Kith and Kin–Chronicles of A Clan by Sheila Kumar begins with a call from Suvarna to her childhood friend, and possible love, Sumant, with an offer to buy her old family home Mon Repos. Sumant rejects, a rejection that goes deeper than that of the house. Yet, the next few pages are a testimony to the deep bond between them and the attraction that is smouldering just beneath the surface of their friendship. Suvarna is Sumant’s muse, but his live-in partner, at least at the time of that call, is Sindhu, Suvarna’s cousin. The next few chapters, present a slice of the lives of other members of Suvarna’s family, the Melekats of Kerela… her aunts, uncles, cousins and a few of the next generation. What remains constant is Mon Repos, the house in south Malabar, that lives on in the memories of each member of the family, whichever part of the world they might be living in at present, Ammini Amma, the family matriarch who haunts the memories of her family even when she is no more and the Melekat consciousness that binds the members, even as they laugh at each others’ eccentricities, a slight [at times even unconscious or apologetic] feeling of superiority because of their lineage. Each chapter can be read as a stand-alone short story, with a neat twist at the end that reveals the characters in a light often unsuspected by those around them. Together, the stories are a commentary on the urban Indian and his/her shifting moods and realities.
Your choice of subject is very interesting... How did the Melekat clan happen to you? Is any part of it autobiographical [or do the characters resemble anyone you know]?
Actually, that’s just what took place: the Melekats literally happened to me. All these years as a journalist/features writer/book editor/travel hack, I had no book inside me. One fine day, these people walked in and set up shop inside my head! Their stories just had to be written. And so they were written. Is any part of Kith and Kin autobiographical? Only in the broadest sweep. I will quote Zadie Smith here: it is not autobiographical but it has the intensity of the personal.
Tell us about your relationship with Kerela.
It’s complicated. I’ve been a military brat and an army wife and so, visits home were restricted to that one month in the year. All the while, though, my sense of belonging was and is, a taut strong rope, binding me to Kerala. I didn’t realise just how strong that knot was till I wrote my first book and it was set in the heartland. This has caused many mouths to drop in sheer surprise, that I can tell you!
The structure of the book is such that each of the chapters can be an individual short story, or read together to form a cohesive whole...
Kith and Kin was written with a clear idea in mind: these were going to be standalone slice-of-life stories, all 19 of them, but I was going to link every character, make them belong, in one way or the other, to this clan I called the Melekats. [There’s a play on the word; mele in Malayalam means `up` or `on high` and this lot consider themselves superior to others]. So, you will find Melekat men and women walking in and out of each other’s stories, some quietly, discreetly, others with much insouciance, even braggadocio.
Each of the stories have a very interesting twist at the end... why so? Do you think life is such and did you draw inspiration from any author for that [I was often reminded of Somerset Maugham while reading your stories...]
The Maugham connect has been made earlier, too, and while I’m duly flattered, I’m no fan of Somerset Maugham, to be honest. I was with The Times of India for over a decade, did a lot of writing in those years. As someone who has interacted with people from all walks of life for so many years, given voice to their stories, I know that we are not always what we seem. Kith and Kin just unspools that reel. Basically, life throws all sorts of things at us. Some of us deal with the situation du jour in an innately graceful and competent manner; some of us drown in the debris. Yet others, like Schultz’s Charlie Brown, run away from it all!
Everyone in India seems to be writing a book now. What is the publishing scenario like and how easy or difficult is it to get a book published. Does the plethora of books being released affect the quality of writing being dished out?
I will have to say that yes, the breaching of the floodgates in publishing is affecting the quality of writing. Then again, every book does seem to have a reader. One thing I firmly believe is that, in the long run, only good writing will stay the course. The rest will fall by the wayside…some moments in the sun and then, oblivion. Where quality publishing is concerned, well the doors have opened wide but it is still a by-invitation-only event.
You have been a journalist and an adperson. Has that helped shape you as an author in any way? As a writer, where do you draw your inspiration from?
Adwoman, journalist, features writer, book editor, army wife… it has been many hats through the years. At some level, I’m sure that has shaped my work, just as it has my life. I am an instinctive writer. I write and watch what I write take a definitive shape of its own. Nine times out of 10, I’m happy with that shape.
Have you started work on your next book... what will it be about?
The Melekats clamoured to be written about. Now there’s a quiet peace inside my head and for the moment, I am so enjoying that!