"I could not believe such people existed in India ..."
Interview with Mukta Singh-Zocchi
Author : The Thugs and a Courtesan
First appeared on Tehelka
Interviewed by Harshita Bathwal
Tehelka : what kind of books do you like reading?
I like to read books where the voice is interesting, language literary or at least delightful and the plot carries surprise. I am not stuck with genre fiction, and I absolutely stay away from hard core horror, crime and sci-fi. Some favorite authors: Kurt Vonnegut, T C Boyle, Joyce Carol Oates, Isabelle Allende, Haruki Murakami, and closer to home, Shivani and Manto.
Tehelka : How has travelling helped your writing? or, vice-versa?
Travelling has literally opened my eyes to the world. A lot of myths are broken. There is so much charm in the world. When you take a first glimpse of any new culture, you immediately see its distinguishing features. You grasp important facts about the national characters of the people of the place. For example, you notice that freedom is not just a word they like to flaunt, you literally breathe and see freedom in the American air. You notice the elegance of the European people in their style of dressing, their strong traditions and the systematic way of doing things and somehow you are not surprised that so much scientific progress happened here. I have always tried to understand a new place not through an indian prism. Secondly, coming to a new country, you encounter many new situations and that gives you raw material for stories.
Tehelka : How come to took up storytelling as an interest, being a student of science? or, How has being a research student helped you pursue fiction writing as a career?
I have a sound training in science, a Ph.D. in Physics then more than a decade of doing research in basic sciences. Because of my scientific background, I have learnt to think outside the box, I’m trained to read, read, read. All these habits have come in handy in my writing. But I think to be a writer you have to be a sensitive person so the story does not escape you. Many people have this quality. They just don’t know. During my scientific career I did not realize I like to write. It was just a matter of chance (a 2 week long train trip from Kolkata, to Varanasi, to Delhi, to Bangalore to Chennai) that I started to write, thoroughly enjoyed and then said to myself, “Hey I’m going to write.”
Tehelka : why India?
I am a Delhi girl. I left Delhi when I was 23 to do my Ph.D. in physics. But really, in retrospect when I think of it, it was more of an escape to see the world as a single individual, as myself. But the center of gravity of all my thoughts is India, I see everything from a uniquely indian point of view. I said uniquely because I also notice the major changes in the Indian scene and psyche since I left. Much is very different from what I grew up with. But that is a sign of a dynamic society which is good. There are places in the world that are stuck in time and that too is not a pretty sight.
Tehelka : Considering much has been written about thugs before, why did you take it up as a topic of your first novel? What is different about your book?
Not much has been written about thugs, at least not fiction. Yes, there are a lot of non-fiction, very well researched books on thugs out there. The only fictional work I have come across is Tabish Khair’s The Thing about Thugs which I totally enjoyed reading. There have been several takes on thugs by Hollywood as well. But you know what, while I was researching some other work I came across The Confessions of a Thug by Meadows Phillips. I was so astonished after reading it. I could not believe that such people lived in India. I mean it seems likely but I did not know about it. So you see, people don’t know about it. Not much has been written on the thugs. Going on, I was so impressed with the account I wanted to write my own novel based on this. I went on and read other primary sources of the nineteenth century. Read details of their crimes, their language, all these so well-documented by the British. If I was not so in awe with the subject itself, I wouldn’t have stopped marveling the British for their meticulousness. I also read many travel accounts of that time. I made many fascinating discoveries about India of the nineteenth century, and I somehow wanted to incorporate them. I developed a craving to find photographic images of people and the places back then just to form a vivid picture in my mind. Having said all this, if someone had suggested to me writing about these people before I had read The Confessions of a Thug, I would have remained disinterested. It was the entire process that I went through as a result of my personal discovery that made it possible for me to write my novel.
Tehelka : What kind of research did you have to do before writing this book and how long did you take to write it?
As I said earlier, after reading the Confessions of a Thug, I read all the books that Sleeman had written. Sleeman was the guy who oversaw the suppression of Thuggee in the 1830s. He ended up interviewing the captured thugs, he called them approvers. So he ended up documenting their slang, their habits, omens, every crime they remembered. There are several volumes on all these things. Still you get the picture after reading some of the preliminary work all written in the mid-nineteenth century. On the side I read several travel accounts around that time, that gave me glimpses of acrobats, holy men, things that the people of India held sacred, etc. Again, seen through a travelers eyes, all these charming things that we take so for granted in our society and thereby ignore, separates out. I write full time and it took me half a year to write this book.
Tehelka : Writing has always been considered, right from the times of Austen's classics, as being fit for females, as did the Bronte sisters and Mary Shelley, sitting within the four walls, coming up with extensive plots. But how do you think writing has emerged more as a career option rather than a mere pleasurable activity for women? Also, what obstacles do you face as a women writer? to put it in another way, does it help or does it make things difficult?
Some of my favorite authors are men writers. I don’t think the writing gene is linked with the gender. I think the only thing needed to be able to write is sensitivity. The rest is training. One essential is material as well and that comes from experiencing life. That puts writers who are too young or those always sitting within the four walls at a disadvantage. The obstacles I face as a writer are mainly from within. Thankfully I am able to identify them and work on them. As for the obstacles one encounters in the world: the ground reality is that it is a competitive field with so many authors and fewer slots for exposure. One has to constantly watch the scene and learn. At the end of the day, everyone wants to read a good book. If you can deliver it surmounting all the obstacles (inner and external) they will read it.
Tehelka : what next?
I do have a taste for Indian history. History helps me understand the present. So I will exhaust my craving for history. Then I’ll move to some sci-fi. That is the final frontier.