Tradition and subversion coexist with superstitions and the slow advent of modernity in Bengaluru-based political journalist Sowmya Aji's second novel The Wall. Drawing its narrative from folk tales and mythology, the story entwines the legend of Kamadeva, the god of love, with the panchabhootas or the five elements, interspersed with tales of Shiva, Vishnu and other mythology - known and unknown. It is all brought to life in the day-to-day routine of the village along with the political/cultural history of Karnataka. The author shares what went into the making of The Wall.
How do we classify your book : mythology, horror, fantasy, erotica? It's an amalgam of the lot, I guess. This book wrote itself and I didn't plan or format it before it got done. I had no clue how it would turn out, I just had a drive to write it as I felt it. India has so much mythology, so much folk and all of it is full of fantasy, horror, erotica. I was trying to get the feel of my childhood stories and apply it to life as we, adults know it. In some ways, it is what SS Rajamouli has tried to do with Baahubali.
I have approached it differently and at a more subtle level, as I have the advantage of a written medium. He has done it visually and worked more on retaining the flavour of the fantasy/mythology stories we all heard at our grandmothers' knee. I have worked more on bringing in real life in the old tales and mixing it with the hidden sub-text of India.
Mythological characters like Shiva, Kama, Yellamma, and many others show up in unexpectedly and in unfamiliar avatars. Was much of it drawn from folk culture or did you make them up?
Some, like the flowers and the tales around Annaiah, are made up entirely by me. Some are reworked elements from various folk tales. I have taken tales from all over Karnataka, which is one reason which I have not located the village in any specific part of the state. We all have subaltern/alternative mythologies which live through us and our thoughts. There are classic elements, taken from art texts, in the book. There are folk elements and alternative thinking also. I have tried to blend all of them and give them a new dimension.
How have you tackled the issue of writing in English about a subject in a rural setting? What were the problems that you faced in doing so?
It's a big challenge: how to present a Kannada sensibility in English, a language that is actually alien to the land that I am talking of. So far, we have had translations of Kannada works in English, but I have attempted something new in the Wall, which is an original English work set in the Kannada sensibility. The problem is that I think in English, not Kannada, so how does one translate from one to the other without losing the essence, the flavour of the latter? I did trying writing transliteration, but it jarred even my own sensibilities. It has been a learning experience for me, often because I use words that would be just fine in English, but would not make sense for a village girl from Karnataka to use! I have tried to find a mid-path and find a medium that would make sense all round in this book. It has seen 27 drafts and the language has evolved along with each draft.
How would a Kannada reader accept your novel vis a vis a non-Kannada speaker?
I am hoping it works both ways. Kannada words are essential for the text to make sense. For a non-Kannada reader, it creates that alternate world feel, what you would call alienating. For the Kannada reader, it becomes her own experience because of the Kannada words.
What is the significance of Kama - the God of Desire- in your book?
Kama, in my mind, is the root of all life. Desire marks all change, all progress. It also marks all destruction, so it really is what life is about. Negation of desire is the common thought that all philosophies advise to attain Nirvana. I've tried to look at all those elements. We do have a Kamana habba in Karnataka, that is now almost extinct, though I remember it as a child. I have just taken my idea of Kama and applied it to the state and its socio-cultural context.