‘Indians seem to be comfortable with Caucasians writing about themselves’
Jhinuk Sen chats up Raghu Srinivasan about his The Avatari, the story of a British man’s journey through Ladakh, Pakistan and Afghanistan that is mainly set in 1986, during the height of the Soviet Afghan War. Read on...
How did The Avatari happen? How did this story come about?
The Avatari owes its origins to a drink I had with an old timer huddled over a stove, in an arctic tent in the shadow of the Karakorum ranges. The old timer had been a mountaineer before he had had a bad fall and had tramped all over the Karakorums, spending much of his time with local porters and guides. It was from them that hewho had picked up a story of a group of Germanswho had formed an expedition to search for Shambhala, and were never heard of again.
What kind of research did you need to do for The Avatari?
I am an avid reader, and the one thing I promised myself while writing The Avatari was that I should attempt to make no factual errors. I remember reading San Andreas by Alistair Maclean; where one of the characters is a Pakistani, but the story is set during World War II – when there could have been no Pakistanis. So starting with reading the BardoThodol (The Tibetan Book of the Dead) and everything that has ever been written about the Shambhala myth, to events as they chronologically happened in history in 1296, 1956, 1963 and 1986 has been researched. I had to do a fair bit of reading on Kublai Khan and Marco Polo as also the Afghan War. Likewise I needed to read up on travelogues of people who had visited the enchanting places which Henry Ashton and his team visit in the book.
What were the toughest times you faced as The Avatari fell into shape?
The Avatari actually began as a short story which I gave up after the first 100 pages. Also it was to deal with a mystical journey and then metamorphosed into an action-quest-adventure. So at times I must confess I was not totally in control, and the story was writing itself. Also I would write parts which I would fall in love with but had no relation to the movement of the story. I think excising those, especially for a first time author, was really tough. The longest time was spent in figuring out how Shambhala would confer immortality; making it believable to the reader. What was also difficult was getting the story to be chronologically correct; both in terms of years and dates. I received a lot of help getting that right from my wife, Sumita.
And ... what were the best times?
The best times were when I was writing about the military action or the mountains. I could sit on the computer the whole night typing away, actually feeling the sweat stinging my eyes, the sound of gunfire and the icy wind on your face. I would sit at the computer long after I had finished writing, and enjoy the emotion as it slowly drained away.
How easy or difficult was it to get a story like this figured out in your head and on paper?
I think I started out with a beginning and an ending and some marks in between which I had to get to on the way. But then, like I said at times the story would write itself and I would veer away from the mark, having to create a new one. When you have so many characters and so many periods in history to deal with, the difficult part is to decide how much of detail you need to go into. For the last seven years I have always had The Avatari humming in my head – at times I would be unaware of what was happening around me (much to Sumita’s annoyance). There were times when I thought that I wouldn’t be able to make the story stick and I couldn’t resolve the contradictions for many months; and then luckily I would have a ‘eureka’ moment.
Why pick a British hero? Just for argument's sake - why not an Indian?
The story involves the hero undertaking a journey through Ladakh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and is mainly set in 1986, during the height of the Soviet Afghan War. I don’t think an Indian could have gone to those places at that time without arousing tremendous suspicion or being interned at some stage.
You don't really have an Indian character in the book and even the story touches India only briefly in Leh - was this a conscious call?
Like I said it was a question of locations and periods of history where an Indian on the group would have stood out like a sore thumb; and the discerning reader would have easily made out that it was a poorly contrived attempt to bring in an Indian character. Here I would like to make a point that Western writers don’t seem to get asked about the same thing – starting from Jungle Book and The Far Pavilions right up to Dalrymple and Patrick French; Indians seem to be comfortable about Caucasians writing with authority and felicity about themselves. It’s just that an Indian writer hasn’t tried the obverse out so far. As far as locations go, it was just that the story found itself happening at these places.
How true are the legends of the Avatari and the Shambhala?
They are true! When you live for eight months on the wrong side of the great mountains, with the passes closed – it is an enchanted world which not many people have the privilege to be part of. For Tibetans, Shambhala exists; definitely on the spiritual plane and possibly at the physical level also. Similarly, the Tibetans believe deeply in the concept of an Avatari – and so do I.
What's next in the pipeline?
I am mulling over a story set in China in the near future, and like The Avatari it has historical references. So far I have only the broad contours, but I am hopeful that I will be able to write it faster than The Avatari which took seven years!