Millennium Post

City talk

City talk
What is Madras, Chennai and the Self all about? Can your book be called a biography of Chennai?
Madras, Chennai and the Self is a portrait of the city through the lives of some of its residents and the neighbourhoods they live in. When tourists visit a city, they enter buildings, walk on streets, sightsee prominent landmarks but the inhabitants of that place know the city in a different, more intimate way.

No, my book is not a biography of Chennai.

What made you write about Chennai? What is it that you discovered about the city while writing the book?

I have spent most of my life in Chennai. It forms the background to both my novels Meeting Lives, Man of A Thousand Chances and is integral to my work of narrative non-fiction about the world of Bharatanatyam. While I took my love for the city for granted, I discovered that others feel the same way about it as well. Those who live here choose to do so.

You have interviewed 12 different people including the actor, Vikram. Can you share some anecdotes? How did you select these people? What were you trying to achieve when you were interviewing them?

I looked for people who personified certain aspects of the city, certain neighbourhoods, people who straddled both the traditional and the modern in their lives. While interviewing them I decided I would not ask a set of predetermined questions but would let the conversation shape the flow of the interview and see what emerged from that.

Some of the anecdotes are in the book. It was very difficult to watch the actor Vikram eat ‘green goop’ as he put it, when he was starving for ‘I’, and realise that he was doing it for the sake of his role. I really admired him for his strength of mind. Some of the best anecdotes were recounted to me by the interviewees but invariably I was asked not to put it in writing!

You’re a dancer as well. How did writing come by?

I wrote my first poem when I was seven or eight, which is around the time I began to learn Bharatanatyam. The big surprise in my life was the shift from writing poems to prose.

You have written fiction as well as non-fiction books, how is it different as a writer?

In fiction you can invent dialogue, situations and dramatise events, but in non-fiction you are limited to the facts. Also, when people speak, they do not arrange their thoughts in paragraphs. One has to listen intently to catch the interesting thought or happening in their life that they might otherwise gloss over in a few words. Some people may have led interesting lives but are not very good at speaking about it. So fiction and non-fiction require different skills within the ambit of writing.

You were a banker but you quit your job to pursue your dreams. There are many who harbour dreams and passions but are hesitant to go ahead. What would you like to say to them?

At the time I quit my very well paying job, everyone told me I was doing a foolish thing… I think each person’s situation is different so one cannot give general advice. I do believe that one must listen to one’s inner voice but that one should also take into account the practicalities of living. Bills do have to be paid.
Naila Manal

Naila Manal

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