On Writing ‘Love and Death in the Middle Kingdom’
Nalini Rajan is a professor and an established author whose novel ‘Love and Death in the Middle Kingdom’ was published in 2013 by AlchemyPublishers.
When any novel appears in the market, readers are mostly unaware of the long drawn-out processes that lead – over a long drawn-out period of time – to the finished product. The making of ‘Love and Death in the Middle Kingdom’ (LDMK), too, has a similar struggle.
I think the trigger for setting the narrative in sixteenth-century Vijayanagara was two-fold. In 2008, I read a marvellous story called ‘The Ruby in her Navel’ by Barry Unsworth, which described tumultuous events in the multicultural setting of 12th century Palermo, located in what is now known as Sicily in southern Italy. In 2010, my second novel, ‘Sinking, not Swimming’ had been published by Penguin India, and I was already mulling over a historical plot set somewhere in medieval India. That was the fortuitous moment when a historian friend of mine directed me to a scholarly article which saw parallels between 12th century Palermo and 16th century Vijayanagara. I knew, then, that the setting of my new novel had to be Hampi, capital of the Vijayanagara kingdom, which was a hub for culture and commerce, and attracted scholars and traders and mercenaries from Europe, Persia, Central Asia, and other places.
How does a writer develop the plot of a historical novel? To begin with, she should spend several weeks, even months, on historical research.
I spent considerable time in Hampi and along the west coast of Karnataka state. I must have read at least two dozen books on Vijayanagara, before deciding that the protagonist of my story, Devadatta, should be a young, handsome courtier in the sixteenth century. I thought to myself – what would happen if this young courtier encountered a couple of foreigners, say, a Persian traveller and a Portuguese trader? What language would they speak? It had to be Kannada or Telugu. I decided it would be Kannada, because my mother and her siblings grew up in the old Mysore state, and I could turn to them for help with the language.
But how would Devadatta communicate with the two foreigners? I realised that the latter had to be fairly fluent in the Kannada language. Where would they meet? Would they dine together? After writing the chapter of their encounter over food and drink, I suddenly realised what a grave mistake I had made. Upper-caste Hindus could not dine with foreigners, especially if they were Muslim and Christian! I deleted the chapter and, after much reflection, rewrote it. Now, how could we even know the story of Devadatta? I had to create the rationale for a diary and for its discovery, half a millennium later. Then, the other characters had to be constructed – this time in the 21st century. And so, the plot thickened.
There is something curious about the art of writing – not all of it is consciously done. Sometimes, the novel writes itself.
It goes hurtling along the path of narration and opens astonishingly new vistas for the writer. That, veritably, constitutes the joy of writing. And of course, sometimes nothing happens, nothing moves, for days on end, in the writer’s mind. That, too, is the process of writing.