When you speak to Lakshmi Menon, the warmth connects with a chord, and literary discussions are inevitable. Being the editor of a successful portal for Indian writing, this author of many books engages with the exercise of being an interviewee to Sneha Subramanian Kanta. And yes, in case I did not mention, a cup of coffee and gentle evening sprawling through is the best time to read her latest offering and her first novel in English ‘The Second Choice’.
SK: Nurturing an idea for a plot of your novel; keeping it alive for twenty years amidst life’s varied intricacies and then seeing it being published in black and white. It surely seems a long journey, doesn’t it?
LM: Yes, definitely. I didn’t want to finish it in a hurry just to see it in print, without giving my utmost attention to the story. Also, I was not just keeping it in mind, I was reworking on the story too, as and when I found time, until it was ready for publication.
SK: When did you realize that you want to be a writer…was it a well-known fact to you which you consciously worked towards or did it eventually, gradually happen? What inspired you?
LM: I remember penning down my thoughts in the form of stories as early as my teenage days. But I used to keep them to myself, and never showed it to anyone nor sent it anywhere. I used to read the writings of well known Malayalam writers like Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, M T Vasudevan Nair, Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, P Kesava Dev and many others, who are inspirations to me. After marriage, it was my husband who encouraged me to send them to magazines after seeing my interest in writing. When some of them got published I was excited to read them in print and during those days I began to nurture the idea of becoming a writer one day. Eventually, I had written a novel in Malayalam (Veendum Yatra) which was published as a serial novel in 1989, which gave me confidence to try my hand with novels.
SK: How was the entire experience of writing your first English novel The Second Choice?
LM: After moving to Bangalore, my access to Malayalam books was limited and I had the opportunity to read more in English. After completing my graduation (BA), my enrollment in courses like Journalism and creative writing honed my writing skills, which ultimately gave me the confidence in writing in English. Over the years, I have enjoyed reading books written by RK Narayan, Arundathi Roy, Jumpa Lahiri, Danielle Steel, Pearl S Buck, Khaled Hosseini among others.
When I finalized the plot of this novel, I was just touched by the whole situation of the unknown family and it was churning in my mind for a very long time. Then I decided to pen it down, but had no idea it will lead to a novel. When I started writing I found I needed more space to express my ideas, and it ended up as a novel. After writing few chapters I kept it aside for want of time caused by unexpected family commitments, to go deeper into the story. In between I wrote few more chapters, and waited until I found time to work and rework the whole story. After completion of the novel I got it read by my daughter and few friends, and I implemented some of their suggestions.
SK: Writing fiction can be a thoroughly intriguing practice… what was your biggest challenge while penning your novel?
LM: I agree. Finding sufficient time and the right mindset to create the characters of the novel are very important for a writer, as it was for me as well. However, it was not easy for me during the time. Hence I couldn’t complete it earlier, but I am glad that I eventually did.
SK: I have read in one of your interviews that writing The Second Choice culminated while putting to paper a short story, which is an interesting predicament. Tell us more.
LM: When I began writing the story I had not thought of making it a novel since until then I had written only short stories and articles in English. Soon, I realized that I won’t be able to finish it in the small frame of a short story and that it would need larger thematic paradigms. Then I decided to make it a novel where I did not have to worry about the length of the story and I could express in as much space as I would like to.
SK: Did you, at any point of writing your novel, which handles a sensitive issue of remarriage; feel that certain ideologies about women should change?
LM: Absolutely, I did. I am glad you asked me this; because in the 1980s I had seen girls who had been pushed to remarry whether they were mentally prepared or not. This, because the times proclaimed it was difficult for the girls to remain single in the society, especially if they were not financially independent. Marriage seemed the only probable solution for such girls. At the same time, finding a suitable boy for a widow or divorced girl for remarriage was also not that easy like it is today. At least in the cities, women have choices they can articulate, though a lot in terms of attitude towards women still need to change.
SK: What is your opinion on Indian Writing in English; which, sadly has often been dealt with a lot of criticism?
LM: Personally, I don’t think there is a need to differentiate Indian writing from other writings, as long as they too can convey to the world what they want to say. Writing is all about expression. India has produced many literary legends depicting Indian life, whose contribution to the world literature has proved worthwhile. I feel that more Indians should write about what the real Indian life is; since there seem to be too many preconceived notions about the same. I believe it is through writers like them that the proper Indian literature can be enriched and showcased to the world. R K Narayan and his fictitious town Malgudi are instant examples that come to my mind.
Also, the writings of Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh and many others brought laurels to India.
SK: As a bilingual writer, do you sometimes believe that first language interference manifests itself while writing in English? Do you, for instance, feel equally at ease in expressing in both Malayalam and English or is there a difference?
LM: Well, interesting question, but tough to answer. I must admit that earlier I used to feel diffident about writing in English and I was more comfortable with Malayalam. Later, reading and writing continuously in English; I found no problem in expressing in English too. Frankly, now I feel that writing simultaneously in both languages at the same time will be really difficult for me since the thought process and mindsets are very different for both the languages. For the last few years I have been writing only in English, and if I want to go back to Malayalam I have to read a lot of the present day writings, and I have to keep myself mentally prepared for it. Otherwise, I will not be able to do justice to my writing.
SK: What do you think of publication opportunities in India, do you think the market is prospective?
LM: I feel that we now have more publication opportunities in India, when compared to earlier days, all because of the IT boom. There are different types of publishing opportunities available now such as Digital publishing, online publishing, Self-publishing like print on demand and ebooks, and many authors prefer to opt for this path, which is great. With the advent of Information Technology, the scope of book publishing in manual system is changed to electronic, and information is widely available on the net. It also offers numerous exciting opportunities to those who are interested to pursue a career in publishing.
SK: Kamala Das once famously said that poetry does not sell in India. After many years, do you think this statement still holds true- for not many understand our own Indian poets, and fewer read them, mostly except literature students and researchers?
LM: I can’t say much about this since I am not a poet. However, I can chip in to say that because of the IT boom; poetry can now reach beyond borders through the internet, and is not relegated only locally.
SK: You have been quite well known in the area of children’s literature. Do you think there are enough writers who cater to young minds?
LM: To tell you the fact, I’m passionate about writing for children. We have great writers like Ruskin Bond and R K Narayan to name a few, who have made exemplary contributions to children’s literature. Many new writers like Manjula Padmanabhan, and Anushka Ravishankar are coming forward understanding the need of our children who are now more focused on creative writing, artwork, and the characterization set in the Indian environment. More people should come forward to write for children, to capture their imagination and build up characters which would educate young minds through stories.
SK: Children’s literature can be quite engrossing an exercise; since whatever you write can shape little minds and have a reasonably lasting effect on them, for instance stereotypes. Do you consciously try to avoid these while writing for them?
LM: You are very right; and this is a question every writer who engages in writing for children should ask themselves. I used to tell a lot of stories to my young nephews and my own children which have created lasting impressions in their minds. They were not stereotype stories, but were made just for their own needs. I always prefer to write more about inspirational and motivational stories which though fictitious, appear realistic and funny, solving their day to day problems, and also mould their young minds to become good human beings and instill values in them.
SK: What are your upcoming projects?
LM: I have received a lot of positive reviews and responses from readers and writers alike for my The Second Choice. I have already started work on my new novel, which would deal with a social cause.
SK: Any words of wisdom or inspiration you would like to impart for the many young writers who would be reading this interview?
LM: Read and observe as much as possible, and start writing your own thoughts without fear in your own unique style, polish it again and again. Join a writing group to get feed back of your work like criticism, encouragement, and motivation. All this will be helpful in bringing out the best in you.
SK: Leave us with one line or an instance in the novel which is most special for you for any reason.
LM: I have several scenes in this novel which are very special to me. Now since you’ve asked me, with great difficulty I pick one of them. The following is a scene when Pavithra, the protagonist suggests a better treatment for Soumya, who was sick and bedridden, during her visit
Soumya smiled faintly and sighed heavily. “What other treatment dear?...... I don’t want any more treatment….. I’ve only one prayer day and night…. to go to the other world at the earliest….. where there is no pain… no hope…. no desires..”