Out of Print editor, Ram Sadasiv spoke to Mahesh Rao whose wonderful The Smoke is Rising has just been shortlisted for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2014. An extract from the book appeared in the June 2014 issue of the magazine, so readers who don’t yet have a copy of the novel may get a taste of the world he is writing about here.
Mahesh was in touch with us from London where he is promoting the release of the paperback issue.
Out of Print:
The Smoke Is Rising is populated with a huge cast of vividly drawn characters but the most compelling character may be the city of Mysore itself – in some ways the novel reads as a love letter to the city of Mysore. You were born in Kenya and lived in the UK for several years before settling in Mysore – what drew you to the city as a place of residence and as a subject for your writing?
Thank you, I think it is a love letter to the city but it wasn't always conceived that way. The early ideas about the book came when I began to wonder what Malgudi would look like if it were being written about today. And of course, that's a fairly terrifying and grandiose project — to rethink a classic setting in that way. So I tried to fudge the issue by creating my own fictional city, giving it the ironic name 'Belaku' (‘light’ in Kannada). After I'd written the first draft, it was, however, pointed out to me that I had in fact written about Mysore. And when I revisited the manuscript, I had to concede that this was true. I hadn't created a fictional city at all: my updated Malgudi turned out to be modern Mysore, a fact that bruised my assessment of my imaginative powers but, on the other hand, was a wonderful illustration of how a city can get under your skin and insist on being written about.
I have always loved Mysore — its leisurely pace, its crumbling architecture, its green spaces. It allows me to do all the things that I love doing: writing, ambling without purpose, and being exceptionally inquisitive about people's lives in, I hope, not too awful a manner. Plus, we have a local newspaper that mentions the word 'miscreants' at least ten times in every issue. It's hard to place a value on that.
Out of Print:
You write beautifully, but it is a very classic English style, which presents an interesting contrast with the subject matter of The Smoke Is Rising: you are telling the story of contemporary Mysore using the same language that Evelyn Waugh might have used to describe Edwardian London. What do you think about the role of language: vernacular, slang, idiomatic constructions, portmanteau words, etc as it impacts your own writing?
Again, thank you – as a big fan of Evelyn Waugh’s, the comparison is very flattering, although I’m sure not one that would stand up to scrutiny. There is a distinct authorial voice in the novel, an omniscient narrator who swoops over the city and into the lives of its inhabitants. And this is a voice that is probably the result of all the nineteenth century novels that were part of my formative reading experiences. It also provides the sense of distance and detachment needed for the satirical sections of the novel. As you say, it is at odds with the cadences and syntax of the characters in the book, and again, this was deliberate. I think a very effective way of achieving a sense of place is through dialogue and local idioms. And in India the regional variations in the way English is spoken can be a rich source of that colour and can also be put to work for moments of comedy or pathos. So I tried to make sure the characters spoke a ‘real’ language and not a literary one. Apart from anything else, it’s so much fun to write.
Out of Print:
With its panoply of characters and interlocking storylines The Smoke Is Rising feels like it would work as a web serial. Do you have any plans for a screenplay/adaptation? A bare minimum of set dressing would be required – you could just head out with a handheld Digital HD camera and shoot the scene in the actual location that the author imagined ;). Any actual locations that you would like to share with us/ google streetview?
I love this idea! No one has approached me but I can live in hope. People have told me that the book feels quite cinematic and I'm delighted by this. In fact, the prologue was inspired by the famous opening scene in Orson Welles's 'A Touch of Evil'. There's a long tracking shot that takes in sights and sounds of a Mexican border town — we hear snatches of conversation and music, there are glimpses of shops and hotels, shadowy figures disappearing into side streets, a honeymooning couple walking down the street. I wanted to capture a similar panorama as Girish walks through the centre of Mysore, with the Chadrayaan space mission TV coverage flickering at various points in the background.
As for locations, the streets around Irwin Rd and Sayyaji Rao Rd, Devaraja Market, the Manasagangotri university campus, Jaganmohan Palace, Amba Vilas Palace, Chamundi Hill, the Bangalore-Mysore highway — these are all real places in Mysore where some of the action takes place. Cheluvamba Park and the grander houses of Yadavagiri could easily stand in for the fictional Mahalakshmi Gardens and parts of Kukkarhalli Lake and Karanji Lake could pass as Tejasandra Lake. There is no lakeside Promenade anywhere with its fancy new constructions so you would need to boost the budget for those scenes!
Mahesh Rao was born and grew up in Nairobi, Kenya. He studied politics and economics at the University of Bristol and law at the University of Cambridge and the London School of Economics. In the UK he has worked as a lawyer, academic researcher and bookseller. His short fiction has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, the Bridport Prize and the Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest; his work has appeared in a number of publications including The Baffler, Prairie Schooner and Elle. The Smoke Is Rising is his first novel. He lives in Mysore, India.