Author, Burning for Freedom

Author, Burning for Freedom
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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

My Keshu

Hi, Everyone! Keshu, my fictional hero, has an unusual, even unexpected, background. I had to traverse quite a meandering path to evolve it.

I had determined that my fictional hero had to be from Cochin in the Malabar area (for how else was I going to write about the Moplah riots). I picked Pune as the city where he would become a revolutionary. Since I loved Pune, I felt I could write comfortably on it. This was also my opportunity to record some of the fond memories of my childhood for posterity, and that is exactly what I have done in the prequel. Chingi, the cat, is one of them.

My fictional hero’s mother had to be a widow, for I wanted to write about the plight of widows in India too. I also wanted his parents to have had an inter-caste marriage (but still be Brahmins, for I didn’t want to get tangled up in a complex love story for them). This way I could give him ties to two places very disconnected from each other which too was essential for my plot.

Chitpavan Brahmin caste was an almost natural choice for Mohini with her Pune background, and one I was very familiar with. The father, I decided, would be a Nayar. I was aware that Nayar’s came from the Malabar area. I called my hero Keshavan; the name is a South Indian one, I believe.

Keshu, as I called him, became alive in my eyes even before I started to write. (Wo)manfully, I jumped into the writing foray, deciding to research as I went along. Originally, my novel was to contain Keshu’s story too (now a prequel) so I started with that.
I struggled through the prologue and was ready to venture forward when something niggled at the back of my mind—had I done enough research on the Nayar community?

No. I had just brushed the surface, perhaps. I had made a pact with myself: if even the shadow of a doubt crossed my mind on any aspect, sentence, or even word in my novel, I would check it out from all angles.

So I went back to Google and realized that the Nayars were Kshatriyas, not Brahmins, and a matriarchal society to boot; something quite, quite alien to me. Horrors! What was I to do now? Keshu’s background was critical to the novel.

After some hectic research I discovered that the Gaud Saraswat Brahmins (GSB) had settled in Cochin centuries ago. I went down on my bended knees and thanked God (this was the first instance of Divine Intervention). This I could handle, my father being from the same caste. I even studied the photograph of my grandparents to get the feel of the 1913 era. The nickname “Keshu” was by this time cast in stone for me, so I just removed the ‘an’ from his name and made him “Keshav” to turn it into a GSB name (for his last name I went through several gyrations for many months before I settled on Wadkar). Now I carried on writing swimmingly.

And then came another niggle.

Was Cochin the correct place for the Moplah riots to occur? Was it…? Back to Google again! To my horror (once more) it most certainly was not! It was a Princely State. I poured over the map of the Malabar area for cities where the Moplah riots took place. And after going dizzy I came up with a place—something unpronounceable from ‘M.’ Every two nights I would jerk awake in horror and switch the name of Keshu’s hometown from the “M something” to Calicut and then back again. This mental seesaw was harrowing, to say the least. I felt very much like the hamster running furiously in his wheel and getting nowhere.

Other questions whirled in my mind too: How was Keshu going to survive (in 1921) in a place utterly devastated by riots? What was I going to do about his being a GSB, now that he could not be from Cochin? What, what, what…?

After going from pillar to post in my mind, I called a halt to it by making some ‘executive’ decisions.
  • Keshu would come from a small (fictional) village on the outskirts of Calicut. The name ‘Pongur’ just popped in my mind and I liked it.
  • An offshoot of the Moplah riots would take place in Pongur.
  • Keshu would continue to be a GSB.
The readers would just have to forgive the liberty I took of transplanting some of the GSB community from Cochin to Calicut!
Phew! Now Keshu’s background was settled.

Or was it?

More on that day after tomorrow. For tomorrow's post is going to be an Independence Day special.


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