Irficionado | Author Interview | Janhavi Acharekar

“I want to write”. At about the turn of the millennium, when Janhavi Acharekar was quitting her copywriting job in the ad agency we both were in, and I asked her why, this, in perhaps true Janhavi style, was her simple response. Janhavi has managed to achieve that dream, beginning with pieces in papers and going on to a collection of her stories (Window Seat: Rush-Hour Stories from the City), to travel guides (on Mumbai and Goa), to recently, her first novel, Wanderers, All. In between, among her other literary pursuits like readings, lit-fest curations, and interviews, she was also recognised as a Mumbaikar of the Year, 2009, the same year in which her first book, Window Seat, came out.

Inspired by Janhavi’s ancestral history, Wanderers, All (published by Harper Collins) is the story of two people, separated by time. Murlidhar Khedekar, who moves with his dad from Konkan to old Bombay, begins with dreams of being in Marathi theatre, then moves on to wrestling (kushti), before setting down and growing as a policeman. The other, shorter narrative that punctuates Murli and his kith and kin’s story is that of Kinara, a newly single, seemingly directionless woman of today. The starting point is Kinara’s father giving her Murli and his ancestors’ maps. Kinara and Murli, separated by time, are related by blood: she is his great-granddaughter.

Cover of Janhavi Acharekar's new book, Wanderers, All

In this email interview, Janhavi talks about the book, her writing motivations and motifs, and the under-appreciated choice/chance of being a wanderer.

IS: I read in one of your other interviews that the idea for Wanderers, All came from a story in Window Seat. Which story is this, and how did that short story lead to this bigger story?

Cover of Window Seat: Rush-Hour Stories from the City, a collection of short stories by Janhavi AcharekarJA: I had a vague idea of the novel I wanted to write, but the story ‘Freedom at Midnight’ in Window Seat was a test run. I was clear about having the Independence movement as the historical setting and began to seriously think of writing Wanderers, All only after I wrote this story. The characters too made their way into the novel. Sudhakar Vernekar, the young, idealistic journalist and freedom fighter in Wanderers, All is the old pensioner in 21st century Mumbai in ‘Freedom at Midnight’. The chief protagonist of the story ‘Birthday Party’ in Window Seat also appears as a younger version of himself in the novel. The book began as an exploration of the lives and times of these characters.

IS: I also read somewhere that the full novel took shape somewhere in the middle of writing it. By this, do you mean the idea of having the parallel story of Kinara, or were you referring to something else?

An old photo of a Bombay policeman, from Janhavi Acharekar's research files for her book, Wanderers, AllJA: No, the story of Kinara was the starting point of Wanderers, All – the beginning of the book as you see it today. It was the historical narrative that took shape slowly because I wasn’t entirely sure about how it would progress. Also, the research on Marathi theatre as well as the history of the Bombay City Police slowed me down and then contributed to turns in the narrative. There were times when I didn’t know how Murli’s life would progress. And there was the question of two timelines without making one or the other seem incongruous. Nor did I anticipate the length of the novel. That said, I enjoyed the process of not knowing. I’m not a structured writer who has a clear plot in mind before I begin writing. It evolves as I go along.

IS: Many authors begin their novel-writing journeys with family/ancestral history. There are Marquez, Naipaul, and Rushdie (among my favourites). So, is it an easy starting ground, or was there some other motivation?

JA: Actually, it was our colonial history that was the starting ground for me. That my family had, unwittingly and marginally, been a part of this history made it more enticing. I used familiar terrain to make characters and situations more real. I also added oral history – something that we are losing rapidly in this era.

IS: How was the feeling and experience of retracing your ancestors’ paths? I know you took a road trip in Goa and went on several heritage walks in Bombay…

Cover of Mumbai & Goa by Moon Books, a travel guide by Janhavi AcharekarJA: Thanks to my father’s enthusiasm for travel, I’ve been on several road trips through the Konkan and Goa as a child and then later, on my own as an adult (my familiarity with Goa also comes from the time I wrote the travel guide Moon Mumbai & Goa for Moon Handbooks), so it wasn’t entirely new. Also, I didn’t have the maps and details that Kinara does in the book, so the retracing was both imagined and real, but exciting all the same.

Retracing the history of Bombay was equally interesting. My research led me to fun facts and incidents like the criminal case filed by a British employer against his trusted Parsi clerk for gambling away at the races all the money given to him for safekeeping during the former’s trip to England. Or that the police, for lack of a crowd to line the streets to greet a visiting British official, rounded up beggars and petty criminals from the area, gave them new clothes to wear and had them cheer and clap for a small fee.

But more than anything, it was imagining the era, creating characters and situations around the things I had heard and read about, linking the lives of characters with the story of Bombay (and I see the city as a character in itself) that was for me the most enjoyable part.

IS: Is the book also an attempt to bring Marathi culture, which often loses out to the pop culture and sheen of Bollywood/Bombay, to the foreground?

JA: Not really. I wouldn’t consider myself the flagbearer of any culture. Here, it was integral to my plot and the historical setting. I had a certain level of familiarity with it.

IS: You intend a very thought-instigating, possibly empowering message through the book, that no matter how sorted or scattered we seem, we are all wanderers. Is that even possible in today’s time, when everyone seems so focussed or at least is told/expected to be focussed?

JA: The journeys in Wanderers, All are both physical and metaphorical. The book is more about fluidity of identity and openness in belief and experience. An acknowledgement of the fact that your origins are likely to very different from what you imagine them to be and that nation, religion, community are all human constructs; boundaries, both geographical and cultural, can change in one’s lifetime. Those who hang on to these constructs or derive their sense of self from them will do well to remember that the only thing that binds us is the wandering. But history only proves time and again that there will be those who choose to appropriate rather than embrace, to trespass rather than wander.

Janhavi Acharekar answering questions during a reading of her book, Wanderers, AllWe see it all around us today whether in the form of jingoism, religious or cultural chauvinism; the hatred being spewed by various groups against each other comes from their own need for belonging and justification of their prejudices. It’s ironical when local parties in Bombay take an anti-immigrant stance considering that the city was a creation of the British and they are, most likely, descendants of migrants themselves. It’s strange when European nations take pride in their support of freedom or equality given their own history of colonization, or when Americans speak out against the Holocaust given the near-wiping out of the Native Americans and their very recent and continuing history of racism. It’s also easy in the wake of Islamic terrorism to forget the brutalities of the Christian Inquisitions; as for Hindus, they’ve oppressed their own for centuries with the caste system. Let’s not even get into the male-female equation.

So, possible or not in this day and age? It can’t be that hard to be peaceful travel companions. As Kinara’s father tells her when she’s setting out on her solo trip, we’re all on the same journey.

IS: While on that, how much of a wanderer are you?

JA: Considering that I’m late in sending you my response because I was wandering…

IS: Continuing the wanderer bit, you love traveling and photography. How do these feed into your writing, apart from in the obvious ways?

Janhavi Acharekar with her camera, during one of her travelsJA: Each lends to the other and everything feeds into writing in some way or the other. This applies to all of us, I think. I write both fiction and travel – travel always brings new experiences and perspectives to the writing table, especially where fiction is concerned, and there’s always storytelling involved in good travel writing, so the two intersect at some point. Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia is both travel narrative and engaging storytelling (some say, even fictional in parts), while you find a lot of Hemingway’s travel experiences in his fiction. While Kinara’s story is fictional, her travels are based on my own road trips.

IS: Your style is very simple and soft-spoken, or at least, not loud. Is this a natural trait, or something you’ve cultivated?

A promo photo of Janhavi Acharekar at the time of the launch of her book, Wanderers, AllJA: I prefer a subdued, matter-of-fact style so as to let the story emerge and provoke readers into drawing their own conclusions. Cultivating a style is tricky because it could get self-conscious and might not ring true. (Although one’s tone, or voice, could change depending on the character or story being told, which is bound to affect the style in some way. Kinara’s is a younger, contemporary voice different from the traditional historical narrative.)

IS: The name pun seems to be an emerging motif in your writing. There was the lovely ‘China’ in Window Seat and now ‘Raj/Swaraj’ in Wanderers. Is this perhaps due to the copywriter in you?

JA: And there’s ‘Play it again, Sam!’ too in Window Seat. Yes, advertising is great training ground for a writer simply because it teaches you to play around with words and not to take yourself too seriously. It loosened me up, apart from teaching me to write to insane deadlines and create an unbelievable amount of excitement around mundane things like automotive lubricants and office storage cabinets. And, of course, to pun. Ad people keep showing up in my work, whether in Kinara’s travels or in my short stories. An agency is (or at least used to be) a lively place filled with people with a great sense of humour. I would like to believe that it has rubbed off on my writing somehow, if ever so slightly.

IS: Kinara’s arc is as absorbing as Murlidhar’s. Was there a thought to extend it beyond the space it occupies now? Is there, for instance, a novella about her waiting in the wings?

JA: Thank you. Kinara’s is just a hint of a character in that sense because the historical is the dominant narrative. A woman who is independent, in search of nothing in particular, and who finds friends, parties, new places and experiences along the way.

Like I said, I’m never sure about the direction my work is going to take. Sometimes, I feel that I’m done with a story but not with the characters, so to answer your question, yes, it’s a possibility.

IS: Finally, what next, apart from the continuing promotion of the book?

JA: Writing 🙂

  • Follow > You can follow her on Twitter through @WanderersAll and also find her on Facebook and LinkedIn.

 And here’s about Irficionado > Irficionado: Here’s Presenting…

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