Interview of Radhika Nathan author of “A time to Burnish”
Radhika Nathan is a juggler, a meanderer and a rolling stone. She believes in the miracle of words and the rain. Her favourite pastimes include reading, listening to podcasts and gazing at monsoon clouds. Her taste in books is eclectic ranging from anthropology to old fashioned murder mysteries, and if pushed she would name Jane Austen as her favourite author for her believable, eternal characters. Travel is something she enjoys and has been to more than a dozen countries- for the love of meeting new people and discovering new cultures.
Radhika writes for her fascination of human beings, intrigued by their archetypal & atypical behaviour and the differences & similarities in all of us. Writing is a means that forces her to think and re-examine a point of view or a preconceived notion. ‘I grow as a person as I write’, she says and quotes ‘A well written sentence [a rare occurrence] is like soul chocolate. Radhika, believes in a spiritual approach to life that welcomes science. She believes in liberty, equality, personal responsibility and fair play.
1. Tell me something about yourself. How does your personality affect your writing?
ANS: I like pondering over ideas and am reasonably balanced in my opinions. This core personality trait does influence my writing – in the way I build my characters, in the way I decide to represent various viewpoints that I think matter for the topic at hand. For example, I made sure the multiple facets of Chola bronzes get highlighted in the novel – the religious angle, the metallurgy angle, the illegal trade angle, etc. so the reader gets to experience a 360-degree view. It may not have been a great decision to keep all of it in a romance/mystery fiction, but in the end, I felt this was my voice really, and there was no need to compromise.
2. How long it took to write the book?
ANS: I took about a year to write the novel. It was mostly in bursts of energy – I am quite undisciplined, going for weeks without writing anything and then suddenly churning out a thousand words in one sitting. I have usually worked on substantial chunks while on vacation and then continued to do incremental changes day to day. I keep planning to get more disciplined about my writing, but unfortunately not been able to.
3. What else do you do as hobby (besides reading and writing)?
ANS: I watch TV – mostly movies, sitcoms and lifestyle stuff. I have dabbled with a bit of drawing in the past.
4. Is writing therapeutic/ energising/ enervating/ meditative/ frustrating or all of these?
ANS: I would say mostly meditative and depending on what I write on a particular day, can be energizing as well. It has never been frustrating or enervating simply because I write for my own pleasure without any deadlines. If I don’t find my groove, I walk away. I can imagine how hard it must be for professionals. Only when weeks go by without any writing to speak of, I get the feeling of unhappiness.
5. How important is editing? How many drafts and rewrite it took to make your book perfect? How dd you choose your editor?
ANS: I sometimes over-edit. I would stare at a para for like 15 minutes and change a word here or move a sentence there. So the drafts are countless. I am also ruthless about deleting things. I did get the book professionally edited – I just clicked with my editor, and I didn’t have any particular criteria.
6. India is a poor country which has a rich cultural heritage. We have so many artefact, idols and other splendour all across the width and breadth of the country which is beyond the capacity of ASI to maintain. It neither has the resources nor the manpower. Some specific questions in this context:
a. Recently GoI entrusted Lal Quila maintenance to Dalmia group. How do you see it? Is it a good precedent keeping in view the cash crunch with government?
i. I am not sure if it is the cash crunch that is to be blamed. Our defense budget runs in billions of dollars. If I am not wrong, our culture ministry also gets millions of dollars. I think it is a matter of efficiency and priorities. I have mixed feelings about handing over the maintenance of heritage locations to private parties. It seems like we are acknowledging that the government is not the best care-taker of our heritage, especially when we do this for our iconic buildings like the Lal Quila. Having said that, I’d rather something gets done. Lal Quila at one point was supposed to have been one of the top heritage sites in India in terms of maintenance spending. So if Dalmia were to take over and we can spend the same 25 crores money on 10 other less famous sites then so be it. As long as we are not talking about handing over the Lal Quila to the New East India company, that is.
b. Common people are unaware about the nitty gritty of these things as they are too busy in making ends meet. How to bring about awareness?
i. I believe most folks are conscious at a high level of the country’s rich heritage. The awareness of the nitty-gritty details depends on one’s interests, and I think it’s perfectly fine to not know the details. One can appreciate the beauty of a Chola bronze without knowing anything about the scientific maturity of the Cholas that it represents. And in this day and age of mobiles and the internet, there is enough material out there for anyone interested. Having said that, there is still room to educate people about our rich heritage smartly and sensitively. From school lessons to interesting documentaries to tour plans etc. Maybe through novels too. Countries like the UK that are smaller have mastered this. I’d consider my book a success even if one person looked up Chola bronzes on the internet and added a visit to a museum or a temple to see one in their wishlist.
c. These priceless entities are prone to theft. How to stop this?
i. We have to start by documenting these artifacts and their provenance diligently. Then protect them from not just theft, also decay. I am sure we have lost as many objects/sites to neglect as to theft. Once documented, I am sure with all the technology at our disposal, they can be tracked or maintained much more easily. In short, I think we have to take a scientific approach in terms of listing, classifying, tracking, etc.
7. Nataraja is famous for dance specifically. Why you chose Nataraja?
ANS: There are other bronzes as well that I could have chosen. But Nataraja is the quintessential Chola bronze. It is also interesting because of the cosmology connotations. Not just sculptors like Rodin, many scientists like Bohr, Tesla, etc. have also commented on the Nataraja. So with a protagonist who has a science background, I thought it was appropriate to choose the Nataraja. The Nataraja idol also represents art more holistically, and it represents the Shaivite philosophy – He is not just dancing – He is dancing on the demon of ignorance. Lastly, Nataraja is the most identified of all the Chola bronzes. Personally, I am even more enamored by the Vrishabhavahana.
8. The idol you described and other historical fact about Chola are detailed. How much is real?
ANS: Almost all of it is real [except the central mystery]. I modeled my idol after an idol in a museum as well as one in a small village in Tamil Nadu. I visited the museum in Chennai personally and what I describe is fairly accurate. The shipping routes are real. Past battles, generals, sculpting techniques, all are based on historical research papers. The central mystery is not real of course, but it is quite plausible.
9. The book directly to the point from the word go. How did you manage to keep the relentless tempo?
ANS: I have had mixed reviews about the tempo. I think some people found it descriptive and slow and some found the tempo just right. I think it depends on where the reader was coming from – if you were expecting a thriller, then you’d maybe find it slow. If you were used to general fiction, then you’d find the tempo right. In fact, I put the first line in the book – ‘It isn’t like there is a dead body’ - as an inside joke. Expect no serial killer in this book. I don’t consider the book a breezy read, but I did consciously try to either advance the mystery or the romance in every chapter. The mixed views about the tempo is probably a result of that.
10. Though it is a mystery and chase, there is emphasis also on developing characters, situations and detailing. It must have taken a lot of research and hard work. Why this approach for a thriller mystery?
ANS: I have always struggled to peg my books into a particular genre. I’d consider them genre-bending. If you take aTtB, it is equal parts romance, equal parts mystery but it is also very much about historical art. In my head, I wasn’t writing a thriller mystery I was writing this book that was a reflection of many things. It is probably a bad idea from a sales and marketing perspective, but any other approach would have bored me or would not have reflected my voice. Secondly, I do have a partiality for “Race and Chase” type mysteries with well-developed characters. And without strong characters, the mystery would have been flat.
11. Josh and Tom shares good chemistry. Tom is also friendly with Vidya. Josh relationship with Vidya is a bit tricky. How does it add to the overall narrative of book?
ANS: I particularly enjoyed writing the interactions of Josh and Tom. I had to show that Tom as an elder brother is still trying to teach Josh and Josh is resisting, but it doesn’t change their love for each other and the way they care for each other. Josh’s character arc is expounded mostly through his conversations with Tom or about Tom. Tom’s relation with Vidya was easy to write – a best friend, also part mentor. Tom’s explanations to Vidya and Josh also helped me narrate the background of the bronze to the reader. The tough part was to restrain from giving an information dump. Josh’s relation with Vidya was tricky indeed because the whole thing develops in a week. That was hard to write – I didn’t want it to be cardboard-ish, but I wanted to show the chemistry and possibly something deep happening. Vidya provides the view of a modern woman who is not necessarily an expert but is protective and proud of the heritage which is how I feel most people in India are. She is sensitive and open but is a city girl not exposed to the hardships of country life. Her interactions with Tom and her father helped me showcase a different viewpoint about the artifacts.
12. Is there some instance in the book from your life? Are there some characters inspired from real life?
ANS: A few characters are inspired by folks I know in real life - sort of a combination of multiple people. Some of Josh’s lines about the bronze reflect my own dilemmas or rather reflections on the place of art in this modern world. Is a 3-d printed Nataraja the same as an 11th-century one ultimately?
"Not too long before we can get as many of them 3-D printed."
That pretty much sums up Josh Winslow's feelings about classic artifacts. As a man of science and technology, he couldn't care less about old bronze idols. Unfortunately, his brother Tom has just made one such idol his problem. Vidya Thyagarajan, a young banker from Chennai, didn't expect to chase the origins of old idols either. But her friend Tom has just entangled her in one such chase. Along with Vidya, Josh reluctantly embarks on a journey to India to track the origins of a Chola bronze idol. Through the urban maze of Chennai, dusty roads of small towns in deep Chola territory, they discover clues that confounds them every step of the way. During a short span of a week, the quest quickly becomes personal as the shadow of the past challenges their outlook toward life and love.