Our author, Renu Balakrishnan recently released Four Aleys. In this post, she chats with members of her book club, who followed the book through its evolution. It makes for a deep and affectionate conversation. Renu's Spider Man appeared in June 2013, and like the novel, is set in a Kerala seen through a sensitive lens.
Renu Kurien Balakrishnan in conversation with her book club members Anjala Singh, Manju Nanavathy, Shashi Merchant, Vatsala D’Souza, Liz Virkar.
Your debut novel book Four Aleys has been remarkably well received both by readers and critics alike. Can you tell us a little about its unusual title and touch on a few threads of the plot?
I named the book Four Aleys because the novel is the story of four women in one family with the same name. Each has unique experiences and though they differ in character and temperament, a common thread binds them. They are strong but helpless. The youngest, aware of this even as a child is determined not to fall into a stultifying life such as theirs. The women belong to a patriarchal family set in a feudal society and in the course of the story cataclysmic events challenge this structure and destroy it. The youngest breaks away and sacrificing personal love and family ties forges ahead as a leader of the state of Devanidhi and achieves success in setting up a school for the victims of pesticides, to preventing the dynamiting of fish. The story is set in the 1950s and ‘60s when Kerala became the first example of a state ruled by an elected communist government.
The structure of the book – the circular narrative that loops back and forth – was that planned or did it evolve along with the story? Was it difficult to sustain?
It wasn’t planned. I wrote scenes and these not in any chronological order. The first scene at the cemetery was written much later than the scenes in the middle. Little Aley is recalling her past and the memories appear, as they will. Memory is never chronological. So writing in scenes worked perfectly. I strung them together with the expositions at a later stage. And much later I changed the narrative flow to enhance the connectivity of events. The loops appeared organically.
What were the personal and literary influences that helped shape your book?
My family is huge. Around 83 first cousins! I remember the fun and frolic of growing up in a family where seldom did less than 20 folk sit down to a meal. These experiences flashed into my mind when I wrote about Big House in Four Aleys.
I have always read a lot of fiction and so it’s difficult to isolate which particular authors and works inspired me. As an adult I loved the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Haruki Murakami, Zadie Smith, E.M.Forster, and J.M. Coetze, to mention few splendid authors that come to mind right now.
I loved the idea of taking real characters from your family and giving them the life you felt they should have had - letting them live vicariously through your story! What was the reaction of your family to the book?
I haven’t based any of the characters on family members. I did use names and situations but I created all the characters in the book. My family doesn’t believe me and are reading and re reading the book and lively WhatsApp conversations are going on guessing who is who. But I had a favourite aunt called Kunjupenkochama and I made her into Little Aley’s lovable, loving, sensitive, capable, efficient, strong great aunt. She would have been all of these if she had been given a chance.
How has Little Aley developed such a strong sense of social justice at such an early age? Is that you - your sensitivity and awareness as a child?
Most children do not discriminate and nor pay attention to social hierarchies. Their affection and respect is won independent of these. But a child does observe that some people are treated differently. Who can sit at the dining table for instance? Why are domestics made to sit on the floorboard of a car and not the seats? Why are some visitors made to use the rear entrance of the home? A child will accept these norms as the way the world works. Or, as in my case, as a child, question and then be disturbed by the answers. Little Aley is sensitive and ever curious about the two sides of the social divide. When she’s annoyed with Amini she calls her a servant and regrets it immediately. Somewhere inside her she knows she’s not being fair.
Could you explain the paradox of the strong women in your story who allow their lives to be determined by others?
Three of the four Aleys, though strong, intelligent, feisty women, let the men determine their lives. They know their strengths but fear to exercise their rights. Do they accept it as their fate? Do they allow themselves to be in the thrall of their menfolk because they see no other route as they wish to belong to the family, to society? They are aware of their dependence but afraid to explore outside the rigid rules, afraid they will flounder. So they chafe against the societal diktats, which even the church supports, but it takes three generations before the fourth breaks free. For the fourth Aley having seen the corrosive quality of obsessive love, wants no part of this legacy. Though she is eventually in a committed relationship it is one enjoyed out of the norms laid down by society.
There is a strong thread of magical realism in your book. Was that a conscious choice or did it flow naturally?
I attempted to use a kind of magic realism in Four Aleys. Death and loss are common occurrences in human lives. But how can one convey Elizabeth’s deep anguish on hearing of her mother’s death; Little Aley unable to bear the thought of the death of her beloved Raman; the deep desire to unearth the possibility of the existence of a little brother; Amini raped repeatedly by the scion of Big House. So talking boats, cries that hurtle through forests, baby in a jar of brine … ‘Magical elements blended into realistic situations to understand reality more deeply.’
Kerala, or Devanidhi as it is christened in your book, in the early part of the last century makes for a wonderful canvas. Do you believe that a writer must know his subject intimately?
I wanted to create a Macondo like town as Marquez did. And, yes, knowing and loving a place deeply helps you create a look alike and you can christen it with another name. The background provides the canvas on which the lives of four women are painted and so you need to understand its texture so that the painting is authentic.
While the Syrian Christian community will identify with the book how do you expect other communities around the world to do so?
The tiny Syrian Christian community will identify with it for sure. Other readers will be familiar with how small communities and religious groups all over the world hold their people in thrall, how they both bind and support their members. Readers may be compelled to read up on the Orthodox churches and their history.
How long did it take you to write Four Aleys?
I took over 8 years to complete the novel and send it to Vitasta Publications. I wrote sporadically over that time. I like to write in the morning and so for some months I would do so. Then would come periods of doubt and discontent and frustration and the story did not move forward. I had the idea of the four Aleys right at the start. I knew them intimately and their stories. This part evolved. The other characters and situations had to be developed gradually.
Finally, have you begun work on your next novel? Can you share with us a little about it?
I’ve an idea for a second novel: Pheely and the Puffer Fish. It’s about a truly ‘good man’ a dreamer who is absolutely dysfunctional. It’s about him his practical wife who has no patience with foolish dreams, his mother, a totally self-centered woman and his sister who is a nun. I don’t know where it’s going to go. The overarching theme is, who is a good person and that they don’t get recognised as such in our world. It’s set in a small modern town perhaps around the 1990’s.