By Utpal Borpujari
The first story she ever wrote, when she was a “precocious” 13 year old, was published in this very newspaper. Since then, the little girl who grew up in Delhi and Bangalore has travelled a long way, in the process becoming The Jaishree Misra of Ancient Promises, Afterwards and Rani fame. Now, Misra has become that rare South Asian author to pen “commercial fiction” – as opposed to literary fiction – in Britain, in the shape of Secrets & Lies. Just released in India by Harper Collins, it is what, according to Misra, falls in the category that one would read while waiting at the airport to catch a delayed flight.
Misra has a way with words, for sure. As she settles down to discuss her new book, she announces an important decision, but without any trace of the drama that her books usually would have – that she is moving back to India, more specifically Delhi, from London by November, permanently. Big news definitely for the Indian literary world, but Misra, who works as a film classifier with the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), has her own personal and professional reasons for doing so. But more of that later, as we start discussing how she got down to penning a commercial fiction, when most of the bigtime Indian writers in English prefer to do literary fiction.
“It is actually a gamble taken by my publishers there, since all the success stories of Indian writers in the UK market have been in the realm of literary fiction. There is a different way of marketing, publicising, even doing the covers for commercial fiction. It’s a whole big market, but no one has done it with an Indian writer before there. The publishers apparently had been looking for a kind of crossover book, as there is a massive Asian population that remains untapped in this genre. In Asian writing, the settings, stories are quite typical, but commercial fiction is more upbeat, sassy, chatty, accessible. Leave alone the British Asians who deserve to have characters like themselves in these books, even others would be able to connect with characters of girls falling in love and men betraying them,” says Misra, whose literary genes go back to the legendary Malayalam writer Thakazhi Shivasankara Pillai, her grand-uncle.
The gamble apparently paid off, as Secrets & Lies entered what is called the Heat Seekers List in the UK within the second week of publication. It is the list just below the Top 20 list, in which only rising writers of the genre are featured. But then, lest one thinks that Misra has completely abandoned difficult themes for quick glory through commercial fiction, be aware about the evolution of the genre. “Some commercial fiction writers do tackle dark, serious subjects. My book too has a dark heart, not exactly is it a romantic comedy,” she says, adding that the only problem she has with the term “chic lit”, as one usually describes commercial fiction written by women writers, is that “people tend to think it will be funny and romantic all the time”. “My book is not funny, and it does not have that much romance in it. It is mainly about friendship.”
This latest by Misra is part of a three-book contract she has signed with her UK publishers, and like a fish taking to water, she seems to have taken to the world of commercial fiction quite well – she has already submitted the manuscript for her next book a month before the suggested deadline! So much so, a glimpse of it has even been provided in “Secrets & Lies”. “Deadlines in a funny way work with me, as some kind of mad energy overcomes me. When you have less time in a day, you tend to do it with a lot of passion and finish things early. I sometimes wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning with the idea bursting in my head, and start writing. I guess my tight work schedule at the BFFC helps me in writing more actively, though sitting down to write after five and 40 minutes of watching images every day as part of my job is very wearying. All the time your senses are being bombarded by all kinds of images which are not in a story form as we have to take a look at ads, cartoons, Mangas, TV series, add-ons to DVDs and anything that goes into public domain. Sometimes I find myself exhausted, but writing has a peculiar therapeutic therapy for me. “
Misra’s previous book Rani, on Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, was banned by the Uttar Pradesh government after some fringe political elements protested against its contents. Misra is, however, not too perturbed by it, as she believes the ban, which apparently still continues, has been just ritualistic. But then, she is also strongly against authorities playing ball with frivolous complaints against creative work. “You cannot allow people to get so easily offended. Since I work in a censorship organisation, I fully understand the need for certain control on freedom of expression. You cannot have unfettered freedom of expression in a civilised society, specially in cases like incitement of religious or racial violence, child pornography or terrorism. But where I think people get it wrong – and it happens everywhere – is that people think if they get offended by something it ought to be banned. Offence is such a vague, opaque term. What offends you, might not offend me, what offends my mother certainly won’t offend me,” she says. And then adds, “If you write something that does not offend anybody, you won’t be writing very good stuff, it will be very boring, bland stuff.”
Misra is soon moving back to India, and with it she plans to implement a long-cherished dream of setting up a centre for children with learning disabilities, her daughter being one. Apparently, she and her husband had been giving a thought about it for quite some time now. But now, thanks to a job offer that her husband has got, combined with separation schemes being offered by BBFC thanks to the economic downturn, which she is accepting, it is becoming a reality. “I have been wanting to set up a residential unit for children with learning disabilities,” she says.
And amidst all this, she also is toying with the idea of creating an Indian series for children. “We grew up reading Enid Blyton, and today’s kids are reading Harry Potter. Things have not changed – still there are no Indian characters for children, modern day stories that kids can identify with. I have this idea to change,” she says. Well, we are waiting.