Novelist, journalist, social sector documentarian – Bengaluru-based Nirmala Govindarajan dons many hats. During her visit to Pune for the Pune International Literary Festival, she spoke to The Tilak Chronicle about her books and characters, women and society, and weaving social realities with literature to create ‘activist fiction’. Excerpts: 

  1. What inspired you to write ‘Hunger’s Daughters’?

A few years ago, my dear friend Catherine Raja who was working with the NGO Development Focus, requested me to make a fundraising documentary to enable children in the forest hamlets of Orissa to earn while they learnt. Taking off from my journalistic duties in the Times of India, I set out on this honorary assignment. 

I found myself in the bosom of one of India’s poorest states, amidst tribal children who not only helped in the fields, cooked and took care of their younger siblings, but also reared ducks to earn while their learnt. There, I came face-to-heart with a 13-year-old girl, a star at rearing ducks, whose mother had gone missing the day we went to meet her. I too had started working at 13, and my heart went out to her. That day, my whole attitude towards life and what I wanted to express through my writing changed.

So, when I came back to Bangalore, I sat down in my favourite restaurant Koshy’s to talk to the city people, especially young and impressionable youngsters, about the children in India’s poorest regions via a novel. 

To me, writing is the very stream of a conscious process, and whatever is etched in my mind, from a distant past or near present, becomes part of its framework. 

Some of the other characters in Hunger’s Daughters found resonance in the people around me, including the owner of Koshy’s – Prem and the other members of the Square Table. Other characters emerged from the distant past like Gowravva, a lady I had met in an arid village in Gulbarga district of Karnataka, and a 101-year-old grandma whose children had deserted her in the Mayavaram district of Tamil Nadu. One other time, I met an artist whose sensual painting of Radha Krishna invited public ire in Bangalore, and he too, became one of my characters. 

It’s not as though I’ve spent too much time with these people, but somehow, they stayed with me, and went on to be inspirations for Hunger’s Daughters.    

  1. Your writing has been called ‘activist fiction’. 

My guru and mentor Peter Colaco always told me to have a strong point of view and a primary target audience while writing. 

Although born and bred in the city, I have grown increasingly sensitive to rural India and its people. So, while setting out to tell the story of Hunger’s Daughters, I found myself writing for the city people, especially impressionable youngsters, about life in the inaccessible rural India. I wrote with the hope that it would inspire a city person to perhaps forgo an expensive meal at a high-end restaurant and set the money aside for a cause. 

When we talk about activism it’s always about politics and government policies, but democracy is also about us common people connecting with causes and doing our bit.  

When I was writing Hunger’s daughters, I was constantly talking to two students of Communicative English about the progress of the book. What struck me personally was that I had no background or connect with rural India, and here I was, conveying a rural story to urban individuals. 

My book is a tribute to the people in distant and poor hamlets, and especially young breadwinners in India’s Naxal regions, and I look up to them. The novel subtly urges the haves to think about the have-nots while accessing socio-political contingencies that prevail in our nation, which is perhaps why it’s been termed as activist fiction.

  1. What are your views on the condition of women in rural India?

In my observation, a woman in rural India does far more work than any man ever does. Men actually do plough the field, but women are constantly working without rest. The men go out for a bit and relax sometimes. When I was writing ‘The Community Catalyst’, I researched in a few villages. In a farmer’s house, the mother and sister woke up at 4 am and continued to work until 9 pm. 

The men wake up later. In the evenings while women, after returning from the fields, continue to milk the cows and prepare dinner, the men catch up to gossip and gamble. 

Rural women are solid and strong, there’s no doubt about it. The little girls in the villages do all the work, household chores, looking after their younger siblings – they are actually out there, doing the real stuff. 

In villages women perform at par with men. Entire families work on the farm and if these women do not do their bit, our entire agrarian economy will collapse.

  1. Could you tell us something about your upcoming novel Taboo?

Taboo is born out of my experience of documenting under-aged girls who are kidnapped and trafficked. Heart-wrenching stories came out of this research.

I met a young girl who had been sold and trafficked by her own sister and brother in law at the tender age of 8. This little girl was pimped and sent to a dark and dingy brothel. The people there were very violent with her. A 40-year-old woman over there offered to look after her. The pimp overheard this, and stabbed that woman in front of the little girl. The girl was saved in a rescue operation eight years later. All this, while her parents were unaware of her fate. 

Although Taboo is inspired by these trafficked girls, it is a highly stylised work. The protagonist is a lady with Sinhalese and Spanish roots, living on the city footpath. Taboo deals with questions of identity politics, and it strives to give the trafficked woman a good name. 

However, beneath the activist subjects that grab me, I am a writer at the core – the artistry of work is very important to me, and my work falls under the literary fiction genre. I am very fortunate to have found a publisher in Picador, Pan Macmillan for this work. 

5. What is your plan post ‘Taboo’?

I am re-editing a play I had written a few years ago. I have begun work on my next novel, also, perhaps in the activist fiction genre. I have plans for a children’s series, where my protagonists are from the hinterlands. 

Nirmala Govindarajan

Nirmala Govindarajan is a journalist, social sector documentarian and author of two books "The Community Catalyst" and "Hunger's Daughters".

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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