Priya Basil on Ishq and Mushq

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Ishq and Mushq is a sensuous generational novel about a Sikh mother whose secret past corrodes her life with tragic consequences for all. Spanning the second half of the twentieth century, and moving between India, Africa and Britain this moving and funny family saga dramatizes how Ishq can redeem and compromise and Mushq can seduce and betray. Priya Basil discusses her debut novel with TAWP…  

The characters in the novel are so life like did you draw inspiration from real life or are they entirely made up?

Some of the inspiration is autobiographical – although the intention is not. The journey my characters make from India to East Africa to Great Britain reflects the pattern of my family’s migration. There are also a few anecdotes related by family and friends, which I’ve scattered through the narrative. For example, my grandfather really was caught up, and almost died, in a refugee camp during Partition – exactly like my character, Karam. The latter however, unlike my grandfather, becomes obsessed with history as a result of his experience and restlessly travels the world trying to find an alternative history he can be part of. So, even where the starting point might be fact, fiction gives one the wonderful licence to go wherever imagination bids.

Which bit of the novel did you most enjoy writing?

One of the main characters, Sarna, is a culinary queen. She uses food to express or repress her own feelings as well as manipulate those of others. Indeed, the ‘Mushq’ in the title is a reference to the smells of Sarna’s cooking which pervade the narrative. It was great fun to use food and smell as a recurring motif. As a keen cook myself, I’m very aware of the emotive powers of food and I enjoyed imagining Sarna taking this to the extreme with night-long sweet making marathons to counter the bitter taste of the past, or stuffing the freezer with leftovers for the children who don’t turn up to eat the feasts she prepares.

Early on in the novel, OK has a dull moment and is filled with a sense of paralysis as a writer, did you ever feel a loss of hope when writing Ishq and Mushq and how did you overcome that?

Doubt rather than hopelessness was the feeling that most troubled me while I was writing. The constant questioning of whether what you’re creating has any value or relevance. When the doubts threatened to overwhelm, I always reminded myself of how much pleasure I got from the act of writing itself. I just focused on trying to write the best novel I possibly could. And also, I kept reading. There’s nothing like great fiction to remind you why you want to write.

The ending for me didn’t have a sense of closure – perhaps that’s because I got too attached to the characters, and wanted to know what happened next. Did you feel a sense of loss or relief when you’d finished the book in its entirety or would you have liked to have go on?

I knew how the book would finish when I was half way through writing, so – unlike the reader who arrives suddenly at the end to be surprised and moved – I approached it with a sense of inevitability. However much you might want to tie up everything neatly, you realize that characters have their own integrity, which must be respected. Much as I would have liked to force a change of heart and attitude in Sarna, I saw it wouldn’t be realistic. Finally, I was satisfied with the end, which, like life, leaves some things resolved, and others open to interpretation. I did introduce an optimistic note with the birth of a child called Umeed – Hope. This suggests that things do go on – but it’s not for me to tell that story.

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TAWP verdict: Superbly written with a use of powerful imagery and poetic rhythm, delicately told and a delight to read. One of the best debut novels I have had the pleasure to read.

Priya Basil was was born in London but spent most of her childhood in Kenya. She studied English Lit at the University of Bristol, a three year career in advertising followed. She now lives in Germany with her partner, a German news journalist who encouraged her to fulfill her ambitions as a writer. To find out more please visit http://www.priyabasil.com