Anindita Ghose, an acclaimed writer and journalist, especially renowned for her book, The Illuminated, has a unique writing style with depth in both character and stories. Her works deal with intricate narratives with nuanced and relatable characters, often highlighting heroism in the mundane. She was previously the editor of Mint Lounge, the Saturday magazine of culture and ideas that supplements the Indian business daily, and the Features Director of Vogue India. With her bold ink, she doesn't shy away from showing realities of life crafted within her fictional worlds—offering food for retrospection and a possible change of perspective for the readers.
You were an editor yourself. What was the process behind editing your novel? And how different was it from when you're editing for someone else?
I found that I had to consciously work towards quieting the editor in me to move forward with drafting the novel. One of the earliest pieces of writing advice I had received—from the novelist Akhil Sharma—was to write the first draft conversationally. If you’re hung up on perfecting every sentence at the drafting stage, making progress on a novel-length work is hard. That perfecting, that chiselling, is important but drafting and editing are two different processes employing two different parts of your brain. I found it worked best when I drafted and edited on alternate days. My usual process was to spend the first half of a new writing day editing the previous day’s work.
Editing your own work is certainly different from editing someone else’s work because you tend to be harsher and more unforgiving.
Grief serves as an essential backdrop for your novel, The Illuminated. And the world witnessed more than its fair share of grief and loss over the past two years. Would you say that the pandemic had any impact, if at all, on setting the tone for your novel or affected your creative process in any way?
There are coincidences and revelations that one confronts in the process of writing fiction. You’re right, most readers encountered The Illuminated during the pandemic after having suffered personal loss and that’s what the bulk of my initial reader interactions were centred on as well. But I’ve been working on the book since 2015 and I wouldn’t say that grief and loss were the primary charges I wanted to communicate. The novel was about renewal and rebirth and I suppose to create something new, you have to change the status quo. Someone had to die, something had to go. The way the story started for me, back in 2015, was that I had an image of this woman who has suffered a great loss and all she wants is a cup of tea—the cup of tea is everything she wants for herself. So it was about desire and ambition and seeing her life anew. But before that, there had to be grieving for the life she was leaving behind.
One of the wonderful things about fiction is that it needn’t have a single moral conclusion. Different readers take away different things from a book. Because of its release during the peak of the global pandemic, the element of loss became something a lot of people took away from the novel. For me at a personal level, it also felt like premonition. At the time I had written the chapters about death and loss, I had not experienced the death of a close human relative.
In light of the latest socio-political developments in the country where the conflict between religious fundamentalism and women’s rights has received more national prominence than perhaps ever before, The Illuminated almost feels prophetic. How do you feel, as an author, when the bleak aspects of your fictional worlds begin to unfold before your eyes?
As I said above, perhaps writers are prescient in some way. Some readers and critics questioned if some of the world building in The Illuminated was too far-fetched. But look at what’s happening around us. Every month there’s an incident—the hijab row most recently—that reinforces my belief that truth has overtaken fiction. I would have liked the speculative elements in The Illuminated to remain speculative but unfortunately, it’s not just on our TV screens, it’s on our doorsteps now.
The establishment of the state of Meenakshi as the means to resolve the ongoing conflicts of the novel has sometimes been cited as utopian and unrealistic. Was it the effect that you had intended, i.e., reflecting through fiction your vision of an ideal world? Or do you personally consider the prospect of a female-ruled state is after all not that unrealistic?
The way I see it, unreal problems need unreal solutions. Some of the situations we find ourselves in because of fanatic vigilante groups border on dystopia, so why not a utopia to balance it. There is a Hegelian scheme at the core of The Illuminated, and a good way to understand it is that if you have to correct a tree bent too far one way, you have to bend it too far the other way so it can settle at the centre. On another note, I do personally like fiction that goes beyond the hyper real and overlaps with the realm of magic and the intangible. I like realistic fiction that takes the occasional leaps.
In your novel, two of the characters play a game of Uttam-Soumitro, deciding if the passerby men are more of one or the other, given they can't be both. Do you think duality like this doesn't exist in the real world?
I don’t think this is true. All of us—even characters in novels—contains multitudes. This was more an illustration to show the limited worldview of the character who proposes this duality in the book. She is in her early 20s and comes from a place where she believes she cannot have it all. I would like to think that by the end of the book, in her 50s and with all the life she has lived, she thinks differently.
Drawing from the previous question, how do you interpret the theme of The Medley's seventh issue – “Layers”? What do you think are the different factors that lead to the birth or demise of these layers in an individual?
I think there are many layers, facets, dimensions, whatever we wish to call it, to an individual but conditioning, temperament, education and environment among other things makes some of these layers more resilient than the others. If there’s a takeaway from The Illuminated on these lines, it would be this: that different layers may atrophy with underuse over the years but we do have the infinite capability of regrowth.
Considering how successful your debut novel has been, there have been hopes and speculations about a sequel. We’d love to know if anything is under works or if there’s any other literary project you’re working on. Lastly, would you like to give any word — of advice, caution or general note — to budding writers?
I’m presently working towards my second novel though there are still conversations around The Illuminated that occupy me—different editions, formats. I don’t think a novel ends when the reader reads the last page. To borrow from Barthes, the novel lives on, the novel is now the readers’. I have not thought of a sequel as yet but I hope readers continue to think of Shashi and Tara and their life in Meenakshi and after. Advice is tough business but two things I can share without a doubt is to read, read, read, including reading genres and formats that you don’t consider your own. And secondly, to actively start writing. The only thing coming between you and writing is the act of writing itself.
Anindita Ghose is a journalist and author based in Mumbai. Her debut novel The Illuminated (July 2021) is out in the Indian subcontinent from HarperCollins’ Fourth Estate imprint and is a bestseller. It has been featured on best fiction lists by The Telegraph, The Times of India and GQ among others and on the HWR-Nielson Top 50 Fiction books bestsellers chart. The Independent (UK) has picked Anindita as one of their nine best upcoming authors from India.
Anindita has been a culture journalist for fifteen years and was most recently the editor of Mint Lounge, the award-winning Saturday magazine that supplements the Indian business daily Mint. As the Features Director of Vogue India, she wrote and commissioned stories on art, books, culture, design and travel.
Anindita has a master’s degree in linguistics and semiotics from the University of Mumbai and a master’s in arts & culture journalism from Columbia University. In 2019, she was a Hawthornden Writing Fellow in Scotland.
She is currently working on her second novel.