of killing off someone or bringing in a totally new character who develops a life of her own and starts to shift the story in an un-thought of direction.
I’ve always believed that we don’t choose the stories, the characters. They choose us. Each of us is present in a particular time and place, bringing our own unique history. And, out there, there’s a story waiting to be told, a story whose time has come. You can only be present, grab hold of it with both hands and make sure it survives its baptism on the page.
2. Describe your route to being published?
I’m a Bong. Netaji was always part of the landscape of my childhood. I grew up on the lore of Netaji and had always been intrigued by the mysteries surrounding him. And yet, no one outside Bengal really spoke about him or acknowledged what he had achieved. I had always wanted to tell his story. And then, the first pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, that is the beginning of any tale, fell into place.
Sanjay had come across an article which said that the Royal War Museum in London had declared the Battle of Kohima to be Britain’s greatest battle, super-ceding the famous battles of Dunkirk and Waterloo. And he found “The Forgotten Army” by Peter Fay, an American historian who challenged the British narrative regarding the INA and Netaji. Fay gave invaluable insights into the role the INA played… and opened up questions about what could have actually happened in the ill fated Battle of Kohima, which became a turning point in India’s struggle for freedom. And there it was – a gap in history, a fracture in time that was crying out for an answer, an explanation – even a fictional one.
Sanjay had started by briefing another writer but, for whatever reasons, it didn’t work out. He and I were friends and fellow Buddhists. He approached me. I had never written a full novel. My day job is as an ad film director and scriptwriter. When we started working on the bare bones of the idea, I found myself naturally visualizing and structuring it as a film. So I started by writing it as a screenplay. In the beginning, it was a simple period tale of a love triangle set in 1943-44. But I strongly felt that the story must have resonance in the present; its echoes must reverberate in the 21st century. So I decided that one of the survivors, the one who has had to live with the consequences, like all of us, of what happened so long ago in Kohima, would be the narrator. The story opened up. It became larger in scale and depth – a tale spanning 70 years and four countries, a tale of redemption and also the politics of our times.
Research was critical. I read up reams of history, hunted out documentaries, pored over photographs of the era, heard its music, listened to recordings of Netaji’s speeches, researched the clothes and food and steeped myself in that fascinating bubble of time. And at the end of a year, I had completed the first draft of a screenplay. And Om Books, with whom Sanjay had been in conversation, read it and said this is very interesting and it will make a wonderful novel and how would you like to write it?
3. What was the time frame for writing this book? Tell us an interesting detail or two during the journey of writing this book.
As I said, the basic structure and scenes and characters had already been worked out in the screenplay. But making a film is a totally collaborative process. The final emotional impact of the film comes from the marriage of image and sound, the intangibles created through teamwork involving many many people.
Writing a novel is a far more lonely process. The responsibility for creating and communicating a whole world finally rests on one person.… one person’s voice, one person’s language, one person’s rhythm, scansion, and choices that have to hold everything together. Sanjay had collaborated on the broad structure and written a few of the scenes. It fell on me to weave all the disparate elements together, plug the gaps in the story and design the final arc and tapestry of the saga. I had to create a single cohesive voice and sustain it through close to 500 pages.
In the process, one had to dream up new scenes and characters. For example, at the beginning, the whole section on Netaji and the INA had been set in Rangoon. So I went ahead and wrote one third of the screenplay, based on that. But when I got into deeper reseach, I discovered that the INA was actually based in Singapore. Their HQ was in Singapore, which was under Japanese occupation and they were in Rangoon briefly, for just a month. So that whole section had to be rewritten. This posed huge problems of time lines and distance and setting and many more months of research into what Japanese-occupied Singapore was like and what it meant to have our characters live there at a time of war.
But it was a wonderful adventure. It made me bring together the lessons learnt from a lifetime of telling stories but with the luxury of a huge canvas. It made me stretch myself in ways I had no idea I was capable of. Holding that newly minted advance copy in my hands, filled with gratitude to the characters who gave me permission to tell their stories, I realized this is what I’ve always wanted to do.
It took me two years, writing mostly nights and weekends. And another six months went on editing and re-editing and polishing.
4. What is your advice to aspiring writers?
Write every day, even a paragraph. Every day. And read. Read, read, read. Fiction, non fiction, authors writing on the art of writing. Poetry. The newspapers. Travel books. Photography books. Blogs. Anything. Listen to people, the cadence of voices, the unique ways in which they talk. Keep your eyes peeled. Watch people, the idiosyncracies which make them special. Drink it all in. The more you pour into the well of your life, the more you will be able to draw upon when telling your stories. And have belief. In the story you want to tell. Don’t give up. Take the rejection slips and the trolls and the nay sayers and use them to fuel your imagination.
5. What would you have done differently if you could rewrite this book?
I would have spent more time editing it, fine tuning, polishing. I feel it is a little bloated in places, specially in the Kohima section. I would trim the battle scenes more