Author Interviews

Shahrukh Husain

What inspired you to write, A Restless Wind? Where did the story come from?

The story had been gestating since I was a teenager fascinated by the family events of a close relative, the Sufism, a certain annual festival held in the grounds of the house that I’ve renamed Qila. That house and its backyard community played a massive part in the formation of my values. There was a solidarity there, a unity, that transcended barriers and survived all the tittle-tattle, minor resentments and disagreements to be expected in all normal communities. When I sat down to write, it didn’t add up to a whole book but rather a handful of anecdotes without a thread to hold it together.  Maybe I needed to be older to detect what lay beneath and behind the events to make a coherent story. It fell into place when the 2002 Godhra massacre broke out over Ayodhia and it really bothered me that the same historical resentments and prejudices exploded cyclically and violence erupted among people who the day before had worked and played side by side.  It was in stark contrast to my experience – something that happened ‘out there’ – and provided the perfect background to my story.  The backyard community so exemplified solidarity with all its ups and downs and strains and compromises, such an open-armed acceptance of the good and the bad as part of existence, that tensions came and went as in any family. As the book developed, a question kept cropping up with all the character relationships of the book about what helps people live together – married couples, siblings, parents and children, employer and staff, masses and classes, east and west and of course, religious groups. That question fuelled the book.

I haven’t read about the lives of Indian royalty in contemporary fiction before. Do you think there’s a silence around their lives?

Royal families have been circumspect for decades because they had a bad press for a fair while. And of course after Independence many turned to politics, business and the health and hospitality industries to adapt to a different lifestyle.  In fiction, after the 70s the whole over-romanticized Indian princes thing became passé and was consigned to historical fiction or Mills and Boons type novels, filled with mean, moody, magnificent princes and defiant western women willing to challenge them.

Asian writers in the west and in India were adding to the existing Indo-Anglian body of magnificent writing – Jhabvala, Desai and their predecessors, R.K. Narayan and a host of others.  The new writers in the west wrote of the immigrant experience and cultural perspectives. These were contemporary, intensely personal narratives – Indian Royals were irrelevant to them.

 What research did you undertake to make the novel come alive? Did you travel to India and visit any palaces?

I’d love to claim I’m an avid researcher but I simply recorded revived memories of places, culture, attitudes etc. I spent most holidays in India, growing up, because my mother’s family was dotted around India.  Qila, though, was not a palace it was a very old haveli (mansion) with no running water and that primitive wiring where switches and electrical objects randomly gave shocks that reverberated through not just the fingers but the entire arm.  Massive copper or brass cauldrons were filled with cold water and samovars were lit to heat the water for baths.  We diluted them with hot water in brass buckets and then ladled it over ourselves with mugs.  It was great – so different from the modernity and westernized glamour of urban Karachi or London. The palace hotel/restaurant in the novel is a nod to family and friends who embraced the loss of titles and income and found diverse ways to earn their own living.  It was different in Pakistan which was to be a meritocracy where industry and manufacture was to help build an infrastructure for the new nation. The idea in both countries was to level out society but hierarchy and power simply transferred elsewhere – equality hasn’t been achieved – not anywhere in the world.  I guess some people will always be more equal than others.  But I digress.

Tell us about more the writing process. Did you employ a writing routine??

I’ve always found writing incredibly easy but with two children growing up I developed a strict routine to get books and scripts written to deadline.  When they were very small, I wrote while they slept; later I could work when they were at school. When I got stuck I cooked or gardened but I limited myself to a fixed time or else I knew I’d do that writer thing of displacement. Cooking and gardening helped me think and the change of energy resolved a lot of kinks.  It was different with the novel.  I changed genre and my agent warned me I was going to get treated as a newby which meant not being commissioned in advance.    So I wrote between deadlines, mainly on holiday and that rigorous writing habit of years proved a fabulous asset.  The kids were grown up by then.  Frankly, waiting to get back to the novel meant things came to a boil in my head and exploded onto the page when I flipped sat down at the blank screen. Then when the first draft was completed, I set aside a month to rewrite and worked from 8.00 a.m. to 6.30 p.m. with no fixed breaks.  I wrote in a little flat by the sea, watching the waves and when I needed a break I asked my husband to drive me around the fabulous Sussex Downs and countryside – my thoughts unraveled as we drove.   It established another system – novels in breaks and other writing in office hours.

Tell us about your journey of getting published. What were the challenges of securing publication?

Scary at first. I couldn’t bear to think that all my work might end up in a dusty attic. I was used to being commissioned before I put fingers to keyboard so writing without the promise of publication was daunting. Many established novelists were getting their work turned away during the recession and I just wasn’t sure how my book would be received.  Then my agent said she ‘admired it’ but wasn’t ‘crazy about the world of the novel’.  She’s a high-powered agent and a friend (still) and I was disappointed but I appreciated her honesty – I know from years in the business that if agents don’t love what they’re selling it doesn’t really work.  So I left, amicably, and I found another agent who’d represented me about 20 years earlier. He sent it to Pan-Macmillan, India and their Picador imprint wrote back virtually by return saying they would like to publish it. It came out a year later and did fantastically well in India – it was even available in airports) and in Pakistan.  There, too, reviewers picked up on the Maharaja factor but the book was properly understood.  My agent had warned me that the trouble with coming out in the English language in India first made publication less exciting for publishers in the UK or USA  – unless you’re Geoffrey Archer.  Then virtually as soon as the contract was signed, there were major staff changes in Pan Macmillan and things looked shaky in terms of foreign rights etc.  Then I was discussing the problem with Keith Brook, novelist, and publisher at independent press Infinity Plus.  Keith offered to publish A Restless Wind for the rest of the world.  My other books, collectively, have been translated in 17 languages so I’m hoping hard that A Restless Wind will be translated, too.

You carefully weave in the story of India’s violent past and the communal violence which still threatens the lives of ordinary people. Why did you decide to write about it when given this world you could have easily ignored it?

I’m not so sure it was a conscious choice – it’s a world filled with discord.  I had a story to tell and it was vast and sprawling, like an epic.  Social and political change had come and I saw as I was growing up a decade or so after independence how scores of aristocrats had dealt with a quite dramatic loss of status and lifestyle. Some turned to politics, land and homes were turned into commercial enterprises.  Others put time and effort into local education, social reform and public health in their states.  Locally, they were still respected as hereditary rulers though they had no powers.  I guess I’m just a commentator recording through two families how others adjusted to changing circumstances.  I let it all pour out with just a start and end point.  Often I wasn’t sure what would happen along the way.  The character of the jeweller, Lala, came as I sat staring up through a skylight at a very blue Pevensey Bay sky and listened to the sound of clanging from the beach outside. The Jaipur bazaars and the clang of copper and brass-beating sprang to mind.  The centuries of communal violence seem to rumble on in some places and surface constantly in sectarianism – that’s a big issue and it’s what generated the novel.  Everybody suffered. I was telling a story set in India – it’s a country steeped in social and political conundrums, a deeply heterogenous society and if I had to choose one phrase to describe its society and people, I’d pick ‘extreme contrast’.  That contrast is deeply entrenched in my sensibility – as a positive and a negative.

Who do you write for?

You know, Farhana, I find that question impossible to answer. I just focus on telling the story and hope it will be interesting enough to hold the attention of people until the end. According to the Amazon stats it figured regularly in Women’s fiction, religion, historical and even, strangely, as a thriller.  But I’ve had nice reviews from all kinds of reviewers and other readers. I’m grateful for that.

Who would you say influences your work?

I’m not aware of being influenced by particular writers but I’m passionate about folklore and mythology and the closest current storytelling form to that are the soaps!!!  I lament the loss , in novels, of those teeming casts of characters and multiple story strands where the narrative diverts to follow a fascinating tale-within-the-tale and then much later, there is a pay-off.  I love to read incidental anecdotes and asides in novels that lift us into a whole different dimension and bestow an unexpected gift; to watch lots of balls in the air and wait on edge to see where they’ll land.  Wouldn’t it be awful if Tolstoy was writing today and his publishers asked him to streamline the cast of characters in Anna Karenina? Or to cut 20,000 words from War and Peace? Or even 30 odd years ago, if Isabelle Allende had to edit her magnificent digressions in House of the Spirits? I got rid of 38,000 words before I even sent the book out to my agent because of the requirements of the current market.

What excites you about writing coming out of India??

It continues to surprise!  India offers an endlessly rich source of stories and social and physical settings and the writers take full advantage.  You can find every imaginable topic in fiction coming out of India from Fantasy and romance to serious literary fiction.  I’m always left a bit breathless trying to keep up.  I’ve just ordered the Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan about the Empress Nurjehan who makes an appearance in A Restless Wind – want to read it before I move on to the sequel A Feast of Roses.

Finally, what are your writing goals for 2016?

I’m working on a major TV series for SKY which I developed with Gurinder Chadha.  And the next novel’s nearly ready to go out.

Shahrukh Husain grew up listening to stories and remains passionate about myth and folklore which she has retold extensively in books for children and adults.  She branched into screenwriting after working on Merchant-Ivory’s movie In Custody adapted from Anita Desai’s novel. After 22 books and 11 screenplays had been commissioned she fulfilled her childhood intention of writing a novel. With another novel on the way, she tried her hand at developing TV series and is pleasantly surprised by the response. She was born in Pakistan, spent long holidays in India and lives and works in London and E. Sussex.   

Read our review of A Restless Wind

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