Thursday, April 19, 2007

Deccan Herald - Interview 8 Apr '07

Familiar ground

Utpal Borpujari in an interview with Geeta Abraham Jose, whose first novel is about her own community, the Syrian Christians

Remember The God of Small Things and the world created in it by Arundhati Roy? It is the same world of the Syrian Christian community of Kerala that Geeta Abraham Jose takes a reader into through her debut novel By The River Pampa I Stood.

An IIT-Chennai alumni, Jose lives in Dubai.A portion of the proceeds from the book is being donated to the Nav Srishti Foundation (an NGO that works for under-privileged women in India) by Srishti Publishers & Distributors.

This is not the first novel with the Syrian Christian community as the backdrop and Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things is the most famous example of that. How would you describe your novel's theme?

Way back in 1995, I said to myself, ‘Hey, why not write a book using my own community as the backdrop? This is an uncharted territory. So let me write about it.’ That's when my novel was born.

I had almost completed writing it when Arundhati’s novel took the world by storm. I loved her book but I was amazed at the similarities in the theme and the family set up. We come from the same Syrian Christian background and anyone from this background would know the kind of incidents which could raise eyebrows in a highly conservative society like ours. This could be the reason for the similarity in the theme. As for the kind of life that existed in the pre-Independence era, I picked a lot from conversations with people from the older generations of the community.

As for the river Pampa, it has always remained close to my heart. I grew up hearing legends about the Pampa and during the hot summer days we cruised on its serene waters through the Kuttanadan plains. What is particularly appealing about Kuttanad is its old-world charm, its slow pace of life and its innocence which remain unchanged.

There seems to be a deliberate attempt to ride on the success of Chetan Bhagat, as the cover page of your book says, “A novel by yet another IITian”. Comment.

My book is not a book about IIT. I guess my publishers are still riding on the crest of the success wave of IITian Tushar Raheja’s novel (Anything for you, ma'am), which they published last year and still remains a hot favourite with teenagers in India. The publishers were attracted to my manuscript because it was penned by another IITian. That could be the reason for the rejoinder on the cover page.

How important was the Syrian Christian backdrop for your first novel?

I chose this background only because I am familiar with the community I was born into and brought up in. I was very particular that the descriptions of lifestyle and traditions be original; only then does the book have literary value. Instead of treading on unknown territory, I chose to walk confidently on familiar ground. I did not need much research for portraying the community's characteristics.

How long did it take for you to conceptualise the storyline and actually write it down?

It took me around two years to complete the novel. In one of my creative moments I must have conjured up the plot. The conceptualisation of the storyline must have taken only a couple of months. When I relocated to Dubai, the manuscript travelled with me and lay dormant in the bottom drawers of my closet. About a couple of years ago I transferred it to a word document on my laptop and gave it a few finishing touches before dashing it off to publishers.

Having been settled in the Gulf, has it allowed to take a more objective view of your society when you wrote the novel?

Sure, it did. But the main portions of the novel were written before I moved to Dubai to join my husband.

Are there autobiographical elements in the novel, since it ends with such an indication?

If it seems so to the reader, then I have succeeded in what I intended it to seem like. I wished that the reader would read it as though it was a true story. Frankly speaking, it is not autobiographical. A few incidents were picked from my associations with senior citizens. The main plot is totally fabricated. I have written in first person using a ‘journal style’ in order to lend credibility to the story.

As a first time author, what kind of experience did you have while looking for a publisher?

Oh, that was really the difficult part. Some publishers sent instant regret letters. Some kept the sample chapters for a long time and nothing ever happened. As I said, initially it was the ‘IITian’ tag that caught the attention of Srishti Publishers— who are well known to provide a platform for amateur writers— and then the manuscript was read and appreciated by the editor. Many a manuscript is born to blush and die unseen… You need to send it to the right publisher at the right time.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Thoughts of Pontius Pilate

My wife spoke of Him many times ere He was brought before me, but I was not concerned.

My wife is a dreamer, and she is given, like so many Roman women of her rank, to Eastern cults and rituals. And these cults are dangerous to the Empire; and when they find a path to the hearts of our women they become destructive.

Egypt came to an end when the Hyskos of Arabia brought to her the one God of their desert. And Greece was overcome and fell to dust when Ashtarte and her seven maidens came from the Syrian shores.

As for Jesus, I never saw the man before He was delivered up to me as a malefactor, as an enemy of His own nation and also of Rome.

He was brought into the Hall of Judgment with His arms bound to His body with ropes.

I was sitting upon the dais, and He walked towards me with long, firm steps; then He stood erect and His head was held high.

And I cannot fathom what came over me at that moment; but it was suddenly my desire, though not my will, to rise and go down from the dais and fall before Him.

I felt as if Caesar had entered the Hall, a man greater than even Rome herself.

But this lasted only a moment. And then I saw simply a man who was accused of treason by His own people. And I was His governor and His judge.

I questioned Him but he would not answer. He only looked at me. And in His look was pity, as if it were He who was my governor and my judge.

Then there rose from without the cries of the people. But He remained silent, and still He was looking at me with pity in His eyes.

And I went out upon the steps of the palace, and when the people saw me they ceased to cry out. And I said, "What would you with this man?"

And they shouted as if with one throat, "We would crucify Him. He is our enemy and the enemy of Rome."

And some called out, "Did He not say He would destroy the temple? And was it not He who claimed the kingdom? We will have no king but Caesar."

Then I left them and went back into the Judgment Hall again, and I saw Him still standing there alone, and His head was still high.

And I remembered what I had read that a Greek philosopher said, "The lonely man is the strongest man." At that moment the Nazarene was greater than His race.

And I did not feel clement towards Him. He was beyond my clemency.

I asked Him then, "Are you the King of the Jews?"

And He said not a word.

And I asked Him again, "Have you not said that you are the King of the Jews?"

And He looked upon me.

Then He answered with a quiet voice, "You yourself proclaimed me king. Perhaps to this end I was born, and for this cause came to bear witness unto truth."

Behold a man speaking of truth at such a moment.

In my impatience I said aloud, to myself as much as to Him, "What is truth? And what is truth to the guiltless when the hand of the executioner is already upon him?"

Then Jesus said with power, "None shall rule the world save with the Spirit and truth."

And I asked Him saying, "Are you of the Spirit?"

He answered, "So are you also, though you know it not."

And what was the Spirit and what was truth, when I, for the sake of the State, and they from jealousy for their ancient rites, delivered an innocent man unto His death?

No man, no race, no empire would halt before a truth on its way towards self-fulfilment.

And I said again, "Are you the King of the Jews?"

And He answered, "You yourself say this. I have conquered the world ere this hour."

And this alone of all that He said was unseemly, inasmuch as only Rome has conquered the world.

But now the voices of the people rose again, and the noise was greater than before.

And I descended from my seat and said to Him, "Follow me."

And again I appeared upon the steps of the palace, and He stood there beside me.

When the people saw Him they roared like the roaring thunder. And in their clamour I heard naught save "Crucify Him, crucify Him."

Then I yielded Him to the priests who had yielded Him to me and I said to them, "Do what you will with this just man. And if it is your desire, take with you soldiers of Rome to guard Him."

Then they took Him, and I decreed that there be written upon the cross above His head, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews." I should have said instead, "Jesus of Nazareth, a King."

And the man was stripped and flogged and crucified.

It would have been within my power to save Him, but saving Him would have caused a revolution; and it is always wise for the governor of a Roman province not to be intolerant of the religious scruples of a conquered race.

I believe unto this hour that the man was more than an agitator. What I decreed was not my will, but rather for the sake of Rome.

Not long after, we left Syria, and from that day my wife has been a woman of sorrow. Sometimes even here in this garden I see a tragedy in her face.

I am told she talks much of Jesus to other women of Rome.

Behold, the man whose death I decreed returns from the world of shadows and enters into my own house.

And within myself I ask again and again, What is truth and what is not truth?

Can it be that the Syrian is conquering us in the quiet hours of the night?

It should not indeed be so.

For Rome must needs prevail against the nightmares of our wives.

-Kahlil Gibran (Book: Jesus, the Son of Man)