An architect, urban regional planner and management expert, Raj Doctor talks about the difficult times during which his first novel ' Melancholy of Innocence' was written. A writer who divides his time between Amsterdam and Jaipur, Doctor took some time out to answer our questions. Here is the interview.
You are an architect, urban regional planner and management expert. What prompted you to write a novel?
I remember that since a young age – I must be 11 years old - I started drawing, sketching, writing poetry and short stories; so indulgence in creative arts came much before I qualified as an architect, urban regional planner and management expert. Off and on, I have been writing prose, reviews, poetry, essays, short stories, scripts etc. For me, writing is a source of catharsis to remain adjusted to the realm of societal reality. Luckily this time, my novel has been published for a wider audience to read me and know my inner thoughts.
Tell us why you chose Istanbul as a setting for your novel.
There are reasons why I chose Istanbul:
Firstly, I have been travelling all over the globe and have visited 28 different countries – from Eastern hemisphere of Asia Pacific, New Zealand to the Western hemisphere of South America, Chile. Invariably, I assume, I have absorbed various cultures and traditions and amalgamation of all these cultures resides in my psyche. The more one is exposed, the more questions one has– the more curious one becomes and to certain extent, one also become confused.
Secondly, I have many friends from all over the world, including Turkey, the country where my novel is set in – i.e. Istanbul. If you closely study the history, culture, tradition of Istanbul across last 50 years, you will know various worldly influences on its psyche – especially when I am referring to urban Turkey and its youth. I strongly identify with that state of being, that is also slowly creeping into the urban youth of India.
Thirdly, I wanted to place my novel in a historical backdrop of political turmoil, but without the sphere of technology and information technology of today. I wanted a rich cultural backdrop – India was an obvious choice, but I wanted to go beyond my upbringing – bivouac myself in a totally different milieu.
With the historical backdrop of 1930 Constantinople – the present day Istanbul gave me a strong umbilical connect – psychologically and poetically.
Was there any homework required for the various time periods and places covered in the novel?
Talking to friends, discussing about the history of Turkey was very important to understand the historical and economic aspirations of the country. I also had to get the historical events right – like reference made in the beginning of the novel of the Venice Simplon Orient Express train accident; this actually happened in 1957. So I had to take minute care in placing the historical context right in terms of socio-politico references I had set my story in.
Even today if you go to Istanbul – you will be able to identify the changes of historical places I have made – be it the Bosphorus, Taksim Square, Galata, Grand Bazaar, the Rustem Pasha or Cihangir or Blue Mosque, the lavish palaces and the Burnt Column and relate to the period I am referring to, especially to the heritage conservation of the old glory that existed in Constantinople.
I got an excellent footage by placing a love story in Istanbul that has a rich tradition of sufi poetry with the likes of world geniuses like Rabia and Rumi to name the prominent few, whose aspects on love go beyond periods and places and can reach out to the depths of human heart - globally.
One key element in the book is that of nostalgia. The story also goes back and forth to different sets of memories, why did you chose this narration to the linear, chronological style of writing?
I had not outlined my novel in a way a classical literary school would teach you academically – this is the way one should go about putting the key elements of novel together – I did not go about that way. While writing the structure I can supposedly state that the structure evolved through writing – the nostalgia, the set of memories, and the narrative style.
The growth in the protagonist character was the key epoch – psychologically to understand how he demeaned when he was an adolescent and how he has evolved through years still longing and being melancholic about his love.
How difficult was it to write this book? What kept you going?
Like any other thing in life - something compelled or forced is difficult to implement. When writing comes naturally to me, it is easy. For me it took just fifteen days to finish my first draft of novel – which was about 220 pages. Once that was ready, I had to rework on it for another three months for a presentable draft with synopsis.
If I look back, I render the period of writing as a period of my inner spiritual evolvement. Personally this was a difficult period of my mental and emotional being. This was the time, when my father was diagnosed with a malignant progressive disease of bone marrow cancer and he was slowly dying. I was sitting besides his death bed serving him and in other times – writing this novel.
I was constantly with him for his last six months – through which I gave birth to my debut novel – in the midst of his death. It is ironic and poignant to have the character of Nene in my novel as a lift off from my real life experiences of being with my dad – dying! Being in love and observing death - that kept me going..!
The book title is unconventional; do tell us why you selected the same.
On two occasions in the novel I have mentioned the original title of the novel I wanted to keep - Melancholy of a Dying Bird. I liked that title a lot. It was a bit philosophical and poetic. But on feedback from publishers I knew that sadly in today’s world the title sounded little pessimistic, downbeat and bearish. Thus I changed it to Melancholy of Innocence.
If you observe, the essence of melancholic feeling runs right through the narrative of the novel – from beginning when Umit arrives in Istanbul after many years to relive his romance again. Thus Melancholy. And character of Masum – the girl - being the love interest of the central protoganist - Umit, I thought making a reference to Masum in the title would be appropriate – and Masum means innocent. When I put melancholy and innocent together – I found this title apt for my novel. “A deep pensive and long lasting sadness that youthful purity and innocence of love” leaves behind is reflected by the book title - Melancholy of Innocence.
The book is essentially a love story between Umit and Masum. The other characters seem desultory, the book is overbearingly about these two characters. Please do elaborate.
I think the book is essentially about Umit. This is Umit’s story of love, of spiritual growth, or understanding the world, of growing up. The novel dwells into the neanic stage of Umit’s confusion, aspirations and love.
Masum is also a central catalyst to Umit’s romance. It is a planned character in the setting of the narrative, without whom the story would not go forward.One should also not forget the short but important character of Zeheb (Umit’s cousin) and Firoz (stranger in the bus) – who provides the basis of a purposeful and spiritual angle to the saga.
Similarly the gene of love between Razieh and Huseiyn, parents of Umit - needs to be understood through their love story in conceiving Umit’s upbringing and philosophical outlooks.Two other characters that are enthusiastic and purposeful are of Nene (Masum’s paternal grandmother) and Rabia (Masum’s confide and friend) – both of them provide enough impetus to make the readers understand fully the essence of realm of existence and life – through the source of love.
And like in any other book – I due acknowledge that there are other characters – Nilufer, Bulut and Kabil - who provide a succor relief by their sub-plots.Overall I would say that it was a conscious decision of mine to niche out characters that are good natured and what we see in flesh and blood in our daily life. I did not want to bring ugliness of characters through their personality in my philo-poetic fable of love. I think most characters in the novel were planned; had a purpose in the anatomy of the zodiacal chaptering and provided empathy and warmth to the central character of Umit.
What are your other hobbies, apart from writing?
Let me be a bit philosophical and say - How good it would be if one can get away from the purpose of indulging into a hobby? But can anyone? I too indulge myself into some regular activities in my leisure time – that is mostly reading, watching movies, writing and obviously thinking. And on a lighter note – I mostly think on “How to get rid of thinking?!”
How do your family, friends and the people you meet influence your writing?
I believe that anyone and everyone I have come in touch with since my birth have influenced the way I am, the way I think and the way I speak and the way I write. In that sense – in my humblest manner I acknowledge and respect everyone’s contribution to my writing.The biggest influencers for me are the questions that I need to seek answers – within myself. I think that is what the inspiration of my writing is. The questions I find unanswered by family, friends and people around me – I seek those answers through my writings. I am unsure - to what extend I am successful or unsuccessful in this endeavor. But it keeps me living and wondering like Umit: “Until I am alive, I am not dead, and when I am dead – why bother?” Writing – like speaking or any representative form of art – be it painting or cinema - is just another means to vent out disarray and complicate the simplicity that nature has provided us.
What advice would you like to give to other writers who would like to write a novel?
Those who want to write – would write without any advice from anyone. Those who would look out for any advice for anything in life – would unnecessarily complicate their being further. Nonetheless, as a by-product of implementing those advices one may come out with success in the field of our purposive interests of work. That is the paradox of life itself. I never wrote to gain an identity of mine as an author, poet or writer – similar to my being a painter, architect, town planner, lawyer or a manager or anything else people might consider me to be. For me, the purpose was not in being something mentioned herewith before; the purpose was in my growth and my unlearning of life. Writing a novel, poetry, cinema, sculpture, drama or even venturing into successful business or career is just a means to live a certain identity in life. May be one can take care in contributing to nullifying the human nonsense around us by choosing whatever one does. Not to say that the least form of abrogate would better the world around us!