Jash Sen was interviewed by author Devika Rangachari about The Wordkeepers and writing and books.
DR: Jash, your debut novel gripped me from the word go—and then I couldn’t do anything else until I’d finished it! How difficult was it to write a futuristic fantasy novel that derives from mythology?
JS: Well, I thought I was writing a 3000 word short story when I started. I started with a dream, a dream about that giant eye you see on the cover. I have very strange, lucid dreams. I knew the eye had to be a part of the story, but by the time I had written about it, Anya was off on a long adventure, maybe of 11,000 words. Then she kept getting into more trouble, so when I crossed 40,000 words I knew I’d need two books to tell her story. Eventually, after Duckbill made me write down the outline of the entire story, I realised I had a trilogy on my hands.
DR: Your book has elements from both the Indian epics. Did you want to reinvent these works for today’s young readers or were you simply trying to tie up the loose ends in the original stories, especially the Mahabharata, as your book takes off from where it ends?
JS: I was always curious about the nine Chiranjeevis – the immortal ones. I used to wonder where they would be today, what their secret identities would be like, how they would live and earn a living, whether they’d enjoy our TV serials, all of these details of modern life. And I wanted to have them in my story.
DR: You taught mathematics and now you’re a writer with a trilogy in your head. Did you get bored with juggling numbers or was this some kind of logical progression?
JS: Ooh, I love juggling numbers almost as much as I love stories. Ideally, I’d like to write a story some day where maths plays a big part. I love high school geometry and algebra. I suppose logical ability is a wonderful ally when one sets out to work on a large canvas, like in a trilogy. Maths helps us sharpen that ability. I don’t think my writing interest is a logical progression, more a parallel thing. There you go, maths again.
DR: One of the fascinating elements of your book is the experimentation with gender stereotypes. Did you worry that it might turn out to be risky in any way?
JS: On the contrary, I was sensitised by everyone around me to not stereotype, a bit too much on occasion. There can be such a thing as self-conscious character building. Anya seemed to be like the sort of girl who would be tough when the occasion demanded it, but also quite happy to enjoy her budding femininity once in a while. In completely taking away her occasional stereotypical girliness, I felt there was a risk to artificially limiting her character. Bilal was similarly a soft-natured boy, but if I took away the stereotypical cricket from him, he would stop being real to me. After all, stereotypes often have their roots in reality.
DR: The names of your characters also provide an insight into their roles/ personalities. Anya, for instance, who is also ‘the other one’. How much time did it take you to come up with these names?
JS: Anya and Bilal came to me, just like that. They came pre-packaged into my imagination, the Muslim village boy and the not-particularly religious urban teenager who are worlds apart, yet connected.
DR: What is your writing schedule? Do you write all day—with occasional Bourbon biscuit breaks—or do you write when inspiration strikes you? Does the chocolate in the Bourbons help to clear your mind in any way?
JS: I love to write first thing in the morning, after my shower and black tea. The more regular I am with this routine, the easier writing gets. Perspiration is definitely inspiration in my case. I’ve taken a break for a month now, for instance, and I know getting back into my rhythm will be hard. But real life intervenes, so I have to occasionally give way to it, kicking and screaming. Bourbon biscuits help me think if they have just the right amount of chocolate. Otherwise, I have to dunk them in black tea to make them palatable. Some of the biscuit makers have started skimping on the chocolate, curse them.
But I digress. I usually write until 9.30 a.m. then start my (other) work day. Sometimes I get a good spell in the early evening. Pre-dawn has occasionally been fantastic, except I still haven’t mastered waking up that early every day. A bit of silence helps when there’s an action scene happening inside my head.
DR: Can you give us a sneak peek into the next two books of your trilogy? Do the Wordkeepers and Krishna end up saving the world?
JS: The story kind of decides these big things for me, I am just the writer who’s around to write it down. And it’s terribly noncommittal to me at the moment. Doesn’t trust me to keep my mouth shut, I guess.
DR: ‘Spinning stories’ is apparently your forte. Have you been doing this all your life? And for whom do you spin your stories?
JS: Ooh, thank you! I used to wonder all these years if I was any good at it. It’s great to know someone thinks I am. I am happiest when I write stories and rather miserable when I don’t, because I love to make up things and it is very strange to make up stories for no reason at all in real life. There’ll be psychiatrists buzzing around you like flies in no time if you do.
On a more serious note, I have been trying to write for many years, and I started about six stories when I lived in London but was unable to finish a single one. Coming back to my roots helped immensely. The words just poured out of me as if they were dying to get out. That, and not having to worry about my next meal, which I now believe helps creativity a great deal.
DR: You like watching thriller films. Is there any book that you’d like to see converted into a movie of this genre?
JS: I worship Agatha Christie, despite people’s views that her books were little more than ‘intricate algebra’ (I forget who said that), or perhaps because of the same reason. I’d love to see an updated, modern version of The Secret of Chimneys.
DR: Which is your all-time favourite book/ story? And which is the one that bored you to tears?
JS: I shall not name any boring authors until I gain my brown belt in karate. Ask me the same question then. I don’t think any writer has a black belt yet.
Self-indulgent writing bores me. Unless the author is a true master of words, she has no right to go on and on without moving the story ahead. So do forgive me if I occasionally rush in my adventures, I believe the story should come first, brilliant descriptions only when they serve the story. I know I shall learn to savour the story more as I gain confidence as a writer, but I’ve not reached that place yet. So I let my plots sprint. The real world is full of boring people who go on and on, anyway.
I love adventures and think they are underrated. Therefore, Alexandre Dumas, R.L. Stevenson, Saradindu Bandopadhyay are my heroes. If you haven’t read the last writer, please find a translation pronto. My all-time favourite book is The Secret Adversary – because Tommy and Tuppence are such gung-ho lovelies. The Three Musketeers comes a very close second. I love Milady.