Chirdeep Malhotra . Updated: 8/17/2021 3:13:37 AM Books and Authors

Author Interview: Rajesh Talwar

Rajesh Talwar works as Deputy Legal Adviser to the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan. He has written novels, children’s books, plays, self-help books, and non-fiction books covering issues in social justice, culture and law. He has recently come out with the book “Star-Crossed Lovers in the Blue”. In a candid chat with Chirdeep Malhotra, he talks about his latest book, his writing journey, his favourite books and authors, and much more. Read on!

Could you describe your latest novel “Star-Crossed Lovers in the Blue”? How did the idea for it take shape?

It is a love story of Arj, a merman and Utir, a mermaid, with the wider story taking place in the merfolk community living in the world’s oceans. Despite the passion with which they love each other, due to circumstances, Utir gets married to someone else. The two lovers are parted and live separate, troubled lives for many years, before fate throws them together again.
The idea of creating a fantasy world that would lend itself to animation had been brewing in my mind for quite some time. In its earliest avatar, the two characters were goldfish. A friend suggested I convert them to turtles. I thought about his suggestion and realised that actually both goldfish and turtles would be inappropriate, and since the theme was about deep, passionate love, the merfolk would be the best choice. This is because even us humans will possibly concede that they are perhaps even more sensitive than us! We might not make the same concession with goldfish or turtles.

What are some of the themes that you have discussed in this novel?

There are many layers to this novel. At one level, it is simply a romance, a love story between Arj, the merman and Utir, the mermaid. At another level, it is an ecological critique of what us humans have been doing to our planet in the name of progress. For instance, the two-headed merman Adad exists because at the time his mother was pregnant, humans had dumped chemical waste into that part of the ocean. The novel also hints at the narcissism of the human species, and our self-obsession. We don’t care if any other species is suffering or on the brink of extinction, just so long as we ourselves are okay. Human beings should actually consider how other species might regard us. In a section at the beginning of the novel, the merfolk discuss the strange beast that lives above the water, and are horrified to find that he doesn’t have a tail! Finally, a theme running through the novel is the coronavirus epidemic because a very similar virus afflicts the merfolk. In this tale, there are lessons to be learnt by the human race from the merfolk on the handling of the pandemic.

Can you tell us more about your writing process for this novel? How did you go about creating three-dimensional characters and mapping out an engaging plot for this novel?

In some of my books, I map out everything in advance, such as, for instance, my play on Gandhi and Ambedkar. So, I know exactly where I am going even before I start to write such a book. On the other hand, in other fictional works, I have no idea where I am going and the story catches me by the hand and takes me along. You could say therefore, that in a way the story writes itself. This is what happened with this book. Your question about creating three-dimensional characters is an interesting one. It is said about the Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul that he writes like a painter. This is because of his brilliant descriptions of settings and places. Creating a character however is more akin to sculpting, I would say. Every writer has lots of his observations of people stashed away somewhere and he draws upon that material when he is creating a character. But that material, by itself, is never sufficient. There has to be something more, what you could call ‘inspiration’. And then the characters and story fall into place.

Tell us more about the protagonists Utir and Arj. How did the characters come to you and how much did they change in the process of writing the novel?

Both Utir and Arj are highly emotional beings but in different ways. Utir, the mermaid, is strong willed, career focused and sensitive to the troubles of others. Arj, the merman, on the other hand doesn’t really have a plan in his life till circumstances throw him and Utir apart. It is then that he develops a purpose in his life, which is to become a travel journalist, find Utir, and convince her to come away with him, no matter that she is married to someone else. Both characters mature during the course of the book. By the time Arj is drawing close to where Utir lives, he has matured, and realises that it might not be very fair to intervene in someone’s life for your own selfish motives. Utir too learns a lot from her own suffering and this makes her yet more sensitive to the sufferings of others.

What kind of research did writing this book entail?

In order to create a convincing underwater world, a fair amount of research about different kinds of fish and sea creatures was involved. You are taking the reader into a fantasy world, and unless you succeed in convincing him that he is, momentarily, in that imaginary world you have created, he will lose interest early on.

What were some of the challenges while writing this book?

Writing this underwater fantasy was in some ways like solving a variety of puzzles or riddles. How will Arj send his articles to his editor from thousands of miles away? The eels came to the rescue here. They send the information through electrical impulses, you see. How do merfolk travel long distances? Again, the sea horse comes to the rescue. There were at least a hundred such small puzzles, and cumulatively they represented quite a challenge.

What are you reading these days? Who are your literary influences?

I am greatly influenced by the Russian and French novelists that I grew up reading. I am a huge, huge admirer of writers like Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Maupassant, Balzac, Proust and so on. At the moment I am reading “A Sense of Home: Abujhmad and a Childhood Village” by Narendra. In some ways, the book is a critique of modernity and our notions of progress. My book also addresses some common issues, but through a fictional device.

How has the pandemic altered your reading and writing schedules?

Before the pandemic I never enjoyed an afternoon siesta. Now that I am indoors much more, I have started to enjoy an hour’s nap in the afternoon on days where I find that there isn’t any urgent office work. As a consequence, I sleep very late, generally around one in the morning. In the day time, there are many disturbances. I find myself doing more reading and writing at late hours in the night.

What are you working on next? Any new literary projects that our readers should look out for?

I have at least eight to ten books in the pipeline which should keep me busy over the next two, three years. These range from a fairy tale about a princess with very long hair, to a book on the Taliban, to a book on Gandhi written from an unusual perspective. The next book in the pipeline is a novel titled “Guilty of Love, Your Honour”, which should be out in a few weeks. The cover is being designed even as I respond to your questions. It is about the moral dilemmas faced by a lawyer who falls in love with a friend’s fiancée, even as he wards off the sexual overtures by another friend’s girlfriend! I think it may find special resonance with the millennials.

Can you share with our readers a motivational quote that keeps you going?

It has to be one of Oscar Wilde’s quotes. ‘We are all in the gutter,’ he writes, ‘but some of us are looking at the stars!’ I find it profound and greatly motivating.

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